By Kaitlin Louie
About Jessica Warner, LMSW: Jessica Warner is a Forensic Social Worker at The Legal Aid Society, where she works within the Juvenile Rights Practice, Special Litigation and Law Reform Unit. Ms. Warner and her colleagues use impact litigation, coalition building, and policy advocacy to improve the lives of NYC children in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Prior to this position, Ms. Warner worked for over six years at The Legal Aid Society’s Brooklyn Trial Office, where she was on an interdisciplinary team representing individual children in a variety of family court matters. In addition to her work for The Legal Aid Society, Ms. Warner is Co-Chair of a New York State Juvenile Justice Coalition work group in Conditions of Confinement, and recently completed a fellowship with Rene Cassin, a non-governmental organization that works to protect and promote universal human rights through education initiatives and advocacy campaigns. She is also a member of the Advocacy Council for the Citizen’s Committee for Children. Prior to her work at The Legal Aid Society, Ms. Warner worked, interned and volunteered in several out-of-home care and corrections facilities for both youth and adults, including Milhous Children’s Center, Folsom Prison (through Friends Outside), the Office of Children and Family Services’ Highland Residential Center, the California Youth Authority’s Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility, the Boys Republic, and the Shamrock Cottages.
Ms. Warner earned her Bachelor of Arts in both Sociology and Psychology from Pitzer College in 2001, graduating with honors in Sociology. She completed her graduate work at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany, where she completed a dual degree program that allowed her to earn both her MSW and a Master of Arts in Criminal Justice in 2006. Since graduating, Ms. Warner has completed leadership certificate programs in both children’s policy, through the Citizens Committee for Children, and non-profit leadership, through Fordham University’s Center for Nonprofit Leaders, which is jointly run by the Graduate School of Social Service and the Gabelli School of Business.
Ms. Warner has been licensed in the state of New York since 2007 as an LMSW, and holds a Seminar in Field Instruction (SIFI) certification from Columbia University. She has served as Adjunct Faculty for Columbia’s School of Social Work and will be teaching a course in Social Policy for Hunter College’s (CUNY) Silberman School of Social Work in Fall of 2015. She also co-coordinates and teaches for the People’s Education Initiative, a grassroots all-volunteer group that provides academic and vocational services to women detained on Rikers Island.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Could you please describe your current responsibilities as a Forensic Social Worker with the Special Litigation and Law Reform department at the Legal Aid Society?
[Jessica Warner, LMSW] In my current position, I provide systemic advocacy within the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, through consultation and in-house social work expertise in a nonprofit law firm. Every day is a little bit different, but some of the specific things we do to develop and implement law and policy reform strategies include identifying and researching systemic trends impacting our clients, conducting background literature reviews, investigating agency and placement procedures and conditions through record reviews, site visits and interviews with residents, monitoring compliance with settlements by reviewing records, following up with our staff to see how client services have improved or not, and meeting with providers to raise concerns. We also participate in many citywide initiatives and coalitions, provide internal and external trainings, developing testimony for city council hearings, and write letters to the governor. In doing all of this work, I am part of an interdisciplinary team and each case or other form of advocacy involves at least one attorney and usually a paralegal. There are no other social workers in my unit, but the work we do with external initiatives and coalitions often involves other social workers, as well as people from a variety of other disciplines sometimes.
Often the systemic injustices that we encounter involve our clients living outside of the home. For example the conditions may be unacceptable in some way or another, or the children with whom we work haven’t been provided with acceptable living conditions to begin with, or they have been kept in a restrictive setting past the time they are required to remain in a specific setting. This goes for both foster youth and youth involved with the juvenile justice system. Our efforts in cases like this involve advocacy to improve conditions, gaining acceptable placement for a class of youth, or preventing a class of youth from continuing to be restricted to a setting they are no longer required to live in. We work on many other types of cases as well, but this is an area in which we have several matters pending now and that tends to re-occur.
In addition to the challenges that our plaintiffs face in the above referenced ways, they also often are dealing with stressors related to a history of trauma and/or stressors related to becoming independent adults. As the only social worker in my unit, I also do what I can to provide advocacy outside of that which we provide on our class action lawsuits, but it is tough to do much of that as one person and on top of my other responsibilities. We often stay in touch with our plaintiffs after a case has resolved so sometimes current clients are also competing with former clients for social work advocacy. It’s really unfortunate that we don’t have a larger team. Much of this work could be done by attorneys and paralegals as well but they have the same capacity issues that I have.
We work with all kinds of other non-profit agencies across New York City that specialize in child welfare, juvenile justice, and criminal justice on a variety of coalitions. Some of these include The Correctional Association, The Osborne Association, Lawyers for Children, Advocates for Children, the Children’s Defense Fund, Hour Children, Community Connections for Youth, Center for Community Alternatives, and The Drama Club just to name a few. This work might involve developing and rolling out a campaign, providing testimony before a city council hearing, submitting comments on draft governmental policies, developing and facilitating trainings for other providers in the field, and providing consultation to one another to name just a few again.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Could you explain how your role and responsibilities at The Legal Aid Society have evolved over your nearly nine years at the organization? How would you suggest students who are interested in working in justice-related social work at the macro level enter this field?
[Jessica Warner, LMSW] When I first started working at The Legal Aid Society, I was on a “probationary” status. That was just for the first six months, but it meant I had to go through a lengthy training process, closely shadow someone else, and could only work on a small number of cases. The Legal Aid Society’s Juvenile Rights Practice also requires that staff doing direct practice work specialize in one area, so my specialization was in juvenile justice. Although I have in the past, and continue to now work in child welfare and criminal justice, the area that I had and probably still have the most experience in is juvenile justice. After a couple of years, I asked to not be required to specialize anymore (most staff specialize for the duration of their Legal Aid careers), and I began working in both child welfare and juvenile justice (the two areas that our practice works in most), as well as picking up other types of family court cases. I also began to specialize in crossover youth who are dually involved with both the child welfare and juvenile justice system, as I had already completed my honors thesis work on that population as an undergrad and had been following the research, theory and practice on these youth ever since that time.
Since I already knew even going into graduate school that I wanted to do macro/systemic work, I also started asking and/or volunteering to take on other responsibilities at The Legal Aid Society. I assisted the unit I work in now, our special litigation and law reform unit, on an investigation for about a year, I started joining internal committees to improve our practice, and I started providing field instruction to MSW students. The Legal Aid Society also began asking me to co-facilitate trainings for new staff and, after some time, I developed a couple of trainings and workshops as well. I also joined some external coalitions, including the NY Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents and the Juvenile Justice Coalition, for which I am now a Co-Chair.
At some point several years back, the Special Litigation and Law Reform Unit that I work in now decided they wanted a full time social worker on staff. I feel fortunate to have that position now because I think it’s rare in the social work field. Despite what I understand the original mission of social work to be, which focused on social change and social justice advocacy, the social work field has taken a major turn toward clinical and therapeutic work over the years. I had no idea going into graduate school that this was the case and I have been disappointed and frustrated about that ever since. Not only are there very limited opportunities for social workers in this area, but also the social change arena has essentially lost an entire discipline and profession of people. I wish I could say that I think macro-level forensic social work is an emerging field, but I think I’m just lucky to have the position that I have.
I absolutely think all social workers should do some direct practice social work first. I actually think anyone who works in social services, social change, human rights, etc. (not just social workers) should work at a direct practice level first. That is how you get to know the nuances of the real issues that real human beings face. Not only do I think social workers should start there, but I also think they need to continue to stay in touch even after moving on to macro practice and/or administrative work. Maybe that means doing community activist or volunteer work on the side. I also think people who want to do direct practice work for the duration of their careers should be given responsibilities to do some macro-level work and should educate themselves in systemic factors impacting their clients or consumers. It’s really important to understand both sides of the work no matter what role you’re in, and I don’t think any of us can do our best work without that understanding.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] As a Co-Chair for the Correctional Association of New York’s Juvenile Justice Coalition’s Conditions of Confinement Work Group, how do you advocate for safer and more humane conditions inside youth detention and incarceration facilities?
[Jessica Warner, LMSW] We use similar strategies in the Coalition work group that I Co-Chair as we do at The Legal Aid Society. Within the Coalition, we each have our specializations, and we use those to develop testimony for city council hearings, meet with government agencies, and construct trainings and listening sessions for community members. Occasionally we hold events related to juvenile justice issues as well.
Recently we have been focusing on growing the Coalition, as there is power in numbers, and this way we can increase the areas of specialization that we are able to cover. Our members include individuals from non-profit and community-based organizations all over New York City and we are hosted by The Correctional Association of NY. We also have members from a variety of disciplines, not just policy. Most are social workers and attorneys but we also have people who work in youth development, theatre, education, etc.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Why did you decide to work in political advocacy, and what have been some of your most rewarding experiences thus far? On the other hand, what have been some of the most challenging aspects of your role in political social work?
[Jessica Warner, LMSW] I actually wouldn’t characterize my work as political advocacy per se, but regardless of what we call it, the most rewarding part by far is that I get to stand up on behalf of marginalized children and adolescents all day every day. It isn’t necessarily fun work, but I feel like I’m doing something that really needs to be done. Essentially I feel like I’m where I should be. Mostly that’s because I stand behind the values of the work, that all children deserve a safe and healthy environment to grow up in, and that that environment should be a home with a loving family rather than an institution. Since I work in both child welfare and juvenile justice, and specialize in the crossover between the two, I am particularly passionate about issues surrounding the criminalization of foster care youth and of children who have been victimized in general. Unfortunately this is a population of youth who are handled particularly poorly, and by both systems. They face the greatest challenges and discrimination within the family court system. It feels good to protect and enhance the rights and well being of youth in either/both systems. I consider it extremely important work.
As for the challenges, there are certainly many. Mostly it’s frustrating to experience how much regard society has for children, but for what seems to be only certain children. I think most people recognize that children are more vulnerable than adults and that they deserve our careful and thoughtful attention and care. But that doesn’t always seem to extend to poor children, children of color, children with disabilities, children who identify as LGBTQI, or a myriad of other ways in which children can be and are marginalized. These children are not seen and heard enough, and when they are, they are often still ignored. The system is under-resourced and very slow moving in terms of progress. We also often end up taking steps backwards depending on what is happening with the economy of course.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Could you please describe your experiences as a Rene Cassin Fellow for Human Rights, and how this fellowship impacted your current work in advocacy, program development, and education?
[Jessica Warner, LMSW] Rene Cassin is a non-governmental organization (NGO), operating out of London, that does human rights work internationally. Rene Cassin himself was one of the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He was a Jewish man and the fellowship is meant to provide human rights education from a Jewish perspective.
As human rights fellows, we participated in a monthly seminar on a variety of human rights issues and also had the opportunity to travel to Israel-Palestine to study the populations and human rights issues and activism going on there. Both the monthly seminar and the case study of Israel-Palestine were amazing. We heard from government officials, activists, academics, etc. whom I would never otherwise have had the opportunity to meet with, and we were able to study the issues in a very nuanced way. We each had to pick a convention to study in depth as well, and of course, I chose the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This gave me the opportunity to study children’s rights in a more comprehensive and international manner than I would otherwise have had the opportunity to do.
As part of the fellowship we were each responsible for developing an impact project as well. I chose to conduct my project with a very small non-profit that provides an elective-based human rights curriculum in a few NYC high schools. I worked on revising and adding to their existing curriculum, particularly by making it more relevant for youth through the incorporation of more children’s rights issues. I also worked with the classes to develop advocacy campaigns after they each selected a specific issue to work on. I worked most closely with one class who chose to work on child abuse within the foster care system.
I think the most powerful impact it has had on my work outside of the fellowship, aside from educating me even further in children’s rights issues and human rights work generally, was to strengthen my resolve to work for the rights, as opposed to needs, of others. I certainly believe social services are necessary, as we will always have members of our society who have a need for them for different reasons, but it’s most important to me to fight for social change and social justice. Essentially I want to change the social conditions that create the high level of need for social services. Unfortunately there are many ways in which certain members of our society are both marginalized and oppressed and it’s important to me to keep doing my part to push back against that on behalf of both children and people who are institutionalized.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] For MSW students who are interested in becoming community specialists or working in political advocacy, what advice can you give them about optimally preparing for this field while pursuing their degree?
[Jessica Warner, LMSW] I definitely recommend that social work students take courses in policy and/or law if they can. Many social work programs have one or more of each as electives. Even if the specific subject isn’t particularly interesting to the student, it would be worth it just to learn more about how law and public policy work. Completing a dual degree program in public policy or law would be even better than just taking a couple of courses. If that isn’t an option, just getting a foot in the door of an organization that does advocacy work, either through a field placement or volunteer position becomes even more important. Both would be even better of course. Community activist and organizing work is useful as well.
Unfortunately social work schools are adapting to the wishes of their students to have more clinical curriculum, but most programs still have some sort of macro track (often referred to as something like policy, leadership or administration). I would definitely recommend taking that track as opposed to the clinical one. It’s easier to get a direct practice position immediately out of social work school and you don’t have to have completed a clinical track to get such a position, so think longer term and plan accordingly.
Thank you Ms. Warner for your time and insights into macro social work.
Please note: The statements made in this interview are solely the views of the interviewee, and do not represent the views or position of OnlineMSWPrograms.com and its affiliates.