When Southern student Cameron Hotchkiss, a graduate student in social work, interned with Cheshire’s Human Services Department — whose targeted clients are elementary, middle school, and high school students — this past year, it was exactly what he was looking for: clinical experience in a school setting. As someone who likes helping people, Hotchkiss’ internship enabled him to work directly with children who were struggling with emotional issues, in particular those students who had missed enough school to be labeled truant. Now an MSW graduate, Hotchkiss’ unique perspective on those students may help shape school policy.
Until recently, truancy had been handled by the Department of Children and Families (DCF). Due to an influx in cases, the cases were delegated to the Department of Human Services for each individual school district, therefore eliminating the need for a DCF referral. A high number of those cases ended up with Hotchkiss.
“DCF let cases filter through us before they had to get involved,” Hotchkiss says. “At my internship, it was the first year they were doing that.”
Since it was the first time the Department of Human Services was in charge of overseeing all of the school truancy cases, there wasn’t a protocol to follow. Hotchkiss’ professor, Lorrie Gardella, associate professor and MSW program coordinator, thought that if Hotchkiss focused his capstone project on the reasons behind the truancy and was able to recommend policy, it would be a win-win.
“The goal of MSW capstone special projects is to assess and respond to a community need,” Gardella says.
Hotchkiss agreed. After conducting months of research, his capstone project, “School Refusal Protocol,” identified the main contributing factors for school avoidance: bullying, separation anxiety, and social anxiety and recommended finding an assessment tool that would allow a professional to identify the contributing factor to their client’s school avoidance issues.
“Once that factor was established,” his capstone states, “the worker will then follow the created protocol on how to help the client, whether it be helping them use specific therapeutic interventions, or getting outside support from an intensive in-home care provider.”
As Hotchkiss moved along with the project, his internship supervisor Ann-Marie Bishop, youth and family counselor for Cheshire’s Department of Human Services, helped with need assessment: how to move forward with treatment and a time frame for treatments.
“As an agency, we typically work with issues like substance abuse, but more and more we see anxiety-related issues, and oftentimes with anxiety comes truancy,” Bishop says. “Cameron’s proposal was a nice marriage of Southern’s social work program and help to us as an agency. It really filled a gap on our end.”
According to Bishop, Hotchkiss’ proposal could be piloted as early as next year.
“We have a set protocol for how we handle school issues related to substance abuse, and we wanted to have one for chronic truancy, too, so we deliver consistent guidelines,” Bishop says. “They [Cheshire schools] want assistance, and we need assistance, so it meets many needs at once.”
Ultimately, the experience met Hotchkiss’ needs as well.
“I got to work with school avoidance kids,” Hotchkiss says. “The capstone actually focuses on the research, but the kids themselves helped point me in the direction to work for. I would love to try to implement [this protocol] in other school systems. My experience at Southern was great— I wanted a combination of clinical work and school work. Southern covered all aspects of social work and reaffirmed that it’s exactly what I want to do.”