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Class Project Pushing for Legal Regulation

Social work students are spearheading a grassroots lobbying campaign.

Social work students at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) are getting hands-on experience in legislative work through a class project pushing for two state bills addressing social work regulation.

Students in SCSU social work professor Elbert Siegel's class have been working on a licensing bill to recognize new MSW graduates and a bill that would require state employees to have a social work degree in order to be given the title "social worker."

Steve Karp, executive director of NASW's Connecticut Chapter, said the students' work has been enormously helpful for efforts on both bills. Last fall, students "did all the ground work, which probably would have taken me a year." The students researched the current state statutes, read language from other states, contacted other NASW chapters and wrote language for the bills.

This semester, Karp said, the students have been "handling the grassroots lobbying end of our effort." Students have been contacting NASW members to urge them to write or call their representatives about the bill, conducting e-mail outreach, writing legislative alerts and staffing phone banks.

"It's really terrific and they're learning a lot about how to run a legislative campaign," Karp said. He said students also came to a public hearing on the title-protection bill, and two students testified.

Siegel said many students are also participating in the annual legislative field day organized by the school and NASW.

"Between the testimony on these bills and the field day, there were about four days when students were testifying. It was a wonderful learning experience for them," he said.

Siegel noted that the students were enthusiastic about the project for a number of reasons.

"First, they had a community organizing project they could get their hands in and could see an outcome for. Second, they were most interested in tackling the problem [of title protection]. They are graduating with a degree in social work, and anyone can call themselves a social worker. They thought it was totally unfair," said Siegel.

The Connecticut Chapter collaborates with all the schools of social work in the state on policy-related projects, including an annual Lobby Training Day attended by many students and visits from the chapter's political director to the schools for legislative action training.

Karp acknowledged that both bills face significant challenges. Due to state budget cuts, the Department of Public Health, which administers licenses, is severely understaffed.

"Three or four groups ahead of us have sought licensure," he said. "Even supporters are telling us that unless there is money put into the budget, they're probably not going to [license recent MSW graduates]. . . . We see [the bill] as putting us on an unofficial waiting list."

Karp said that ideally, the title protection for state employee social workers would be accomplished administratively, rather than legislatively. "We've met with the state personnel division and the Department of Administrative Services, and they pretty much ignore us. We introduced the bill as a last resort."

"We hope that the threat [of the bill], if we can move it out of committee and through the Senate, may be enough to get the state to really do something," Karp said. The title-protection bill also faces opposition from the state employees union, AFSCME. "They don't want to change the title; they believe that experience and job training is sufficient" to use the "social worker" title. Karp said the bill would grandfather in current state employees with the "social worker" title.

"We have been getting some of our members who are [AFSCME] members to call the union and support the bill," Karp said, but he acknowledged that the union has a lot of influence with the legislature.

Karp said the work with the students has been "a great collaboration between a school of social work and the chapter." While classes have previously tracked legislation or helped with phone banks, "we've never done this kind of longer-term project."

"We've taken our collaboration to a more extensive level than we've done in the past," Karp said.

Siegel said partnering with NASW has been very successful for everyone involved. "I knew [the chapter] had a database and some interest in the legislation, and my students had to develop a community action project."

"'Fabulous' is the only way to describe it," Siegel said.

The students' work has garnered media attention in the state. An article appeared in the New Haven Register and the Hartford Courant highlighting the project.

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