When Gianella Gutierrez, BSW 22, was applying for UConn’s Bachelor of Social Work program and deciding on her major, she thought of her aunt. Her eldest parent had been an adoptive parent who eventually adopted four children. Gianella knew the experience of having a social worker from the Department of Children and Families (DCF) come to her aunt’s house to offer case management.
“I remember my aunt only spoke Spanish and she had trouble talking to the social worker because they didn’t all speak the language,” she says. When Gianella learned of the opportunity to pursue her studies in social work with a Spanish-speaking stream in child welfare and protection, she decided to do so for the experience and to support the Latinx/a/ community. y.
Launched in 2020, the BSW pathway is the latest program to emerge from a long-standing partnership between the School of Social Work and DCF. Its goal is to prepare entry-level social workers to serve a growing number of Latinx/a/o Spanish-speaking families in the area of child welfare and protection. This spring, the first two students in the track will graduate, and three more are in preparation to start in fall 2022.
The client’s need and alignment with the University’s priority to support the evolution of Connecticut’s workforce is clear. “In my discussions with state agency commissioners and the CEOs of many local social service agencies, there is a consensus that there is a significant lack of Spanish-speaking social workers in their agencies,” says Nina Rovinelli Heller, dean of the School of Social Work. “With increased attention to the significant mental health issues facing children and youth and their families as a result of the pandemic, the need for bilingual social workers is more acute than ever. We want to play a role in meeting this urgent state workforce need.
To address this need, the program uses experiential learning to prepare social work students for careers at DCF, says Kristine Rivera, LCSW, program supervisor at the DCF Academy for Workforce Development. “This encourages bilingual students to practice using the Spanish language to discuss child protection issues with their supervisor and clients, thereby improving their language skills and future work with children and families,” notes she.
The BSW track curriculum includes 18 hours of educational sessions focused on child welfare and working with Latinx/a/o families. It ends with a one-year internship with the state agency.
As part of her studies, Gianella has been working at the DCF since the fall. His experience confirmed his interest in the Spanish-speaking sector. “The Latinx/a/o community can be misunderstood because our culture is different,” she explains. “We are seen differently in the system.”
Gianella’s ability to communicate with Spanish-speaking families helps streamline the process of serving these families in the child welfare agency. When a report comes to DCF, she is part of a team that goes to the house and interviews the family to assess the situation. Without Spanish-speaking interns like her, the agency would rely on translators who might not understand what the client is trying to communicate or lose detail in the translation. But as a fluent Spanish speaker, “I’m here, working with the client one-on-one and getting the information first-hand.”
The Latinx/a/o community can be misunderstood because our culture is different. We are seen differently in the system. – Gianella Gutierrez BSW ’22
In one case she saw from start to finish, Gianella helped a Central American mother of six deal with a crisis of domestic violence. The client was worried because she is undocumented. “At first, she didn’t want to talk to me about her situation,” she recalls. “It took time and patience for her to tell me how she came to the United States. I understood why she was in a domestic situation longer than she should have been.
Another BSW Spanish-speaking stream student, Virgen “Vivi” Guadarrama BSW ’22, was drawn to the idea of gaining hands-on experience working with families. “I had heard so much about DCF and when told about this program I thought it would be a great opportunity for me, providing me with a variety of experiences at all levels of social work,” says -she.
In class, Vivi learned about DCF, principles of working in partnership with families, and serving the Latinx/a/o community. During her internship, Vivi participated in consultations, surveys and developed case plans for families.
The opportunity to use his linguistic and cultural skills was a plus. In one case, Vivi found that although she shared a cultural background with a Puerto Rican family she served, there were significant differences. “They embrace the culture differently from me,” she says. “It’s just an eye opener on how you need to be self-aware and understand that you’re there to learn about them and provide services based on their Needs.” To address the family’s situation, she reflected on the principles of partnership embraced by the Ministry and viewed the family as experts in their own lives. Through the conversation, she was able to learn more about their beliefs, the family dynamics and their impact on their daily lives.
The two students acquired practical and concrete skills at the DCF as well as the affirmation of their cultures. Gianella says her own family emigrated from Peru to the United States when she was just 2 years old and her clients’ struggle is reminiscent of her parents’ experience.
“A lot of clients I’ve worked with didn’t have papers,” she says. Latinx/a/o parents can be flagged for academic neglect, she explains, because they have to work multiple jobs and can’t bring their kids to school or help with homework in the evenings. “Their problems and why they enter DCF is often because they are undocumented.”
Regardless of family situation, Vivi was able to use language skills that she does not use frequently outside of the program. “It allowed me to bring my culture, to practice and embrace my Spanish-speaking side and incorporate it into social work work,” she says.
Both Gianella and Vivi hope to work for DCF, which is one of the goals of the program. Their exposure to a range of client issues complemented their classroom learning and prepared them for the realities of social work. They also look forward to continuing to support the Latinx/a/o community. “I hope to be employed at DCF and continue to be able to connect with Spanish-speaking families and help them in any way I can,” says Vivi.
“It has been an enriching experience to witness the growth of Gianella and Vivi while participating in the program,” said Milagros Marrero-Johnson, Director of Strategic Programming for SSW. “I look forward to the impact they will have on Latin American families.”
Find out more and apply for the BSW Child Welfare and Protection pathway at ssw.uconn.edu/child-welfare-track