Written by: Janeth Peterson, LMSW, Family Advocate Intern Supervisor
July 30, 2020, National Intern Day – Over the past few months while school districts and parents across the United States have been preparing for what is to be an extraordinarily different start to new school year, many college students have been scrambling to find ways to meet necessary graduation requirements. Numerous degree programs require students to complete a set number of hours through an internship program. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has made obtaining these hours nearly impossible. Many businesses and non-profits have had to implement drastic changes for the safety of their staff. Some have temporarily closed their doors, allowed staff members to work from home, implemented staff rotations, or ceased hiring new staff or interns to avoid one-on-one training. This comes as a detrimental blow to college students pursuing specific degrees. Majors such as Criminal Justice, Child Development, and Psychology require over 200 hours a semester and in the state of Texas, social work students are required to complete over 480 hours.
For many years, Children’s Advocacy Center of Collin County (CACCC) has molded future advocates for children through our Family Advocate Internship Program. This program was established years ago to meet a vital need. A vital need not only for college students to gain experience and internship hours, but also a need for our Center to offer services to every client who walks through our doors. We are committed to providing a hands-on experience for undergraduate and graduate students studying social work, child development, or other human services studies; and I am proud that we have continued this commitment throughout this pandemic.
Although many child welfare agencies have implemented new protocols in order to continue providing services during this crisis, others have not been as fortunate. Internships provided by these agencies are a critical component for college students as it carries a major significance when entering the job market. Internships provide hands-on experience, opportunities to creating a professional network and often, they can help transition students into a full-time position.
Our Family Advocate Internship program provides students with the opportunity to work directly with client families, as well as assist our Multi-Disciplinary Team in investigations and manage cases of alleged abuse and neglect. I truly believe in providing interns the proper foundation for their future careers. I was an intern in the Family Advocacy Internship Program many years ago, 10 to be exact, and I now have the privilege of supervising these wonderful students. This summer, we have 13 Family Advocate Intern Caseworkers and their responsibilities look a little different than in years past. COVID-19 has affected many areas of our lives, but we had no clue it would affect our interns the way it did. Prior to the pandemic, our intern caseworkers were in the trenches shadowing law enforcement officials who were serving warrants and making arrests. They were observing Child Protective Services agents in the field while diligently taking notes for the worker. They were also attending criminal trials and observing the final stages of child abuse investigations. Past interns were also able to gain child interaction skills by providing childcare to our Multi-Disciplinary Team and observing court mandated supervised visits. Interns were building relationships with our forensic interviewers by asking questions pertaining to the field and observing live interviews. Interns would also shadow our Family Advocates as they implemented various intervention skills help families as they arrived to our Center.
Our students were attending specialized trainings that would benefit their careers in the long run. But most importantly, they were providing case management services to clients who lacked the resources and services to unidentified needs. Cases that are assigned to our interns are referred by CPS workers and law enforcement. These cases typically do not have a criminal component, and the families need assistance with resources and support. In some cases, our master level students have had the opportunity to assist clients applying for Crime Victim’s Compensation, a program established by the Office of the Attorney General to victims of crime.
As COVID-19 began to impact North Texas, I had to think quickly to create an action plan for our students. I heard rumors that many agencies would be closing their doors, leaving interns without an internship opportunity. A handful of my Spring interns would only graduate in May if all their hours were submitted by the department’s deadline. My students expressed their fear of not fulfilling their required hours but we knew as an agency, we wouldn’t stand for this.
At CACCC, our mission is to provide safety, healing, and justice. This doesn’t stop during a pandemic. Although the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) approved a reduction in the number of field hours required to earn a degree in social work, it only alleviated my intern’s worries by about 15%. I started to create a plan on how interns could work from home, while still expanding skills and knowledge needed to become strong caseworkers in the field. Onboarding my summer interns was quite a challenge. We awkwardly sat 10 feet apart and I placed a few bottles of hand sanitizer throughout the room. Prior to COVID-19, we were firm believers in not allowing students to work from home. This belief quickly changed! One of my top priorities was to continue supporting our students and their education. Not only was I determined to show my students that I cared deeply for their professional development, but I also wanted to be an additional source of support for them during this hard season.
The majority of our CACCC staff has been working from home throughout the pandemic in order to mitigate risk. To offer some hands-on experience we have one intern on site, one day a week. Recently, I implemented an on-call schedule for our interns to experience what it’s like to be called out in the middle of the night. I had to think, “what else can my students provide to our clients that’s never been done before?” I had to dig deep to find more innovative ideas.
Who knew this would also be a time for our staff members to develop their own professional skills? Several of our forensic interviewers have developed a mini intern training institute teaching our interns how to become forensic interviewers. Our very own Chief Operating Officer and Director of Family Advocacy and Support Services have taken the time to teach our students about vicarious trauma, sex offender behavior and de-escalation skills. A few of my own friends from Homeland Security and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) have also conducted virtual trainings for my students. Lauren Braun, one of our Family Advocates, stepped up in such pivotal ways to assist me with the program. In addition, our Community Relations Director provided interns with a resume workshop to help develop a strong resume before they leave CACCC. Nothing makes me prouder than when an employer calls me as a reference and says, “I’ve heard great things about your internship program so I know this candidate learned a lot from your program.”
Despite the virus, our students have bonded more than any group before them. We have an ongoing group chat, we get on Zoom to share how we’re feeling, and we even have plans of having a social distancing lunch in the future. I was raised by a group of special mentors who currently sit at the leadership table and I’ll never forget the impact my supervisor had on me when I was an intern. It is an honor to teach these students everything I learned from my professional role models. The educational experience CACCC provides will be one of the most significant tools interns use to change the world. Especially now. This line of work does not stop, and neither will we.
Janeth Peterson is a Licensed Master Social Worker and holds the position of Family Advocate Intern Supervisor at Children’s Advocacy Center of Collin County. She is also currently a contracted Bilingual Forensic Interviewer for San Mateo Medical Center in California. In addition to these positions, she is an educator for the family advocate training program for Children’s Advocacy Centers of Texas in Austin. Janeth earned her bachelor’s degree from
the University of North Texas and her master’s in social work from Texas A&M University Commerce. She is a member of the North Texas Coalition Against Human Trafficking, the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, and the National Association of Social Workers. She completed her internship at Children’s Advocacy Center of Collin County in 2010 and has spent her career in the field of child abuse and maltreatment.