Interview with Leandra Peloquin, MSW, PPSC on Forensic and Clinical Social Work

About Leandra Peloquin, MSW, PPSC: Leandra Peloquin is a school social worker at Notre Dame High School, a Catholic, private college preparatory school for girls. Prior to working at Notre Dame, Ms. Peloquin worked at San Jose’s YWCA Rape Crisis Center for over ten years. During her time at the Rape Crisis Center, she held numerous positions, including Assault Prevention Intervention Specialist, Prevention Coordinator, Client Services Coordinator, and Director. Her work at the Rape Crisis Center was multifaceted, and involved counseling and advocating for victims of rape and domestic violence, implementing interventions, and overseeing the operations of the Crisis Center.

Ms. Peloquin received her Bachelors degree in Administration of Justice from San Jose State University in 2001, and earned her Master of Social Work degree from San Jose State University in 2009. She completed her first field internship at Santa Clara County Juvenile Defenders, and her second field internship at the YWCA of Silicon Valley Counseling Department in San Jose, CA, where she worked as a school social worker for San Jose High School and Peter Burnett Middle School. Leandra Peloquin was compensated to participate in this interview.

[] Can you give an overview of the core responsibilities you had as an advocate for victims of domestic violence at the YWCA’s Rape Crisis Center?

[Leandra Peloquin, MSW, PPSC] I held several different roles throughout my work at the YWCA Rape Crisis Center. The positions that I held (in time order) included Assault Prevention Intervention Specialist (worked as a prevention educator, legal advocate, peer counselor and provided crisis intervention services), Prevention Coordinator (involved managing prevention education services), Client Services Coordinator (involved managing the crisis intervention and legal advocacy programs) and Director. There were several facets that made up the whole of my various positions. The primary facets of the positions included working as a prevention educator, crisis counselor, legal advocate and peer counselor. I worked with all age groups and genders (female and male children, adolescents, adults) in all of these roles. With the coordinator positions that I held, my role also included supervising staff, as well as managing all of the components of that particular program. I will briefly discuss each of the primary roles below.

My role as prevention educator involved providing prevention education to diverse populations regarding the topics of sexual violence, dating violence, and sexual harassment. The majority of prevention education was facilitated in school settings (elementary, middle and high school and college), but we also provided presentations for the community at large. Prevention education services were a large part of the center, as it was our goal to educate the community about this issue in an effort to raise awareness about the topic. As Prevention Education Coordinator, I supervised staff in their prevention education roles. As well, I coordinated the presentations that we provided in the community. In this position, I was able to develop specialized curriculum, provide professional trainings and maintain responsibility for funds brought in through our prevention program.

Providing crisis intervention services to survivors of sexual violence involved covering shifts for a 24-hour hotline, answering crisis calls and responding to the hospital to support victims of sexual assault as they underwent medical/forensic exams. In Santa Clara County, we refer to the medical/forensic exam as a SART. SART stands for Sexual Assault Response Team. That team includes the responding law enforcement officer/s, forensically trained nurse and rape crisis advocate. We also responded to pediatric SARTs (children 12 and under). Although we worked as a team for the better of the client, our role was to support the survivor and their decisions. We notified survivors of their rights as a victim of a sexually violent crime. One of those rights is to have a confidential sexual assault advocate accompany them through every part of the process. Through accompanying them, we could walk them through the process, while providing information and very important emotional support.

Another important aspect of the position was providing legal advocacy services for survivors of sexual violence, while supporting them through the aftermath of sexual trauma. As legal advocates, we would notify survivors of their rights, as frequently victims of sexual violence are not informed of their rights throughout the process. We were able to update survivors about the status of their case, as well as explain the criminal justice system process. There are many steps to a criminal case, and the process can be confusing, daunting and scary. Our center had strong relationships with law enforcement agencies and the District Attorney’s office. The development and maintenance of multidisciplinary relationships was imperative in being able to best serve our clients. As advocates, we were able to accompany survivors to interviews with law enforcement, the DA’s office and any court process (most commonly when they had to testify in court).

One of the goals of legal advocacy services is to assist in minimizing the retraumatization and revictimization that survivors often experience while going through the criminal justice system process. As Client Services Coordinator, I supervised staff within their role as crisis responder and legal advocate. In addition, I assigned cases to advocates, maintained multidisciplinary relationships and provided trainings for staff, law enforcement, the DA’s office and other agencies with which we intersected in our role as sexual assault advocates.

The final aspect of this position included providing peer counseling to survivors of sexual violence, as well as their loved ones. Counseling allowed the survivor a safe space to begin working through the trauma they experienced. In addition, I co-facilitated groups for adult and teen survivors. I also provided counseling services to survivors in juvenile hall and Elmwood jail.

In the last two years of working at the YWCA, I was fortunate enough to become the Director of the center. I still performed all of the roles previously discussed, but on a smaller scale, since the role of Director involved a myriad of essential administrative tasks. As Director, I was responsible for the daily management of department activities, financial stability of the department and alignment of all department programming with the YWCA mission. This included managing all aspects of the center, creating and maintaining budgets, developing and implementing programs and policies, grant writing and reporting, and fundraising, among many other administrative obligations. I continued to maintain the management of our crisis intervention and legal advocacy services. As Director, I felt it was critically important that I continue to participate in direct service work in order to make the best administrative decisions for the benefit of the clients we served.

[] You mentioned that an important part of your work at the Rape Crisis Center was also working with commercially sexually exploited children and minors (CSEC/CSEM). What were your primary responsibilities when working with these children? How was working with sexually exploited children different from working with adult victims of sexual violence?

[Leandra Peloquin, MSW, PPSC] A paramount part of working at the YWCA Rape Crisis Center was working with commercially sexually exploited children/minors (CSEC/CSEM). The commercial sexual exploitation of youth in many cases is also referred to as human sex trafficking. One of the ways in which the YWCA Rape Crisis Center grew services for these youth was to focus on moving towards a model that best served this special population. In my roles as Client Services Coordinator and Director, I wrote about this issue in grant reports in an effort to bring attention to the need for additional funding and specialized services for these youth. We also provided specialized training for advocates who provided intervention services for these youth.

In the first few years of working at the center, there were individual and isolated cases of youth with whom we worked that had would fall into this category. However, in the last maybe 5 or 6 years of working at the center, it became clear that it was a growing issue and a special population that needed to be addressed. When working with CSEMs, we provided the same services as we did for other clients, which included crisis intervention, legal advocacy and peer counseling services. In most cases, these adolescents had disclosed sexual assault and were connected with our services as a result of that disclosure. As time moved forward it became more visible that the number of youth who were being forced or coerced to participate in juvenile prostitution and other forms of exploitation was growing. It was difficult to reach these youth unless there was a sexual assault reported to law enforcement. As agencies began to identify this issue within the purview of their fields (ex: juvenile hall, Department of Family and Children Services, law enforcement, etc.), it started to be addressed from a multidisciplinary lens. This resulted in the development of protocol that allowed our advocates to respond to youth in cases where they had been identified by these agencies as CSEMs.

The experience of youth who have been sexually exploited can be very complicated, as there is much to consider. Frequently, they have experienced trauma prior to the sexual exploitation, and therefore, are dealing with complex trauma. Many have been abused and/or neglected in their homes. Many have had experiences in the child welfare system and/or juvenile justice system, so there is often a mistrust of the system. Although advocates are not part of that system, it can be hard for youth to differentiate that our role was to solely provide support and resources. They often suffer from a lack of healthy support systems (family, other caring adults) and are faced with multiple, pervasive and on-going risk factors. Because of the nature of this cycle of abuse they have experienced in the past and may currently be experiencing, they may not be able to identify what is going on as abusive, exploitive or harmful. These are just some of many considerations that help to explain why services must be tailored to meet their needs.

[] Can you elaborate in greater detail on the role that social workers play when advocating for victims in the criminal justice system? Whether they are working with abused or neglected children, victims of domestic violence, or other vulnerable populations, what specific responsibilities can/do they have? With whom do they interact in the courts and law enforcement?

[Leandra Peloquin, MSW, PPSC] Social workers can play a crucial role in advocating for victims in the criminal justice system. For me, earning a degree in Administration of Justice was key in being able to advocate for survivors in the criminal justice system. There was one particular class I had that focused on criminal law, taught by a then prosecutor and now judge in Santa Clara County, that was instrumental in my understanding of the criminal justice system process. Social workers can play several roles in the criminal justice system. Frequently victims of crime do not have an understanding of their rights or the system itself. Many times they are not informed about what is going on in the process. Social workers can educate victims of crime about their rights, explain each part of the process, and in cases of sexual and domestic violence and child abuse, accompany the survivor to court for court appearances and/or testimony. Social workers can work as advocates within the criminal justice system through rape crisis centers, domestic violence centers and victim witness assistance centers.

At the same time, social workers can provide crisis counseling and on-going emotional support for the client. Social workers do not need to work at a rape crisis center or domestic violence organization in order to provide these services, although it is the way to have the most consistent interaction. Social workers can also work within the juvenile detention center, jails and prison.

[] What have been some of your most rewarding experiences during your time working at the Rape Crisis Center? On the other hand, what were some of the most challenging experiences you had? How did you manage these challenges?

[Leandra Peloquin, MSW, PPSC] In many ways everything about working at the YWCA Rape Crisis Center was a rewarding experience. I really enjoyed every facet of the work. The most rewarding experience was my direct service work clients. Everyday I witnessed such bravery, strength and resilience from those who had experienced significant trauma. It is difficult to articulate in words what an honor it is for someone to allow you to walk with them through something so tremendously difficult. To encapsulate this, I think of something that I heard actress Alfre Woodard say when referring to someone who had disclosed abuse. She said that when somebody discloses abuse there is an obligation to meet their courage right then and there. My work at the YWCA Rape Crisis Center allowed me the privilege of meeting someone’s courage right then and there. That was the work that was most profound and the work that will be forever held in my heart.

One of the most challenging aspects of working at the YWCA Rape Crisis Center is grappling with that fact that we continue to live in a rape supportive culture where sexual violence continues to be an epidemic in our country. It was common to be faced with victim blaming attitudes in every role of my position. Although there have been strides made, we still live in a society that perpetuates, normalizes and even glamourizes beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that perpetuate sexual violence. But on the other side of the token, being able to go into the community and talk about this topic in an attempt to effect change was empowering and hopeful. Actively working to try and change that paradigm added a critical balance to the trauma work. Working with youth was that much more hopeful, because they can really be the ones to bring about cultural change.

I would often get asked how I dealt with the trauma aspect of the work. In this position, you see and hear about hurt and pain everyday and hear stories that expose you to the dark side to humanity. It is something that has to be seriously considered when working in this field, as it can lead to burn out. I would say that self-care is non-negotiable in this work. It is important to not take it all on, but just as important not to become desensitized. The work may be hard, but the clients inspire hope every day. As well, working with a strong team of people is paramount, as they understand the work on a completely different level than most. That can feed a positive energy in the work as well.

[] How do you recommend students who are interested in criminal justice social work prepare for the specific responsibilities and challenges of this profession?

[Leandra Peloquin, MSW, PPSC] My recommendation for students who are interested in criminal justice social work is to take courses that prepare them with a working understanding of the criminal justice system process. I believe that my education allowed me to be a more effective advocate because it provided me with knowledge that may have been otherwise difficult to obtain. This included being able to explain the process to clients and their loved ones and working directly with law enforcement, probation officers and prosecutors. That being said, having a degree in criminal justice is not essential for criminal justice social work. The majority of advocates that worked at the YWCA Rape Crisis Center did not have degrees in criminal justice. They were provided trainings that educated them about the system while working within it. If students were not able to participate in field internships or employment to gain experience in this area, I would recommend volunteering at a rape crisis or domestic violence organization. As a volunteer, they may not be able to be directly involved with the criminal justice process (depending on the role of their volunteer work), but they can certainly learn more about it through those employed at the organization. But I would only recommend this for those who want to work with survivors. At rape crisis and domestic violence centers, working with survivors is the core and heart of the work.

[] Could you please elaborate on your field internship with Santa Clara County Juvenile Defenders, and how this internship connects to your work in criminal justice social work post-graduation?

[Leandra Peloquin, MSW, PPSC] While earning my masters degree, I also worked at Juvenile Defenders for my field internship. In my field internship with Juvenile Defenders, I worked with an attorney who represented children in the child welfare system. When a child is removed from their home as a result of abuse and/or neglect, they are provided with an attorney. My role in working with the attorney was to meet with the child to see how they were doing in their current placement. As well, I discussed with the child what they would like to see happen. Finally, there were times where I would accompany a child to a supervised visit with a parent and/or family member.

This was a unique opportunity because this was the first time Juvenile Defenders was utilizing social workers to meet with their clients. The attorneys had large caseloads and were very busy in dependency court. One of the attorney’s roles was to represent the child’s thoughts of what they would like in court. If the child wanted to be back home, the attorney did represent their voice in court, even if it was not the recommendation of the attorney.

My experience with Juvenile Defenders impacted my professional work in a number of ways. First, it developed my understanding of juvenile dependency court processes and the child welfare system as a whole. Acquiring an understanding of this system provided me with salient knowledge of a complex system that would be very helpful in my work at YWCA Rape Crisis Center, as well as my work in schools. I worked with many children who are currently in the child welfare system or have been part of it at some point in their lives. Knowing this made me a more effective advocate in that it educated me about a broad scope of additional considerations for children involved in this system.

Next, it served as a way of making professional connections with social workers that worked for the Department of Family and Children’s Services. It has proved very helpful to have positive and collaborative relationships with those who work within other systems. In addition, I was able to provide training to the YWCA Rape Crisis Center staff and volunteers about the juvenile dependency system, and when applicable, integrate that knowledge as an important consideration in our work. Finally, I was able to gain clinical experience working with children who had been victims of abuse and neglect. (Most of my cases at Juvenile Defenders were cases of neglect and physical abuse.) I feel fortunate to have had the experience of working at Juvenile Defenders, as it continues to inform my work as a social worker.

Thank you Ms. Peloquin for your time and insights into clinical social work.