The UConn School of Social Work Puerto Rican & Latin@ Studies Project (PRLSP) marked its 40th anniversary on May 22, 2013. More than one hundred thirty guests were in attendance to celebrate the accomplishments of the PRLSP and the contributions of the founding director, Dr. Julio Morales Jr.
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The evening program was packed with speakers and the mood in the room was festive including a musical performance and Peruvian dancers.
The program kicked off with a welcome from Dean Salome Raheim. She shared news that the Julio Morales Jr. Fellowship Fund established by Morales had reached endowment status, having raised an excess of $10,000. The Fellowship Fund will provide support for a graduate student enrolled full-time in the School of Social Work with demonstrated financial need.
UConn’s Vice Provost for Diversity, Dr. Jeffrey Ogbar, gave greetings on behalf of the University and spoke of the significance of the Puerto Rican and Latin@ Studies Project within the University.
Dr. Catherine Medina, PRLSP Director and one of the co-chairs of the Éxito event, spoke of the history of the PRLSP and its numerous accomplishments. “It began with a student movement, demanding more Latino faculty and students in higher education.” Medina added that the Project has since become a model for institutions of higher education worldwide. “Our graduates have become higher education scholars, judges, directors of agencies and public officials,” she said.
Members of the Puerto Rican and Latin@ Studies Project Advisory Board spoke of the accomplishments of the Project in the areas of leadership, advancing knowledge, and facilitating change. They also awarded Travel Study Scholarships to three MSW students travelling to Puerto Rico: Amy Ramirez, Stephanie Swantek and Jasmine Williams.
Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra MSW ’82, JD ’85 spoke about how profoundly his life had been affected by the Puerto Rican & Latin@ Studies Project and particularly by his mentor Dr. Julio Morales Jr. Segarra also presented the PRLSP and Morales with proclamations from the City of Hartford before surprising Morales with the key to the City of Hartford.
Senator Andres Ayala Jr. took time out from a senate session at the Capitol to present two citations at the event: one for the Puerto Rican and Latin@ Studies Project and one for Morales.
Stacey Violante Cote helps the homeless. Not by running a shelter or dishing up meals in a soup kitchen, but by serving up a healthy portion of legal advice and representation.
Violante Cote, the director of the Teen Legal Advocacy Project at the University of Connecticut School of Law, calls homeless teens the “invisible population” of the state. And, she said, many of these young people defy stereotypes.
“One thing I have found,” Violante Cote said, “is that most of my homeless clients share the desire to go to school, remain steady in school and see school through, despite the fact that the rest of their lives may be in chaos.”
The project is part of UConn law school’s Center for Children’s Advocacy. And the staff does more than help the homeless. Violante Cote and her crew advocate for a wide range of low-income teens, including those who are victims of abuse, neglect and other traumas. The Teen Legal Advocacy Project tries to remove barriers that prevent youth from completing high school, addressing civil issues such as the educational rights of homeless students and improper denials of state and federal benefits, among others. It’s a never-ending battle, as Hartford has one of the highest dropout rates in the state.
But the efforts to fight homelessness got a recent boost when the center launched a new website, www.speakupteens.org, which links homeless young people with resources ranging from lawyers to shelters.
“The young and homeless basically operate beneath the radar,” said Robert Francis, executive director of the Regional Youth Adult Social Action Partnership (RYASAP), who has been working with Violante Cote for five or six years. “Through our state mechanisms, we are able to identify 2,000 kids who are considered homeless — that’s probably 15 to 20 percent of the actual [adolescent] population who are not sleeping in their own bed every night.”
Violante Cote entered her own young adulthood ready to become a teacher; she liked working with kids and wanted to help them.
“I quickly realized that the classroom was not the place for me,” she said. She got her J.D. from UConn law, with a joint degree in social justice. About that time, she met Martha Stone, the longtime child welfare advocate who is the founder and executive director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy.
The two women clicked right away, and Violante Cote has been working at the center for 11 years.
“I got a summer internship there after my first summer of law school, and this was a time when [the center] was just a room above the boiler room at the school,” Violante Cote said. “Now, we have 11 lawyers in the office, we have offices in three different parts of the state. So I grew as a lawyer, and so did the center.”
Violante Cote said as her work evolved, she came to realize the law related to teenagers is a distinct practice area. “A lot of folks understand law as it relates to young children, families or adults — but there is a lot of gray area when it comes to teenagers,” she said. “The more exposure I had, the more I liked the work. I always have said I love teenagers. They say it like it is.”
To illustrate what she does, Violante Cote offered the example of Melissa, who is 16. The teen was in the care of the Department of Children and Families, until the courts said she could move back into her mother’s house. But before long, the mother was arrested and sent to jail. Melissa then lived for a time with an older sister with whom she did not get along. The sister kicked Melissa out, and she bounced around to five other places in a short period.
“She stayed in a shelter for a short time, but left there because she didn’t want the program to call DCF. She didn’t want to be in DCF care,” Violante Cote said.
Today, Melissa goes to school almost every day, with the exception being the days when she is moving from one house to another. Violante Cote said she is currently “couch-surfing” with relatives and friends.
“I represented her to enforce her rights under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, to stay in school even though she was moving around,” she said. “I also advocated for her to get an an appropriate educational placement.”
The McKinney Act provides federal money for homeless shelter programs. Enacted in 1987, it was the first significant federal legislative response to homelessness. “This federal law is very helpful in that it gives students the right to continue their studies,” said Violante Cote. “This is the one thing that can remain constant for these kids.”
Not only does staying in school provide homeless students with stability and an education, but it helps keep them away from the violence of the streets and the world of sex trafficking. In fact, Violante Cote says an important part of her job is explaining to students what their options are, and advising them of the possible consequences of some of the choices that they may make.
“Really,” she said, “there is no single voice sticking up for these teens. They are survivors without a voice.”
Deputy Director of the Children’s Law Center (CLC), Randa Hojaiban MSW ’03, JD ’04 was awarded the prestigious President’s Award from the Greater New Britain Bar Association on May 1, 2013. She received the award for her work serving impoverished children in the New Britain family courts. Randa provides legal representation to low-income children who are caught in their parents’ family court disputes. She said it’s never easy to balance the social work and legal aspects of her job. It’s her role to both make sure that a child gets the counseling needed while at the same time following the parents’ divorce proceedings and representing the child in a legal setting.
Hojaiban also mediates in the CLC’s Families in Transition program, which provides low-income families with counseling on custody issues. Teams of attorneys and mental health professionals meet with families who can’t afford to battle it out in family court. The program has the added benefit of being less stressful than a courtroom encounter. The social worker in Hojaiban likes this type of approach, as it gives families more control over their destiny. “Breakups are hard enough without involving kids,” she said. “When you can get the parents through that tough period and get them to raise their kids together, those are the most rewarding cases for me.”
The cases Hojaiban works on deal mostly with children affected by child abuse, domestic violence, neglect, mental illness, substance abuse or chronic conflict. “I feel very lucky to have found the Children’s Law Center, to have had the opportunity to be a part of its growth, and to be a part of such a collaborative court. It’s not such an easy find!”
Chelsea Moule received the Outstanding Senior Women Academic Achievement Award from the UConn Women’s Center on May 10, 2013.
Chelsea earned her MSW in May, 2013 with a concentration in Administration and a focused area of study in Women, Children and Families. She served as Co-Chair of the Women’s Caucus for the 2012-2013 academic year. In this position, she sponsored many events to bring awareness to women’s rights and the many barriers they face on a daily basis in fighting for equality.
Additionally, Chelsea brought a visual awareness to the school community by creating displays that provided information on the updated domestic violence law that was passed in CT in October 2012, highlighting influential women in politics, resources for domestic violence survivors, statistics and facts from the Half the Sky Movement, as well as creating a game board on how one can create policy change.
Outside of academics, Chelsea is actively involved in bringing a voice to women’s rights issues and knowing that fighting for women’s equality is critical. She attends a yearly fundraiser in Massachusetts that supports women business owners, and has participated in Women’s Day at the Capital and the Pro-Choice Carnival sponsored by NARAL Pro-Choice America.
In the future, Chelsea plans to become involved in local and state politics and hopes to obtain a job in which she can work on empowering women to succeed given the current system in place. She is an energetic, passionate, and dedicated advocate who fights for women’s rights.
About the Awards
The awards were established in 1993 to honor outstanding women undergraduate and graduate students graduating each year. The award recognizes those graduating women who have excelled academically within each school and demonstrated dedication to research and service to the University community. The recipients are selected by the Dean of each school or college.
Annually, the Hartford-Springfield Economic Partnership (HSEP) recognizes students and colleges that promote HSEP’s InternHere.com program. This year, HSEP selected MSW student Lindsay Tatera as the recipient of the 2013 InternHero Student Award. The award recognizes excellence in the Hartford-Springfield region, which consists of 22 colleges and universities. Lindsay was recognized at HSEP’s 2013 State of the Region Conference on Friday, June 7, 2013.
Lindsay’s field instructor, Bonnie Kern, Acting Director of Refugee Resettlement at the International Institute of Connecticut stated, “Lindsay proved herself to be a very strong asset in the refugee department… She was competent, reliable, and had a friendly disposition in the office. All of these traits made her a good intern, but what really made her stand out was her competence in medical issues and compassion with newly-arrived refugees.”
“As a supervisor, I appreciated the initiative she would take in making sure that refugees had their medical needs met in a timely and culturally competent manner. Medical case management is a critical component in successful resettlement and our agency is always on the lookout for people who have the same profile as Lindsay. She is a great example of the high-standards achieved by UConn MSW students. Lindsay truly made a difference in people’s lives during her internship by guiding them through the healthcare system.”
“I am very excited to have even been nominated for the InternHero award and am honored that I was selected as this year’s recipient” said Lindsay. “Knowing that my hard work will positively reflect on the UConn School of Social Work serves as additional motivation to continue my efforts during my second year as a student.” Lindsay is a Community Organization student and will be doing her 2nd year internship at the United Nations in New York.
In hearing of the award, Dean Salome Raheim wrote to Lindsay, “Your supervisor’s nomination of you speaks volumes about your accomplishments in your field placement at the International Institute of Connecticut. Your exemplary performance and this recognition increase the visibility of the UConn School of Social Work and MSW students as important contributors to economic and workforce development in New England.”
HSEP’s annual State of the Region Conference is one of the area’s premier economic development events. In addition to its nationally known speakers, the 2013 Conference featured Mary Holz-Clause, UConn’s Vice President for Economic Development.
About the Hartford-Springfield Economic Partnership (HSEP)
The Hartford-Springfield Economic Partnership is an interstate collaboration of regional economic development, planning, business, tourism and educational institutions that work together to advance the region’s economic progress. The region comprises the Hartford and Springfield metropolitan areas. The group markets the region as “New England’s Knowledge Corridor,” emphasizing the area’s rich history of innovation, invention and world-class educational assets.
Avon Senior Center was selected as one of seven senior centers in Connecticut to receive a Program of Excellence Award by the Connecticut Association of Senior Center Personnel (CASCP) at their annual meeting on May 24, 2013 in Rocky Hill, CT. The Center won the award in the Education category for their Taking Charge Program, a group that was formed to provide mutual support and build skills for self-advocacy. The group was led by UConn MSW student Cathiann Velez and was formed at the request of older adults.
The focus of the Taking Charge Program is to build participants’ confidence and help them to advocate for themselves at such places as doctor’s offices. Field Instructor Jennifer Bennett MSW ‘06 said that the program came about after listening to seniors. “We heard our members talking a lot and asking questions and we wanted to do something that would give them a voice outside the building…A challenge was helping participants find ways of speaking for themselves while avoiding the stigma sometimes attached to older people…” said Jennifer.
CASCP is the statewide association for professionals working in the 156 senior centers in Connecticut.