As social work students prepare for advocacy-based careers, faculty members from the School of Social Work develop course assignments to help train their students for real life experiences in the field.
Last fall, one professor challenged her students to create legislation that could be file during the 84th session of the Texas Legislature, which convened on January 13 and ended on June 1.
Professor Monica Faulkner organized her course, “Social Problems and Social Welfare Policy,” to familiarize master’s level students with how legislative policies impact clients. Students in her course drafted a solution to a social justice issue in the form of an official bill, a social media strategy, and an op-ed.
“I’ve tried to push my students into critical levels of thinking,” Faulkner says. “Students sometimes look at it as advocacy on behalf of clients, and miss the broader piece. It’s good for them to analyze what has been done and why it didn’t work and how to go forward.”
The demands of the project required students to research past legislation — both in Texas and in other states — to formulate a realistic plan of action.
After developing their projects, some of Faulkner’s students had the opportunity to work with advocates and legislative offices to get their legislation filed.
Students Erica Sheley, Amanda Herrera, and Jenny Ugalde worked on a bill to require the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to track and report the number of pregnant teens in foster care.
“We know that the percentage of pregnant teens in foster care is higher than in the general population, but in Texas we don’t have solid numbers or evidence on that,” Sheley explains.
In Faulkner’s class, as they learned about the foster care system, Sheley realized how complicated it was when foster youth had children.
“Everything becomes really fuzzy. Is that child in foster care too? Should that child be taken away from its teen mother or father? These questions need to be answered because there isn’t a consensus, standard protocol, or policy in place,” Sheley says. “The bill we drafted was really a first step. We need to know the extent of the problem before trying to fix it.”
Through collaboration with the advocacy group Texans Care for Children, the students’ bill was presented to the legislature. Although the original bill died in the Senate, it was later included in Sunset Bill 206, which passed and was officially signed by the Governor in June of 2015.
“We all come into social work because we’re passionate about something. In my case, I’m really interested in child welfare, that’s why I came into social work,” Sheley says. “To see this bill pass while I was in grad school was an awesome experience.”
Student Adrian Gaspar said his personal experience as an adolescent in foster care motivated him to draft a bill that would make improvements to the foster care system by focusing on the developmental needs of foster youth.
“The bill I worked on is meant to nudge foster caregivers to make a reasonable, documented effort toward providing leveling opportunities for kids in their care,” Gaspar says.
Those leveling experiences include the chance to attend after-school tutoring, athletics, other extracurricular activities and employment opportunities that go beyond standard school attendance.
After researching state requirements for foster parents, Gaspar drafted SB 1407, which requires foster families to make a reasonable effort to provide those opportunities for children in their care. SB 1407 was officially passed and signed by the governor in May of 2015
Other students sought to solve issues that they encountered while working with clients in their jobs or their field placements.
Bonnie McIntyre developed her project on the basis of her experience at Family Eldercare, an Austin non-profit that provides services for older adults, people with disabilities, and their caregivers. McIntyre noticed that many of her clients who had hearing disabilities did not have access to basic telecommunication technologies, and she set out to draft a bill that would help solve the problem.
As McIntyre researched the issue, she learned of existing funds the state could tap to subsidize a videophone service for people with hearing disabilities, but she faced a barrier during the legislative session.
“The Universal Service Fund is a national fund that every person who has a phone contributes to each month, but it was originally meant for landlines in rural communities,” McIntyre explains. “Because it wasn’t meant for Internet data, providers were hesitant to endorse it.”
In the end, McIntyre’s bill didn’t pass. But she said she learned a valuable lesson from the experience.
“I think the overall belief is that things are too hard to change so it’s discouraging and frustrating,” McIntyre reflects. “Even though I didn’t succeed, I feel that it was a really important experience overall. There’s a growing disparity in access to make change and there’s a growing need for someone to assist with that.”
In fact, the School of Social Work trains its students to do exactly that: recognize social issues and work to resolve them, a reflection of the core values of the social work profession.
“Without advocacy, you’re never going to put out a fire,” McIntyre concludes. “It’s a necessary part of the work we do. It’s such a natural part of the concept of social work.”
Faulkner said her experience in the Texas Legislature as chief of staff for a state representative led to her passion for teaching students how to tackle social justice issues from the ground up.
“I’m really proud of the students and the work they did, that they pushed themselves to do,” Faulkner says. “I’m proud of the fact that we were able to take an academic assignment and put it into real life to help people. That is exciting.”
By Paepin Goff.