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Special Feature Screening: Paper Tigers, One High School's Unlikely Success Story
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The 2017 Mary Baskin Waters Lecture Series
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A Community of Connection
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11

Social Work Practice Meets Religion & Spirituality

06.01.2016

The second year of a College of Social Work field placement at the Richland County Public Defender’s office has just wrapped up. Three students spent the spring semester in this placement, one of whom was the recipient of a coveted Training For Transitions grant, which is accompanied by a $10,000 stipend. Mary Wilmer, Callie Thomas, and Xavier Bailey benefitted from this unique field experience working under Dr. Aleks Chauhan, Assistant Public Defender, and Dr. Candice Morgan, Training for Transitions Field Seminar Leader and Instructor in the CoSW.

The Richland County Public Defender’s office serves approximately 700 clients each year but had no concrete resources for addressing these young people’s needs, such as housing insecurity or learning disabilities, before the CoSW’s field placement. Morgan spent 17 years as a social worker in the field, including time working with the Department of Mental Health, and she was able to build on previous relationships in the Public Defender’s Office and suggest the benefit of having social workers there to handle the clients whose needs go far beyond a night in jail. The Public Defender’s office and the CoSW turned out to be a great fit: “Social workers can help in many ways in assessment of needs,” Chauhan says, “stepping in and communicating with the family and the child.” She also notes that social workers can assist with direct services, coaching, empowerment, and grant writing.

According to Morgan, this field placement has “allowed the Public Defender’s office to see the need for a social worker,” and see the possibilities when lawyers and social workers are working side by side. Explains Dr. Melissa Reitmeier, director of field education in the CoSW, “we have students working with the juveniles, problem-solving with them,” and identifying resources like mental health or recovery services. The students assist the attorneys and work together to determine the best way to support juvenile offenders.

This placement is not for faint of heart, though: Morgan says that the Public Defender’s office is very fast-paced, and students experience a sharp learning curve. Students must familiarize themselves with court processes in addition to serving as advocates for the youth they serve. Chauhan notes that “this is the real deal” for students—“they get exposure to abuse, lack of resources, systemic problems…things that you read about in books, but in our offices it becomes life.” The students at the Public Defender’s office placement “see the most vulnerable clients,” says Morgan, and this lets them “get a firsthand view” of the criminal justice system. “Students get to see how complex it is to work in family systems,” says Morgan, “and work with attorneys who don’t always see things the way we do” as social workers. Working in an interdisciplinary and interprofessional setting gives MSW students a taste of what it means to work in the social work profession, in which multiple collaborators and stakeholders will not always understand the value of a social worker.

Mary Wilmer and Callie Thomas worked as Youth Advocates this spring, meeting with clients on a weekly basis and connecting them with community programs and resources to help them achieve their goals. Chauhan says that the rapport built between the Youth Advocates and clients matters because “the key to lowering recidivism is not just services, but knowing them [youth] and nurturing them and linking to positive role models; it’s really exciting for me to see that these social work interns are so enthusiastic about the work and so dedicated.”

The Public Defender’s office field placement is “a well-rounded opportunity,” according to Wilmer. She says “I feel like I am being molded into quite a tactful and effective social worker” as result of this field experience. Thomas was finishing the dual degree program in Social Work and Law at the time, and this placement is an ideal fit for dual degree students like her, she says, noting that it combines law, social work, and both micro and macro skills. Thomas also sees the far-reaching impact of her contributions at the Public Defender’s office: “I believe it is paramount, albeit challenging, to assist the adolescents in setting longer term goals for themselves for when they re-enter the community,” and the most important aspect of her work was “to help the adolescents and their families see past the momentary detention, realize that the barrier is only ephemeral, and help them believe in their ability to set and achieve longer term goals.”

Reitmeier states unequivocally, “I love this placement.” One of Reitmeier’s goals is to promote interprofessional teamwork because “social workers bring a unique and special perspective, a more strengths-based perspective that focuses on understanding diversity and resilience.” Social workers are “value-added” on any team, according to Reitmeier, and Chauhan agrees, claiming “I’d love to see a social worker for every child,” because “social work is crucially intertwined with what we can do.”

The students themselves are also pleased with the opportunities at the Public Defender’s office. Xavier Bailey notes that working as Chauhan’s intern taught him not just about social work and the criminal justice system, but also about himself. Watching Chauhan, whom he refers to as “Superwoman,” inspired him each day. “She understands the difference between what is right and what is justice,” he explains, and she made him think more clearly about his role as an advocate for vulnerable populations. Thomas calls her time there “amazing,” stating, “there is no question that this field placement has allowed me to utilize skills acquired in the classroom, continuously critically think about system improvement and program development, and confirms my passion in the field of juvenile justice.”

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