Annual SSW alumni, field and research awards were presented in two ceremonies held in spring honoring the accomplishments of alumni, faculty, field educators, students and community partners. Following are profiles on the award recipients.
For more than 30 years, Ellen Fink-Samnick, MSW '83, has made significant contributions to social work as evidenced by her roles as professional trainer, industry consultant, educator, social media moderator, continuing education developer, accreditation specialist, social work supervisor and professional mentor for the case management community.
The lessons she learned along the way to a successful career in the profession are rooted in her experience at UB. She recalls her introduction to social work as a junior in sociology who was enticed to join an innovative program being created between the two departments.
"Since I would be finishing all of my undergraduate courses by the end of that academic year, social work was something I was interested in," Fink-Samnick recalls. "I met with (then-SSW dean) Elizabeth Harvey who was impeccably dressed, with heels to match, and her hair equally impeccably done. She sat down, kicked off her shoes, pulled up a leg underneath her in a very relaxed way and said, 'So, why do you want to be a social worker?'. It was definitely a wow moment! I remember thinking, to be that comfortable in your own skin, if this is what social work involves, I'm in. Then, we started to talk about social work and my strengths, working with populations who could be a bit marginalized but not necessarily, yet certainly in need of intervention. I walked out of that meeting captivated and sold. I was excited about starting this program."
For Fink-Samnick's field experience, Bertha Laury provided a challenge for her to demonstrate her value and what she could uniquely bring. "Bertha at that point was director of field instruction and in my situation served triple duty as my field liaison and field instructor. I heard she was tough but, coming from the New York City metropolitan area, so was I. I thought I could handle it. Bertha looked at me and said, 'I'm sure you're an intelligent young lady but I wasn't in favor of your program acceptance and, frankly, I think you are too young for this program. You have no life experience.'"
Laury's response was hard for Fink-Samnick to accept at the time "but Bertha's words actually inspired me," she says. The student rose to the occasion and proved herself to her mentor as a lifelong relationship developed. So much so that Laury asked to officially hood her at graduation.
During her subsequent tenure at various hospitals, Fink-Samnick found herself purposefully examining the need to develop competent, well-trained helping professionals. She carefully planned to start her own business – EFS Supervision Strategies, LLC – in order to educate, advocate for, mentor, and empower the trans-disciplinary case management workforce.
With a reputation as the ethical compass of professional case management, Fink-Samnick has published more than 90 articles, book chapters, and texts. She moderates a forum on Linked-In, Ellen's Ethical Lens, discussing ethical challenges faced by professionals in the health and behavioral health domains. She also has a Twitter feed on which she posts relevant articles daily – most days the first post goes to the SSW – to help people empower their knowledge base.
Fink-Samnick remains connected to the SSW by sharing valuable resources through social media as well as guiding new MSW students in the mentor program directed by Denise Krause, clinical professor and associate dean for Community Engagement and Alumni Relations.
At her award acceptance, Fink-Samnick recalled life lessons she began to develop while becoming a social worker at the SSW:
Lesson 1. Know what unique value you possess and be ready to demonstrate it to anyone and everyone – colleagues, clients, industry stakeholders.
Lesson 2: The only constant in our industry is change. You must be open to what it means for you to change with it.
Lesson 3: Invest in life-long learning. Moving forward, assimilate your knowledge to assure your professional sustainability. That is critical. Stay current on trends, constructs, populations and interventions. Invest in yourself.
Lesson 4: Leave a legacy. "I realized that to provide quality health and behavioral health care, you need a competency-driven quality workforce. So I created a company that did just that. Every contract I make, every presentation I engage in, every student I educate, and every professional I train allows me a unique opportunity to empower the workforce. It's my mission, vision and legacy. What will yours be?."
Assuming the role of commissioner of the Erie County Department of Social Services (DSS) in Western New York in 2015, Al Dirschberger, PhD ’09, MSW ’99, was suddenly faced with a number of challenges, accessibility being primary to a population with concentrated poverty, a disproportionate minority representation in child welfare, and a high number of immigrants and refugees. "One of the things we wanted to get away from was people seeing DSS as a building. If you needed services, temporary assistance or homeless, everybody came to us (in downtown Buffalo). The question was how do we reach out and go to the community," he points out.
Dirschberger referred back to his experience in community concentration during his time at the SSW. "A lot of the work we did in our community classes was to learn to think outside the box, to build collaborations, to think about non-traditional collaborations. We were always encouraged to think creatively in how to engage the community and how to address a community issue, rather than just the same old techniques. So I've always taken that macro approach when addressing what's going on in the community."
The new commissioner went about setting up partnerships within the community. This includes one with the SSW where interns are co-located in county libraries, helping people sign up and access their benefits on the department website. Representatives from Child Protective Services have been placed in the county's 28 school districts to improve communication with the school districts. Safety net committees were established throughout Erie County to bring communities together to work on distinct issues. There are even diverse collaborations with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Buffalo Museum of Science to encourage family participation.
"If we're going to address community issues, we have to engage with the community and ask them what they need and how we can help them," explains Dirschberger. "I really like the trauma-informed principles that the school is teaching because one of the main philosophies is that we have to stop saying what is wrong with people and start asking what happened to them and how can we help them."
While post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common among veterans and is associated with significant impairment, it rarely comes alone. Often, substance use problems accompany PTSD. Using survey data from 396 veterans, a study by then-PhD student Brad Linn, PhD ’18, MSW '12, aimed to better understand the relation between veteran mental health and substance use.
"My interest was inspired by former first lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden's national endeavor, the Joining Forces program, to get veterans the help that they need and a call for the rest of us to help ease their transition into society," said Linn. "While I was a graduate student at UB, I worked on a project that brought that same set of goals and values to the local level, known as Joining Forces UB."
Linn, 37, is proud of that fact that he himself recruited all 396 veterans in his study. "This was my personal network; my efforts. I leveraged the power of social media," he said. "As doctoral students, when we transition out of graduate school into full-time jobs, we usually don't have data. The nice thing about this project is that it gives me my own data to work with for a couple of years while I'm building other projects." He currently has a postdoctoral fellowship at UB, funded by the National Institutes of Health; he will develop his own research agenda and secure grant funding before transitioning into a tenure track job.
One of the things he hopes his study will add to the social work field is the understanding that veterans can't be treated uniformly. "When they present for treatment, it's up to social workers and other members of the helping profession to really get to know the veteran, understand what their symptoms look like, understand what their childhood was like, understand what the genesis of the symptoms was, and then develop a personalized plan for treatment, rather than a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach," he said.
The research impetus has a logical base: systems working together toward a societal betterment. The execution, however, is hazy when it comes to ways through which the homeless services, child welfare and educational systems could collaborate to improve educational outcomes for vulnerable children and youth.
This was the task addressed by Assistant Professors Annahita Ball, Elizabeth Bowen and Annette Semanchin Jones, who collaborated on the cross-system approach to help eliminate the elevated risk of educational problems such as poor grades, bullying, high absenteeism and dropping out experienced by students affected by poverty, homelessness, maltreatment and educational disadvantage.
The study design was informed by a life-course framework, eliciting young adults’ retrospective recall of childhood experiences interacting with multiple systems. The research team took steps to enhance the scientific rigor of the design, data collection process and analyses of the qualitative study.
"This project is exciting to me because while we all know that systems should work together better, not much research has examined how this can be accomplished," said Bowen. "I hope that our project can help to address this gap by highlighting the voices of the young people and the providers who are involved in multiple systems."
Ball explained how homelessness and child welfare services influence the youth she is used to working with in education, "and how the education system is often a siloed system with different norms, values and expectations than many of our other social service systems."
Semanchin Jones summed up the significance of the collaboration that brings individual expertise in child welfare, youth homelessness and education systems to deepen the overall understanding of the experiences of vulnerable youth.
"It seems even clearer that we need more opportunities such as this to work together on finding strategies across systems to improve outcomes for children, youth and families – whether that is through research, practice or policy-making," she noted.
Kathleen Grimm, MD, director of supportive care services and palliative medicine, and Sandra Lauer, RN, director of continuum of care, at Erie County Medical Center are investigating how advance care planning influences well-being in bereaved caregivers. The study is exploring how a facilitated conversation about end-of-life wishes influence caregivers’ perceptions of the final stage of a loved one’s life and well-being in bereavement. The work evolved together with SSW Professor and Associate Dean for Faculty Development Deborah Waldrop's longstanding work in the field.
"We're significantly focused on training, including interdisciplinary, with social workers, chaplains, nurses and doctors on how to use a validated research-proven tool to better communicate. This whole field has been fraught with people saying, ‘I do it,’ 'I got it,' 'I got the directives,' and yet patients and families were not expressing that they felt they had good communication around these advanced care plans," Grimm explained. "Everybody says they're doing 'it' a little differently, creating a lot of forms that are flying around, and patients and families are still left angry and grieving. That's why we started down this path."
"The study started in conversation with Hospice Buffalo," Lauer said. "We were offering education to the social workers on how to facilitate values-based conversations about care preferences using the Serious Illness Communication guide. Dr. Waldrop is doing a longitudinal study with the caregivers to see if it was helpful to them to have these previous conversations; if it relieved them of the grief and the burden of guilt that can come from people making decisions that they may not have talked about in advance. It has gone away from the medical model to a community-based paradigm where the family and the patients themselves control some of that conversation, which is wonderful."
Both noted a long history of working with UBSSW interns at ECMC. "We've had very interesting intersections with the UBSSW," said Lauer. "We had the Social Impact Fellows here last year. They did a great project for us – Integration of Palliative Medicine into Primary Care – and we're integrating that plan now."
Brandi Biddeman, MSW '01, has been a social work therapist and behavioral health social worker with VA Western New York Healthcare System for 18 years, the last 10 of which she has also served as a field educator for the School of Social Work. Her experience as a student has had a lasting influence she wanted to share.
Providing individual and group therapies, Biddeman's area of specialization is evidenced-based psychotherapies for depression, PTSD and insomnia. "I don't believe in keeping people in therapy forever just to chit-chat. We do very intensive structured therapies, and then discharge them. I see the results every day, all the time," she explained. "This approach allows for improved outcomes for veterans and the ability to increase access to care as veterans see improvements and decreased need for services more quickly."
Biddeman's MSW interns are exposed to all treatment modalities and groups during their internships at VA. "I love being a field educator. In modeling trauma-informed care and ethical social work, I have the ability to shape the future practice in our discipline. It also keeps me fresh, making me a better social worker," she said.
She is known for creative approaches, giving students opportunities to practice the skills they are learning in school. By reviewing their syllabuses and integrating the information into a calendar, she is able to match field experiences with what is actually happening in their classroom.
Being named Field Educator of the Year is meaningful for her. "It's confirming I'm doing a good job," she said. "Most of the interns who have graduated still keep in touch with me, whether it's to say, 'I'm starting a depression group. Do you have any ideas for resources or materials?' Or, sometimes I let them know about new job postings. My first intern has worked at the Syracuse VA for a number of years. That's another affirming thing: that there really is a connection and that I really had an influence on their lives."