Social Welfare Celebrates Fifty Years

The School Has Evolved as Social Conditions Have Changed

by Mary Ellen Butler

Since its beginning in 1944, Berkeley's School of Social Welfare has trained its students to meet the toughest challenges society can throw at them.

After all, the historic underpinnings of the study of social work and social welfare at Berkeley were "poverty, charity, and child welfare," notes Dean Harry Specht, writing in the 50th anniversary edition of the journal Social Welfare at Berkeley. But could the school's founders have imagined the day when social workers, like one child-protection worker in Alameda County, would don bulletproof vests before entering a drug house where children might be abused or neglected?

Maybe not, says Paul Terrell, the school's coordinator of academic programs and one of the major planners of a 50th anniversary weekend of special events Oct. 14-16.

Still, "it's a hard field," he says matter-of-factly. The school's mission--to prepare professionals for careers in the public social services--takes it right into the heart of today's most intractable social ills.

A full one-third of its master's of social welfare graduates go into child welfare. But children and families is just one of four areas in which students can specialize. Health, community mental health, and gerontology are the other options. These specialties reflect shifting imperatives as social conditions change--and society changes its mind about what's most important.

Students who specialize in health, for instance, may work with the developmentally disabled, people with AIDS, the homeless, substance abusers, impoverished pregnant women, or undocumented residents.

Many of those who specialized in mental health once worked in large, state-run hospitals, although some went into lucrative private therapy. But when the state nearly emptied its hospitals in the '60s, the school had to adapt to new conditions.

Moreover, since 1977 when Specht became dean, faculty have steered students away from private practice and toward public service. Now, graduates more likely will be found in community-based mental health clinics or local school districts.

The graying of America led to the schools' gerontology specialty. Founded in 1968, three years after passage of the Older Americans Act, the program was one of the first in the country.

Whatever their area of interest, master's and doctoral students are grounded in the theory of social welfare as well as the practice, says Terrell.

In addition to teaching, faculty share their research findings in such areas as the causes of social problems and financing and delivery of social-welfare programs.

Forged in the crucible of the campus student activism of the late '60s and early '70s, the school's quest for greater diversity continues.

Besides graduating more African-Americans than years ago, the school also sponsors programs that focus on serving Latino and American Indian cultures.

And it heads the statewide California Social Work Education Center, a partnership among 10 graduate schools of social welfare, 58 counties, and the National Association of Social Workers to prepare students for public social-welfare service.

During its half century, the School of Social Welfare has worked hard to become well established on the Berkeley campus, then highly ranked nationally. "So we thought this was an important time to take stock of the progress of the school, the profession, and the field over the last half century," says Specht.

As part of that assessment, the faculty will continue to "formulate a clearer vision of the function of social work and social welfare in American society," he says. In the meantime, the school will continue to wade into society's most troubled waters.

Jeff Selbin, a staff attorney who helped start the service for people with HIV, said the service grew out of a needs assessment two years ago.

"At the time, one of the two big reasons to start the HIV clinic was that there were no formal requirements for what constituted HIV-related disability. The law is complicated and not clear," said Selbin. "The other problem was that people were having a real tough time making it through the bureaucratic process."

With supervision by Selbin and his partner, recent Boalt graduate Daniel Barba, students help clients get through the red tape. While most law clinics help clients only during the legal hearing stage, Berkeley Community Law Center helps people from beginning to end.

"The biggest eye opener was the bureaucratic mess people have to deal with," said Velasco. "It's astounding what they have to go through to be considered disabled."

Other problems for clients with HIV involve wills, powers of attorney, and guardianship issues. Barba said conflicts often arise between families of a terminally ill client and their gay or bisexual partner over guardianship of children, inheritances, and even hospital visiting rights.

"We had one man who was estranged from his family for six years because he was gay. The man got AIDS, and when he became gravely ill, his family stepped back in to the picture and kept his lover away," said Barba. "It happens quite frequently."

Recent changes in state law--thanks to legislation co-authored by Selbin with the help of students and another attorney--enable a terminally ill parent to designate a guardian without relinquishing all rights.

The bill allows the custodial parent with a terminal disease (the bill was designed specifically for sufferers of AIDS and breast cancer) to appoint a second person as a joint guardian.


Copyright 1994, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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