For the last four decades, Marleen Wong has dedicated herself to the mental health of traumatized children.
Whether that has meant responding to the shootings at Columbine High or Sandy Hook Elementary schools, or the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, or the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Wong has seen a lot of pain.
The aftermaths of events like these have left children traumatized from being in harm’s way and displaced with no schools or homes where they can return. Many of these children bear these scars as invisible wounds, making tough situations even tougher to address. And when the stress starts to affect the behavior and academic performance of students, many schools don’t know how to help them.
“These are signs that we haven’t put enough resources into mental health for children,” said Wong in her keynote address at this year’s California Social Welfare Archives (CSWA) annual awards ceremony on April 3 at the Galen Center. “This is the wrong way to the right place.”
The clinical professor and associate dean of field education at the USC School of Social Work accepted the George D. Nickel Award for Outstanding Professional Services by a Social Worker during the event.
“She’s courageous. She goes to scenes of considerable challenge that others would quail from,” said Dean Marilyn L. Flynn, who presented Wong with the award. “She is committed to students nationally and internationally. Her insights are universally valuable, and she explains things in ways that everyone can hear.”
Wong emphasized the need for trauma-informed schools — ones that know how to appropriately and effectively deal with students who have experienced something as horrific as a school shooting to encounters with potentially more subtle effects, such as parental abuse at home or gang activity in a student’s neighborhood.
She noted that all kinds of trauma can lead to lower IQ scores, grades and attendance, and can increase the likelihood of behavioral issues. Where schools used to be seen as safe places, now 50 percent of students believe that a shooting could happen at their school, Wong’s research has found.
“No place is immune, and no one can say, ‘Violence won’t affect me,’ ” she said. “Violence is a public health issue.”
Recognized by the White House as one of the “preeminent experts in school crisis and recovery” and the “architect of school-safety programs” by The Wall Street Journal, Wong has developed mental health recovery programs, crisis and disaster training for school districts and law enforcement in the United States, Canada, Israel and Asia. She is frequently consulted by the U.S. Department of Education to assist schools impacted by violence, shootings, terrorism and natural disasters. Internationally, she has advised teachers and government officials on the effects of psychological trauma after devastating earthquakes in Japan and China.
Wong was one of the original developers of the Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools, an evidence-based program using group intervention to relieve symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety among children traumatized by violence, bullying and trauma. She also continues to serve as director and principal investigator for the USC/Los Angeles Unified School District/Rand/UCLA Trauma Services Adaptation Center for Resilience, Hope and Wellness in Schools, a community-based research partnership and member of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
In addition, Wong is a co-principal investigator of the Building Capacity in Military-Connected Schools project, a partnership between the School of Social Work and eight public school districts to create a more welcoming and supportive school environment for children from military families.
Two other social welfare leaders were also honored for their service at the ceremony.
Ruth Slaughter, a pioneer in the development of programs and services for victims of domestic violence, won the George D. Nickel Award for Outstanding Contributions to Social Welfare, which was presented by CarolAnn Peterson, an adjunct associate professor at the School of Social Work.
Slaughter researched and wrote the first successful grant proposal for a government-funded domestic violence program. She was a founding member of the Southern California Coalition on Battered Women and served as its representative to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Slaughter was vice chair of the Los Angeles County Domestic Violence Council and is former vice president for community outreach, prevention and education programs at Prototypes in Culver City, Calif., where she worked to develop programs aimed at HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, and reentry for victims of domestic violence.
James Kelly, president of Menlo College and immediate past president of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), received the Frances Lomas Feldman Excellence in Education Award, named after the CSWA late founder who taught social welfare history, policy and administration at the School of Social Work for 36 years. Janlee Wong, executive director of the California chapter of NASW, presented the award.
Over his long career, Kelly taught social work courses for 20 years and became known as an expert in new educational program development. He helped to establish Master of Social Work programs at the California State University campuses at Chico, Humboldt, Hayward and Bakersfield, as well as at Loma Linda University. As associate vice president of California State University, East Bay, Kelly oversaw the development of an executive Master of Business Administration program and international MBA programs in Hong Kong, Singapore, Moscow, Beijing, Vienna and Austria, as well as a certified public accountant program in Japan.
Established in 1979, the CSWA maintains one of the most extensive and complete collections of California social welfare history.
The volunteer-based group of social workers, librarians, archivists and other community leaders collects, preserves and makes available historically significant information that documents the emergence of social problems and the development of social welfare answers in California.