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Sept/Oct 2007

Today’s Most Influential Social Workers
Social Work Today
Vol. 7 No. 5 P. 44

Editor’s note: Social Work Today asked state chapters of the National Association of Social Workers for their choice of the most influential social workers in their chapter. Of the chapters that responded, these are the results. Congratulations to the best and brightest social workers in the country—making a difference every day.

Liz Davis, MSW, autism coordinator in the Thompson School District in Loveland, Colo., has worked with children with autism and their families for years. Davis started a parent-support networking group called the A-team, comprised of parents, professionals, and friends who meet each month to socialize with and support one another while advocating for people with Asperger’s syndrome and autism. In addition, she sat on the Colorado Autism Education Task Force, developing an educational tool to help identify students with autism. Most recently, she became involved in forming a nonprofit organization to continue educating people on autism, the fastest growing disability in public special education.

SWT: Which of your accomplishments are you most proud of and why?

LD: The accomplishment I am most proud of is developing the position of autism coordinator and creating a system that supports the community. Some pieces include having MSW student interns work each year with students and families on the autism spectrum; collecting data to shape the position; creating training for professionals and parents; receiving training grants from the Colorado Department of Education (CDE); creating an autism/Asperger’s parent/community monthly group with a planning committee of parents who lead and coordinate; fundraising; joining the state Autism Task Force; helping CDE write guiding documents to assess and identify students with autism for the school districts in Colorado; and, finally, assisting as a founding board member on a local Autism Society of America chapter. Most importantly, I continue to feel proud watching the parents build sustaining relationships with each other in order to provide continued support for their children.

SWT: What is the biggest challenge facing social workers today and why?

LD: I see some of our challenges as a “perfect storm” of issues. A few months ago, the Colorado National Association of Social Workers (NASW) had Elizabeth Clark, executive director of the national NASW, join us to discuss social work. A few pieces stood out as challenges to me. One, we are losing a portion of our BSWs from the field after five years of work. We are also seeing and will continue to observe baby boomers retire from the field of social work. We also know that, in general, the public has a hard time identifying social work as a profession. This is setting up a dramatic national decrease in social work positions. One of the most significant challenges facing us today will be to educate, recruit, and retain passionate social workers who will help continue to move our profession forward and create the sustainability necessary to survive such a storm of circumstances.

Frank Campbell, PhD, MSW, LCSW, CT, is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in suicidology. He has traveled across the United States training others on this issue and gone to disaster sites to help debrief first responders. He worked with the Louisiana Baton Rouge Crisis Intervention Center in the days, weeks, months, and now years following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. He cowrote the article “Suicide Prevention — Your Options” that is included on the Help Starts Here Web site. In that article, he describes the work he has done with the Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors Teams (LOSS Teams).

SWT: Which of your accomplishments are you most proud of and why?

FC: I am most proud of the volunteers and staff members from all over the world who make up the many LOSS Teams who have been reaching out to help those bereaved by suicide all over the world since 1997.

During the past 10 years, I have also had the honor of hearing those I trained develop capacity for postvention (helping those impacted by the suicide of someone) by delivering my day-long Hope and Healing workshop. This workshop has helped stakeholders generate capacity for providing postvention to [people of] all ages in their communities. Hearing someone else deliver the words I have written with the same passion and commitment is a humbling experience. I have been fortunate to find interested social workers, nurses, and mental health professionals from Newfoundland, Canada, to Perth, Australia, who want to see implementation of my active postvention model (APM). Once the APM was highlighted in the 2004 Discovery Channel documentary “Suicide Survivors: Those Left Behind,” the international requests began to flood my office and the need to train trainers became a priority.

SWT: What is the biggest challenge facing social workers today and why?

FC: I think the greatest challenge for any social worker is to avoid being silent, to fight the limits of managed care and other institutions that limit competent practice. Many of these “rule setters” do not have any firsthand knowledge of what it means to help those struggling with thoughts of suicide or exposure to trauma. If such rule makers had set limits on our pioneers, then perhaps Jane Addams would not have been able to work in Chicago and start an international movement that became our profession. “Best practice” must constantly be challenged to advance our knowledge base. If not for those who came before us who were willing to push the limits, we would still be applying leeches and charging admission to see those troubled by profound illness. In the world of risk to self or others, social workers have a proud heritage of speaking for others until they can speak for themselves. Please do not remain silent!

Jack Register, MSW, LCSW, is the director of advocacy and legislation for the North Carolina chapter of the NASW. He is the lobbyist, grassroots organizer, legislative liaison, and voice for social work in the North Carolina General Assembly. He also frequently speaks to student and local groups of social work practitioners about getting involved.

Register has clinician experience ranging from medical social work in dialysis and HIV/AIDS to psychotherapy practice in substance abuse specializing in adolescents, as well as general issues.

SWT: Which of your accomplishments are you most proud of and why?

JR: I am most proud of the fact that I am the first in my family to receive a college education. Realizing my dreams of education by becoming a social worker has allowed me to remember where I come from. In my days of direct service, I used my experience as a reminder to meet my clients where they were, not where I wanted or felt comfortable.

Now, in my role as an advocate for the profession, I am able to connect with legislators and policymakers on various levels. I have the ability to influence the creation of policies that benefit the entire state. I have been very fortunate in my career.

SWT: What is the biggest challenge facing social workers today and why?

JR: The concept of identity is most critical. Who are we? Internally, we all know our history and that our roots come from places like the Hull House movement and social action. Externally, I feel that people are confused.

The sense of a unified identity of social work that then branches into our particular area of practice goes a long way to legitimize our profession. Folks, as I see it, do not question lawyers or doctors on their training. They may ask, however, about their specialty. I feel that we, as a profession, must do the same.

The standardization of our education through CSWE [the Council on Social Work Education] and the opportunities for licensure and certifications also add to our distinction. I feel that we need to now focus on the public education of what social workers are trained to do. Among the many ways we can do this is to flex our research skills in the public debates, run for office at all levels, get involved in community-based organizations, and provide leadership to our communities.

Sen Barbara Mikulski, MSW, is one of the few social workers ever elected to Congress and is the first social worker elected to the Senate. Mikulski currently practices what is known as political social work. Prior to seeking public office, Mikulski worked for a local Catholic Charities organization and later in child welfare for the Baltimore City Department of Social Services.

She made the transition from direct services to community organization in the late 1960s when she became involved in a local effort. The success of that effort led to her campaign for the Baltimore City Council seat, which she won in 1971, and five years later, she was elected to Congress. In each of her political capacities, she has put her social work advocacy skills to work.

SWT: Which of your accomplishments are you most proud of and why?

BM: I am most proud of where I have improved the day-to-day lives of Marylanders and the long-range needs of our nation. I am proud of the progress the nation has made, and that I’ve fought for, on numerous women’s health issues. I am proud of what I’ve done to fight to protect Maryland families and communities, to improve access to higher education, and to look out for America’s veterans.

One of the things I am most proud of, however, is strengthening the safety net for seniors by passing the Spousal Anti-Impoverishment Act, which changed the cruel rules of government that forced people, especially seniors, to go bankrupt while paying for a spouse’s nursing home care.

SWT: What is the biggest challenge facing social workers today and why?

BM: One issue currently facing clinical social workers and our communities relates to Medicare reimbursement for counseling services. Clinical social workers are the primary mental health providers for nursing home residents and seniors in rural areas, treating and diagnosing mental illnesses. Under the current system, however, social workers are not paid for the mental health services they provide. Unlike other mental health providers who supply similar counseling, social workers cannot bill Medicare directly for their services.

I have been fighting to guarantee clinical social workers are reimbursed by Medicare for the mental health services they provide in skilled nursing facilities by introducing the Clinical Social Work Medicare Equity Act of 2007 this April. The legislation makes sure clinical social workers get the payments they deserve. It also protects patients across the country and ensures that seniors in underserved urban and rural areas, where clinical social workers are often the only available option for mental health care, continue to receive the treatment they need.

As a social worker, I understand the important role they play in caring for patients and seniors. This bill is about more than paperwork and payment procedures. This bill is about equal access to Medicare payments for equal and critical work done by social workers. It is about making sure our nation’s most vulnerable citizens have access to quality, affordable mental health care.

Jane Bierdeman-Fike, MSW, ACSW, LCSW, charter member of the NASW and Academy of Certified Social Workers, has devoted a lifetime to social work in Missouri. Employed by the Department of Mental Health as a psychiatric social worker from 1955 to 2000, she served as director of social work at Fulton State Hospital (FSH) from 1962 until her retirement. Recognizing a need for cooperation with the University of Missouri-Columbia’s School of Social Work, she established the first social work supervisor of education position at the hospital. In the 1960s, she developed the first FSH black studies program in the maximum security unit and remains active on the FSH Cultural Competence Council.

She was elected to the Missouri State Employees’ Retirement System board of trustees for terms running 1974 to 1990, serving as chairperson from 1977 to 1988 and vice chairperson from 1988 to 1990. She also received a gubernatorial appointment to the board of trustees of the Missouri Consolidated Health Care Plan in 1993 and a gubernatorial proclamation in 2000. In 2001, she was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters by William Woods University in Fulton, MO.

SWT: Which of your accomplishments are you most proud of and why?

JBF: In my career spanning more than 38 years, I focused my direct treatment, supervisory, administrative, and teaching efforts on the most vulnerable persons and families afflicted with severe and persistent mental illness.

I opposed the massive and indiscriminate deinstitutionalization of patients with mental illness, despite strong opposition from political, legal, and financial forces. With colleagues, I continued to advocate for the budgetary and staff resources necessary to provide quality inpatient treatment, as well as give strong support for adequate funding and staff training necessary for community wraparound services for the chronically mentally ill.

In the administrative area, I used my limited staff development funds to give staff and students the best consultants available to impart research and practice wisdom on the ethical base of social work, the soundest available treatment modalities, including proper medications and the social therapies used by social workers, as well as colleagues of other disciplines.

In teaching staff, students, clients, and colleagues, I tried to stress the importance of and model my own life around the continuing necessity and constant struggle to learn and practice cultural competence. I was one of the founders in the early 1970s of our hospital’s Cultural Competence Council and a regular member and former chair until my retirement in 2000. Since that time, I have continued as an active consultant. We plan and carry out interactive educational programs for staff and community members on all aspects of discrimination [relating to] ethnic, racial, religious, age, disability, and gender issues.

SWT: What is the biggest challenge facing social workers today and why?

JBF: I believe that violence in human society and how to reduce it is the biggest challenge facing all of us today. Unless we find solutions, other than war and weapons of mass destruction, we are all vulnerable to the inevitable nuclear destruction of all our human and environmental resources.

In this task, social workers have an important role to play, along with many other human institutions and organizations, domestically and worldwide.

We are frequently among the first to recognize violence and its origins. In our daily tasks, we confront it in all of its dangerous forms—domestic and gang violence; violence in schools and the workplace; violence caused by inequality of opportunity, poverty, greed, torture, and capital punishment; and violence resulting from drug abuse, some forms of mental illness and personality disorders, and all forms of discrimination.

In addition to well-known treatment interventions, we need to develop newer and more innovative approaches to reach the most vulnerable in society, as well as those sources that perpetrate violence. This means [we need] to take our skills into the subterranean cesspools of the slums, the glittering sham and deceit of the boardrooms of corporate greed, and the pollution found in embalmed political wastelands.

We must use our individual, group, and social action skills to bring about changes at the macrolevels and microlevels. We need to build on our past, as well as develop new skills through research and innovation. These need to be imbedded in the curricula of our accredited graduate and undergraduate schools of social work.

Patricia Breihl Fennell, MSW, ACSW, the principal Latino leader in Oklahoma, is executive director of the Latino Community Development Agency in Oklahoma City, an agency she founded in 1991. She is past president of NASW-OK, was the Oklahoma Social Worker of the Year, and has served on the NASW Insurance Trust for the past six years. While she is influential on the state level, she is also a national leader of Latinos, serving on the board of the National Council of La Raza. In this time of emphasis on immigration issues, she plays an important role as a social worker and a native of Ecuador.

SWT: Which of your accomplishments are you most proud of and why?

PBF: Among my professional achievements, I believe that starting the Latino Community Development Agency (LCDA) 15 years ago is at the top. At that time, there was no agency in Oklahoma targeting services to the growing Latino population. With the help of many people and an initial grant of $42,000, I started the LCDA. Today, we have a staff of 42 employees, a board of directors, and we offer 23 different programs for children, youth, and families.

Through the LCDA, we also created the Riverside Community Center. This is a multiservice, multiagency center where all types of educational, recreational, health, and preventive services are offered. The Riverside Community Center was featured at the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future held in Philadelphia in 1997 “as one of 50 outstanding programs in the United States.” The LCDA has evolved to be the main voice for and with the Latino community in Oklahoma.

SWT: What is the biggest challenge facing social workers today and why?

PBF: I believe the biggest challenge facing our profession today is that a great number of social workers are reaching retirement age, and we are not recruiting sufficient members of the younger generation into our field. We must think strategically about what the profession needs to do to attract young, new members to replace those of us reaching retirement. Related to this challenge is the fact that the diversity in the country and, consequently, of the public we serve, is dramatically increasing. I am concerned that not only do we need to recruit new members into social work, but we need to do a better job recruiting more minority members into the profession.

Hilda R. Heady, MSW, ACSW, is the past president and former secretary of the board of trustees of the National Rural Health Association. She is associate vice president for rural health at the Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center of West Virginia University. She serves as the state program director for the West Virginia Area Health Education Center and the executive director of the West Virginia Rural Health Education Partnerships.

Heady served as the CEO of the small, rural, 58-bed Preston Memorial Hospital and provided the needed leadership to turn around this near-bankrupt rural facility by working with the community and leaders to restructure its mission and debt. She also established an alternative birth center, hired the county’s first obstetrician/gynecologist and certified nurse midwife, organized a women’s health center, and improved obstetric services in the county prior to her role as CEO.

SWT: Which of your accomplishments are you most proud of and why?

HRH: I could never make such a choice, for I have no accomplishments, only blessings. I see these efforts as blessings in a life and career full of such graces. By far the greatest blessing in my life is being a mother of two extraordinary sons, the daughter and granddaughter of remarkable parents and grandparents, the sister to loving and caring brothers and sisters, and a good solid friend to many. I was born under a lucky star to a humble and loving family who taught me responsibility to others and to self and the simply elegant nature of life and love.

I have always received more than I have given. I am blessed to see, in my lifetime, the fruit of my labor. Seeing women and their babies and children receive good healthcare, and a hospital with more than 200 employees avoid bankruptcy, and national legislation to improve care for rural veterans and returning soldiers, and more primary care health providers in rural communities, all with a better understanding of rural people, and leading a national rural health organization of over 15,000 members, those are all immeasurable blessings. Taking this journey to achieve the grace of understanding and continually seek more is the blessing of a lifetime.

SWT: What is the biggest challenge facing social workers today and why?

HRH: Social work’s greatest challenge is to remain resilient and relevant. In an environment where our relevance is increasingly challenged, we must remain resilient to forces to become something different. Our unique contribution is our nature to understand the interdependence of cause and effect and to support the resilience of the human spirit. We must remain grateful stewards of this human resilience.

— Responses compiled and edited by Brandi Redding, editorial assistant at Social Work Today.