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Undercurrents: Social Workers Learn For and On the Job

A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

It takes a lot more than good intentions to be an effective social worker. Start with a college degree, take the test to get your license and keep adding education – continually.

Like many other professions, social work demands that a practitioner stay abreast of trends and best practices, that he meets a minimum number of continuing education units of credit, and that he renew his license on a regular basis.

In the Virgin Islands, license renewal is every two years and six CEUs are required. Only courses offered by the National Association of Social Workers are accepted, and even at that only one may be an online course.

The local chapter of the association offers training twice a year, in March during National Social Work Month and in October or November, said Ada-Luz Rivera. Additionally, V.I. workers can attend the association’s national annual conference – held in June in a different jurisdiction each year – where they can attend sessions to obtain CEU credit.

But there is actually more training happening in the territory than what is officially recognized for license renewal.

“This year we implemented the brown bag lunches” as a pilot program on St. Croix, Rivera said. It’s an informal monthly meeting at which workers gather to share experiences and to hear from guest speakers. Among the topics covered so far are caregivers, disability issues and cultural considerations.

There is currently no CEU credit for the meetings but Rivera said, “We’re discussing with ‘National’ how we can work that out.”

Meanwhile, there is also considerable in-house training, though again not for credit, offered at the Department of Human Services, the territory’s largest employer of social workers. Assistant Commissioner Carla Benjamin said the department has 49 social work positions territorywide, with 36 of them currently filled.

Benjamin’s responsibilities include managing the administrators in the department’s Children and Family Division and the Juvenile Division. She said she sees a need for continuing training in charting and documentation and in conducting forensic interviews because those are the two biggest parts of the social worker’s job. In a forensic interview the worker seeks to determine whether a child is a victim of abuse or neglect, and the worker must be skillful in eliciting pertinent information while avoiding any leading questions.

In child protection cases, she said, “one of the most important things is to always respect the parent as a parent. Don’t come to the situation as if you have all the answers” – even if appears that the child must be taken from the home for his/her own protection.

It’s also important that workers are very familiar with local laws and cultural sensibilities, Benjamin said.

Patricia Welcome, chief legal counsel for Human Services and the territory’s representative for the Interstate Compacts both for Juveniles and for the Placement of Children, agrees.

“I work very closely with the social workers,” Welcome said. “They’re on call 24 hours and so am I.” Workers frequently check in with her for guidance on cases.

“Ninety percent of what they do is driven by what’s in the V.I. Code,” she said. “You have to be familiar with the laws” both local and federal. It’s also important for workers to understand Social Security regulations since the department sometimes becomes the custodian for a child or for an elderly or disabled person receiving social security benefits.

“I do training as the need arises and when requested,” Welcome said.

Local law prescribes deadlines for any and all action the department takes on behalf of a child or an adult in custodial care. For instance, when a child is removed from a home because of suspected abuse or neglect – often in an emergency situation – the government has just two business days to file a petition with the court to uphold that removal.

The social worker is on the front line and makes the initial assessment. Following a review, the Attorney General’s Office may or may not decide to press charges against the parent or guardian involved, but even if no charges are filed, the court may determine to allow the removal to stand. That’s because the standard of proof is lower for initiating custodial care than it is for proving the criminal behavior of abuse or neglect.

Welcome and one paralegal constitute DHS’s entire legal staff, handling all contracts, leases, victim/witness compensation programs, interstate transfers of juveniles to facilities, relocating children in custodial care both on and off-island, and interstate and international adoptions – plus all the ongoing legal matters for department social workers.

So not only do social workers need to know the law to ensure they act within it, from a practical standpoint, it’s essential they are capable of handling some of the legal load. Several years ago, the department issued regulations covering senior homes, and Welcome conducted training to familiarize workers with changes.

Another thing she did long ago was to teach workers how to draft a petition for the court themselves. “In some cases, they’ve functioned as paralegals,” she said.

Workers routinely appear in court representing the department. In fact, Welcome said, the court has set aside two days each week for reviewing cases involving DHS clients, one for abuse and neglect cases, and one for juvenile cases. Then there are sometimes special cases that come up on other days.

There may soon be changes to the professional requirements for social workers.

The V.I. Board of Licensure for Social Workers is proposing the law be updated, according to member Carol Battuello. Current law has been on the books for a long time and is outdated in some areas, she said.

The board would like to see local law conform to the model Social Work Law, which many U.S. jurisdictions have already adopted, with modifications, she said.

Battuello was reluctant to discuss particulars since the move is in its infancy, but she said the proposal is for “a much more comprehensive law… It’ll be a little more intense and more will be required” for a social work license.

Such a move is not unusual. Last year the Virgin Islands revised the law governing requirements for CLEs – Continuing Legal Education – at the urging of the V.I. Bar Association in order to update professional requirements for attorneys.

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