Abrams Calls for End to Criminalizing Children

Social Welfare Chair Laura Abrams co-authored a Washington Post opinion piece on the consequences of criminalizing childhood misbehavior and mental health problems. “Arresting children is counterproductive and unethical,” wrote Abrams and co-author Elizabeth S. Barnert of the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. Appearing after the release of video footage showing police in Rochester, N.Y., using pepper spray and handcuffs on a 9-year-old girl, the op-ed called on the United States to set a national minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction of at least 12. Currently, they wrote, “47 states have the power to forcibly arrest elementary-school-age children and do so regularly.” Abrams and Barnert cited their research showing that child incarceration elevates the risk of trauma and abuse, behavioral and mental health problems, and future involvement in the criminal justice system. They also pointed to systemic racism, noting that, compared with white children, Black youths under 12 are 2.5 times more likely to be referred to juvenile court.

Images of Pepper-Sprayed Girl Underscore Urgency of Minimum-Age Laws

Video footage of a 9-year-old girl being handcuffed and pepper-sprayed by police in Rochester, N.Y., has put a spotlight on a key question for policymakers: At what age should a child be shielded from detention, prosecution and incarceration in the criminal justice system? That question is the focus of scholarship by Social Welfare Chair Laura Abrams and Elizabeth Barnert, assistant professor of pediatrics at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. Their collaborative research at the intersection of child health and juvenile justice has led to data-driven recommendations about the minimum age of criminal responsibility, factoring in brain development, competency and childhood experiences. Abrams and Barnert recently worked with the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) to form a broad coalition of advocates and health professionals working to raise the age at which children can be processed on criminal charges. Internationally, that age is most commonly set at 14; in the United States, more than half of states have no minimum age at all. “Processing and confining children in the juvenile justice system is traumatic and exposes them to damaging collateral consequences,” including disruptions to education, employment, and mental and physical development, argues NJJN, which released a policy platform and other resources on the issue in January. The incident in Rochester, captured on police body cameras and viewed widely, illustrates the urgency of this advocacy, Abrams said. “No child should ever be cuffed or arrested. Period,” she said. “Our work on minimum age laws shows that criminalizing childhood is racist and has adverse outcomes on children’s health.”


 

Abrams Leads Dialogue on Racism, Mental Health

Social Welfare Chair Laura Abrams led a dialogue about the links between structural racism and mental health in the inaugural installment of a new webinar series launched by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare. “When we talk about poverty and homelessness and mental health and race, it’s all a larger conversation about what our profession can do at this juncture to move forward,” said Abrams, who was inducted into the national honor society this year. The webinar featured insights from scholars Sean Joe of Washington University in St. Louis, an authority on Black Americans and mental health, and David Takeuchi of the University of Washington, whose research focuses on health disparities among racial, ethnic and immigrant populations. The conversation was particularly valuable, Abrams said, because “sometimes we come into social work and people want to help and they want to change society, but they don’t always understand our history.”


 

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. And an online “Kudobard” allowed family and friends to offer messages of congratulations to the Class of 2020.

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.”