New Social Worker and A Review of Social Work at HIRC

After a long search, we have hired a new social worker! We warmly welcome Liala Buoniconti, who will be working part time at the Clinic during the 2013-14 school year. Currently a social worker at the MGH Healthcare Center in Chelsea, Mass., Liala brings over 10 years of experience working with immigrants and refugees, and will be an invaluable addition to the HIRC team.

Over the past three years, we’ve been fortunate to have worked with a number of highly qualified mental health clinicians who dedicated themselves to helping our clients. We are particularly grateful for the help of Chris Pierce during this period, who is the Clinical Social Worker at the Law School’s Criminal Justice Institute (CJI). Chris volunteered to consult with us and supervise  our social work interns on top of his busy schedule at the CJI. Without his help, our clients would not have received the critical social services and support they need.

Many of our clients suffer from post-trauma stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of such harrowing experiences as torture, prolonged detention, sexual abuse, and domestic violence. In addition to legal assistance, our clients often need professional mental health support, as well as guidance in navigating the limited government benefits and services that are available to them.  Our social work staff has done an admirable job providing this crucial support to our clients.

So what do social workers actually do at the Clinic and what kind of an impact have they had on clients’ lives?

The following interviews with Kara Gagnon and Sarah Donahue, past Simmons social work interns at HIRC, shed some light on these questions:

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Kara Gagnon never imagined she would end up working with a bunch of lawyers. An anthropology major in college, Kara’s first job was with Americorps in Brooklyn, working with a community from Pueblo, Mexico. She met a number of undocumented immigrants, and became especially attached to young members of the community, so-called DREAMers, struggling to earn an education while dealing with the unique challenges of being undocumented.

Kara worked at the Clinic for twenty-five hours a week, September to May, to fulfill the internship component of her master’s in social work. She quickly became involved in every aspect of a client’s life. If a client needed health services, she would find them. If a client was homeless, she would help find a shelter. Kara spoke to clients’ doctors, hospitals, insurance companies, case managers, family members and psychologists. She met with them in their homes, shelters, or anywhere else she could. In her words, “we became their support network.”

And it is a client group that needs support. According to Kara, along with their complex legal cases, the Clinic’s clients were struggling with a number of mental health issues; “PTSD across the board, especially for victims of political or domestic violence, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder brought on by trauma, and one person who was severely schizophrenic, all for people who are on the fringes and are the first to lose access to basic healthcare services.”

People working in immigration law understand that there is far more to it than writing briefs or filing applications for relief. With so few resources available to the undocumented, an individual’s lawyer is often her best hope for navigating the complex and difficult bureaucracy of governmental services – services which are often meager at best.  As Kara puts it, lawyers will sometimes “end up becoming case managers” and assisting in other areas of clients’ lives, all while maintaining a full legal caseload. Kara not only helped with all the work, but she also helped train lawyers and law students in case management and working with traumatized clients.

Sarah Donohue, a Simmons social work intern who worked with HIRC during the 2012-13 school year, emphasized the need to be flexible when working with clients: “My role as social work intern was malleable in a good way, allowing me to get a  sense of a client’s strengths and needs and then attempt to meet them where they were.” And she literally met them where they were.  She recalled, “In some cases, I engaged in formal counseling sessions with clients, and in other cases, our ‘therapy’ took place within a conversation in the car on the way to a doctor’s appointment or in the waiting room at the Department of Transitional Assistance.”

Sarah also reflected upon the unique needs of asylum seekers in the United States. She remarked, “The greatest challenge my clients and I faced was the lack of resources available to those who are seeking asylum. In the limbo between arriving in the United States and having one’s case heard (and hopefully granted), asylum seekers are not legally allowed to work and are ineligible for basically all assistance including shelters/subsidized housing, food stamps, cash assistance, transportation, child care, financial aid/student loans, dental care, mental health care, and often adequate medical care. … Although current [immigration] policies are aimed at discouraging fraudulent asylum seekers, the sad reality is that the policies exponentially increase the suffering of those who have legitimately experienced torture, rape, persecution, or another trauma so grievous as to drive them permanently from their home country.”

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We are extraordinarily grateful for all of Kara and Sarah’s hard work with our clients. We also want to express our sincere gratitude to Cassie Smith, a Simmons social work intern who worked at the clinic in fall 2011, and Franziska Reff, Psy.D., a mental health clinician who was kind enough to volunteer for the Clinic during 2012.

Looking forward, we are expecting Cristina Valente to join us as our new social work intern this fall. Cristina is currently a Masters in Social Work candidate at Simmons College, where Kara, Cassie, and Sarah also graduated from.