USC Social Work Impacting Law Enforcement through Internships

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Jennifer Avalos, Master of Social Work (MSW) student at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, is a U.S. Army veteran, married to an active duty Marine. Her way of life, learned from her chosen family ― the military ― is to adapt, improve and overcome.

Avalos and her family live on Moffett Airfield in Mountain View, California, an affluent city between San Jose and Palo Alto. Since the Black Lives Matter protests began in March, she has been monitoring her local police department’s response.

The Mountain View Police Department announced on Facebook that they created a dedicated webpage which speaks to their policing philosophy and procedures. Avalos decided to comment. She wrote, “Do you employ social workers, or would you be willing to open a discussion?”

Mountain View PD immediately responded that they knew this has been successful at other agencies, would welcome anything that adds to their efforts and would love to have a chat. Avalos’ jaw dropped. Then, she set up a meeting.

Creating an intentional approach

Avalos shared her thoughts about what she was trying to accomplish with Rebecca Rasmussen, adjunct assistant professor. Rasmussen immediately put Avalos in touch with Rosemary Alamo and Rick Ornelas, both clinical associate professors for field education.

Through the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, Alamo and Ornelas co-lead the social work and public safety initiative that focuses on building partnerships with law enforcement agencies. For the past four years, they have been working closely with several police departments, training them on officer wellness, mental health and social work practices.

For her meeting with the Deputy Police Chief of the Mountain View Police Department, Avalos received some direction from Alamo and Ornelas. They stressed she should view the department like any other client, offering assistance and not judging or prescribing. She needed to go in with an openness to ask how she can help.

“I’m there to be an open collaborator and listen to what they’re doing as a whole, and then ask what I can do to help,” Avalos said. “I’m just trying to go in there and be a resource for them.”

She believes police officers are being asked to do too much, without the proper training, and that the solution for communities involves social work assistance and collaboration.

Avalos hopes that being a veteran will help to establish respect and camaraderie with them. They are under attack now, and she knows what that feels like. “I’ve been attacked in uniform before. It’s not fun,” she said.

Her goal is to begin the relationship between her local police department and USC so that a productive partnership can be established. Avalos acknowledges that this could also turn into a career shift for her as a social worker.

Collaboration and customization

In their first partnership with the Los Angeles Police Department four years ago, Alamo and Ornelas established a teaching institution with the LAPD Hollenbeck Police Activities League (HPAL), which is the nonprofit arm of the Hollenbeck division that provides mental health services, case management and counseling to youth and their families. They placed ten MSW interns from both the on-ground and Virtual Academic Center (VAC) programs, representing the three departments of the school: Children, Youth and FamiliesAdult Mental Health and Wellness and Social Change and Innovation.

The program allowed the community members to have their needs met by the interns, instead of being referred to outside agencies, potentially to be subjected to waiting lists.

As a result, divisions throughout the LAPD heard about the success with Hollenbeck, and were interested. LAPD Central Division, located in the Skid Row community of downtown Los Angeles, started a program focused on helping their RESET unit ― Resources Enhancement Services Enforcement Team ― provide outreach to the unsheltered community. The social worker interns go out with the officers in the community as part of the team.

“The testimony we got from both the officers and their command staff was that now the community felt more at ease to approach police because there was a social worker that was part of that team that was non-threatening, willing to help and wasn’t wearing a uniform,” Alamo said. “The community members were able to respond and follow up with whatever resources they were given, because there was a level of trust.”

Alamo and Ornelas meet with command staff at different police departments to help them develop and customize the services needed for their officers and their respective communities.

“Our students are providing direct therapy, crisis intervention, case management, psychoeducation and doing group work,” Ornelas said. “They are involved at the macro level, helping develop best practices, evidence-based interventions, policy and grant writing, funding opportunities, program evaluation and advocacy.”

The MSW interns provide follow-up to ensure that individuals and families are being connected to resources and services, and that, at the same time, the officers are being supported.

“Our interns are integral in developing the foundation of what those programs look like,” Ornelas said. “They are using their social work skills of assessment, engagement, intervention, evaluation and being instrumental in helping develop the foundation, the protocols, the services, the best practices that are specific to the population.”

Alamo and Ornelas also provide oversight for all the required training for the MSW student interns, including professional development and mentorship. During the 2019/2020 academic year, the program grew to 30 MSW interns in law enforcement placements.

“We provide mentorship and support so that if everyone is either in it or would like to go into it, we can best address how to advocate, how to navigate and be able to create opportunities not only for themselves but for the profession,” Alamo said.

Why it’s important right now

Ornelas stresses that social workers are influencing conversations at the individual, group and administrative levels across the country, and MSW students are doing so through their field placements.

“Now that we're moving forward with perhaps reimagining law enforcement, I think that social work is in a great place because we understand human behavior, we understand the interventions needed in terms of best practices and evidence-based interventions, to be able to help not only law enforcement, but to help the community as well,” Ornelas said.

Avalos set in motion the broadening of Alamo and Ornelas’ work in her local community. In her meeting with the Deputy Police Chief of Mountain View PD, starting an MSW internship program was discussed. Alamo and Ornelas will now follow up to vet the department and ensure that a relationship between Mountain View PD and USC will be conducive to learning, and determine if other support systems are needed to help the agency thrive as a field placement. Avalos hopes that social workers will become standardized in all police departments.

Ornelas stresses that social workers are integral to officer wellness and well-being.

“That's something Rosemary and I have been doing, teaching officer wellness,” Ornelas said. “Something beyond just physical, I'm talking about how do you develop a culture of care within the law enforcement agency so that it's part of their culture, part of their system, so that officers are centered, so that they're taking care of themselves, so that the agency is taking care of their mental and physical health, so that they're in a better place to serve the community.”

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