Abrams and Boston University Dean Call for Social Workers to Use Knowledge for Change Scholars must wrestle with the root causes of social inequality and strive toward bettering people's lives, they write

Professor Laura Abrams, chair of UCLA Luskin Social Welfare, and Dean Jorge Delva of Boston University’s School of Social Work (BUSSW) are co-authors of a newly published journal article looking at the opportunities and obligations of social work research.

Published by the Journal of the Society for Social Work & Research, “Social Work Researchers: From Scientific Technicians to Changemakers” is a call to action for social work scholars to direct their efforts toward high-impact research that produces findings that can be applied in a timely manner to influence programs, policies or movements that improve the lives of the most marginalized and oppressed populations.

Abrams and Delva note that amid recent social tumult, global challenges and increased attention to racism and anti-Blackness, there has been an increase in demand for research that is both scientific and attentive to social, racial, economic and environmental justice.

They say, however, that an empirical push in social work research has resulted in “a focus on quantity over impact; undue emphasis on publishing in journals, often in non-social-work journals that have high impact factors but are separated from our practice community; engagement in ‘traditional’ modes of scholarship that do not necessarily challenge the status quo; and pursuit of NIH funding as an end in itself.”

The authors acknowledge the value of National Institutes of Health funding but write that the “narrow focus on NIH as an arbiter of a successful scholar … has also reinforced the top-down, parachuting type of research whereby researchers drop into a community, conduct their research and depart with little to no involvement by and impact on the community.”

Pushing toward evidence without a solid anchor to communities is a phenomenon that the authors attribute to pressures within academia to attain ever-greater funding, power and prestige — pressures fed by incomplete measures of success such as the U.S. News & World Report rankings.

Delva and Abrams point to a paradigm shift, saying the next generation of social work scholars is ready for change. New momentum exists for the belief that current research practices function as tools of white supremacy, patriarchy and oppression, which is an idea advanced as early as 1968, when the National Association of Black Social Workers urged the National Conference on Social Welfare to publicly repudiate the welfare system.

Delva and Abrams say that social work must reach beyond the goal of implementing health research into practice and also wrestle with the root causes of social inequalities. In the same way that science alone could not have improved women’s lives without women’s rights movements, social science can only make an impact with communal support and momentum, the co-authors write.

Abrams, whose research centers on improving the well-being of youth and adults with histories of incarceration, joins Delva, the Paul Farmer professor and director of the Center for Innovation in Social Work & Health at BUSSW, in imploring academic leaders to make a more concerted effort to elevate and reward work based on public impact, community participatory research and social movements.

UCLA Social Welfare Marks 75 Years of Distinguished Research

UCLA Social Welfare scholars from around the country returned to campus this week to recognize milestones in teaching and research over the past 75 years, as well as the work still ahead to advance justice in both academia and the broader society. The gathering of Social Welfare PhD students, doctoral alumni, faculty and staff, held at the UCLA Luskin Conference Center on the evening of Nov. 14, kicked off a yearlong commemoration of the Social Welfare program’s diamond anniversary. Professor Emeritus Rosina Becerra shared insights from her three decades in leadership positions at the university, including as dean of the School of Social Welfare in the 1980s and ’90s and later as vice provost of faculty diversity and development. Guests also heard from Karina L. Walters PhD ’95 MSW ’90 BA ’87, a professor of social work at the University of Washington and member of the Choctaw Nation, and Darcey H. Merritt PhD ’06 MSW ’03, associate professor at New York University and co-editor-in-chief of the research journal Children and Youth Services Review. Merritt will soon join the University of Chicago faculty as a full professor. Becerra, Walters and Merritt are distinguished scholars and also women of color, and they spoke of progress yet to be made to achieve full equity in the academy. The celebration of UCLA Social Welfare’s 75th anniversary will continue throughout the academic year, culminating on Saturday, May 6, with an alumni reunion and the annual presentation of the Joseph A. Nunn Alumnus of the Year award.

View photos from the event on Flickr.

Social Welfare Research At UCLA: Past, Present, Future


Grant to Support Study of ‘Lifers’ Who Are Given a Second Chance Project led by Laura Abrams of UCLA Social Welfare will focus on people convicted of offenses committed when they were under 18

Social Welfare chair Laura Abrams  has received a grant of $860,000 to lead an extensive national study of young people sentenced to life in prison who are ultimately given a chance at freedom.

The three-year study, funded by the Houston-based philanthropy Arnold Ventures, aims to build a base of knowledge that supports safe and equitable sentencing and “second-look” policies for people sentenced to life for offenses committed before they were 18 years old. Many have spent years or decades behind bars.

“This research seeks to answer critical policy questions,” Abrams said. “Can we develop a set of evidence-informed policies that provide second chances for people serving long sentences for violent crimes? Can we reduce our overreliance on long sentences in the future without compromising public safety?”

Abrams and an interdisciplinary team of scholars from across the country will focus on a subset of the “lifer” population — the roughly 2,800 people who were convicted of homicide as minors after being tried in adult criminal courts.

Harsh sentences of youth convicted of violent offenses increased dramatically during the “tough on crime” 1980s and 1990s, but two U.S. Supreme Court rulings over the past 10 years held that mandatory life sentences for minors are unconstitutional. This paved the way for the release of hundreds of people.

Working with data collected by the nonprofits the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth and the Sentencing Project, Abrams and her colleagues will track those who have been freed as well as those who remain incarcerated to determine whether releases are conducted equitably. They will also assess the level of preparation for reentry into the community and the risk of a return to criminal behavior.

The team includes experts from UCLA, University of Cincinnati, Johns Hopkins University, University of Michigan, Northwestern University and Temple University, representing disciplines such as social work, human development and behavior, public health and criminology.

While the research will focus on those incarcerated as minors, the findings can be used as a foundation for broader reforms of sentencing and second-chance policies.

“This study has strong potential to inform policies related to the over 50% of U.S. prisoners serving sentences of 10 years or more,” Abrams said.

UCLA Luskin Faculty Win Public Impact Research Awards The Office of Research & Creative Activities honors scholars for work that connects the campus to local and global communities

By Manon Snyder

Laura Abrams, chair of UCLA Luskin Social Welfare, was among six professors to receive the inaugural Public Impact Research Awards from the UCLA Office of Research & Creative Activities.

Established in collaboration with the UCLA Centennial Celebration but put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the awards recognize work that has clear and immediate benefits to local and international communities.

Honorees with a UCLA Luskin connection included Abrams; Dana Cuff, professor of architecture, urban design and urban planning; and Kelly Lytle Hernández, professor of history, African American studies and urban planning. Public Impact Research Award recipients receive $10,000 prizes.

During an award ceremony on June 1, Abrams recounted the story of how she and her co-author Elizabeth Barnert of the Geffen School of Medicine came to do the research that led to the award.

“We heard a story of a 5-year old child who was prosecuted for a curfew violation, and we set our sights on preventing this from happening again,” Abrams told an audience that included UCLA Luskin benefactor Renee Luskin. “As a social worker and a pediatrician, we were shocked to note that in California, like nearly half of all U.S. states, the law did not shield young children from being brought into the justice system.”

They were told that it would be difficult to change a law that had been on the books since the early days of the child welfare codes. Other researchers dismissed the topic as not particularly important.

“Yet we persisted,” Abrams said.

They conducted a mixed-methods study that showed setting a minimum age at which a child can be prosecuted in the juvenile justice system is not only better for children, but also politically viable. Their research also showed that, starting at younger ages, racial inequities were already problematic, particularly for Black children.

Their once “impossible policy goal” became a reality when then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 439 into law in 2018, ensuring that no child under age 12 in the state of California can be legally prosecuted, even in the juvenile justice system, except in very rare circumstances.

View photos from the event:

UCLA Research Impact Awards

Abrams is a professor of social welfare at UCLA Luskin, and Barnert is an associate professor of pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

“I consider this project and the social policy impact to be the most important achievement in my career,” Abrams said. “I hope to inspire future scholars to conduct research that they are passionate about and that makes a difference.”

Advocates have since partnered with Abrams and Barnert to lead other states to pass or consider similar legislation. Thanks to their research, professional groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, now endorse a minimum age of 12 for juvenile court jurisdiction; their research was also used to draft a congressional bill that would set the minimum age for prosecuting youth in the federal criminal legal system at 12.

“I believe in a healthy and just society where all children have the support they need to thrive,” Barnert said.

OTHER AWARDEES CONNECTED TO UCLA LUSKIN

Cuff, based at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, is founding director of cityLAB, an award-winning research center that studies how urbanism and architecture can contribute to a more just built environment. Based on cityLAB studies, Cuff and her team created the BIHOME — a full-scale demonstration of a compact dwelling unit designed to be located in backyards to meet rising housing demands — and BruinHub, a “home away from home” at the John Wooden Center for commuter and housing-insecure students. Cuff co-authored a 2016 bill to advance the implementation of backyard homes in suburbs, and is working on design and legislation for affordable housing to be co-located with public schools.

“At one of the finest public universities in the world, cityLAB-UCLA and our students at architecture and urban design have the privileged platform to demonstrate how to build a socially just, sustainable future,” Cuff said. “I am committed to design research that brings those new possibilities to the public.”

Lytle Hernández is the Thomas E. Lifka Endowed Chair in History and faculty director of Million Dollar Hoods, a big-data initiative that uses police and jail records to examine incarceration disparities in Los Angeles neighborhoods. Launched in 2016, the initiative’s research is being used for advocacy and legislative change, such as a report on the Los Angeles School Police Department that helped stop the arrest of children ages 14 and under in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Another report was critical for the passage of California legislation that ended money bail for nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors. Beyond using data to support new policies, Million Dollar Hoods uncovers and preserves stories from Los Angeles residents who have dealt with the policing system.

OTHER UCLA HONOREES

Two UCLA faculty members without a UCLA Luskin association were also honored with Public Impact Research Awards:

  • Alex Hall is a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the UCLA College, whose research is focused on producing high-resolution projections for climate modeling, particularly in California. Hall extends his expertise beyond campus, working with Los Angeles water management agencies to help ensure the sustainability of water resources for the region. Hall is also working to understand the future of wildfires in the state. He co-founded the Climate and Wildfire Institute to champion collaboration between scientists, stakeholders and policymakers in the use of quantitative data on wildfires to shape management efforts in the western United States.

“We are in the midst of a sustainability crisis, and everyone must do their part to address it,” Hall said. “Nothing makes me happier than marshaling scientific resources to address some of the deepest sustainability challenges in California.”

  • Thomas Smith is a distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and founder of the UCLA Congo Basin Institute. As UCLA’s first foreign affiliate branch, the Congo Basin Institute works with organizations and the local government and communities to find solutions to environmental and developmental problems facing Central Africa. Continuing his commitment to conservation efforts in Africa, Smith is the founding president of the Conservation Action Research Network, which has provided more than $500,000 in grants to young African scholars. Smith is also the founding director of UCLA’s Center for Tropical Research, which has conducted research in 45 countries to understand biodiversity in the tropics. He also co-founded the Bird Genoscape Project, which uses genomics to map declining bird populations’ migration patterns and how they can inform where to prioritize conservation efforts.

“With accelerating climate change and loss of biodiversity we are rapidly approaching tipping points for many of the world’s ecosystems,” Smith said. “Our team is making a difference by focusing on science-based solutions to mitigate threats to help save the planet.

School Rises to Top 12 — and Top 10 for Social Work — in U.S. News Graduate Ranking Enhanced reputation is an indicator of ongoing work to meet and exceed high expectations for Luskin School and its Social Welfare programs.

UCLA Luskin’s overall ranking is in the top dozen among public affairs graduate schools in the nation based on the latest U.S. News & World Report ratings released today, including a Top 10 ranking in the social work category.

The School tied with other prestigious programs — Princeton, NYU, Georgetown and Carnegie Mellon at No. 12 and at No. 9 in social work with Case Western Reserve University.

“I am proud of the work that the Luskin School has done and continues to do. This ranking among national public affairs schools is just one indicator of the Luskin School’s continued growth and ongoing work to maintain and exceed our high expectations,” Dean Gary Segura said. “And the leap into the Top 10 for Social Welfare is a gigantic achievement! These reputational enhancements reflection the hard work and the continuing commitment of, and to, our UCLA and UCLA Luskin community, faculty, students, staff and all those that support and contribute to our mission,” he said.

“I am thrilled that our peers have rated us one of the top 10 social work programs in the nation,” said Laura Abrams, chair and professor of social welfare. “In the last five years, we have streamlined our Master of Social Welfare curriculum into three areas of concentration and incorporated several new elements, such as Intergroup Dialogue and the second-year capstone research projects.”

Abrams also noted the recruitment of new faculty members who are doing cutting-edge teaching, scholarship and community-based work.

“Dean Segura has been incredibly supportive of our expansion and increasing our visibility on the national stage. I couldn’t be more pleased to see our MSW program being honored in this way,” Abrams said.

Among public universities, the UCLA Luskin Social Welfare program is now one of the top six nationwide and the top two in California.

The School — with graduate departments in Public Policy, Social Welfare and Urban Planning, and a Public Affairs undergraduate program — also received high marks for subcategories that include urban policy (No. 7), social policy (No. 7), public policy analysis (No. 13) and health policy and management (No. 12).

The 2023 rankings of public affairs programs are published in 2022 based on peer assessment survey results from fall 2021 and early 2022. U.S. News surveyed deans, directors and department chairs representing 270 master’s programs in public affairs and administration, and 298 social work programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of the Council on Social Work Education. The National Association of Deans and Directors of Schools of Social Work supplied U.S. News with the lists of accredited social work schools and programs, plus the respondents’ names.

See the full list of the 2023 U.S. News & World Report Best Graduate Schools, published today.

Faculty Reported Among Top 2% in Scholarly Citations

Eighteen faculty members affiliated with UCLA Luskin are included in a listing of the top 2% for scholarly citations worldwide in their respective fields as determined by an annual study co-produced by Stanford University researchers. The 2021 report is a publicly available database that identifies more than 100,000 top researchers and includes updates through citation year 2020. The lists and explanations of study methodology can be found on Elsevier BV, and an article about the study was published by PLOS Biology. Separate data sets are available for career-long and single-year impact. The researchers are classified into 22 scientific fields and 176 subfields, with field- and subfield-specific percentiles provided for all researchers who have published at least five papers. The following current and past scholars with a UCLA Luskin connection met the study’s criteria to be included among the most-cited scholars:

Laura Abrams

Ron Avi Astor

Evelyn Blumenberg

Randall Crane

Dana Cuff

Yeheskel Hasenfeld (deceased)

Aurora P. Jackson

Duncan Lindsey

Susanne Lohmann

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris

Thomas Rice

Ananya Roy

Robert Schilling

Donald Shoup

Michael Storper

Brian Taylor

John Villasenor

Martin Wachs (deceased)


 

Jackson Selected as American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare Fellow

Professor Emerita of Social Welfare Aurora Jackson was elected as a 2022 fellow by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare. The academy is a prestigious society of distinguished scholars and practitioners dedicated to achieving excellence in the field of social work and social welfare through high-impact work that advances social good. The fellowship program recognizes and celebrates outstanding social work and social welfare research, scholarship and practice. Jackson’s scholarship examines the interrelationships among economic hardship, parental psychological well-being, parenting in the home environment, and child developmental outcomes in families headed by low-income, single-parent mothers with young children. When she is formally inducted with 15 other fellows in January 2022, Jackson will become the second woman from UCLA to join the academy, following the induction of Social Welfare Chair Laura Abrams in 2020. Academy fellows are nominated confidentially, then confirmed by a supermajority of current academy members. “Being a member of the academy is the highest honor the profession can bestow on a scholar,” said Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor, who was inducted into the academy in 2017. Jackson will contribute to the growing list of UCLA Luskin Social Welfare scholars who have been inducted as academy fellows. In addition to Abrams and Astor, they include Distinguished Professor Emeritus Stuart A. Kirk (2010), Professor Emeritus James Lubben (2011), Professor Emeritus Robert Schilling (2011) and the late Professor Yeheskel “Zeke” Hasenfeld (2013). — Zoe Day


Abrams Book Compiles Global Research on Child Imprisonment

A new book co-edited by Professor Laura Abrams, chair of UCLA Luskin Social Welfare, seeks to educate students, scholars and policymakers about the role of incarceration in young people’s lives. “The Palgrave International Handbook of Youth Imprisonment” compiles research from dozens of scholars from around the world on cross-cutting themes including the conditions of confinement, gender/sexuality and identity, juvenile facility staff, young people’s experiences in adult prisons, and new models and perspectives on juvenile imprisonment. “Numerous children are imprisoned across the globe in deplorable conditions, despite international legal conventions which suggest that children should be detained only as a last resort,” write Abrams and co-editor Alexandra Cox of the University of Essex. In addition to facing lengthy terms of imprisonment, a substantial number of children are exposed to abuse and violence in custody, poor health and mental health care, and a lack of access to educational, vocational and training opportunities. Some nations, however, have instituted reforms that have greatly decreased the number of children held in confinement. The handbook offers far-flung criminal justice systems the opportunity to learn from one another: “In this volume, we bring together views from a wide variety of countries and contexts to present the most recent cutting-edge research on youth imprisonment that has the potential to shape how the field can create better systems of care for all young people in conflict with the law.”


 

Social Welfare Issues Update About Anti-Racism Efforts

The UCLA Luskin Social Welfare faculty, students and alumni who joined forces in summer 2020 to craft an Action Plan to Address Anti-Blackness and Racism recently issued a progress report and accompanying video explaining their efforts. The team came together following the killing of George Floyd to examine the curriculum and culture, developing a set of action items to address racial disparities within the department and across the education of social workers. Their new report details progress that has been made so far, including a series of virtual events during the 2020-21 academic year that focused on racial justice and the history of how white supremacy has impacted the practice of social work. The progress report also discusses areas where further progress is needed at UCLA Luskin, such as recruiting more Black faculty members and providing additional funding opportunities to students of color. Read more about the team and their efforts.

Watch the video