National Fellowship Grants Help UAlbany School of Social Welfare Students Confront Childhood Neglect

ALBANY, N.Y. (January 27, 2015) -- Despite the entire social, medical and technological advances of the past 100 years, childhood poverty and neglect remains a critical global issue, even in a country as rich in assets and natural resources as the United States.

That's one of the main reasons two University at Albany doctoral students have taken on the task of combating childhood maltreatment through their dissertation studies. For their efforts, Tana James of Brooklyn and Mi Jin Choi of South Korea have been awarded nationally competitive fellowships to complete their studies.

UAlbany School of Social Welfare Students
UAlbany School of Social Welfare Professor Eunju Lee with students Tana James, left, and Mi Jin Choi. (Photo Mark Schmidt)

UAlbany's School of Social Welfare (SSW) is one of five recipients of a $200,000 fellowship award to support a faculty mentor and doctoral students examining poverty and child neglect. Assistant Professor of Social Welfare Eunju Lee is a principal investigator of the grant, which supports child maltreatment research and the development of the next generation of child maltreatment researchers. The program is funded by the Children’s Bureau, an office of the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"Although research in child welfare has advanced a lot, we are still figuring out the effects of poverty on child neglect," said Lee, who is the faculty mentor for Choi and James. "Our current system is heavy on investigation and removal but is limited in funding or programs for prevention and support."

James, who was born in Trinidad and holds an LMSW (licensed master social worker), will examine the relationships between the county level poverty and a differential response policy -- a new approach of handling childhood maltreatment allegations. She has had extensive professional experience working with, and on behalf of children and families, as a clinical social worker, project research assistant and most recently, a student research assistant at the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS).

"I would like to help reshape policies and practices that adversely impact racial/ethnic populations," said James. "There is a gap between historical discrimination and the present status of racial/ethnic populations enmeshed in social welfare systems. As such, my goal is to structure a research program that encompasses the cycle of poverty, child welfare involvement and overall adverse conditions that persist in low-income neighborhoods."

In general, her goal is to advocate for improvement in child welfare systems, in the service of resource poor communities, and most importantly, the children and families who are in need of support. Before entering the doctoral program at UAlbany, James received her Masters in Social Work (MSW) degree from UAlbany's School of Social Welfare, as well as her undergraduate degree, where she double majored in English and Africana Studies.

Choi's study will look at household poverty and out-of-home placement decisions. She came to UAlbany from South Korea based on her review of the School's work in the field of human services. "I was impressed by several reports which were published by the Center for Human Services Research within the School of Social Welfare," said Choi. "These studies evaluated the benefits of programs targeting vulnerable families and children which inspired me to choose UAlbany." Choi was also impressed with SSW's faculty and curriculum.

Her decision to concentrate on childhood neglect was based on the gaps in service and the critical need in the field. "Children are one of the most vulnerable populations. They are easily affected by their surroundings because they are still developing both intellectually and physically," said Choi. "In particular, poor children in at-risk family situations, such as those with low psychological resources, experience not only poverty but also social barriers."

These deficits led to Choi's decision to work to improve outcomes for vulnerable children, and seek to develop a system that will provide for their safety and healthy development.

In 2010, Choi came from South Korea to pursue a doctoral degree at UAlbany. She received a bachelor's degree and master’s degree in Social Welfare from Ewha Womans University in Seoul, South Korea, and is a licensed social worker in South Korea.

Dr. Lee's study will build upon her current research evaluating the Kinship Navigator demonstration project, funded by the Children’s Bureau. This study will focus on the relationship between kin household poverty and child neglect among informal kinship families. "We're grateful for the support of School of Social Welfare Faculty members and Dean Katharine Briar-Lawson for providing assistance and support on our applications," said Lee. "The studies funded through this grant will look at innovative approaches to confronting childhood maltreatment, including handling of allegations and how the economic vulnerability of caregivers (e.g. grandparents) effects the safety and stability for children in their care."

Founded in 1965, the School of Social Welfare is consistently ranked among the top schools of social work. With a strong emphasis on community engagement -- local, national, and international – it has a history of developing systems, enhancing community capacities, and pioneering best practices. SSW receives more than $9 million a year in grants to fund special projects with national impact. Within recent years, it has received $18.5 million for the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute as well as $3 million annually for the Center for Excellence in Aging and Community Wellness and the Center for Human Services Research.

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