Thinking Outside the Box
By: Stephanie Hicks-Pass, Ph.D., LMSW, MHR
For most field education programs, the hunt is always on for new, innovative, and educational agencies. The challenges facing field directors in finding appropriate and interesting practicum sites are great, and finding policy and community driven placements can be even more difficult. This often forces programs and students to “think outside the box” with potential BSW and MSW level field agencies, forcing field directors to look into areas previously undeveloped.
With the current political and legal environment, social workers, law enforcement agencies, and the legal system find themselves in a predicament. Law enforcement agencies and the justice system are being forced into the role of working with clients whose mental illness or chemical dependency has resulted in involvement with the legal system. The legal professionals find themselves in a social work role, with limited knowledge of how to work with such clients.
Enter the social work intern. Having a social work intern in nontraditional settings such as private law firms and the more traditional setting of the public defender’s office can offer a real benefit for all involved. Such placements provide excellent opportunities for social work students to gain exposure to multiple aspects of social work in legal settings from micro to mezzo to macro levels of the system.
Forensic Social Work
Forensic social work is an ever-expanding field, yet not all students (or field directors) are aware of the opportunities for students in legal settings such as law offices, legislative offices, public defenders’ offices, and legal aid agencies.
Forensic social work has multiple definitions. Generally, forensic social work is the application of social work to questions and issues relating to law and legal systems. This specialty goes far beyond clinics and psychiatric hospitals for criminal defendants being evaluated and treated for issues of competency and responsibility. A broader definition includes social work practice that is in any way related to legal issues and litigation, both criminal and civil. Child custody issues, involving separation, divorce, neglect, termination of parental rights, the implications of child and spousal abuse, juvenile and adult justice services, corrections, and mandated treatment, all fall under this definition, according to the National Organization of Forensic Social Work (About Us, 2011).
Forensic social work plays a vital role in the justice system, and the options seem unlimited for students. However, the question remains of how to encourage social work programs, students, and external agencies to see the benefit of allowing students into their settings.
Field Agency Issues and Benefits of Accepting Interns
Many agencies, such as the Department of Children’s Services, already understand the value social work interns bring to the agency and have utilized student interns for years. However, other areas of the legal arena have been slow to catch up to the trend of having practicum students on board. One of the reasons agencies are reluctant to take on a social work student is the perception that social work students are all “counselors in training.” This misconception leads the agencies to think that social work programs only teach therapist-style skills. By explaining the bachelor’s level generalist approach—micro, mezzo, and macro interventions with clients—and the holistic view most social workers hold, we can help these agencies envision the role a student can play in the office.
A further issue agencies and programs face is that of supervision. Although most free standing law offices do not have a master’s level clinician on staff, it has been found that many public defenders’ offices and legislative intern program offices have a bachelor’s level employee available to supervise. CSWE does allow for BSW level students to be supervised by an experienced bachelor’s level practitioner, so this is one method for overcoming the supervision issue.
In our program, one student who recently completed her practicum in the Tennessee State Legislature was matched with Tennessee Representative Joe Pitts, who not only holds a bachelor’s in social work, but also possesses it from the same program from which she was graduating. Her field instructor was the legislator himself. In other offices, supervision is often done by someone outside the social work field, thus creating the need for a higher level of supervision by the field liaison or field coordinator/director and more intense training by the field program.
However, after the agency instructors have received proper training and orientation to the field student practicum, they are often excited about the prospect of supervising the student. Most start making learning opportunities available for the student almost on day one of the practicum. Others take their time, explore the student’s strengths and weaknesses, and tailor a learning experience to the individual student.
Student Roles in Legal Settings
Another dilemma for both agencies and field coordinators/directors lies in the questions of “What exactly can students do in a law office? Are they paralegals? Are they secretaries? Aren’t most social workers therapists?” These were some of the questions posed when a student asked in spring 2011 to complete her undergraduate practicum in a law office. Most faculty members were skeptical about what skills the student could learn in this setting, but they were open to new ideas for practicum sites.
When approaching law offices, the question, “What exactly CAN a student do for us?” and further questions of confidentiality and privacy issues often arise. To answer these questions, the practicum coordinator can outline the skills students are taught in coursework, such as assessment skills, intake, coordination of services, referral to community resources, and the usefulness of viewing the client as part of a community rather than a “cog in the wheel” of justice. Thus, the roles students can play in a legal office include intake/service coordinator, assessor of client needs, and/or case manager.
One field instructor based in a juvenile court setting stated:
We start off with a general overview of the court system. The first few days, we try to let them observe court. This gives them an idea as to who the players are: judges, attorney, bailiff, probation officers, youth service officers, social workers, truant officers, and so on.
We then assign them to a youth service officer, who narrows the focus on some specific duties like intakes, court minutes, informal adjustments or juvenile warning citations....
Interns are very helpful in setting up the intake process, which requires all juveniles to sign in and all records to be pulled. They assist in the coordination of detention services, teaching court classes, and even attend the Foster Care Review Boards, Truancy Review Boards, or some of the other required boards that the court staff is required to sit in at. A major duty is processing the court files after court. Many times, notices need to be sent as cases are reset. Other times, the judge may require various agencies to be present to brief the court on the progress. It is the youth service officer who makes all these arrangements and keeps the court in operation (personal communication, L. Ross, October 13, 2011).
One recent legislative intern stated the following regarding her placement:
While being the first social work student from Austin Peay to intern with the TN Legislature, I learned many valuable things. First and foremost, I’ve realized that our voice, the voice of social workers, is rarely heard. There were very few lobbyists that I met or knew of who were in the social services field. It was very cool to meet with some of them on projects such as hearing aids/implants for children, foster care, and I think the biggest one for me was education. In working for Rep. Pitts, who is on the Education Committee, I learned that there are approximately 28 juvenile detention centers, and of that 28, only four have accredited school programs. Rep. Pitts tasked me to do some research on what was needed to set up a pilot program for kids at one of the facilities.
In doing this, I met with multiple persons involved with incarcerated children, i.e., program managers, detention facilitators, and others who simply wanted to help and felt it was important that that specific population has the right to education! I met with probably 15 different people, including lobbyists, department chairs, auditors, senators, other representatives, and a few children who were willing to talk to me. In the end, we found out that there was a law in place that apparently had been “unknown” that SHOULD solve the problem of these kids not receiving any education while in detention, which stemmed from a monetary deficit.
Another awesome project I was able to work on was helping a little girl in the Philippines, who had bone cancer, find treatment. Her aunt was a constituent of Rep. Pitts, and she asked for help. Although the child lives in another country, they felt it would be a good experience for me to help the family. I spoke with several doctors, hospitals, and organizations that ranged from Tennessee all the way to the Philippines. I found specialized organizations and a hospital that was willing to work with the family to get the child the chemo treatments she needed!
I also chose this practicum because I feel that our “system” needs some changes, and where better to start looking than in the legislature who approves our system. I hope to someday run for office and hopefully start making changes that benefit everyone, or at least the majority (personal communication, S. Tyree, October 5, 2011).
It is clear from this testimony that students play multiple roles while working in the court or government-based settings, rather than just as individual case managers as in many other settings. Students get to see the “whole picture,” get exposure to other fields of work, and get to network with people outside of the social work arena, while in a supportive and educational role of a social work practicum.
Getting students and field directors to think outside the box is a necessary and vital part of enhancing the social work curriculum. Students, do not be afraid to ask for new and innovative practicum sites. The role of the field director includes recruiting new agencies, so by seeking out new agencies, you may actually be doing the field director a favor!
About us: What is forensic social work? (2011). Retrieved from: National Organization of Forensic Social Work webpage http://nofsw.org August 30, 2011.
Stephanie Hicks-Pass, Ph.D., LMSW, MHR, is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma and University of Texas at Arlington with master’s degrees in both social work and human relations. She obtained her doctorate in social work at UTA in 2007. She has been employed at Austin Peay University as Director of Field Education and Assistant Professor since 2008. Her teaching interest areas include field education, law and social work, and mental health. Prior to entering the academic world, she practiced as an LMSW in Texas as a psychiatric social worker in several hospitals and emergency rooms.
This article appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.