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Monday, April 10

ADVANCE: Interview with Gene Svebakken

Joel L. Rubin, MSW, ACSW, CAE
NASW-Illinois Chapter Executive Director

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I recently had the honor and opportunity to sit down with Gene Svebakken, who is recently retired after 38 years leading Lutheran Child and Family Services. In a very challenging time statewide and nationally, it was heartening to hear the perspective of someone whose professional social work career spanned nine US presidents including John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson. Gene, a NASW member since 1962 (55 years!) responded to range of questions.

—Joel L. Rubin, MSW, ACSW, CAE, NASW-Illinois Chapter Executive Director


Gene SvebakkenWhat brought you to the social work profession, when you joined NASW in 1962?

I had graduated Luther College right after John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and was very much taken with his clarion call, “…. ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” I initially went to work for the State of Illinois as a public assistance caseworker. At that time, all new workers were required to read Charlotte Towle’s book, Common Human Needs. In 1962, I received a federal stipend to attend graduate school in social work at the University of Missouri. Shortly after graduating from social work school, at the age of 24, I was asked to develop child welfare service plans for Northwest Iowa. The backdrop to this was the provision in the 1962 Social Security amendments that every AFDC recipient receiving services required a service plan. As a result, the demand for hiring social workers was high. These were also the days of LBJ’s Great Society Programs. And as the 1960’s progressed. I moved to Ames, Iowa and became a county supervisor. Following that I became the Social Services Director at the Annie Wittenmyer Home, in Davenport, Iowa and from there moved to Moline, IL to become the Director of the Bethany Home for Children.

How would you describe the state of the social work profession in the early 1960s and today in 2017, post-retirement? What are some of social work’s greatest challenges today?

There has been a destruction of the social work component of public social welfare. The field has lost a great with the de-professionalization of public services. This has really hurt us. When I started my career, we were a more compassionate society. Our sense of community has dissaipated. Agencies are out for themselves. This is our reality.

What has been your greatest professional accomplishment (s) at Lutheran Child and Family Services (LCFS)?

I came to LCFS in 1978 when we had a $2 million budget. We are now a $35 agency. LCFS is still a “social work agency,” committed to core social work values. LCFS Board of Directors is also committed to these core values. There has also been a continued commitment to the professionalization of the agency. Another major accomplishment was LCFS’ bold position on marriage equality which cause a split with the Lutheran church. Our position has always been, “we are here to serve kids.” I am also very proud of LCFS’ diversity. We are a mission-driven organization.

What are your post-retirement plans?

My wife and I move to Three Oak, Michigan 20 years ago. During that time, I have been a bee keeper. I love the process. I also continue to serve on several national boards and serve as an evaluator for the Council on Accreditation (COA). 

Posted on 04/10/17 at 07:59 AM


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