Office of Research and Scholarship Update – Winter 2022

Perspective: Associate Dean for Research & Scholarship

Researchers at the UConn School of Social Work continue to leverage partnerships with state agencies to confront some of the most critical issues facing our society today. Partnerships with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, the Department of Children and Families, and the Office of Early Childhood have led to an increase in both scholarly output and funding that will benefit individuals, families, and communities – particularly those representing marginalized groups.

“The work presented here is only the tip of the iceberg,” says Michael Fendrich, Professor and Associate Dean for Research. “Despite increasing external challenges raised by the ongoing pandemic, our social work faculty and staff continue to expand the scope of their impactful research.”

School of Social Work faculty and staff are engaged in collaborative teams that are developing and advancing scholarship to address a diverse range of problems, including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, adverse childhood experiences, foster care, homophobia, trauma, aging, and more. In addition to the research highlighted in this newsletter, faculty and staff have also recently engaged in work that explores models of social work practice, services for people with disabilities, the human rights and health of refugees and immigrants, youth violence, and the ongoing substance use crisis affecting families in Connecticut and nationwide. “The body of research and scholarship is still growing. It’s vibrant, it’s impactful and wide-ranging, focused on diverse populations and the most pressing and relevant problems of the day,” he says.

A Strengths-Based Program to Support Families in Crisis

An example of an innovative partnership with the state is the work of Assistant Research Professor Patricia Carlson, who along with her colleague Brenda Kurz, has received a grant to study a new program to empower families. The Department of Children and Families refers families to the program, Integrated Family Care and Support (IFCS), after an investigation has deemed the children are safe. IFCS uses a Wraparound Practice model, which brings together a team of family members, friends, and providers identified by the family to develop a plan of care.

“IFCS is a strength-based program designed to keep families together,” says Carlson. “The goal is to help families meet their own needs, increase their access to care, and connect to supports in their community.” The program was established in partnership with Beacon Health Options, which has collaborated with the Performance Improvement Center (PIC) at UConn School of Social Work to provide data analysis, reporting, and research support to evaluate the program’s impact.

Improving College Outcomes for Foster Care Youth

In a study published by the Journal of Public Child Welfare, Assistant Professor of Social Work Nate Okpych investigated how a federal law increasing the foster care age limit might affect postsecondary outcomes for foster care youth. The law, passed in 2008, gives states the option to raise the foster care age limit from 18 to 21. Okpych analyzed a longitudinal study of over 700 young people in foster care in three midwestern states. He compared college data from one midwestern state that had extended the foster care age limit with data from two other states that had not.

“Extended foster care did in fact increase the probability that youth enrolled in college,” Okpych says. He found that for each year youth remained in foster care past age 18, the probability of enrolling in college increased by 10 percentage points. “The study findings suggest extended foster care is an effective policy for increasing rates of college enrollment, but additional supports and services are needed to ensure youth persist in college,” he explains. In his book Climbing  a Broken Ladder, Okpych further explores college outcomes for the study participants, including enrollment patterns and how trauma affects college persistence.

A Mindfulness-Based Intervention for LBGTQIA Youth

According to a recent national survey, 40% of LGBTQIA youth seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months and 68% reported symptoms of anxiety. To respond to the mental health disparities facing this population, Assistant Professor Gio Iacono created a mindfulness intervention called Tuned In! This online intervention was developed in collaboration with LGBTQIA youth and will be facilitated by licensed clinicians. It differs from traditional mindfulness-based interventions in that it focuses on addressing the specific struggles of LGBTQIA individuals and supports the development of healthy coping skills and strategies.

“LGBTQIA youth are particularly vulnerable to poorer mental health outcomes, such as anxiety, depression and suicidality, compared to the general youth population,” says Iacono. Those mental health disparities may also be compounded by other forms of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, ability and class. Youth who participated in two-session simulation of the intervention reported increased self-compassion, mindfulness, and self-kindness. The research is supported by four grants — the UConn Office of the Vice President for Research’s (OVPR) Research Excellence Program, the OVPR Scholarship Facilitation Fund, the UConn School of Social Work Dean’s Incentive Award, and the Mind and Life Institute. With these resources, Iacono plans to launch an online pilot study in Connecticut, which will include eight sessions of Tuned In!. “Through this research, I hope to improve mental health supports for LGBTQIA youth, and eventually develop a national strategy to implement LGBTQIA affirmative mindfulness programs in a variety of communities across America to improve the well-being of LGBTQIA youth,” he says.

Solving Urban Problems through Partnerships

Professor Louise Simmons drew upon her many years of work in the field of community labor coalitions to co-edit the book, Igniting Justice and Progressive Power: The Partnership for Working Families Cities. Each chapter, written by academics in different states, tells the story of the local organizations affiliated with the Partnership (now known as Power Switch Action). From California to Georgia to Tennessee, the authors used different qualitative methods to demonstrate how affiliates successfully took on specific modern urban problems. Issues included environmental regulations related to ports, police relations, development and community benefits, and school reform.

“Resistance to issues that have been problematic for cities, and for the people who live in cities under neoliberalism, is possible,” says Simmons. The outcome of the coalition work, she explains, could be a change in environmental requirements related to ports in Los Angeles, for example, or simply bringing people together to share an agenda. To tell these stories, the authors utilized different qualitative research methods, such as interviews, historical records, and press accounts. In each of the 14 cases, “what motivates these groups is a vision for a better society,” Simmons notes.

Engaging Older African American Adults in the Age of COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many older adults to become more socially isolated, particularly older adults of color who have also been affected by racial tensions in society. The isolation contributes to inactivity, diminished mental health, and may even accelerate the aging process. To study this phenomenon, Assistant Professor Rupal Parekh developed an intervention to engage older African Americans in Hartford. Over eight weeks, the research team will engage these older adults with a web-based behavioral intervention that encourages physical activity and greater mental health. Participants will also discuss the intervention with a group leader and receive peer support.

“One of the goals is to increase physical activity and lead to participation in outside activities,” said Parekh. “We’re talking to African American older adults, from various cultural backgrounds, and trying to make it as culturally competent as possible, identifying a range of activities that folks would be interested in.” Parekh and her team have also identified pre- and post-tests of physical function, mental health, and biomarkers to assess the intervention’s impact. Her research is supported by grants from the National Institute on Aging and the UConn Health Center on Aging’s Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Center.

Understanding the Role of Social Work in a Globalized World

As the third edition of International Social Work, the textbook by Professor Rebecca Leela Thomas and Distinguished Professor Emerita Lynne Moore Healy, was going to press, the COVID pandemic struck. The historic event underscored a central theme of the book. “A global pandemic such as this shows the need for much more global cooperation, and why there is a need for social workers to understand global interdependence and exchange,” says Thomas. The 500-page textbook is a comprehensive treatment of all dimensions of international social work. Within a four-part framework, it addresses a wide range of topics, including domestic practice and policy influenced by global forces, professional exchange, international practice, and global social policy.

The third edition includes new material on recent global issues such as growing inequality, the 2008 fiscal crisis, the rise of populism, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, and the rights of sexual minorities. It also illustrates how social work takes place within the borders of the United States with a focus on migrants and refugees. Numerous case studies from around the world provide narratives, context, and inspiration for social work students, scholars, and practitioners alike. “It’s a comprehensive thinking about global social work and the need for us to be engaged,” says Thomas.

Drs. Ann Marie Garran, Lisa Werkmeister Rozas, Release Latest Edition of Racism in the United States: Implications for the Helping Professions

Drs. Ann Marie Garran, Lisa Werkmeister Rozas, Release Latest Edition of Racism in the United States: Implications for the Helping Professions

UConn School of Social Work faculty members Dr. Ann Marie Garran and Dr. Lisa Werkmeister Rozas recently published the third edition of Racism in the United States: Implications for the Helping Professions.

Originally published in 2008 and co-authored by Dr. Ann Marie Garran and Dr. Joshua Miller (Smith College), this text explored the historical context of racism as well as institutional racism present in the United States today. The authors conveyed that human service professionals must confront racism on two fronts: the racism outside of themselves as well as the racism within. 

The third and newest edition, published in December 2021, uses coloniality and other critical theories as a conceptual framework to analyze all levels of racism: structural, personal, interpersonal, professional, and cultural. It features the contributions of a new team of authors and scholars; new conceptual and theoretical material; a new chapter on immigration racism and updated content to reflect how racism and white supremacy are manifested today; and new content on the impact of racism on economics, technology, and environmental degradation; expanded sections on slavery; current political manifestations of racism and much more.

Read more about the third edition here.

JSWE Focuses on Education During the Pandemic

Dr. Cristina Wilson, Associate Professor and Research Director, University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UConn Health), coedited a special issue of the Journal of Social Work Education (JSWE) that included 19 articles focused on best practices and lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic and prior natural disasters. Visit the CSWE website to read more and access the special issues. 

The Role of Self-Stigma in Engagement in Opioid Use Disorder Treatment

Associate Research Professor Hsiu-Ju Lin is working on several federally funded projects related to the opioid crisis. She is a co-investigator on a Nation Institute of Drug Abuse funded Diversity Supplement study for Transitions Clinic Network: Post Incarceration Addiction Treatment, Healthcare, and Social Supports (TCN-PATHs). To read more about the TCN-PATHs project, visit the UNC Center for Health Equity Research website.

Beyond Borders: The Human Rights of Non-Citizens at Home and Abroad

Beyond Borders: The Human Rights of Non-Citizens at Home and Abroad

Dr. Kathryn Libal, Associate Professor and Director of the UConn Human Rights Institute, co-edited Beyond Borders: The Human Rights of Non-Citizens at Home and Abroad. Published by Cambridge University Press, the book was made available online in August 2021.

Read the preface below:

States have long denied basic rights to non-citizens within their borders, and international law imposes only limited duties on states with respect to those fleeing persecution. But even the limited rights previously enjoyed by non-citizens are eroding in the face of rising nationalism, populism, xenophobia, and racism. Beyond Borders explores what obligations we owe to those outside our political community. Drawing on contributions from a broad variety of disciplines – from literature to political science to philosophy – the volume considers the failures of law and politics to guarantee rights for the most vulnerable and attempts to imagine new forms of belonging grounded in ideas of solidarity, empathy, and responsibility in order to identify a more robust basis for the protection of non-citizens at home and abroad. This title is also available as Open Access on Cambridge Core.

Molly Land is the Catherine Roraback Professor of Law at the University of Connecticut School of Law. Her research focuses on the intersection of human rights, science, technology, and innovation.

Kathryn Libal is an Associate Professor of Social Work and Human Rights and Director of the Human Rights Institute at the University of Connecticut. Her publications have focused on human rights, social work, and refugees and asylum seekers.

Jillian Chambers is a Juris Doctor Candidate at the University of Connecticut School of Law, where she is the Symposium Editor of Volume 53 of the Connecticut Law Review and Executive Brief Writer for the Connecticut Moot Court Board

Impact of COVID-19 On Services for People with Disabilities and Chronic Health Conditions

Dr. Kelsi Carolan, Assistant Professor, recently collaborated on an article entitled "Impact of COVID-19 On Services for People with Disabilities and Chronic Health Conditions" that appeared in Disability and Health Journal (Vol 14, Issue 3). To read the article, visit Science Direct.

Addressing Problem Drinking Among Young Adults

Supported by $725,000 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism grant, Michael Fendrich, professor and associate dean for research at the UConn School of Social Work, has teamed up with Crystal Park, professor of psychology, and Beth Russell, associate professor of human development and family sciences, to develop interventions to address escalating drinking patterns among young adults. Read more about the study on UConn Today.

SSW Faculty Local, National, International Research Leaders

Megan Berthold
S. Megan Berthold, PhD
Assistant Professor

Dr. Megan Berthold is Co-PI on a research team that was awarded $100,000 through UConn Health’s Vice President for Research’s Research Excellence Program (REP-UCH) for her proposal “Remote Peer Learning for US-CAMBOdia Community Health Workers Managing Diabetes” (AKA: “PLUS CamboDIA”). She is joined by Julie Wagner of UConn Health (PI) and Thomas Buckley of the School of Pharmacy (Co-PI).

Cambodia is in the midst of a type 2 diabetes epidemic and faces a critical shortage of healthcare workers. In response, Cambodia has developed a national system of community health workers (CHWs), or Village Health Support Guides (Guides). Currently, Guides need more knowledge, training, and support to effect needed health improvements. The research team has developed an evidence-based bilingual diabetes education curriculum called Eat, Walk, Sleep, designed for delivery by CHWs. “We have also developed a cadre of enthusiastic Cambodian-American CHWs who have been thoroughly trained to deliver Eat, Walk, Sleep in Khmer” says Dr. Berthold. “A highly innovative next step is to link the Cambodian Guides and the Cambodian-American CHWs via telehealth for training, continuing education, and ongoing support.” “The critical question for this and other displaced groups is, can lay health workers in the home country and those in the diaspora leverage each other’s efforts to address diabetes?” Dr. Berthold and her team aim to find out.

Caitlin Elsaesser
Caitlin Elsaesser, PhD
Assistant Professor

Dr. Caitlin Elsaesser was awarded $50,000 from the Research Excellence Program (REP) for her proposal “Understanding Social Media Interactions Among Youth Living in Violent Neighborhoods. Dr. Elsaesser was also awarded a $7,500 InCHIP seed grant for a related grant proposal. Dr. Elsaesser “says “while youth violence exposure is nothing new, adolescents are increasingly using social media to communicate with their peers, and social media can be used to facilitate aggression. For youth living in areas with high rates of firearm violence – or with access to firearms themselves – the effects of social media-based aggression can be particularly harmful and even lethal”. Her study will investigate the ways that social media can lead to violence, as well as the strategies youth use to prevent such aggression from happening. “This is critical work in violence prevention, a pressing issue given that homicide is the second leading cause of death among youth”. Dr. Elsaesser will be collaborating with Dr. Desmond Patton of Columbia University, Dr. Christine Ohannessian of University of Connecticut, and Dr. Emily Weinstein of Harvard University.

Dr. Brenda Kurz was awarded $5000 for an InCHIP seed grant focused on building collaborative research. Her study, “Coordinated Pain Management Education with Practice Applications for Interprofessionals,” was jointly submitted with Dr. Paula McCauley from the School of Nursing. In addition, Drs. Caitlin Elsaesser, Megan Feely, and Stephanie Kennedy were awarded $4000 each from the School of Social Work for their submissions to the Dean’s Incentive Award.

Reflecting on these outstanding accomplishments, Dr. Fendrich noted “The UConn School of Social Work faculty are establishing themselves as local, national and international leaders in bringing social work to the table to understand and solve critical public health challenges. These successes demonstrate that UConn SSW is on a very promising research trajectory.”

Faculty Attend NIAAA Fellowship Training in Boston

Barris Malcolm
Barris Malcolm, PhD

Associate Professors Barris Malcolm and Cristina Wilson attended a National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) Fellowship Training event at Boston University.

Drs. Malcolm and Wilson were selected to attend this social work immersion faculty training (SWIFT) that was focused on increasing alcohol and substance abuse content in schools of social work curricula.  The emphasis was on learning the latest in evidence based practices regarding screening tools and interventions. They also reviewed the latest in medications, treatments and teaching strategies.

With support from the NIAAA, the Fellowship program is designed to train Social Work faculty and educate Social Work graduate students in empirically-supported alcohol and other drug (AOD) identification and treatment methods, and incorporate AOD content in the curricula of Schools of Social Work nationwide.

Cristina Wilson
Cristina Wilson, PhD

Crystal Hayes Receives Doctoral Fellowship

Crystal HayesCongratulations to doctoral student, Crystal Hayes, who was recently selected to receive a Council on Social Work Education Minority Fellowship through its Mental Health & Substance Abuse Fellowship Program.

“I am honored and humbled to be joining the CSWE Doctoral MFP community. I am most excited about joining a community of committed academics of color devoted to addressing health disparities and promoting research and scholarship that gives us hope for a more just world.”

These highly competitive fellowships are awarded to social work doctoral students who demonstrate potential for assuming a leadership role in practice, research, teaching, and policy for mental health and substance abuse services to underrepresented and underserved persons and communities.

Fellows receive financial support for up to three years to facilitate completion of their dissertation and related research, and have the opportunity to participate in professional development and other learning opportunities as part of a network of social work doctoral students within the fellowship.

Dr. Kathryn Libal, Crystal’s academic mentor, described Crystal’s research on reproductive health care and justice for incarcerated pregnant women in the United States as one of the few studies in social work on this topic. “Drawing on Black feminist thought, intersectionality, human rights, and theories of reproductive justice, her work will provide crucial insights to policymakers and prison administrators on the impacts of limited access to reproductive health care. As importantly, she stands to shape social work education in efforts to integrate a critical Black feminist perspective on mass incarceration and its effects.”

Crystal Hayes, MSW, is a PhD student at the UConn School of Social Work. She began her social work career in community based mental health, and in nonprofit leadership development and management. She worked at the Center for Child and Family Health at Duke University and her practice was in maternal and pediatric mental health. She was also the Director of Racial Justice and Maternal Child Wellness at the YWCA of the Greater Triangle in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Currently, Crystal is on the part-time faculty at North Carolina State University and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Smith College School for Social Work. Crystal has worked at NC State in the Department of Social Work since 2011 in various capacities in both the undergraduate and graduate social work programs, field education, and curriculum development.