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Unique Program Pairs Social Work Students with LAPD to Serve At-Risk Kids

  • Students
2017 HPAL gala sponsorship recognition event

Growing up in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood, Yasmeen Surio, MSW ’18, did not have the best impression of the Los Angeles Police Department. Her family and friends had few positive interactions with officers.

“They were the enemy,” Surio said.

But as a first-year MSW student at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, she landed a field placement working with at-risk kids through the school’s partnership with the LAPD as a teaching institution. During an orientation session, Clinical Associate Professor of Field Education Rosemary Alamo encouraged her and the rest of the student interns to keep an open mind about working with law enforcement.

Surio remembered thinking, “This will be interesting.”

Two years later, Surio’s entire perspective toward the LAPD has changed, thanks to her internship with the LAPD Hollenbeck division’s innovative program designed to steer kids in a positive direction.

“All this time I had a one-sided view of law enforcement,” she said. “Now I see how social work and law enforcement can work together. We both serve the community but in different ways.”

In a few weeks, she will start a full-time job working for the Hollenbeck Police Activities League, the largest program of its kind in L.A. Among her duties will be overseeing social work interns from her alma mater. She’s thrilled to help grow the program and “teaching institution” partnership between the social work school and law enforcement.

Real life lessons

Similar to the internships doctors go through to learn how to apply what they’ve learned to treating patients, the school’s teaching institution concept offers an enriched learning atmosphere for social workers in training. MSW students consult with their peers and mentors about cases and their work in individual and group therapy. “They learn how to apply their studies in the field,” Alamo said.

Critically, it’s also an opportunity to collaborate with another discipline so much in need, Alamo said. “It’s a mutual learning process. Every day we’re exploring how social workers and law enforcement can join forces and support each other to the benefit of the community we serve.”

Stepping into another’s shoes is a key skill for social workers, and both Surio and fellow HPAL intern Priscilla Close, MSW ’18, gained new respect for police officers after taking part in a simulated crime training exercise. Both acknowledged that the experience of having someone draw a gun on them, even in a simulation, left them emotionally shaken and newly appreciative of the challenges faced by officers. “They’re making difficult and quick decisions based on the facts before them,” Surio said.

In a way, it is the same for social workers, too. Social workers enter into crisis situations and sometimes have to make quick decisions based on their observations, training and judgment. But it is not always easy. Some of the clients coming into HPAL are dealing with serious issues such as violent crime, suicidal thoughts or self-harm, like cutting. That’s why clinical professors mentor and guide students through their placement and help them apply research and coursework to real-world problems.

Close was surprised how well the codes of ethics for law enforcement and for social work aligned. “When social workers work together with law enforcement, we can make even more of an impact on the community.” She was so inspired by her work with HPAL that she’s decided to pursue a career that merges her passions for social work and criminal justice to make an impact in the communities in Los Angeles.

Breaking barriers

For HPAL Executive Director Lorraine Garcia, the partnership with social work interns has helped by removing the stigma of seeking mental health counseling for youth and parents.

“We used to refer them to mental health services but would see only 25 percent or so take advantage of the help,” Garcia said. With social work interns able to conduct individual and group therapy sessions on site, that rate has skyrocketed to 90 percent, she said.

Officers benefit from viewing the youth and their parents through the social worker’s perspective, just as the MSW students learn to overcome any biases they have toward law enforcement.

“That’s the beauty of it. We are all at the table together and not afraid to look at things through a different lens and brainstorm ideas,” Garcia said.

Since 2012, the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work has partnered with several agencies in an innovative program to infuse field placements with additional training. HPAL and other organizations, including ABC Unified School District and Anaheim Union High School District, have agreed to serve as teaching institutions, an approach to field education that brings together student learning, agency development and university research.

The partnership with the LAPD is unique and may be the only one of its kind in the United States. “No other school we are aware of has social workers working with law enforcement in the way we do,” Alamo said. She recalled presenting an overview of the program at a recent National Association of Social Workers conference. “Participants were astonished to hear how well it was working,” she said.

Part of its success stems from her own relationship with law enforcement, which stretches back decades, as well as that of Adjunct Lecturer Rick Ornelas, a former officer with the Los Angeles School Police Department and social worker who helps MSW students understand and work within the culture of law enforcement while increasing the community’s trust in its officers.

The bottom line to its success? The desire of the students and the teaching institution to work together toward a common goal.

“The LAPD wants us there and our students want to be there,” Alamo said. “Often, students are eager to finish their placements, but we see the opposite with HPAL. Our students often work over the summer or through the winter breaks as volunteers.”

Full Photo Caption: Veronica Cardenas, left, HPAL case manager, Yessica Iturbide, social work intern, Alejandra Cardoso, HPAL executive assistant, Eymi Roa, HPAL senior case manager, at a 2017 HPAL gala sponsorship recognition event

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