Laura Abrams

Professor Abrams’ scholarship focuses on improving the well being of youth and young adults with histories of incarceration. Her ethnographic studies have examined youths’ experiences of criminality, risk, and institutions seeking to reshape their identities through both therapeutic and punitive practices. These themes are presented in her 2013 book (co-authored with Ben Anderson-Nathe) Compassionate Confinement: A Year in the Life of Unit C, (Rutgers University Press). Her most recent book (c0-authored with Diane Terry) Everyday Desistance: The Transition to Adulthood Among Formerly Incarcerated Youth (Rutgers University Press, 2017), examines how formerly incarcerated young men and women navigate reentry and the transition to adulthood in the context of urban Los Angeles. Dr. Abrams is also the lead editor of a 2016 multidisciplinary volume on the role of volunteers and non-profits in changing lives and promoting more humane conditions in prisons and jails:  The Voluntary Sector in Prisons: Encouraging Personal and Institutional Change (Palgrave, 2016).

Dr. Abrams is currently involved in several studies concerning juvenile justice, reentry, and transition age youth both locally and globally. She recently completed a four year evaluation of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation Foster Youth Strategic Initiative in Los Angeles and New York City. The Institute on  Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin also funded a pilot  study on global youth justice models in four countries, examining how age and culpability are constructed in law and practice. She is also working with Dr. Elizabeth Barnert at UCLA Department of Pediatrics on a study of very young offenders, incarceration, and health, funded by the University of California Criminal Justice and Health Consortium and the UCLA Faculty Senate Transdisciplinary Seed Grant. Dr. Abrams is currently partnering with professor Laura Wray-Lake (social welfare) on a study of civic engagement among urban youth.

In the community, Dr. Abrams has served as an expert witness for death row appeals and in cases involving minors fighting their fitness to be tried as adults. She has provided public and congressional testimony regarding treatment in the juvenile justice system, the reentry needs of youth, and effective practices for the reintegration of reentry youth into the community. Serving the larger social work profession, Dr. Abrams  is a former vice-chair of the Group for the Advisement for Doctoral Education (GADE) and is currently a board member at large for the Society for Social Work Research. She serves on the editorial board of Social Service Review, Qualitative Social Work, and the International Journal of Social Welfare.

Professor Abrams teaches the following courses: SW 211B- Theory II; SW 285- Advanced Research Methods with Children and Youth; SW286- Qualitative Research Methods; SW 229: The Craft of Social Welfare Scholarship, and SW 290T: Juvenile Justice Policy.

You can follow Dr. Abrams on Twitter or the Facebook page for the Social Welfare Chair

Recent News Releases and Media Interviews:

Vera Institute of Justice: Everyday Desistance

Growing Pains of Formerly Incarcerated Youth 

GPS Rules Send California Juveniles Into a Jail Cycle

Jailed Indiana Teens Reach a Crossroads

MPR News On Abuse in a Private Juvenile Facility

Seeking Justice for Juveniles

More Protections for Juvenile Offenders are Before California Legislators

Take Two: Is Jail for Juveniles Effective in Preventing Future Crime?

Juvenile Arrests Plunged Last Year, why?

Expanding rehabilitation Programs under Federal Decree- NPR

The California Report: NPR

“You Can Run But You Can’t Hide”

01907409 By Adeney Zo
UCLA Luskin student writer 

Professor Laura Abrams, chair of the social welfare doctoral program, and PhD alumna Diane Terry recently published an article in the Children and Youth Services Review titled, “You can run but you can’t hide”: How formerly incarcerated young men navigate neighborhood risks.”

This qualitative study offers a window into the lives of formerly incarcerated youth, focusing on the struggles they encounter while transitioning out of the incarceration system and into adulthood.

In light of the viral nationwide reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent events, this article addresses very relevant issues of racial disparity in the criminal justice system and police violence by turning to a more personal, narrative focus.

Seventeen formerly incarcerated young men were interviewed about their methods for navigating everyday risks, a complex survival strategy which balances obligation to gang brothers, avoiding of re-incarceration, and steering away from dangerous areas and situations. Through analyzing how formerly incarcerated youth develop strategies for safety and survival into adulthood, this study may provide a stepping stone to solving the issues of poverty, racial tensions, and police brutality which are currently the center of debate and discussion in America.

Luskin Lecture Spurs Conversation on Poverty in America Event featured screening of documentary "American Winter" followed by panel discussion.

american_winter copy

By Alejandra Reyes-Velarde
UCLA Luskin student writer

On Tuesday, the Luskin School of Public Affairs held its first Luskin Lecture featuring a film screening and panel discussion about middle class Americans falling into poverty after the recession of 2008.

The documentary, “American Winter” attempted to dispel perceptions and stereotypes about people who face poverty. The film follows the lives of eight families in their struggle to search for jobs and resources as their financial debts continued to grow, making homelessness a possibility for their futures.

After the screening, Film Director Joe Gantz, Housing Advocate with Volunteers of America Orlando Ward, and Social Welfare professor Laura Abrams sat down with moderator Val Zavala of KCET to discussed the themes of the film with the audience.

Ward, who was homeless and spent 15 years on Skid Row before going on to become the Vice President of Operations at Midnight Mission said he found the film emotionally satisfying and well informed in pointing to solutions.

“(Being homeless) is the most dehumanizing situation to be in. The film captured the fact that these are people that can be your friends, your neighbors or your family,” Ward said.

Having lived with these families while making the film, Gantz said he saw the stress they went through to maintain basic needs like paying electric bills and feeding their kids.

“I think what you see in this film is that these myths about it being the people’s fault are anything but true. These families are incredibly resourceful and hard working,” Gantz said.

Gantz is known for being able to bring to light very personal and intimate moments between the people in the films. In American Winter, some of the most emotional moments for the audience and the panel included those depicting the children’s emotional turmoil over their parents’ wellbeing or how they might support their own families in the future.

Professor Abrams felt deeply moved by the children and said it highlighted the important topic of childhood development.

“They were hopeful, compassionate and empathetic…Although they were the most endearing to me, I felt their having to worry about their parents well-being was very sad,” she said. “On the more intellectual side, we know that cumulative stresses add up, affecting their neurological development and coping strategies. We have to think about where these children are going to be 20 to 30 years from now.”

The film addressed topics on a political level as well, using shocking statistics throughout the documentary revealing how money in America is distributed.

“The money is going to the top 10% and the middle class is disappearing. On top of that, new laws make it possible to pour unlimited amounts of money into elections. You begin to wonder if this system is able to be called democracy,” Gantz said.

Although he thinks the federal response to this crisis did some good, Gantz said he was not struck by the U.S. reaching out empathically to those in need. Instead, services and programs that benefited those in need were cut and those families were left in the dark, he said.

Ward said he does not think the American government can solve these types of problems on their own. Instead, we have to look at the third side and understand the personal responsibility in the situation, he said.

“The film was about the fragility of hope. I think the film captured where we are as a country right now. I think a lot of us were seeing the pillars this country was built on was hope.”

Professor Abrams concluded the event by noting that this type of discussion and the issues presented are exactly the type that UCLA Luskin programs aim to address. This event was part of the School’s “Season of Service” that is highlighting underserved populations and the many ways students, faculty, staff and alumni are working to build a better world.

Additional upcoming Season of Service events:

Tuesday, Oct. 28:

Tuesday, Nov. 4:

  • A discussion on Coordinated Entry Systems will be held at 5:30pm in the Public Affairs Building.

A highlight of the Season of Service is on Saturday, Nov. 15 when the Luskin School participates in the 2014 United Way Homewalk at Exposition Park – walking and running to end homelessness. Register online and start fundraising here.

New Study Looks at Recidivism Rates Among Juvenile Offenders

A first-of-its-kind study co-authored by Social Welfare Professor Laura Abrams has gained attention by the National Association of Social Workers for its findings on juvenile offenders and rates of recidivism.

The study was published in the March 2014 issue of Social Work Research, and was highlighted on the NASW blog. According to the paper, the findings from the study are contradictory to the majority of the existing literature.

The paper looks at three different types of confinement sentences given to first-time violent offenders — probation in the home, group-home placement and probation-camp placement — and examines whether the type of placement affects the chances of recidivism for those offenders.

Abrams and her co-authors, lead researcher Joseph P. Ryan of the University of Michigan and Hui Huang of Florida International University, used records from the Los Angeles County Department of Probation and the Department of Children and Family Services from 2003-2009 as data. They used a statistical technique called propensity score matching to control for static risks such as gender, race, and age.

The study found that compared with in-home probation, the likelihood of recidivism was 2.12 times greater for youths assigned to probation camps and 1.28 times greater for youths assigned to group homes.

The authors conclude: “This is an important finding because it helps the field identify effective and efficient strategies for interrupting criminal careers that do not disrupt important social bonds to family, peers, and school. Empirical evidence, rather than popular rhetoric, should serve as the driving force for public policy and clinical innovations in working with violent young people.”

You can read the full study here.

The study was also highlighted in “Journalist’s Resource” run by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

 

Doctoral Students Pioneer New Research in Social Welfare

By Adeney Zo
UCLA Luskin student writer 

UCLA Luskin is home to a renowned Social Welfare doctoral program, one that focuses on independent research and interdisciplinary studies in order to produce top scholars and researchers. “Our doctoral program offers students the opportunity to pursue an independent line of study,” says professor Laura Abrams, chair of the doctoral program. “Although we are a small program, we focus on each individual student so that they are able to pursue these diverse interests and become leaders and scholars.” Among many notable achievements by both students and faculty, the following Social Welfare students were recently recognized for their research and work.

Two students had the opportunity to present academic papers at the Society for Social Work and Research conference in San Antonio. Gina Rosen presented a paper on “Determinants of Employment: Impact of Medicaid and CHIP among Unmarried Female Heads of Household with Young Children.” For her research, Rosen analyzed how social welfare programs impact the employment choices of low-income single mothers with young children (particularly under the age of six). Rosen explains that her childhood in Milwaukee, a city with high rates of inequality and segregation, inspired her to study policy issues in college and graduate school. “I wanted to look at these equality and fairness issues and how to correct them through public policy,” says Rosen. Her work was also recently accepted for publication in the journal Social Work in Public Health.

For the same conference, Christina Tam presented two papers on juvenile delinquency. For her first paper, “Gender Differences in Desistance from Crime: How Do Formerly Incarcerated Emerging Adults Use Social Supports?” Tam worked closely with Professor Abrams on the subject of transition to adulthood among formerly incarcerated young people, ages 18-25. This study analyzes youth transitioning out of juvenile justice and foster care systems. “I am interested in better understanding their experiences, as well as the practices and policies that may help these young people to cross this significant bridge,” explains Abrams.

Tam’s second project, and the subject of her dissertation, is a quantitative study on the overrepresentation of Southeast Asians in the American justice system. Her paper focuses on the acculturation of immigrant Cambodian families that have survived trauma and violence and how these changes affect rates of incarceration for their youth. Tam explains, “[I chose this group because] as a small population with a high amount of incarcerated youth, they are an understudied group in America.” Tam’s interest in the justice system stems from her undergraduate days as a Psychology and Criminology student at UC Irvine, and she describes her current research as “a good melding of all my interests, especially with studying second-generation Asian Americans.”

Matthew Mizel is also working closely with Professor Abrams on issues relating to incarcerated youth. Mizel first developed an interest in helping these youth through a volunteer teaching program in juvenile hall. “In 2003, I began teaching creative writing as a volunteer to incarcerated youth, and through the years my passion for that grew,” Mizel relates. “I eventually wanted to spend more of my time making an impact, and I decided the best way to do that was getting my Master’s and Ph.D.” For his research, Mizel conducted a systematic review on the use of mentoring programs as intervention for formerly incarcerated youth. He worked with Abrams to submit his research to the Journal of Evidence-Based Work, which was accepted last summer. “I learned a great deal from working with Professor Abrams. She helped me grow as a researcher and social welfare scholar,” says Mizel. “I ultimately want to become a professor in the future, and UCLA Luskin is helping me get the training and knowledge I need.”

While Tam and Mizel work with Abrams on youth incarceration, a few students also collaborate with Ian Holloway, Assistant Professor in Social Welfare, to research the social determinants of HIV/AIDS. “HIV is a major public health issue,” comments Holloway. “We’ve made tremendous progress in terms of preventing the virus in certain populations like mothers and infants. Now it’s important to address health disparities in sexual minority communities and racial ethnic groups disproportionately affected by HIV.” Holloway’s current research focuses on analyzing the social networks of HIV positive men in Los Angeles in relation to their well being and health, as well as developing a mobile smartphone application to encourage HIV testing and treatment among young African American gay and bisexual men (a heavily impacted demographic).

Shannon Dunlap is one of four students currently working with Professor Holloway on his social network research. “We’re using an informative survey to assess social networks of different people affected by HIV,” explains Dunlap. “We want to know how many people are in their social network, who they talk to, and how their social network supports them.” Outside of her studies, Dunlap also works with AMP!, a UCLA Art & Global Health Center program that aims to educate students about HIV through song, dance, and personal stories. “I’m looking at how [AMP!] impacts students and their social networks, along with how well the message has been received,” says Dunlap.

For fellow student Lesley Harris, HIV research led her on a journey to Vietnam to conduct a three-year field study. A country with traditionally underreported rates of HIV and a large population of young adults who are injection drug users, Vietnam is a key location to study the medical and social effects of HIV/AIDS. Harris’ studies focus on the relationship between children who have lost their parents due to AIDS and their grandparents, who consequently become the caretakers. By examining the effects of HIV on family dynamics, Harris also hopes to understand the greater social context surrounding the HIV epidemic in Vietnam. “Health is something that is socially constructed,” explains Harris. “The grandparents in Vietnam understood AIDS as a social evil, not a health issue.”

While conducting her field study, Harris also began to notice the importance of her relationship with her interpreter, a Vietnamese local. “Without an interpreter, it’s hard to bridge the cultural disconnect,” says Harris. “My interpreter actually had his own interpretation of the data, by looking at it through a Vietnamese lens.” As researcher-interpreter relation is not a frequently studied topic, Harris began work on a separate paper analyzing her close relationship with her interpreter and how it affected her understanding of the research. The resulting product, “Working in Partnership with Interpreters: Studies on Individuals Affected by HIV/AIDS in Vietnam,” was recently published in the Qualitative Health Research journal. Lesley is currently preparing for her final defense of her dissertation (chaired by emeritus professor Ted Benjamin) and is beginning a job as an assistant professor at the University of Louisville’s Kent School of Social Work in the fall.

While each Social Welfare student’s interests and research varies widely, their combined achievements serve to bring new insight and perspective to the field. “The Social Welfare program has a unique mix of scholars interested in society’s most pressing issues,” says Holloway. “Many of these issues intersect, and what’s been most exciting for me is that there is a lot of encouragement of interdisciplinary collaboration both within the school and within the larger university.” As the doctoral program continues to foster the development of innovative and interdisciplinary scholars, there may be more achievements in store for the students of Social Welfare.

Abrams’ Article Named Best of 2013

An article by Social Welfare professor Laura Abrams has been named the best article of 2013 to be published in the academic journal Social Service Review.

Abrams’ article, “Juvenile Justice at a Crossroads: Science, Evidence, and Twenty-First Century Reform,” was selected as the winner of the Frank R. Breul Memorial Prize, named for a University of Chicago professor of social service administration. The award carries with it a $1,000 honorarium.

Weaving together a survey of the history of the juvenile justice system with a detailed narrative of recent efforts to use scientific advances to spur policy reforms, Abrams’ article argues that “social workers ought to play a more visible role” in shaping the future of the system. Only the input of those who work most closely with troubled youth — and their families, schools and neighborhoods — can help build a better system, she writes.

The journal’s editorial board heralded Abrams’ inclusion of historical context, admiring the article’s ability to drive “the profession to take stock and to rethink its current direction.”

Abrams, who chairs UCLA Luskin’s doctoral degree program in Social Welfare, most recently wrote Compassionate Confinement: A Year in the Life of Unit C, which draws on a decade of research and more than a year of fieldwork she and her co-author conducted at a juvenile justice facility in Minnesota. Reviews have recognized its “engaging narratives, rich observations, and descriptive depictions of human experiences.” In October 2013 Abrams was selected to deliver the Seabury Memorial Lecture at UC Berkeley.

Abrams’ article appeared in the December 2013 issue of Social Service Review, Vol. 87, No. 4, pp. 725-752.

Examining the Legacy of Slavery and Racism In an effort to explore social justice issues and their relevance to students' future careers, the School of Public Affairs hosted a film viewing and discussion about the legacy of slavery and racism in the U.S.

By Robin Heffler
As part of a School of Public Affairs effort to explore social justice issues and their relevance to students’ future careers, some 170 students, faculty, and community members recently viewed a film and engaged in a lively discussion about the legacy of slavery and racism in the U.S.

Hosted by Dean Franklin D. Gilliam, with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, participants gathered on Jan. 19 in the screening room of the Acosta Training Complex to see an abridged version of the documentary film, Traces of the Trade.

In the film, which aired on PBS in 2008, producer and director Katrina Browne tells of her shocking discovery that the De Wolfs of Rhode Island, her prominent, Caucasian ancestors, were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. Together with nine other De Wolf descendants, Browne retraces the slave-trade triangle — from Bristol, Rhode Island to slave forts in Ghana to a family plantation in Cuba and back to Bristol. Along the way, they struggle with the politics of race, how to “repair” the centuries-long damage of slavery, and their own Yankee culture and privilege.

After the screening, Browne reflected on one cousin’s insistence that he would have gone to Harvard even if he wasn’t from a privileged family. “When the wind is at your back you don’t notice it,” she said. “You don’t realize the forces supporting you as you move forward, but you do when you’re faced with obstacles to success.”

African-American co-producer Juanita Brown noted that “We must recognize that race is complex, and that black and white is only one element. We invite you to see this conversation as the jumping off point for conversations about other people and races.”

Program participants engaged in one-on-one discussions about the film, as well as a question-and-answer session.

“No one wants to associate with the oppressor because of the guilt and shame involved, but we need to acknowledge history and how it plays out in the present,” said Amy Smith, a first-year social welfare graduate student, who had just spent the day discussing white privilege in her class on “Cross-Cultural Awareness.” “And, since racism is a problem that affects everyone, everyone should be part of the solution.”

Associate Professor Laura Abrams, who along with Joy Crumpton and Gerardo Laviña leads the “Cross-Cultural Awareness” class in the Department of Social Welfare, saw the issues raised by the film as important for social workers. “In a helping profession, it’s easy to see clients as having made bad choices rather than seeing their lives as structured by disadvantages and inequalities related to race, class, and gender,” she said.

Gilliam, who served as an early advisor to the film, said the event was the second of a planned series of programs focused on social justice issues. Last year, the UCLA School of Public Affairs had an exchange with the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University, with each school hosting conferences on how to talk about race in the context of graduate education in public affairs.

“We want to do a better job of giving students the analytical tools to examine issues of social justice, which they will need to deal with the people they will be helping when they graduate,” he said.

Gilliam said plans include developing a curriculum, research opportunities, and a summer institute related to social justice. Together with Student Affairs, he also would like to hold social-justice dialogues with undergraduates, who then would dialogue with Los Angeles-area high school students.

Heffler is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer and former UCLA editor

Crime Forum Opens in Washington DC: Judge Alm Delivers on HOPE Rosenfield Forum brings together researchers to discuss methods of crime reduction

WASHINGTON, DC—Addressing the record incarceration rates across the U.S. and the boom in the prison population, the UCLA School of Public Affairs launched the first in a series of public discussions on critical national issues with the opening dinner of the Rosenfield Forums at the National Press Club in Washington DC.

“The Rosenfield Forums are an opportunity to bring together some of the country’s best thinkers, practitioners, advocates, policy makers, and other stakeholders,” says Dean Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr., “This week’s particular event focuses on encouraging all of us to think a little differently about how we reduce crime in the United States. This is an important and deeply corrosive phenomenon: it corrodes the public space, it corrodes our young people, and it crowds our prisons. Much of the worlds of crime and punishment are artificially constructed around these two poles—too much crime and too much incarceration. What you’ll see in this event is scholars grappling with the complexities of these issues, and presenting some elegant solutions—elegant in both simplicity and power.”

The inaugural forum, “Escaping the Prison Trap: How to Have Less Crime and Less Incarceration,” featured a keynote address on October 7 by the Honorable Steve S. Alm of the Hawaii State Judiciary. Alm is the creator of Project HOPE (Hawaii’s Opportunity and Probation and Enforcement), an innovative crime reduction program for drug offenses that has had dramatic success rates. Judge Alm described a frustrating sentencing and incarceration system that amounted to little more than a revolving door for minor drug offenders to move in and out of the judicial system.

“I can send them to the beach, or send them to prison—it’s crazy that these were the only options.” After gaining cooperation from several agencies, including the probation department, the sheriffs and U.S. marshals, Judge Alm created a systematic approach in which offenders were given instructions for calling a telephone hotline to see if they were selected that day for random drug testing. If they tested positive for drugs, they are arrested on the spot and brought up for a hearing within two days. “Swift and certain consequence is the key.” Says Alm, “If probationers know there will be caught and punished, they will not violate. Probation officers are pleased with the results, because clients were showing up to their appointments, and showing up sober.”

The program has had remarkable success in Hawaii (up to a 50% drop in repeat offenses among drug probationers); has been replicated by other judges; and has become the focus of research by UCLA Public Policy Professor Mark Kleiman and Pepperdine University Public Policy Professor Angela Hawken. The Department of Justice has funded a program to introduce the program to other jurisdictions across the country.

The Rosenfield Forums continue on October 8 at the Rayburn Building on Capital Hill with panel discussions on: reducing juvenile crime and incarceration, led by Associate Professor Laura Abrams of the Department of Social Welfare; the consequences of mass incarceration, led by Professor Michael Stoll of the Department of Public Policy; and getting more crime control with less punishment, led by Professor Mark Kleiman of the Department of Public Policy.

Challenges for Youth Reentering Society After Incarceration Social Welfare Associate Professor Laura Abrams joined the Howard Gluss Radio Show to discuss juvenile justice and reentry.

laura-abrams_9009188732_o_eLaura Abrams, associate professor of social welfare at UCLA, appeared as a guest on the Howard Gluss radio show (August 14, 2009) to discuss the barriers to successful reentry to society for juveniles in the incarceration system. Abrams is the director of the juvenile justice and reentry project, a program of the Department of Social Welfare at the UCLA School of Public Affairs that fosters the reintegration of juvenile offenders into the community upon their release. The following are excerpts from the interview.

What are the major challenges that we face as a society for stopping young people entering the prison system?

“One of the things that it’s hard for people to wrap their minds around when we talk about juvenile offenders is that they are young people…and the majority haven’t committed violent crimes. They’re young people who deserve the opportunity to have a different pathway in their lives.”

“As a community, we think more about the punitive aspect of corrections and juvenile justice and not so much what happens when they return to society and when they transition to adulthood…When youth are get out of settings of incarceration, they’re often in a place where they don’t have school credits, or haven’t graduated from high school, they don’t have job skills, some don’t have families to return to. So they enter that already difficult transitional period of emerging adulthood without many skills or resources necessary to be successful.”

“Research has identified practices in the juvenile justice system that give youth a chance at better outcomes:

  • Diversion, or keeping low-risk offenders out of incarceration (through home arrest or probation);
  • Smaller settings, rather than large institutional settings;
  • Longer treatment duration than (6 months rather than 2 months);
  • Staff trained in therapeutic practices like cognitive behavioral work and family work; and
  • Addressing underlying problems such as substance abuse, mental health issues and learning disabilities.”