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social work

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.”

BSW students at the Social Work Department's annual pinning ceremony

With its award-winning faculty, diverse range of specialized internships, and innovative curriculum, Southern Connecticut State University has a long history of providing excellence in social work. In 2018, the university strengthened its commitment to training leaders in the field by adding a Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) degree, making it the only campus in the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities (CSCU) System, and the only institution in New England, to offer a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree, Master of Social Work (MSW) degree, and DSW.

Social work can be a fulfilling field for those who enjoy helping others. It offers practitioners the opportunity to pursue different fields of interest, from mental health to rehabilitation, and to serve a broad base of society, whether it’s in a private or public capacity. There’s a real need for social work professionals: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “employment of community and social service occupations is projected to grow 14 percent from 2016 to 2026, faster than the average for all occupations.”

“Social work often appeals to someone who has the desire to help others because they themselves have been helped,” says Diane Michaelsen, director of field education and MSW admissions, Department of Social Work, at Southern. “In the program it’s about teaching students how to look at people in their own environments and to ask, ‘What’s getting in the way of their successful functioning?’”

The BSW prepares students for entry-level work in agencies such as child welfare, elementary/secondary schools, hospice, and community action agencies. Students in the MSW program choose from one of four fields of practice: children and families, elders and families, mental health and substance use, and social work in school setting. MSW graduates are prepared for clinical social work in a specialized field and for applying for the State of Connecticut LMSW Licensure Examination.

Both BSW and MSW students gain important experience in a field practicum, the cornerstone of a social work education. For BSW students, the practicum consists of a year-long, 400-hour on-site internship; for MSW, the practicum requires 1,100 hours. The internship is with an agency-based field instructor.

Field practice opportunities exist in more than 200 agencies throughout Connecticut, including Cornell Scott, a community healthcare agency; New Haven schools; Adelbrook, a residential, educational, and community-based treatment program for children and young adults; and Klingburg Family Centers, an agency providing group care, special education, and more.

Social work students meet with potential employers at the Social Work Open House.

“The field placement helps immensely with job placement,” Michaelsen says. “Thirty to 35 percent of graduates will be employed prior to graduation. Eighty to 90 percent will be employed before the summer is over. This has held true for several years in a row.”

The DSW, new in 2018, prepares experienced social workers for leadership in agency or academic settings. Strictly online and in a three-year, part-time format, the degree caters to the needs of working professionals. Students visit campus just once annually, for a five-day residency. Students also take part in an externship based on their main focus.

“We’re the only DSW program that offers externships,” says Michaelsen.

The 180-hour externship is self-designed and conducted with a mentor. Students in the DSW program can select from three externship areas: teaching, leadership and management, and clinical.

“Students whose main interest is education will be mentored by a master teacher and learn how to develop syllabi and deliver lesson plans through co-teaching and supervised adjunct teaching,” says Mary Acri, associate professor, Department of Social Work. “Leadership and management students will be mentored by a senior agency administrator like a CEO, CFO, clinical director or project director of state agency or a private non-profit. Those whose main interest is advancing a particular clinical method will be mentored by a master clinician in their chosen area.”

Regardless of which social work degree students choose, they oftentimes will find that their mentor is a Southern alum or an adjunct faculty member.

“Southern’s graduates are really loyal,” says Michaelsen. “Because of their own positive experiences, a lot of our students feel compelled to give back to Southern and to mentor.”

Professor Amy Smoyer and a photo of kitchen staff preparing food

What’s it like to be a woman in prison? Assistant Professor of Social Work Amy Smoyer’s research focuses on women’s lived experiences of incarceration, and she has found that a big part of living in prison is food: the kinds of food that are served, how they are served, how they are prepared, and how women feel about eating them. In her conversations with incarcerated women, she says, one woman told her, “food is what it’s all about in prison,” that “people who have been in prison all talk about the food.”

Before she became interested in the experiences of incarcerated women, and food in particular as part of that experience, Smoyer was an HIV social worker. For her research into the impact of incarceration on HIV risk, she would go to prisons to work with inmates, and through her work with these individuals, she became interested in prison. There’s a difference between lived experience and academic research, Smoyer says. She decided she wanted to look at women’s actual experiences living in prison, and she quickly learned about food’s importance.

It’s not about nutrition, she says. “Food is a tool we use to build identity, place, culture. It’s about a memory of being with family or friends. It’s an important part of our human experience, and we send cues to each other by what we eat.” People in prison are no different than anyone else when it comes to food, Smoyer says. “They use food in the same ways.” Questions like, “Who do you cook with?” and “Who do you eat with?” are important. Food and eating involve trust issues.

When she talks with incarcerated women about the prison cafeteria, Smoyer says, they say things like “the food is like slop”: it tastes, smells, and looks awful. The low quality of the food sends a powerful message to incarcerated people about how they are seen, she says, adding, “Food should send a message that says, ‘I see you as a human being and I’m giving you food that I would eat myself.’”

When Smoyer spent two months as a Fulbright Scholar in Denmark, teaching and conducting research about Danish prison food systems, she saw differences in the role of food in Danish prisons as opposed to American prisons. In Denmark’s prisons, she says there are no cafeterias; instead, prisons have kitchens where inmates can prepare and eat their own food. “It’s about being able to take care of your own body and regain control over your own nutrition, and your own lives.”

Talking to incarcerated women about what food means to them and how they’re taking care of themselves with food, Smoyer says, is a different way to talk about prison, allowing people to see the humanity of those in prison. “We all eat,” she says, so talking about the role of food in prisoners’ lives “humanizes people. People who live in prison are just normal people.”

Smoyer’s interest in the topic of incarceration encompasses more than food. She started off thinking about the massive incarceration of people in the United States and what might be done to reduce the prison population. There’s been a move to release nonviolent offenders, she says, or those who are in prison by mistake, or are in for small charges. “It’s important to remember,” Smoyer says, “the U.S. still has the largest population of incarcerated persons in the world. In Europe, the maximum sentence you can get is 15 years, while in this country you can get a life sentence for drug charges. We have to look at people who have committed felonies. If we want to reduce the number of people in prison, we have to be able to make modifications to our sentencing.” Thinking hard about “when is it enough time?” to serve is necessary if we’re going to have movement, she says.

Forgiveness as a part of reforming the criminal justice system is something to consider, Smoyer believes. “We have to be able to forgive others, ourselves, our country.” In April, she led a panel at Southern on “Breaking Good: The Role of Forgiveness and Atonement in Reducing the Number of Incarcerated Women in Connecticut,” part of the 64 Days of Nonviolence Program sponsored by the Women’s Studies Program. The forum started with a small step, Smoyer says: asking the question, “What does forgiveness mean to you? Can we forgive people for doing horrible things?”

For the panel, she brought in four women who have been impacted by the criminal system, “people who have really struggled with forgiveness and have thought a lot about what forgiveness means.” The forum was about creating a space for formerly incarcerated women to lead participants in a discussion, Smoyer says, adding that movements are most successful when led by people who are most impacted by them. And, she adds, intergroup dialog is how we learn.

The forum followed Smoyer’s participation in January in Temple University’s Inside-Out Training program, whose mission is “to create opportunities for people inside and outside of prison to have transformative learning experiences that emphasize collaboration and dialogue and that invite them to take leadership in addressing crime, justice, and other issues of social concern.” This summer, she launched an Inside-Out undergraduate course (SWK350: Research Methods) at the Manson Youth Institute in Cheshire. This course includes SCSU undergraduates and men at MYI in a transformative learning experience grounded in intergroup dialogue. All students earn three credits towards their bachelor’s degree.

For spring 2017, Smoyer was awarded the Joan Finn Junior Faculty Research Fellowship to work on her portfolio of studies about the lived experience of incarceration. In her project, “Prison at the Margins: Understanding the Intersecting Vulnerabilities of Incarcerated Lives,” she planned to analyze existing qualitative data about the incarcerated lives of two vulnerable populations — people living with HIV and transgender individuals.

Smoyer earned her Ph.D. in social welfare from Hunter College of the City University of New York, her MSW and MPA from Florida State University, and her B.A. in women’s studies from Columbia University. She has been an assistant professor in the Department of Social Work since 2015, after serving as a post-doctoral fellow at the Yale University School of Public Health from 2013 to 2015. For more information about Smoyer and her work, visit her website.

Karim Calle received her undergraduate degree in social work at Southern’s winter commencement exercises on December 18 — but she has spent years working for social change. “I am very active with my community, especially the immigrant community and my Hispanic community,” says Calle, who immigrated to the United States from Peru with her family when she was six years old.

Both parents were inspirational. “My dad was a political figure in Peru,” says Calle of her late father. “My mother is very involved with her church and the community. She is proud . . . a spokesperson, who is not afraid to say what she needs. But she does so with respect. She says people tell her, ‘Your daughter reminds us so much of you.’”

Calle recalls that her mother — then a widow with young children — often faced discrimination, which was intensified by language barriers. “I was her translator for everything, so I felt her pain, too,” Calle says.

Her involvement with Unidad Latina en Accion (ULA) — a grassroots social justice organization made up of immigrants in the Greater New Haven area — came naturally. ULA is dedicated to furthering workers’ rights, and immigrant and civil rights, while promoting culture and the community. While Calle had already been active with the organization, her commitment was heightened by a requirement to complete community work as part of her social work major. “I did so much work for ULA that semester . . . so much more than was required,” says Calle, with a smile.

A social policy class taught by Yan Searcy, associate dean of Southern’s School of Health and Human Services, gave her the opportunity to take her commitment to the next level.  “With Dr. Searcy, I became much more involved in terms of lobbying . . . and learning how legislative sessions run. I didn’t know any of that until I attended his class,” says Calle.

She was a quick study. One of Searcy’s assignments was to follow a bill. Inspired by her work with ULA, Calle was drawn to Senate Bill 914 — An Act Concerning an Employer’s Failure to Pay Wages. “This bill requires an award of double damages to workers who have not been paid or have been underpaid by their employers,” says Calle. The stories she heard from those in the community provided a wealth of inspiration. She talks about women faced with sexual harassment. Underage workers who didn’t attend school, working 60 – 80 hours a week and being paid $5 an hour. Employees who worked countless consecutive days, too afraid to ask for a day off.  Others who never received the wages they were owed. “The biggest challenge was that the immigrant community was so fearful of coming forward. They were fearful that they might be deported. They were fearful that they might not be able to find another job if their names were listed anywhere — and these testimonies are public.”

Calle wrote a testimony to members of the Labor Committee on behalf of some of these workers, after asking Dr. Searcy for advice.  “The first thing he said, was just speak from your heart,” she says, noting she was present from 11 a.m. in the morning to 11 p.m. at night on the day she gave her testimony. Her commitment to following the bill didn’t end with the class. “I didn’t give up — not for one second,” says Calle, who hopes to attend a graduate program that combines community involvement and policy, and sees a future in politics.  She recalls emailing senators and representatives, and asking others to do the same . . .  visiting the Connecticut legislative office building up to three times a week. She dropped off literature compiled by ULA. Made phone calls and sent texts. Networked and brainstormed.

Calle also kept in contact with her professor. Prior to the start of her last semester at Southern, she emailed Dr. Searcy a photograph. She is one of 17 people standing around Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy at a bill signing ceremony for Public Act 15-86, An Act Concerning an Employer’s Failure to Pay Wages. Like the others pictured, Karim Calle is smiling.

Karim Calle