Always remember your why: DCBS Commissioner and CoSW alum reflects on time at UK

DCBS Commissioner Lesa Dennis details her time in the MSW Program and how it helped elevate her both personally and professionally.
Commissioner Dennis

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LEXINGTON, Ky. – Over the last 27 years, Lesa Dennis, Commissioner of the Department for Community Based Services, has served families in the Commonwealth through many roles at DCBS. The University of Kentucky College of Social Work (CoSW) has played a part in this journey, elevating Dennis professionally with a Master of Social Work (MSW).

Dennis, a 2005 graduate of the MSW program, was appointed Commissioner of DCBS in June 2023, marking the first career employee to be appointed as Commissioner. Dennis has worked at the Cabinet of Health and Family Services since 1997, serving in many capacities including frontline social work, service region administrator, division director, chief of staff and deputy commissioner.

When deciding what she wanted to pursue as an undergraduate student at Morehead State, Dennis explored many options until she met a current social work student. From there, she immediately felt connected to the field.

“I fell in love with the concept of helping others and the different avenues you can pursue with a social work degree. I felt a connection and a calling to work in child welfare, that was the calling I had been searching for,” Dennis said.

While working at DCBS and pursuing the next steps in her career, Dennis chose the MSW program at the College of Social Work.

“The Master of Social Work program at UK is a great program. I felt supported and the curriculum connected to my work at the time. When you think about community and making systemic changes, and how you want to not only professionally grow but personally, I felt that was central and part of my experience,” Dennis said.

As part of her field practicum during her time with the CoSW, Dennis created a centralized intake structure to use throughout the state, becoming just the second region to do so. Dennis credits this experience with helping to launch the next steps of her career.

With this practicum experience, Dennis explored an aspect of social work she was passionate about and worked with many community partners.

“At that time, when anyone called the department to make a report of abuse and neglect, they called their local county,” Dennis said. “I created our protocol for the centralized intake system, developed our training and met with partners. I think that’s what’s fascinating about social work, you never know where your career is going to take you and how you’re going to touch the work in different ways.”

Now, almost 20 years later from her graduation from the MSW program, Dennis hopes to continue to make a difference in the lives of families and children and leave the child welfare system in a better place, particularly in working towards prevention and getting services to families when and where they need them, not just after an incident happens.

“We are really focused on improving outcomes for children and families. I want us to move away from a system where we are reactive and head towards being more proactive. I want to focus on more intentionality and prevention,” Dennis said.

Dennis’ time at the CoSW has helped with those intentions, providing a great deal of knowledge, and helping build out skills in a variety of ways, instilling the values of social work.

As a Kentucky native herself, Dennis is proud to be a part of the UK tradition and always remembers her why.

“No matter which direction you go, there are always going to be challenges. Remembering why you got into this work and what that means to you will help keep you centered and focused,” Dennis said. “I love this work. The opportunity to be able to serve in this position has been a real honor, and for UK to be a part of my journey makes it all that more special.”

For over 85 years, the College of Social Work (CoSW) at the University of Kentucky has been a leader in education. Our mission is clear: Through rigorous research, excellence in instruction, and steadfast service, the CoSW works to improve the human condition. Always, in all ways.

As the state’s flagship university, our mission is actualized through our deeds. Our faculty are renowned academicians dedicated to fostering the development of high-quality practitioners and researchers. As a college, we promote community and individual well-being through translational research and scholarship, exemplary teaching, and vital community engagement. We are committed to the people and social institutions throughout Kentucky, the nation, and the world.