Abrams Debunks Myths Surrounding Social Work

Social Welfare Chair Laura Abrams co-authored an opinion piece in Witness LA debunking some of the myths surrounding the field of social work. Nationwide conversations about addressing police misconduct and racial discrimination have included a debate about the role of social workers. “Many people are talking and writing about social work with little understanding of what we actually do,” sometimes characterizing social workers as “callous and untrained child welfare investigators who are as racially insensitive as police officers,” wrote Abrams and co-author Kristen Brock-Petroshius, a Social Welfare doctoral student. Instead, they said, social work is “a profession that seeks to enhance human well-being through interventions with individuals, families, groups, organizations and policies.” They acknowledged social workers’ historical shortcomings, which have perpetuated racist policies and practices. Moving forward, they said, the profession must reshape training practices and heed its code of ethics to “forge a new vision of caring and safe communities.”


A Celebration of the Extraordinary Amid once-in-a-lifetime circumstances, UCLA Luskin honors the Class of 2020

By Les Dunseith

It was a UCLA Luskin commencement ceremony unlike any other — delivered remotely by keynote speaker John A. Pérez to honor 281 graduates scattered across the nation and around the world amid a pandemic. 

“Clearly, these are not ordinary times,” Pérez said in his remarks, which remain available online and had been seen by a total of 1,265 new graduates and their loved ones as of midday Monday after the ceremony. The impact of the COVID-19 health crisis was obvious in the virtual setting, but Pérez, chair of the University of California Board of Regents and former speaker of the California Assembly, also took note of the political upheaval that has led hundreds of thousands of protesters worldwide to march for racial justice in recent weeks.

“My message to you today is also going to be somewhat different than usual. It has to be,” Pérez said. “It has to be different for George Floyd, for Breonna Taylor, for Stephon Clark and Sandra Bland and Eric Garner. For Sean Monterrosa and Manuel Ellis. And for Emmett Till and James Chaney and countless others — known and unknown — whose lives have been taken by the systemic racism that is the original sin and ongoing shame of our great nation.”

The new social welfare, planning and policy graduates earned their graduate degrees in extraordinary circumstances at a time that UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura views as a pivotal moment in the country’s history. He congratulated the Class of 2020 and also noted the high expectations they carry into their futures.

“This celebration is partly about what you have accomplished, but it is also about what you have yet to do,” said Segura, thanking the new graduates “for all that we expect you to do with all that you’ve learned.”

The virtual platform incorporated several wrinkles that set the 2020 celebration apart from previous UCLA Luskin graduations. In addition to the recorded remarks by Segura and Pérez, video presentations from California Gov. Gavin Newsom and his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, UC President Janet Napolitano and UCLA Chancellor Gene Block were woven into the online presentation that was made available to all graduates.

Other aspects of the ceremony were able to be customized for each of the three departments that awarded degrees. So, Chair Laura S. Abrams spoke to the Social Welfare graduates, Chair Vinit Mukhija addressed the Urban Planning Class of 2020, and Chair Martin Gilens offered advice and congratulations to the new Public Policy alumni.

Instead of the past tradition in which names of individual graduates were read as they walked across the stage at Royce Hall to be handed a diploma, this year’s graduating students got a few moments of dedicated screen time to themselves. Each graduate’s name appeared on screen as part of the departmental ceremony, often accompanied by a photo and a personal message of thanks or inspiration provided by the graduating student as a text message or a video clip — or both.

The presentations by the student speakers were also unique to each department this year. All three spoke of the memorable circumstances that they and their classmates experienced while wrapping up their graduate degrees during such an extraordinary time in history.

“No one wanted this. No one wants to live in this type of world,” said Social Welfare speaker Akinyi Shapiro, who views her graduation as a time for both celebration and reflection. “Listen to those who are being attacked for nothing other than the color of their skin. Decide who we want to be as social workers, how we’re going to change our communities and commit to anti-oppressive practices that will make this country better.”

Amy Zhou noted that the stay-at-home order in Los Angeles took place just as the winter quarter was winding up at UCLA. “We had no idea that the last time my classmates and I would see each other at the end of the winter quarter would be the last time that we would see each other in person as a graduating class.”

Zhou took advantage of the virtual platform to include a series of video clips that showed her and her classmates pledging solidarity in their dedication to practice planning in a manner that will uplift their communities. “When one falls, we all fall,” they conclude, their voices in unison. “When one rises, we all rise.”

As with any commencement, the virtual ceremony was also an opportunity for the graduating students to acknowledge their mentors — the faculty, friends and, especially, family members who have helped them along their journeys.

Muchisimas gracias,” said Kassandra Hernandez of Public Policy during her commencement remarks. “Thank you, mom and dad, for all that you’ve given me — all the sacrifices you have made for me.”

Hernandez then addressed her peers. “You are ready to take on the world and cause some change because we all know that that’s why we came to Luskin — to cause change.”

In his keynote address, Pérez also spoke of change. He talked about his time as a leader in California’s government, pointing to accomplishments such as health care reform and the creation of the state’s Rainy Day Fund. That financial reserve had grown to about $16 billion by the time of the pandemic, he noted, helping the current Legislature and governor lessen the economic damage from the COVID-19 downturn.

In Pérez’s view, making a meaningful difference to society requires not only a vision, but perseverance. 

“As graduates of one of the nation’s premier schools for progressive planning and policy, you need to be among the leaders. Make ripples. Make waves,” he said. “Push yourself. Push the system. And when you think you’ve pushed enough, take a step, take a pause, and then push some more.”

COVID-19 Reinforces Racial Health Disparities, Abrams Says

Social Welfare Chair Laura Abrams was featured as a guest on the COVID-19 Heroes podcast discussing racial and ethnic health disparities during the pandemic. She explained that while some social workers whose services have been deemed essential are still being asked to come to work, many areas of social work have been moved online, such as mental health services that are now being provided through video platforms like Zoom. However, many clients don’t have access to the technologies that might facilitate an online relationship, and many social workers have found that the interactions feel more limited and less connected when conducted virtually. Abrams explained that “what started as an equal-opportunity disease has quickly become racialized,” with African American people dying at a higher rate than other demographics. “COVID-19 has revealed underlying health disparities that we can’t ignore anymore,” Abrams said.


Social Welfare Statement on Racial Justice

The Department of Social Welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs recently reaffirmed its commitment to addressing racial disparities and anti-Blackness that permeate all aspects of our social fabric, including within our own department. At the impetus of our doctoral students and the Luskin Black Student Caucus, the faculty are engaged in a process of assessing the extent to which our current curriculum prepares students to engage in anti-racist social work practice. We realized that, despite related foundation and advanced curriculum objectives (i.e., engaging diversity and difference in practice; advancing human rights; and economic, social, and environmental justice), there are no explicit student learning outcomes dedicated to anti-racist social work practice. To that end, with unanimous consent, the faculty has approved the adoption of a curricular principle related to anti-racism as a professional standard.

CSWE maintains a set of nine core Educational and Accreditation (EPAS) Standards that all social work programs must fulfill, and there is a movement underway to press CSWE to create an explicit racial justice standard. Our voting to create such a standard is a part of a larger effort to build on our department’s history of advancing social justice and our commitment to model social and racial justice in our education and scholarship and service. This new educational standard will be written and integrated into our curriculum in a joint effort between faculty and the Luskin Black Student Caucus. We have also committed to hiring MSW and Ph.D. students this summer to assist with a larger curriculum review of our racial justice content.

The successful implementation of this standard will occur with a series of structural changes that will allow for a culture of racial justice within Social Welfare and the larger Luskin School. We look forward to sharing our short-range and long-range plan to address racism and anti-Blackness within social work education and our department later this summer.

Laura Abrams
UCLA Luskin Social Welfare Chair and Professor

 

Schoolwide Calls for Racial Justice

Since the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, voices from across the UCLA Luskin community have joined the conversation about systemic racism in the United States, shedding light on its roots and leading calls to move toward true justice. The insights have been shared near and far. Here is a sample: Social Welfare Chair Laura Abrams told Asian news channel CNA that the wave of protest sweeping the nation has been “massive and powerful … and I don’t see it dying down any time soon.” Ananya Roy, director of the Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, has led faculty from across UCLA to stand in solidarity with communities of color and “continue the unfinished work of liberation.” To explain Los Angeles’ role in the current unrest, the New York Times cited the Quality of Life Index produced by the Los Angeles Initiative, which found deep bitterness over the region’s immense income inequality. Public policy lecturer Brad Rowe told local reporters he was encouraging his students to express their support for criminal justice reform. And social justice activist Alex Norman, professor emeritus of social welfare, told the Long Beach Press-Telegram: “For most African Americans, the American dream is a nightmare. … What will it take to change the narrative? What we don’t have, leadership, at the national and local level.”


 

Abrams on Setting Priorities in the Next L.A. Budget

LAist cited Social Welfare Chair Laura Abrams in an article about budget cuts the city of Los Angeles is facing amid an economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. At issue is the appropriate level of funding for the Los Angeles Police Department. LAPD supporters say uniformed police have been expected to provide an ever-expanding array of community services, especially during the pandemic. Activists argue that law enforcement funding should not be increased while vital services go underfunded. On a conference call organized by the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, Abrams said, “Police officers, even when well-intentioned, are not social workers.” Becoming a certified social worker requires special training, including adhering to a code of ethics and gaining the ability to advocate for vulnerable communities, she said, adding, “These skills or training cannot be paralleled by any work in law enforcement.”

Abrams Explains Increase in Online Child Sex Abuse

Social Welfare Professor Laura Abrams spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the growing threat of child sex abuse as children spend more time on home computers during lockdown. With schools closed and children staying home under COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, law enforcement officials have been overwhelmed by a surge in tips about online child sex abuse. Sexual predators lurk on chat sites, social media and gaming platforms, often coercing children into sending inappropriate pictures, then blackmailing them for more explicit content. “In this time of shelter in place, unfortunately children don’t have a lot of contacts with mandated reporters: teachers, mental health providers, coaches, mentors,” Abrams said. Sexual exploitation can cause stress and suicidal feelings in children, and make it more difficult to focus or stick to normal sleeping patterns, she explained. However, huge disruptions to routine — which many kids have experienced recently — can lead to similar behavior or thoughts, Abrams added.


Listening to — and Learning From — Urban Youth of Color New research by UCLA Luskin faculty finds young people who are actively engaged in civic improvement and eager to be heard about solutions

By Les Dunseith

In places where exposure to violence is prevalent, those seeking to advance causes on behalf of urban youth of color should start by listening to the young people themselves, according to a new publication from two UCLA faculty members.

What do such youth say about violence in their neighborhoods?

“You see it everywhere. You could ride down the street, you would see somebody arguing. You go down another street, see somebody fighting,” said Justin, a 17-year-old black and Asian youth.

“I don’t like it. It’s too many killings. … I can’t choose, I can’t do nothing about it. I’m still young,” said Salome, a 16-year-old Latina.

So, what can be done — and by whom?

“We all have to communicate and cooperate. …  I just feel like if everybody just came together and put their minds together about what the community should be and how it should be, I think the community would probably be much better place for kids to grow up,” said Jamal, a 17-year-old black youth.

“Why we got a mouth?” asked Kendra, a 15-year-old black youth. “Our opinions do matter. It can even change the world.”

These four interviewees were among 87 youth living in high-poverty neighborhoods in Rochester, New York, who spoke with Associate Professor Laura Wray-Lake for a qualitative study of youth engagement. She was joined in analyzing the information by co-author Laura S. Abrams, professor and chair of UCLA Luskin Social Welfare. Their monograph — essentially an eight-chapter book on one topic — was made available online May 12 by Monographs for the Society of Research on Child Development, a respected quarterly journal.

“The purpose of the study was to understand how civic engagement is defined and experienced by these youth of color in their own words and from their own perspectives. We also wanted to know what assets and adversities young people experienced that shaped their civic engagement,” Wray-Lake said of the publication, “Pathways to Civic Engagement Among Urban Youth of Color.”

The monograph, which is accompanied online by teaching and outreach materials, is based on data collected by Wray-Lake in 2015-16 when she was on the faculty at University of Rochester. The interviewees ranged in age from 12 to 19, and were mostly black (61%) or multiracial black (27%). A majority (60%) were male. About one-quarter had parents who had completed high school, and 36% had a parent who attended at least some college.

The study participants did more than just express strong opinions. Many took action to benefit others. The most common type of civic engagement was helping out in the community — mentoring younger children at the recreation center, for example, or participating in an annual community cleanup. Some youth helped their neighbors by mowing lawns or shoveling snow.

“Some youth were civically engaged by intervening to protect others from harm, and this was a form of civic engagement not often recognized in the literature,” Wray-Lake said. “A number of youth described helping to stop or break up fights to protect a friend, or talking a friend out of joining a gang.”

Although political engagement was much less common among the youth she interviewed, Wray-Lake said a few talked about sharing posts on social media to speak out against injustice or joining marches or protests against gun violence.

The monograph is based upon work funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). Wray-Lake sees value in publishing it during a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed the ways that youth can connect with others, navigate community spaces and participate in civic life.

“In this time when people are confined to their homes, we hope this work contributes to conversations about reimaging community spaces for youth that are safe, supportive and prioritize their voices,” Wray-Lake said.

She and Abrams believe the findings can lead to more-informed policies related to investing in safe spaces and community-led anti-violence initiatives for urban youth of color.

Civic empowerment was one of two key factors that influenced the level of engagement among study participants.

The other?

Feeling heard and supported by adults.

 

Perseverance Amid the Pandemic UCLA Luskin alumni social workers reveal some fear and frustration and a whole lot of dedication

By Les Dunseith

Social workers. They are still out there.

They still walk Skid Row despite the COVID-19 pandemic. They still go to homes where children are in need. They still report to work at hospitals where patients die alone and families need to be located and told. It’s their job — their essential job — and they’re still doing it despite extraordinary circumstances that are making already difficult roles even more challenging.

“On a personal level, these social workers are making sacrifices of their own health, and potentially the health of their families, in order to continue to serve,” said Laura Abrams, professor of social welfare. “They know that they’re taking that risk, but they feel like it’s important to them. It’s their responsibility.”

Founded in 1947, the UCLA program is widely known and highly respected, particularly in California, where most of the 90 to 100 graduates each year go to work for city, county or state social services agencies.

Abrams, who is chair of social welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, knows this because she’s been talking to some of them, connecting with alumni of her program for Zoom calls to find out how they are doing.

What is it like for social workers right now?

Lavit Maas in her personal protective gear.

Lavit Maas, who graduated in 2010 with her master’s in social welfare, works for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health’s Homeless Outreach and Mobility Engagement team, which provides care on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles for homeless people with severe mental illness. Maas works with people who are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19.

“There’s a lot of elderly on Skid Row,” she told Abrams. “There’s a lot of people with medical conditions. It’s terrifying because we don’t know what to do [for them]. It makes me sad.”

Gabby Peraza, a 2019 master’s in social welfare graduate, works with foster youth as part of her job with the county department of children and family services. Soon after the safer at home order was issued, she encountered a young girl who needed to be transferred to a new placement but was frightened by Peraza’s protective gear. The child cowered in fear, hiding behind a foster parent.

“I had to make the decision. I’m either going to have a kid crying with me — and forcing that kid into a car with me,” Peraza recalled. “I said, ‘All right, I’m going to take this mask off, take these gloves off, and just engage with this kid.’ ”

Abrams has been recording her video interviews, and they are being edited for privacy and clarity before being posted for educational purposes on a showcase page maintained by the Luskin School. [Or scroll to the bottom to view.] So far, eight interviews have been completed and three have been posted publicly. In all, Abrams expects to do at least eight, with interviewees who reflect the broad swath of roles in which social workers are employed.

The idea came to Abrams soon after she and her family moved inside to comply with the social distancing order that was issued March 19 in Los Angeles County.

“I felt very disconnected from what was happening out in the real world,” Abrams said.

A conversation about the impact that the coronavirus pandemic was having on a close friend in a medical career led Abrams to realize that few people were thinking about her former and current students in UCLA’s social welfare program. She knew they were being affected too, but how? So she reached out on Facebook to see if anyone wanted to talk.

“Social workers, they’re playing a vital role in this pandemic,” said Abrams, noting that they interact with people at the margins of society who are often overlooked by the general public and in media reports. “What’s happening out in the community, especially with really vulnerable populations like homeless folks or people in the jails or children in foster care?”

Abrams said she has learned a lot from the Zoom calls. For one thing, the feeling of personal safety varies from person to person and job to job. A social worker in a hospital, for example, said she had access to personal protective equipment and felt safe. But those who work for government agencies, however, said they were fearful about their level of protection from the novel coronavirus.

Many social workers said they are facing unexpected dilemmas, and “working in spaces in which their clients are not getting what they need,” Abrams said. For example, an alumna who works in a correctional facility observed that people being imprisoned there were not given proper access to soap and water so they could comply with orders to frequently wash their hands.

A surprise from her interviews was discovering that some facilities and social services are actually being underutilized at the moment. The number of cases being handled is less than usual for Peraza and for Madison Hayes, another 2019 master’s in social welfare graduate, who works in Sacramento at a shelter for foster youth. For both, the decline in cases mirrors a steep drop-off in calls to crisis hotlines and a lack of referrals from the mandatory reporters at public schools.

“We know that things like abuse and other family problems are probably increasing, but calls … are decreasing so dramatically,” Abrams said. “Child protection is basically falling apart because there’s no window to the outside world.”

Gabby Peraza was a student commencement speaker in 2019.

Talking to social workers in the field has also reminded Abrams of the inequities that always exist in society.

“Access to health care: What does that mean?” Abrams asked. “Access to even having a home, to being sheltered? I am seeing the racial disparities and seeing the ways that the haves and the have-nots have different levels of access at this time.”

The interviews have also reminded Abrams of one other important — and more hopeful — aspect of society. People keep doing their jobs despite the risks involved.

“We all knew coming into this career that there’s always going to be a risk,” Peraza told Abrams about what it’s like to be a social worker during this crisis. “We just didn’t think it was going to be this type of risk.”

Peraza said it’s not about herself, it’s about the children and the families she serves.

Maas acknowledged the risks to her own health and the fear of getting infected and passing the virus along to a colleague or loved one. But there is work to be done.

“I love being a social worker and, to me, service is the only thing that matters,” Maas said. “Of course, you can’t be of service if you can’t protect yourself. I know that. But, especially in a time like this, I have to be of service.

 

 

 

Abrams Pioneers Juvenile Justice Research

An article in EBP Society highlighted Social Welfare Professor Laura Abrams’ research contributions to a growing international discussion about the minimum age of criminal responsibility. The term refers to the youngest age at which an individual can be processed formally in the justice system, and is often determined by factors such as brain development, competency and childhood experiences. In the United States, separate juvenile justice systems have been created to emphasize rehabilitation over punishment, but the article points out that very few studies have been conducted on the appropriate minimum age of criminal responsibility. The article summarizes the findings of three studies conducted by Abrams to better understand the effectiveness of minimum age boundaries in the United States and the rest of the world. Abrams’ research highlights the variations and complications among different national and international juvenile justice systems and illustrates the importance of establishing age parameters into and out of the justice system.