Students from the University of Maryland School of Social Work were among the more than 350 graduate and undergraduate social work students from across the state who gathered at Lawyers' Mall in Annapolis on Feb. 26 for the 13th annual Social Work Student Advocacy Day. This year the focus was on universal health care.
The daylong event began with the students learning about the vital role social workers play in the legislative process and the powerful tools that policy changes and legislation can be in improving the lives of their clients.
In conjunction with the Maryland chapter of the National Association of Social Workers and nonprofits focused on health care reform, the group performed a hip-hop song, waved signs, carried banners, and chanted, "Health care for all," "Health care now," and "Strengthen the safety net now!" The slogans were aimed at raising awareness for the more than 762,000 Maryland residents without health care coverage. About 100 homeless men and women from Baltimore joined the students.
Richard P. Barth, PhD, MSW , dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, said, "Advocacy Day is one of the more important days for students who wouldn't routinely be in Annapolis. Social workers often find themselves in the middle-between their clients and policymakers and legislators.
"Social workers need to understand the process of bill making so they can better serve their clients. Legislation has to be implemented and social workers, in serving their clients, understand both the positive and negatives that implementing legislation can bring. Social workers can influence the process to increase the benefits and diminish the untoward outcomes of legislation on their clients." Barth noted that alumni of School are among the members of the General Assembly, and that social workers often find themselves working on legislation and policy in states across the nation.
"Health care is one of the important topics among an array of topics we focus on at the School," said Llewellyn Cornelius, PhD , a professor at the School, who accompanied more than a dozen of his students to the event.
"If social workers intend to be agents of social change, then they must understand policy and the legislative process," Cornelius said. "The issues related to lack of health care have disproportionately affected African-Americans, making this an important issue for the School and for social work professionals."
Students from the School's Title IV-Education for Public Welfare (Title IV-E) program carried 15-inch decorated paper dolls they had made representing at-risk children they serve in field placements.
"This is an educational experience for our students. Part of the day involves the students learning about who their legislators are and overcoming their nervousness or fear in speaking to them," says Gisele Ferretto, LCSW-C, program manager of the School's Title IV-E program. "As social workers, we have to give voice to the vulnerable children and others who don't have a voice of their own. At the core of the social work profession is being an advocate on behalf of the clients being served."
According to Ferretto, the dolls play a dual role. "Sometimes, the students are nervous speaking to their legislators for the first time, and the doll serves as a prop, a way for students to introduce themselves and their purpose. The students know their clients. They've done the research, wrote those vignettes pasted onto the dolls themselves, and by focusing on their clients' stories, by speaking for someone who can't speak for him or herself, they can overcome their nervousness," she said.
The Title IV-E program combines classroom work and field instruction. The dolls' stories are based on actual cases culled from their students' field placements. "These paper dolls give voice to a child that students have worked with on the Title IV-E units at local departments of social services," says Ferretto.
For Brenda Donald, MPA, secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources (DHR), the event gave her a chance to discuss DHR's strategy to reduce the number of children in foster care families, reduce the number of foster children in group homes, and to find a safe place for every child in foster care. Trying to recruit future public interest social workers, she held up applications and said, "There may be a hiring freeze across the state, but social workers are exempt."
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