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Alumna builds career in international social work practice

By Susan White

Natalie Conner, Ph.D. ’05, has spent nearly her entire career working with vulnerable children and with the nonprofits and other organizations that serve families in need. Much of her work as a licensed clinical social worker and intervention researcher has been in the United States. But in recent years, Conner’s practice and research has broadened into Ethiopia and Haiti, where today she helps organizations improve their services to children and to strengthen their social welfare workforces.

Her interest in international social work developed after traveling with UNC School of Social Work faculty to Lithuania in 1999. That interest became a passion after she and her husband, Dr. Will Conner, MD ’96, adopted a child from Ethiopia in August 2008. During a two-week stay in the country, Conner quickly learned of intense efforts there to support the more than half a million orphans and vulnerable children who were aging out of government institutions at 10 and 12-years-old, the age in which most are asked to leave.

She was especially impressed with Beyond the Orphanage Foundation (BTO) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, not only because the nongovernment organization had already adopted best practices for these children but because leaders were eager to ensure that their support programs were working. Conner said BTO also recognized a need to build a stronger workforce of social welfare workers. In turn, she saw a chance to help and jumped on board. Today, she serves as the foundation’s child welfare advisor.

“My role has been to advise them on interventions that they select and to assist them in developing their social workers,” said Conner, who lives with her husband and three children in Charlotte. “So I’ve been providing social work technical assistance, skill development assessments, trainings in intervention delivery, and evaluation.”

Since 2010, she’s provided similar assistance and workforce development training in Haiti, where she and her husband started the nonprofit, Community Health Access International (CHAI). The organization works to improve health care and to ease emergent health and social problems in the Camp Louise community. The nonprofit was developed after a devastating earthquake killed an estimated 300,000 people and left about 1.5 million homeless.

Conner’s international efforts—particularly her evaluation research—aligns with the work that she has done for years for smaller nonprofits in the United States, including in North Carolina. She is currently working with the Duke Endowment to assess a package of interventions meant to improve the well-being of children in Catawba County. Conner is examining the strengths and weaknesses of the various programs that the county uses to assist children transitioning out of the child welfare system through reunification with their families, adoption, or placement in kinship care.

Her work is similarly focused in Ethiopia and with Beyond the Orphanage, which centers its attention on building resilience in children and families. The organization works to accomplish this goal by helping orphaned and vulnerable children find safe and stable housing with a relative or guardian and by working to ensure that children have access to an education and vocational training, and medical and dental care.

Having highly skilled social workers to assist and counsel these children is a key part of the organization’s success. Conner and her colleagues, including former UNC School of Social Work Clinical Professor Ray Kirk, are helping to address this workforce need. Among other efforts, Conner and Kirk recently led a series of trainings for social welfare workers who are developing alternative care programs to support the hundreds of thousands of children aging out of orphanages. (MSW students Heather Ball and Wendy Pyle also assisted with this project).

More than 100 government workers and field workers from nongovernment organizations and community-based organizations attended, along with students from the first graduating class of the Addis Ababa University School of Social Work. Although part of the technical training focused on teaching participants how to use a specific family assessment tool, the workshops also covered  burnout prevention, ethics, and supervision. In Ethiopia, studies have shown that 78 percent of the social welfare workforce quit their jobs for new employment because of burnout, Conner said.

“Because it’s a new profession, they don’t yet have senior mentors who can provide supervision, which is a vital piece of the profession,” she explained. “When you have that supervisor in place, then social workers have someone they can go to for advice, feedback, venting, and a safe place to process things.”

Trainings have also focused on approaching social work from a “strengths-based” perspective. In Ethiopia, where residents face extreme poverty, adopting such a lens is necessary, Conner said.

“Yet, when you look at the protective factors, you see that these same residents live in communities, that they have lower levels of violence and aggression, that their faith is very prevalent in their daily lives and that they have greater networks of social support,” Conner noted. “So, while there isn’t a lot we can do to mitigate the far-reaching effects of poverty in the absence of adequate resources, we can marshal these protective factors  to improve outcomes for kids and families.”

Conner said the work in Ethiopia has been particularly satisfying because field workers have not waited for the government or other leaders to demand that workers improve their skills; rather they have actively pursued and supported the idea from a grassroots level. At the same time, there is still a huge need for professional social workers internationally, she added.

“I  would really encourage social workers to do international field placements or to volunteer with international groups because there are so few of us out there. For some reason, we seem to have given that area of intervention over to public health, when in reality, we’re very much needed.”

The more opportunities she has to travel around the world, the more her commitment to the profession is strengthened, Conner said.

“Social work is a value-driven profession and the more I work, the more I understand that the principles of social work are solid, sustaining, and valid. And above all else, I still feel compelled to help resolve the core issues of human suffering.”