UConn Pilot Program Trains Bilingual Social Workers to Serve Latinx Families

The program, born from a partnership between the School of Social Work and DCF, had its first two graduates this spring.

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A new social work program at the University of Connecticut is putting students on track to serve Latinx families.

It gives undergraduate students hands-on training with the Department of Children and Families, and trains them to become bilingual social workers.

Virgen Guardarrama was one of the first two students to graduate from the program at UConn’s School of Social Work, which is run in partnership with DCF. On graduation, she was all smiles.

​“My hope is that I will go into DCF, working and gaining experience,” Guadarrama said. “In the professional sense, I learned more about case management, how to build case plans and how to interact with individuals and families. In the personal side, I learned more about myself and the Latinx culture that I bring.”

Before graduating, the students competed sessions on child welfare and working with Latinx families, then did a year-long internship with DCF.

Program Director Milagros Marrero-Johnson said the curriculum prepares entry-level social workers to serve a growing number of Spanish-speaking families in child welfare and protection.

“The need to have representation within the DCF workforce is essential, given the number of Latino families that are represented in the DCF system, given that the Latino population is growing overall,” Marrero-Johnson said. “Just the understanding of one's values and beliefs allows the social worker to connect with these families in a more authentic way.”

DCF Commissioner Vanessa Dorantes also sees diversity in the department as key.

“To make sure that my workforce reflects the kids and families that we serve is an opportunity to lean into understanding oppression, and marginalization and making sure that our kids and families and communities thrive, because service providers know what they need, by listening to them,” Dorantes said.

Although DCF contracts translators, Dorantes said communication in a native language is crucial in building trust.

“They've told us repeatedly that they feel most comfortable talking to someone who understands them and their culture, and they can speak to them in a way that doesn't have that filter in between,” she said.

Guadarrama has felt that connection firsthand through her field work as a DCF intern.

“When you're speak their language, especially within the Latinx community, you're able to understand more what they have come through what they need,” she said.

She also said she can better serve families through a cultural connection.

“My mom is from Puerto Rico, my dad is from Mexico. I was born here in Hartford, but I love to embrace my Latinx side. So I was able to bring that into the table and learn more about it and learn how to it affects the families,” Guadarrama said. “I had this one family who they were also from Puerto Rico, and I was able to connect our cultures, and having the same values are similar values.”

The program’s objective is not only to launch careers, but ultimately, ensure Connecticut families are supported by the best resources.

“Meeting the family where they're at, and understanding who they are, and their background, and just sitting and really listening to them. And respecting their stories, I think that is big when it comes to change,” Guadarrama said.

DCF plans to expand the program at UConn and other schools in the future.

The UConn School of Social Work has five slots in the program for students, and three are already filled for fall of 2022.

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