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Astor Briefs Congress on Social Work and Student Well-Being

Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor appeared at a congressional briefing focused on how social workers can help provide for the safety and educational achievement of students in light of calls to remove police from public schools. Many U.S. schools are patrolled by safety officers yet have no counselors, nurses or social workers on staff, adding to inequities that are deeply felt by Black, Latino, Native American and rural communities, Astor said. He called for a holistic national plan that re-envisions the role of schools in providing key social services to families struggling to feed, house and provide health care to their children. “There are needs at a mass scale that we probably haven’t seen in our country since the Great Depression,” said Astor, citing a recent policy brief he co-authored. Astor urged policymakers, education professionals, social workers and scholars to work together on a master plan that considers these core questions: “What do want our schools to look like in our country? What kind of democracy do we want to have? Should the zip code of a child dictate the kind of resources and opportunities they have?” The Sept. 23 online briefing was sponsored by a broad coalition of national social work organizations in conjunction with the Congressional Social Work Caucus, chaired by Rep. Barbara Lee of California. “We’ve got to bring the power of social work back to the schools,” Lee said during the briefing. “It is a matter of justice, and social workers are known for fighting for justice for everyone, especially our children.”

Astor on Schoolchildren, Trauma and COVID-19

Education Week spoke to Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor about ways school systems can support students struggling with toxic stress. A nationwide survey of school social workers conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic found “profound, immediate, urgent needs” related to health, housing, food instability and other issues. Astor, who co-authored the study, said many schoolchildren dealing with toxic stress will need a wide range of services that go beyond basic trauma-sensitive instruction, which focuses on building up social and emotional skills in addition to academics. “To do a trauma-informed-care school where everybody’s focused on great interactions, but 80% of your kids are hungry, doesn’t make sense,” Astor said. Schools, government agencies and community groups must work together to provide a multi-tiered system of academic, social and basic living supports, “not in a crisis mode … but for the long-term, like you would in a war,” Astor said.

Concerns About Student Well-Being as Virtual Learning Resumes

The blog of the National Association of Social Workers spotlighted a report, co-authored by Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor, on the wide-ranging needs of schoolchildren as virtual learning resumes amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. A high proportion of students, especially from low-income families, are experiencing hunger, housing instability, health and mental health issues, and other challenges, according to the report, which drew its findings from a large-scale survey of school social workers around the country. These social workers play a key role in assessing students’ mental health and social care needs and connecting them with vital community resources, the article noted. The report called for a coordinated and comprehensive response from federal and state policymakers and national educational leaders to address the needs of students during the crisis. Astor co-authored the report with scholars from Loyola University Chicago, Cal State Fullerton, Hebrew University and UCLA.


 

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.”


 

Coordinated National Plan for Resuming Classes Urged

A research brief calling for a coordinated national plan to guide schools as they reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic, co-authored by Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor, was highlighted on the blog of the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy. “There is absolute consensus that children need to be in school,” the blog’s author noted. “Tragically, this year countless families and children will experience unimaginable trauma because of all the uncertainty that accompanies a relentless pandemic.” The research brief from social welfare scholars at UCLA, Loyola University Chicago, Cal State Fullerton and Hebrew University identified concerns held by 1,275 school social workers from across the country. “We need a Manhattan Project-style initiative that pulls together all relevant professions — educators, administrators, school psychologists, counselors, social workers, nurses and other health professionals — to create strategic plans for the upcoming school year,” the scholars concluded.

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 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.

 

UCLA Luskin to Welcome 3 New Social Welfare Scholars

Three new additions will join UCLA Luskin Social Welfare’s world-class faculty in the fall, Dean Gary Segura has announced. Judith Perrigo, Margaret “Maggie” Thomas and Brian TaeHyuk Keum will become members of the teaching and research roster as assistant professors. Perrigo’s work focuses on the determinants of well-being, experience of abuse or neglect, and readiness for kindergarten among children from birth to age 5. She holds an MSW from USC, and, after several years of practice, is completing her doctorate there. Thomas, who earned an MSW at the University of Illinois, is a scholar of family and child well-being. She is completing her Ph.D. in social work at Boston University. Thomas’ work focuses on young children in families facing serious economic hardship, as well as children and youths from minority communities or with an LGBTQ identity. Keum is finishing his Ph.D. in counseling psychology at the University of Maryland, having previously completed an MA in counseling psychology at Teacher’s College, Columbia University. His work examines interracial dynamics, cyberbullying behaviors, and measurement issues in the study of bias and racism online. “I am beyond pleased to welcome Maggie, Brian and Judith to the Luskin Public Affairs faculty and the Department of Social Welfare,” Segura wrote in a memo to staff and faculty.

Social Work Journal Tackles Firearm Violence in Special Issue Professor Mark Kaplan of UCLA Luskin sees latest issue of Health & Social Work as a call to action for social workers and the profession to address a national epidemic

By Stan Paul

A new special edition of a social work journal focuses on gun violence in part because of guidance provided by Mark Kaplan, professor of social welfare at UCLA Luskin.

Kaplan was part of an editorial team of social work scholars from throughout the United States who bring together research on various aspects of firearm violence in the November edition of Health & Social Work, which is published by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Press and Oxford University Press.

He said that the special edition was meant to spark serious discussion and serve as “a call to action to people to begin thinking of this as a major challenge in professional circles.”

Kaplan, who uses population data to understand suicide risk factors among veterans, seniors and other vulnerable populations, joined colleagues in contributing articles to the publication. Kaplan’s contributions were co-authored with UCLA Luskin Social Welfare Ph.D. students Amelia Cromwell Mueller-Williams and Carol Leung, along with Ziming Xuan, an associate professor at Boston University’s School of Health.

According to an editor’s note about the special issue, “The field of social work has an obligation to address significant issues affecting clients and communities, including the outstanding issues of gun violence in the United States.”

Firearm violence in the United States is considered a public health crisis, and statistics cited in connection to the special issue paint a sobering picture.

Almost 40,000 people — about 60 percent from suicide — die annually. A large proportion of those dying are young people, the editors noted in their call for papers. Not all populations are affected equally — African American men make up the majority of firearm homicides.

The special issue also looks at the stress faced by people who survive shootings, pointing out that many live with chronic effects from their injuries. Gun violence affects immediate victims plus their families and communities.

Kaplan serves on the Board of Scientific Counselors for the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And he is a scientific advisor to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“Given the alarming rates of gun deaths in this country, the time seems right for social workers to address this issue in a more comprehensive way,” said co-editor Mickey Sperlich, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo’s School of Social Work. The volume’s other co-editors are Patricia Logan-Greene, also an associate professor at the University of Buffalo, and Karen Slovak, who serves on the faculty of the School of Social Work at Capella University in Minneapolis.

Although recent mass shootings across the country have heightened public awareness and concern, policy action and research remain obstructed at the federal and state levels by strong opposition from national anti-gun-regulation groups, according to the editors. They note that some professional organizations have responded to this crisis by issuing comprehensive policy statements and practice guidelines for frontline workers, but little guidance exists for social work practice.

Contributors to the special edition delve into the relationship of firearm violence to race, gender and geography, as well as a less-publicized aspect — suicide.

Articles focus on the impact of firearm safety legislation on homicide rates and data that show differences in effectiveness for black and white populations. Another article looks at how fear of crime and racial bias influence gun ownership, especially for white people. A literature review of gun violence published in social work journals since the 1990s identifies the strengths and weaknesses of existing scholarship. Another literature review of community-based gun violence interventions suggests the value of systems-based approaches.

An article by Kaplan and his co-authors looks at the effects of firearm control policies on suicide rates for men, a “hidden epidemic” that accounts for the majority of deaths — not only of suicides but all gun-related deaths nationwide.

“One of the things we tried to do with the hidden epidemic paper was to even dig deeper and show that suicides involving firearms are even more hidden than other forms of gun violence, which often get most of the attention,” Kaplan said. “Most gun deaths in the country are suicides.”

At one level, the more guns in a community and the more guns in a state, the greater the age-adjusted firearm suicide rate, according to the article. “There are policy levers that we identified,” Kaplan explained. “So this is an epidemic that may be amenable to policies that would restrict people’s access, population-level access, to guns.”

In a “Viewpoint” article, Kaplan writes that “evidence suggests firearm-means restriction and firearm-suicide prevention represent gaps in social work education and practice, offering opportunities for universities and continuing education programs.” By increasing knowledge in this area, social workers can effectively engage their communities and advocate for stricter firearms laws. When enacted statewide, such laws lead to decreased numbers of firearm suicides.

A “Practice Forum” in the volume describes how social workers who were already engaged in a community-violence-prevention initiative responded to local outrage over the shooting of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man and father of five who was shot and killed by Baton Rouge police in 2016.

“Social workers have an important role to play in supporting communities to heal and promoting community health in the aftermath of gun violence and trauma,” the authors conclude.

“Hopefully, it’s the start of a conversation that people will have about resorting to means that are more policy-oriented approaches,” Kaplan said. But he cautioned, “This is not a problem that will be resolved or addressed adequately on a one-by-one individual level. This is a much larger problem that needs to be addressed in a more upstream, universal way.”

For more information on the special edition of Health and Social Work and to access the articles, visit Oxford University Press (Oxford Academic) or NASW Press.

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