MSW alumna aspires to work with children who’ve been abused or trafficked

*Editor’s note: this story originally appeared in the 2019-2020 edition of Outreach

Aug. 19, 2020
By David Miller

Christina Jones, right, met regularly with Dr. Leah Cheatham, her field supervisor, during her placement at the UA School of Law.

Shortly after earning her undergraduate degree in psychology, Christina Jones accepted a job in a law office. It was initially a temporary job to bridge to her first “career” job, but she quickly transitioned to doing case management for the firm, which specialized in personal injury cases.

Her role at the firm illuminated the complex issues clients faced and the “presuppositions” lawyers had in trying to serve their clients.

“In that role, I saw the outlines for social work in each of these cases, especially as we served so many indigent clients,” Jones said. “I wanted to do everything for them, but I wasn’t able to.”

Jones’ experiences led her to the MSW program at the University of Alabama School of Social Work, and, in the 2019 spring semester, a transformative field placement that would reimmerse her in the field of law and test the boundaries of ethics between law practice and social work.

Jones was placed in the UA law clinic, primarily in the Elder Law Clinic, where law school students referred her cases in which clients had needs that social workers would typically handle.

The placement was a first for both the UA School of Law and the School of Social Work and presented many logistical and ethical challenges to Jones, her field supervisor, Dr. Leah Cheatham, and her law school task supervisor and Elder Law Clinic director, Allyson Gold. During the first half of the placement, Jones was part of a “multi-disciplinary model” in which she operated as a social worker independent of the law students at the clinic, which prevented her from knowing details prior to receiving a client. This arrangement was done to shield Jones from potential ethical dilemmas in confidentiality and mandated reporting, Cheatham said.

The second half of the placement allowed Jones to work closer with the law school students and have greater access to case details, which allowed for a more enriching interaction and further tested her comfort of her “ethics being pressured.” Jones said being “safeguarded” against these ethical dilemmas in the first half of the internship was constricting and frustrating. But, when she provided updates about her placement in her field seminar, she found that, unlike her classmates, she was more comfortable operating under two sets of ethics.

“I wanted to view myself within the construct of the law school ethics and social work ethics and see where I felt comfortable,” Jones said. “To be adaptable, malleable and work in an interdisciplinary setting is not for every person. I actually found that, when we were functioning with our own separate ethics and I didn’t know details, I felt like I was more implicated because I didn’t have the opportunity to talk and share. I was just ignorant to whatever was going on.”

A “symbiotic relationship”

When Jones interviewed for the field placement, she was told that having a social worker at the clinic embodied the clinic’s message for its students to explore the significance of their clients’ problems and how, “holistically, they arrived at those problems.”

For instance, lawyers might not consider how someone fighting a home foreclosure may have variables beyond their control, like the status of family members living in the home. Jones said that, with this additional context, the law students began to see clients more like people that were hindered by their environment. Consequently, law school students were able to better define client issues and how to address them, Jones said.

“[Law students] felt like they had the headspace to process and discuss it,” Jones said. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t label it or talk about it; not to reject it, but because it didn’t process and was easy to overlook, especially to lawyers, who have very clear definitions for everything they talk about.”

Jones further expanded the law students’ knowledge of social work resources and how to connect clients by creating an 80-page resource guide to fit the categories they would need. The law students were “shocked” by the number of services in the seven counties they serve, Jones said.

“To be able to provide that to them and to let them know, ‘you can provide these referrals to clients, even if there’s not a social worker involved in your case ,’” Jones said, “… they felt empowered by this. They were building relationships past the legal ramifications of the case.”

Perceptions of social workers

Social workers continually deal with the perception that they “tear families apart.”

Jones helped dispel this stereotype in her most challenging case of a complex family situation that originally began as a land dispute. Some of the clients shared concerns about neglect of a family member who wasn’t a client. Typically, most lawyers wouldn’t dig deeper into that revelation, Jones said.

Jones, under social work ethics and being “implicated emotionally,” had to find out more.

“They presented the case to me without names, so I wouldn’t be implicated legally,” Jones said. “They shared the conversations with me, and from our different vantage points, our team discussed situations like this in which they would not have to report it.”

The team ultimately decided to allow Jones to talk to the family, and she discovered “tension and a broken family.” She ultimately recommended the clients speak with the other family members about the neglect, which was unsuccessful, she said.

“We then encouraged them to go to DHR,” Jones said, “so I didn’t feel like I was implicated by not reporting.

“This conversation was a good opportunity to show the law students that just because you report something, it doesn’t mean we take anyone and break up families.”

Macro, mezzo or micro?

If Jones seems destined for a career in law, she agrees … sort of.

Jones aspires to work with children who have been abused or trafficked. In May, she completed a macro-level internship with Shared Hope International, a human trafficking policy agency in Washington, D.C., before completing her MSW. She currently works as a mental health therapist at AltaPoint Health Systems in Mobile.

Working in a legal setting isn’t off the table, whether or not she pursues a juris doctorate. Wherever her post-MSW career goes, she said her case work at the law school will be an asset.

For instance, at the 48th annual Alabama-Mississippi Social Work Conference in early October 2019, she discussed the importance of knowing the “inner workings” of a case to maintain rapport with clients, which social workers aren’t always privy to. This factor was revealed in her case work, field placement and in her work with the Working on Womanhood intervention program for teens in Tuscaloosa.

“I found that working in personal injury law as a case manager – when I didn’t need to know everything – I immediately felt the shift in the relationship,” Jones said.