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Retrospective Informs Reinvestment

Pioneers Speak About History of National Social Work Policies

Illuminating the historical framework of social work practice today was the listening conference's aim.

The NASW Social Work Pioneers® hosted a listening conference on Nov. 30 that brought together social workers to offer recommendations from their years of experience with national policies affecting social work practice. The event was held to help inform NASW's Social Work Reinvestment Initiative.

The event featured six speakers: John E. "Jack" Hansan spoke about public welfare; Kenneth Carpenter addressed corrections and criminal justice; Delwin Anderson spoke about the Department of Veterans Affairs; Elizabeth Watkins discussed maternal and children's health as well as public health; Jesse Harris spoke about military social work; and Betsy Vourlekis addressed mental health.

"The NASW Social Work Pioneers® are part of and helped shape the history of the profession," NASW Executive Director Elizabeth J. Clark said in a statement opening the conference. "These are people who have lived this history, versus those who have read about it."

Clark described the conference as a landmark event, laying the foundation for the Reinvestment Initiative. Understanding the historical framework of social work practice today is important, she said, because "the Reinvestment Initiative has to be an initiative of the profession, not just NASW."

The Social Work Reinvestment Initiative is designed to unify and advance the social work profession through legislative, policy and regulatory work that recognizes the role of professional social workers in the delivery of health and human services and in improved outcomes for individuals, families and communities. The initiative will begin at the state level and then move toward the creation of a federal Social Work Reinvestment Act in 2008.

Jack Hansan started his career working in settlement houses. He went on to become involved in civil rights work, then worked as the director of the Ohio Department of Public Welfare and as Ohio Gov. John Gilligan's chief of staff. He served as executive director of the National Conference on Social Welfare, spent a year as interim executive director of NASW and has worked on gerontology and social policy issues. He also organized the first national conference on the homeless, held in 1983.

In his comments at the listening conference, Hansan identified the Depression years as a time when society began to recognize poverty as something due to economic circumstances rather than personal failure. "The Social Security Act of 1935 set in motion enormous forces of change," he said. Hansan reviewed the events of the 1960s that changed the way social services were delivered in states, including a change in emphasis to "hard services" such as day care and job training.

Hansan said he recommends revising the definition of social work so that it is "clear what professional social workers can do and how social work contributes to welfare." He said lobbying efforts should promote increased funding for social work training grant programs.

Kenneth Carpenter's career included work with the federal Division of Juvenile Delinquency, the Children's Bureau of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. He went on to spend 20 years working for the National Institute of Corrections.

In his comments, Carpenter explained the history of federal funding for corrections programs, starting with the establishment of the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1930. He explained many of the federal programs implemented to address juvenile delinquency and other crime-related issues, as well as law enforcement assistance programs for workforce development.

Carpenter noted that there are currently 14 federal programs with some aspect related to criminal justice. He recommended "determining who is doing what in criminal justice" in order to better identify and promote the work social workers do in the field.

Delwin Anderson began his social work career with the Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs) in 1947. From 1964 to 1974, he served as director of the VA's Social Work Service of the Department of Medicine and Surgery.

Anderson discussed the GI Bill of 1944, which offered a wide range of benefits to returning soldiers, including medical care and social work services. The Central Office, Social Work Service, was formed by the VA to set policies and guidelines, including professional standards. The VA also established a Social Work Advisory Committee. By 1975, more than 65,000 veterans were in community care, and hospital beds assigned for psychiatric in-patient care had been reduced by half.

Anderson noted the important role that social work services played in changes in VA medical care, which moved from a hospital-based focus to one utilizing outpatient and community care and that involved the veteran's participation in treatment and rehabilitation.

Elizabeth Watkins has been a leader in public health social work, was a full-time professor at the University of North Carolina, and was instrumental in establishing a joint degree between the schools of social work and public health at UNC. She has served as president of the Association of Teachers of Maternal and Child Health and worked as a social work specialist in professional education with the Medical Social Work Section in the Division of Health of the U.S. Children's Bureau in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Watkins discussed the history of support within federal programs for children with physical and mental disabilities. She noted that in 1961, a presidential panel on mental retardation improved maternity care. She recommended training grants for social work services and a community-based approach.

Watkins called the Reinvestment Initiative "an opportunity for revival." She said the social work profession "need[s] advocacy to develop leadership and get the same representation as nursing and nutrition" in agencies providing child and maternal health care.

Jesse Harris served for more than 20 years as a U.S. Army social worker, culminating in his position as the top-ranked social worker in the army with his appointment as chief of Social Work Services at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and social work consultant to the Army surgeon general. He also served as dean of the University of Maryland at Baltimore School of Social Work.

Harris explained that social work services within the military structure began during the Second World War when, in October 1943, the War Department published a letter establishing the position of psychiatric social work technician. The Air Force established social work services within its structure in 1947, but the Navy did not get its first social worker until 1980.

Harris noted that social work services became understood as important for readiness. In order to retain soldiers, he explained, their families had to be taken care of. Military family service centers help achieve this goal.

Betsy Vourlekis has worked as a social worker and as the social work training officer at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C., which treats mentally ill people. She has held a faculty position at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, worked as staff director for health and mental health at NASW and helped establish the Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research.

Vourlekis reviewed federal initiatives that impacted the social work profession in mental health since the founding of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in 1946. She discussed the services that NIMH provided, including project grants and community support system grants. She also addressed education programs to train the social work workforce, including the NIMH Social Work Training Grants, which she said helped fund thousands of students and transformed social work, as well as minority training programs.

She also noted advances in research programs for mental health, such as the NIMH Social Work Research Task Force. Vourlekis said that social work early on was considered a core mental health provider by NIMH and noted the expansion of mental health practice into community-based programs.

The listening conference concluded with comments from Paul Stuart, a professor and chair of the Ph.D. program at the University of Alabama School of Social Work, who has expertise in social welfare history and who served as the historical documenter of the program.

A video recording of the listening conference was made; it will be available through the NASW Foundation. A second listening conference is scheduled to be held in February.

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