The University Record, April 19, 1999

School of Social Work takes research to the field

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services
Social Work Prof. Kathleen Faller heads the CIVITAS Child and Family Program, part of a national initiative to educate and train professions to work directly with abused and neglected children. Photo by Gregory Fox

The profession of social work has a tradition rich in accomplishment. Child labor laws, the minimum wage, Social Security, Medicare and persons with mental illness all came about in part because the social work profession and committed individuals sought to remedy injustices plaguing our society in the past century.

As the profession, embarks on a new century, schools of social work are discovering new knowledge and better ways to train future social workers to help meet the basic human needs of all people, especially the vulnerable, the oppressed and those living in poverty.

Behind this commitment to educate knowledgeable and qualified social workers and to help social welfare institutions improve the well-being of economically and socially disadvantaged groups is a basic tenet of high-quality social work education--the creation of knowledge through research.

As one of the leading schools of its kind in the country, the School of Social Work is renowned for its diversity and depth of scholarly inquiry, from research focusing on domestic violence, mental health, aging, juvenile justice, and race and gender issues, to substance abuse, poverty, welfare reform, teen pregnancy, and abused and neglected children.

"The research being conducted by faculty and graduate and post-doctoral students at the School of Social Work represents breadth in terms of the level of study. That is, topics range from the study of individuals, their families and significant others, and their communities, to studies of social service delivery systems and social problems," says Carol Mowbray, associate professor and associate dean of research.

Mowbray says that faculty at the School of Social Work currently receive about $25 million in grants for some 75 research projects. These studies are funded by various federal, state and community agencies, foundations, corporations and internal funding sources. Another two dozen research grant proposals, totaling $2.6 million, are pending approval.

"The total funding amount is the most since we have been tracking research awards at the School," she says. "We also have found that the number of grant awards from all sources has been consistently rising over the years."

According to Mowbray, the School has received major funding in several areas: mental health services for adults with long-term serious mental illness, effects of poverty and violence, reducing risk of HIV infection, government policies on substance abuse services to women, applied issues of aging, and transforming social work to advance the well-being of youth.

Another area that has received a great deal of funding support is welfare reform, especially its effects on women experiencing mental health and substance abuse problems and domestic violence.

Sheldon Danziger, the Henry J. Meyer Collegiate Professor of Social Work and Public Policy and director of the School's Center on Poverty, Risk, and Mental Health, says that much of the poverty and welfare reform research being done at Michigan is unique because it focuses not only on labor market issues but also on the health and mental health of welfare recipients.

"Of the leading poverty research centers in the nation, Michigan is the only one that emphasizes mental health issues," he says.

"This is because of the close links between social work faculty and psychology, sociology and psychiatry faculty."

Current projects of the Center on Poverty, Risk, and Mental Health include research on the effects of welfare reform on mental health and child development; the impact of early onset psychiatric disorders on adult socio-economic well-being; and poverty, depression and maternal and child health. The center, established in 1995, is one of only a handful of social work research centers funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

Other poverty research conducted by social work faculty is carried out at the Michigan Program on Poverty and Social Welfare Policy, a collaboration between the schools of Social Work and Public Policy and the Law School to promote multidisciplinary research on policy questions and to translate research findings to public policy decision-makers. Current projects include implementing welfare-to-work in Michigan and barriers to the employment of welfare recipients.Work done by faculty on family and interpersonal violence has attracted national attention.

The Project for Research on Welfare, Work, and Domestic Violence, co-directed by Richard Tolman, associate professor of social work, was established by the U-M and the Taylor Institute in Chicago to address the link between welfare and domestic violence issues. Current research includes the relationship between domestic abuse, poverty and women's health, and children's, parents' and teachers' reasoning about poverty and violence in school and neighborhood contexts.

According to Daniel Saunders, associate professor of social work, coordinator of the School's Faculty Interest Group on Interpersonal Violence and co-director of the University's Interdisciplinary Research Program on Violence Across the Lifespan, there are few, if any, schools of social work that are as engaged in as much research on interpersonal violence as Michigan.

"Six of our faculty focus primarily on research to understand and prevent violence, while several additional faculty include some aspect of violence research in their work," he says. "We try to better understand the risk factors and effects of violence in a way that leads directly to new policies and programs. We also conduct evaluations of these policies and programs."

From research on the detection of domestic violence by caseworkers and physicians to the traumatic effects of psychological and physical abuse of women, to intervention treatment programs for men who batter, the work of Saunders and colleagues is frequently cited nationwide.

Other social work researchers focus on violence in schools, physical and sexual aggression by teens, and child abuse and neglect.

The CIVITAS Child and Family Program, headed by social work Prof. Kathleen Faller, is part of a national initiative to educate and train professionals to work directly with abused and neglected children. Faller also directs the School of Social Work's interdisciplinary Family Assessment Clinic, which provides assessment and treatment in cases involving possible or actual child maltreatment and conducts research on issues related to child abuse.

Involvement with the citizens in the communities graduate students are learning to serve is an important aspect of outreach activities conducted by the School of Social Work. Much of the research at the School focuses on children, infants and teens, and it recently received a $1.5 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to support a Global Program on Youth. The program will bring together scholars, policy-makers and service providers to discuss issues of youth in schools and communities, child welfare, children rights and family violence. Photo by Philip Dattilo
A great deal of research carried out by social work faculty focuses on children, infants and teens. The School recently received a $1.5 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to support a Global Program on Youth, which brings together broad-based groups of scholars, policy-makers and service providers to confront issues of youth in schools and communities, child welfare, children's rights and family violence.

"The program addresses the lack of attention given to the translation of research into public policy and in the delivery of social services," says Paula Allen-Meares, dean of the School of Social Work and principal investigator of the Global Program on Youth. "It also demonstrates how higher education and the social work profession can have a significant impact on the well-being of youth throughout the world by restructuring the way the School of Social Work relates to human service communities at the state, national and international levels.

"The ultimate goal of the program is the transformation of the way social workers are trained, how social work research is disseminated and how technical assistance is provided."

Several social work researchers specialize in such youth-related areas as adoption, foster care, adolescent development and sexuality, substance abuse and child mental health. At the other end of the spectrum, many other faculty focus their work on issues of aging, including role transitions among the elderly, social support, care-giving and health.

Still other social work faculty conduct research in employment and labor relations; community organization; program evaluation; social work practice; and organization theory, management and human services.

In all, research carried out by School of Social Work faculty has a great societal impact, Mowbray says. A key element of social work research, she adds, is the link between research and practice.

"Social work has consistently been a key profession in delivering human services and in formulating policy," she says.

"While faculty at the School of Social Work have consistently achieved prominence in their receipt of external funding and in their scholarly activities, we have definitely increased our research productivity. This change is congruent with national trends in the social work profession, with more emphasis placed on social work research and knowledge development to guide the profession."