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Social work students affecting communities well before graduation

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L. Brian Stauffer

Claudia Sergent, left, is pursuing a master's in social work while working as a social worker for the Illinois Department of Aging's Office of Elder Rights in Springfield, Ill. Jen Harper, an alumna of the School of Social Work, is employed at Carle Foundation Hospital, after having had an internship there as a student.

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4/14/2011 | Sharita Forrest, Education/Social Work Editor | 217-244-1072;

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Before budding social workers grab their diplomas and embark on the next phase of their careers, many already have begun leaving indelible marks on the lives of people in their communities.

A Champaign social worker and recent graduate of the School of Social Work at the University of Illinois founded a program at a hospital in Urbana, Ill., that helps bereaved parents deal with the deaths of their babies by providing burial attire for the infants.

Jen Harper, of Champaign, who initiated the burial gown program while working as an intern at Carle Foundation Hospital’s maternity and delivery unit last fall, said it is modeled after the Mary Madeline Project in Omaha, Neb., which uses a network of volunteer seamstresses to create burial gowns for infants and burial envelopes for miscarried babies from donated wedding dresses. The organization sent 40 burial gowns and envelopes to the program at Carle Hospital after Harper contacted them.

The service is part of the Perinatal Bereavement Program, which also provides blankets and mementos such as memory boxes and photos to families who suffer an infant death, stillbirth or miscarriage. Each month, three to four families experience infant deaths and another 15 or so suffer miscarriages, said Linda Ellison, perinatal bereavement coordinator at Carle Hospital, whose daughter suffered a stillbirth, a miscarriage and the death of a preterm infant.

Harper said that many parents whose infants die find their grief compounded by their inability to find garments small enough to fit their tiny babies – and that are appropriate for an infant’s funeral rather than its joyous homecoming.

“It was really rewarding to be able to provide parents with something comforting,” Harper said, adding that during her internship she also helped counsel teen mothers and build awareness among new mothers about postpartum depression. Like many students, she was hired by the organization where she interned and is now a social worker at the hospital.

 Before Harper entered the School of Social Work, she was active in the community as an undergraduate in psychology at Illinois, volunteering at Rape Crisis Services and leading safety programs for local elementary school students.

For Claudia Sergent, a student in the program and a social worker in the Illinois Department on Aging’s Office of Elder Rights in Springfield, Ill., the spark to help others was lit when a social worker spoke to Sergent’s sixth-grade class in Divernon, Ill., about investigating child abuse cases. Years later, as a teenager Sergent realized that she wanted to spend her life working with the elderly after she helped her close-knit family care for her great-grandmother for 2 1/2 years as dementia and aging eroded the elderly woman’s cognitive and physical capabilities prior to her death.

Now Sergent investigates reports of financial exploitation, abuse and neglect of Illinois’ elderly, and through a dual appointment in the Department on Aging’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, she’s also an advocate for residents who live in licensed care facilities.

“My job is very meaningful because I’m directly impacting individuals’ lives,” said Sergent, who graduated cum laude from the U. of I. at Springfield’s social work program in 2006 and expects to graduate from the MSW program at Urbana in August.

 “Anyone who goes into the social work field, goes into it because their heart is in the field” helping other people, said Anita Patel, a social worker who’s earning an MSW through the School of Social Work’s outreach program, which enables students already employed in social services to complete the degree through off-campus classes that rotate among four sites around the state. Patel is also a full-time employee in the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services.

The internship portion of the MSW program helps students link their experiences in the field with classroom work, building the 10 core competencies – which include ethics and professionalism, diversity and critical thinking – required by the Council on Social Work Accreditation, said Mary Maurer, who is the director of MSW field education and a clinical professor in the School of Social Work.

Advanced-standing students – those who enter the master’s program with a bachelor’s degree in social work – complete a one-semester internship after they’ve finished the academics, while students without a BSW intern for two semesters. The School of Social Work has about 120 students performing internships each academic year – perhaps working with special needs children, counseling families or individuals, or writing grant proposals for organizations, Maurer said.

The internship experience has given Patel “a whole different perspective” on the social work profession.

“I’ve been so excited to see how policy changes trickle down,” Patel said. “Now I see that in policymaking you’re helping thousands – even millions – of people.”

The mother of two teenagers, Patel graduated cum laude from the BSW program at UIS in 2009 and expects to graduate with her MSW in May. She has worked at the Department of Healthcare and Family Services for eight years, and now works two days a week in the agency’s various bureaus to fulfill the internship and works the other three days each week at her regular job.

During her internship, she has researched the changes that will have to be made to websites and printed materials when the state implements modifications to Medicaid in July and October, and researched the residential mental health programs offered in other states to create a reference tool for Illinois policymakers.

Likewise, Sergent’s internship has comprised policy work, monitoring and writing position papers about bills in Illinois that, if passed, could affect the state’s elderly residents.

“I think that (the legislative process) is a very neat process,” said Sergent, who spent about a year working with the elderly in another capacity prior to joining the Department on Aging. “I was in direct service (previously), and I think that we need to have people who are able to speak to the legislators, see them day to day (and advocate) on behalf of (case workers) that are in the field.”

Sergent is working with other Department on Aging officials reviewing and approving financial exploitation training programs that Illinois banks have developed for their employees, in accordance with a new law signed last July by Gov. Pat Quinn that requires banks to train employees whose jobs entail public contact on recognizing and reporting suspected financial exploitation of elderly customers.

Editor's note: To report elder abuse: 1-866-800-1409 (Illinois Department on Aging)
                        Long-term care facility complaint hotline: 1-800-252-4343

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