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New web site combines social work, criminal justice

By Susan White

Social work has long been defined as a profession dedicated to helping vulnerable children, adults and families. Yet, those caught up in the criminal justice system, including juveniles, are not always remembered as part of this same vulnerable network.

But a new Web site, Social Work & Criminal Justice, aims to encourage and promote research, education and innovation at the intersection of these two fields. According to the site, which launched on March 2, social work practitioners and academic researchers play a vital role in assisting clients involved in the legal system as many often struggle “with poverty, addiction, mental illness, discrimination, and service systems that create barriers to resources.”

“I think the thing that all social workers don’t connect is this is a huge social justice issue,” said Anna Scheyett, associate dean for academic affairs at UNC’s School of Social Work and one of the Web site’s developers.

Glaring racial disparities in the prison system illustrate the need for more social work involvement, Scheyett said.

“There’s a study that has suggested that if you were born after 2000, and you’re a black male, you have a 1 in 3 chance of being incarcerated,” she explained. “So for social workers to think, ‘I’m not going to work with them.’ Well, yes you are! At some point, you are going to be working with someone whose life has been touched by the criminal justice system — they’ve been incarcerated or they’ve had a family member incarcerated.”

The web site, which is housed at the School of Social Work, serves as a networking site for social work academics interested in criminal justice issues and was born largely out of frustration that few resources exist to help fellow researchers find one another. Nearly 40 authors and experts from across the country have since joined the site’s directory.

Scheyett, along with the site’s co-creators — Matt Epperson with the Center for Behavioral Health Services & Criminal Justice Research at Rutgers University; Stephen Tripodi, an assistant professor at Florida State University’s College of Social Work; and Carrie Pettus-Davis, a Ph.D. candidate at UNC’s School of Social Work — also hope the online space will develop as a central database for articles and publications focused on topics such as juvenile justice, incarcerated women, re-entry programs and community-based corrections. Interested users can already find posted links to published studies addressing issues such as addiction treatment and sex offenders.

“This is not a Web site to go to for helpful clinical tips, but if you are interested in seeing who’s doing research and what are the evidenced-based practices, I think it can help,” Scheyett said.

Links to funding resources and to other relevant Web sites focused on criminal justice populations are also featured.

Because classes that combine criminal justice and social work can be difficult to find in schools of social work across the country, site developers created a page where course syllabi can be uploaded or downloaded. Instructors now have a space for sharing their educational resources or for finding a template from which they can model their own classes.

For MSW and doctoral students, the site should serve as a great link to contemporary resources, said Pettus-Davis, whose research focuses on incarcerated adults and recently incarcerated populations.

“This Web site will help the burgeoning number of new scholars and doctoral students to stay abreast of funding opportunities and teaching and research innovations in criminal justice areas,” she said.