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.”

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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.

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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.

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Abrams Wins Prize for Book on Incarcerated Youth Award is one of several Social Welfare accomplishments highlighted at annual conference

Social Welfare Chair Laura Abrams’ book on the complex lives of youth who transition out of Los Angeles’ juvenile justice system and into adulthood has received the 2020 Society for Social Work and Research Book Award.

Everyday Desistance: The Transition to Adulthood Among Formerly Incarcerated Youth” was recognized for its outstanding contributions to the advancement of knowledge and resolution of social problems.

Abrams and her co-author, triple Bruin Diane Terry BA ’02 MSW ’04 PhD ’12, received the prestigious award Jan. 18 during the annual conference of the Society for Social Work and Research in Washington, D.C.

This year’s conference highlighted several achievements by UCLA Luskin Social Welfare:

  • MSW students and faculty conducted a roundtable on their experiences providing legal assistance to migrants detained at the U.S.-Mexico border. After a week interviewing women and children held at a detention center in Dilley, Texas, the team created a set of tools for other advocates who are trying to help migrants who have faced trauma.
  • Abrams was formally inducted into the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, a national honor society recognizing excellence in the field. Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor, a member of the academy since 2017, delivered the induction address.
  • Maggie Thomas, who will join the Social Welfare faculty as an assistant professor in the fall, received the 2020 Doctoral Fellows Award for her dissertation, “Material Hardship, Public Assistance and Child Wellbeing: A Panel Data Study.”
  • Research by eight faculty, 12 Ph.D. students and four MSW students or recent graduates was presented during the five-day conference’s symposia, workshops, roundtables, and paper and poster presentations.

 

School Safety Expert Is Among 4 New Faculty Additions

By Stan Paul

Three new faculty members in social welfare and one in urban planning joined UCLA Luskin as of the fall quarter.

They bring to 19 the total number of new faculty added during the tenure of Dean Gary Segura to UCLA Luskin’s three professional programs and its undergraduate major.

Joining social welfare: Professor Ron Avi Astor, an expert on bullying and school violence; Assistant Professor Cindy Sangalang, who examines how race, migration and culture intersect to shape health and well-being in immigrant and refugee communities; and Assistant Professor Lee Ann Wang, whose current work looks at the intersection of immigration law and criminalization through gender and sexual violence.

New to urban planning is Assistant Professor Veronica Herrera, who studies the politics of development in Global South cities, with a focus on Latin America. Her research emphasizes environmental policymaking, sustainability and water policy.

Astor holds a joint appointment as professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and Sangalang and Wang have joint appointments as assistant professors in Asian American Studies.

Astor holds the Marjorie Crump Chair in Social Welfare. His work examines the role of the physical, social-organizational and cultural contexts in schools related to different kinds of bullying and school violence. Examples include sexual harassment, cyber bullying, discrimination, hate acts, school fights, emotional abuse, weapon use and teacher/child violence. His most recent co-authored book on the subject, “Bullying, School Violence, and Climate in Evolving Contexts: Culture, Organization, and Time,” was published last January.

“Bullying is such a big term that it gives us a lot of room,” said Astor, whose first studies related to bullying and school violence tied to vulnerable groups such as homeless and foster children. “So being in these literatures you realize that some of the research has been more generic, so it does matter if it’s LGBTQ or if it’s military kids, or homeless or foster kids … because the dynamics are a little bit different.”

His research is cross-cultural and makes comparisons between the United States and other places, including such countries as Israel, China, Cameroon and Kosovo.

“Professor Astor is one of the foremost experts in the world on how to cultivate safe and nurturing schools for children around the globe,” said Professor Laura Abrams, chair of social welfare. “This research is critical to social work as schools play a major role in shaping key child outcomes.”

Astor is a Southern California native who came to UCLA after a long research and teaching appointment at the University of Michigan and, more recently, at USC.