Social Work in the Public Eye (July 2015)

Michael LaSalaThe June 2015 issue of Vanity Fair featured Caitlyn Jenner — formerly known as Bruce Jenner — on the cover. And with Jenner’s story now appearing more in mainstream media, an article on says the process of transitioning from a man to a woman can be hard to explain to kids.

NASW member Michael LaSala was one of the experts interviewed for the article to discuss how parents can approach the subject with their children. He says adults need to be clear about their own thoughts first.

“Parents need to do a self-inventory as to how they feel about the topic and to get straight in their minds what their feelings and thoughts and ideas are about transgender issues in general,” LaSala says in the article. “It behooves parents to become as educated as possible on the topic before talking to their children about it.”

The article advises that the topic can be talked about in varying levels, depending on the child’s age. Elementary school-aged children could benefit from a basic explanation, with those in middle school receiving slightly more detail. High schoolers may be more curious about the actual transition process and the “how.”

LaSala cautions that teens in high school are more socialized and may be quicker to judge or ridicule when they hear about a transgender person.

“With older kids it may be important to have a talk about people and differences and trying to understand them rather than judging them and putting them down,” he said. But for all age groups, LaSala says parents should be as straightforward and honest as possible.

Once high schoolers graduate, it’s thought that they are consumed with preparation for college, jobs or the next step of their young adult lives.

An article in looks at another aspect for this age group: where their morals come from, and what kind of people these young men and women will become. According to the article, most college freshmen say financial success is an important part of life, and less than half say the same about developing a meaningful philosophy of life.

Erin DavenportNASW member Erin Davenport, an ordained Presbyterian minister, says in the article that these young adults need guidance to help develop moral character.

“Without other people to help you determine right from wrong, you’re left wandering around trying to figure it out for yourself,” Davenport said. “When you’re making up (your morals) as you go along, it’s easy to get lost along the way.”

A strong character can be built from life experiences—such as a death of a loved one or exposure to people who are less fortunate—and also in the mundane, says Davenport, adding that simply providing space for students to think through their behavior has value.

Instead of just saying, “‘This is who you need to be,’ I want them to think through what morality means to them,” she said. “Sometimes they come to conclusions I don’t agree with, but as long as they thought through the consequences, I think that’s being faithful to who God wants us to be.”

Parents could find it awkward trying to equip their high school-aged children with the tools to build a meaningful life, but the article says the results are well worth it.

Irwin KriegerAccording to an article in The Wall Street Journal, legislation in Connecticut allows transgender people to amend birth records for gender designation, making it the seventh state to do so.

This type of personal transition can be difficult for transgender people, and NASW member Irwin Krieger says in the article that navigating the bureaucratic process of changing names and gender designations on identification documents can compound an already difficult situation.

“The emotional component is about being honored and respected for who you are and the birth certificate plays a role in that,” he said.

To non-transgender people, something like changing a birth certificate may seem unimportant. But a female who transitioned to male is quoted in the article as saying it is something so simple, yet life-affirming, and it can really make a difference.

Proposition 47 in California reduces drug charges and other nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors, and it can be a chance for some of those convicted to shed their past, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.

Renee WyattNASW member Renee Wyatt — now working toward a master’s degree in social work — had been in and out of jail in the past for drug charges and other nonviolent felonies. The article says Wyatt had an epiphany while in jail in 1995 about where her life was going, and she has been sober ever since. “Most people, when they found out that I’ve been to prison, it’s over … I’m a statistic,” she says in the article. “This is crazy. I’m not that person anymore.”

Proposition 47 allows Wyatt to be eligible for a reduction of several drug charges. She says her record has haunted her, and she knows the state’s Board of Behavioral Sciences will consider her criminal record when deciding whether to license her as a social worker.

But a “vision board” with goals she has for herself says “MSW”; “Wyatt Transition House for Women”; “Dream, Plan, Go.” The board also has an ocean seascape labeled “Caribbean.”

Wyatt is working toward the MSW.

She also booked a hotel in Jamaica with a classmate as part of a graduation trip — one vision board image she had actually forgotten about.

“It comes true,” she says in the article. “Thank you, Lord. That’s amazing. What a life.”

Susan CasiasAccording to an article in the Daily Times-Four Corner News in New Mexico, Native American youth face high suicide risks.

The reasons are complex, the article says, and can include Native Americans being forcefully relocated from tribes; stigma; social isolation; and traumatic events. The Office of the Medical Investigator says investigators consider social and family strife as common precipitating events for youth suicide. Those triggers can include a romantic break-up or an argument with parents or siblings.

Susan Casias, president-elect of NASW’s New Mexico Chapter and a member of the Jicarilla Apache tribe in Northwestern New Mexico, says such triggers don’t always tell the entire story.

“There are always additional issues,” says Casias, who lives in Albuquerque and has worked in suicide prevention for more than a decade.. “Was he in school? Did his family support him?”

And there are other issues to consider, she says, like domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, rapes, and alcohol and drug use.

The state and the Navajo Nation had an estimated 161 young Native American suicides as of 2014, according to OMI death investigation reports. This includes Navajo deaths that occurred across the Arizona border but were investigated by New Mexico OMI between 2000 and 2014.