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There are two sides to social services issues

Training USC students at government and community agencies can sharpen clinical skills

Maya Meinertby Maya Meinert
father and son in the park
The United Consortium for Children and Families requires that each of its member schools develop its own initiative. (Photo/courtesy of USC School of Social Work)

Navigating the child welfare system in Los Angeles County can be difficult — and that’s putting it lightly.

Not only do families have to meet certain benchmarks, but they have to do so by figuring out where and how best to receive certain social services, much of it on their own.

For the social workers helping these families, the process can be just as tough. Unless a social worker has had experience on both the government and community agency sides, fully understanding what these people go through is unlikely.

It’s one thing to say you’ve learned something in school, but it’s another when you’re thrown into a real job.

Jacquelyn McCroskey

Enter a new program headed by the USC School of Social Work for the University Consortium for Children and Families (UCCF), a federally funded program and partnership between the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and six Master of Social Work programs in Los Angeles, including USC’s.

Formerly known as the Inter-University Consortium, UCCF requires that each of its member schools develop its own initiative, and the School of Social Work recently completed a yearlong pilot program that sent its student interns to work not only at DCFS but also to gain clinical skills at Shields for Families, which provides a range of social services in South Los Angeles.

“We looked at how we could enhance internships that would better prepare students for one of the most difficult jobs in social work, or one of the most difficult jobs period,” said Jacquelyn McCroskey, John Milner Professor of Child Welfare at the School of Social Work who helped design the new program. “It’s one thing to say you’ve learned something in school, but it’s another when you’re thrown into a real job.”

Improving the lives of children

MSW students who are dedicated to pursuing a career in public child welfare and are accepted into the UCCF program are given a stipend of $18,500. Upon graduation, they are required to complete at least one year of full-time paid employment with DCFS. And now that this internship includes cross-training at a community-based agency, these students will enter their first year as professional social workers with a unique perspective that touches multiple facets of the child welfare system.

“Now, more than ever, it is paramount that we address anything and everything that we possibly can to improve the lives of children, especially those most vulnerable who are a part of the child welfare system,” said Marilyn L. Flynn, dean of the School of Social Work, chair of the board of UCCF and a member of the Los Angeles County Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection. “Training social work students in new, innovative ways allows for us to think outside the box, something we hope will have a positive effect on the lives of children and families.”

Dual purposes

As part of this special field placement experience, students spend one day per week at both DCFS and Shields for Families, working with different clients at each location. On the government side, students learn how to help families from a legal standpoint, and on the community-based agency side, they learn how to engage families on a more emotional level.

“There’s now a huge emphasis on monitoring and data with the goal of having social workers be effective at DCFS and remain in their jobs,” said Omar Lopez, clinical associate professor of field education at the School of Social Work and field coordinator for the school’s UCCF program. “UCCF is trying to enhance collaboration and bring resources together. It’s about building relationships so these future social workers can effectively function in what is accepted to be a chaotic situation and use critical-thinking skills to be able to work with families in the best way possible. 
No other school of social work in the country is doing this.”

The UCCF pilot program has been renewed for another year, and a second cohort of students will start this fall. Lopez said the goal with this program is to expand it to other community-based agencies throughout Los Angeles County and eventually the entire United States.

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