Social-work students meet with U.S. legislators to promote bills affecting child welfare, human trafficking and opioid abuse.

By:    Date: 06-15-2018

In March 2018, after University of Alabama social-work students spoke with U.S. lawmakers, the Senate passed a bill giving state attorneys general and victims the ability to pursue legal action against owners of websites that enable sex trafficking. The House of Representatives approved an identical bill Feb. 27, and President Trump signed the legislation April 11.

Immediately after the Senate vote, Craigslist shut down the section of its website that allows individuals to seek sexual encounters with strangers. A host of websites followed suit.

“We’re already seeing how what we were doing – a class assignment – really affects a lot of people,” said Shelby Smithson, a master of social work student from Mobile, Ala., who advocated for the bill as part of UA’s Washington, D.C. Policy and Advocacy Fly-In. “This law is going to have so much power and prevent terrible things from happening to children.”

Before Congress approved the bill, anti-trafficking laws could not be applied to websites hosting prostitution ads, which are sometimes used to traffick children, because the Communications Decency Act protects website owners from liability for material posted by third parties. The law amended the Communications Decency Act to allow criminal and civil actions against a website if its conduct violates federal sex-trafficking laws.

Through the second annual UA School of Social Work Washington, D.C. Policy and Advocacy Fly-In, 44 University of Alabama social-work students joined 26 students from The University of Alabama at Birmingham, The University of Alabama in Huntsville and The Ohio State University to meet with 30 Congress members in the nation’s capital March 20-21, 2018. They explained how four proposed bills could help human-trafficking victims and improve the lives of foster youth and people struggling with opioid addictions. Many legislators expressed interest in sponsoring or voting for the bills or introducing companion legislation in their houses of Congress.

Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., speaks to students ABOVE: Pictured from left, Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., listens to BSW student Piper Grant, UA School of Social Work faculty member Kimberly Gibson, and MSW student Johnny Jenkins during the Washington, D.C., Policy and Advocacy Fly-In.

The Washington, D.C. Policy and Advocacy Fly-In is part of the UA School of Social Work’s Washington, D.C. Internship Program, which turns 40 years old in 2019 and is open to bachelor and master of social work students. The School of Social Work itself is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2018.

Since 1980, more than 600  students have worked full time for four months each spring at more than 300 Washington, D.C., organizations, including those serving veterans and their families, at-risk youth, the homeless, cancer and AIDS patients, victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, the elderly and more. The Washington, D.C., BSW and MSW interns work with more than 1,000 clients each year and practice advocacy in association with their internship placements.

Expanding advocacy opportunities
Carroll Phelps, field coordinator of the Washington, D.C. Internship Program, and Allison Curington, director of field education for the School of Social Work, developed the annual Policy and Advocacy Fly-In to offer hands-on training in Washington to more students.

“If our students can advocate on Capitol Hill with federal lawmakers, they can advocate on any other level,” Phelps says. “As social workers, they will be advocates throughout their careers, whether they’re influencing local, state or national policy or helping a client get access to resources.”

Helping government leaders understand needs and how various members of society will be affected by policies and legislation is a vital task for social workers, Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., told students during the Fly-In.

Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., reiterated this claim. “I want you to know how important it is for people in your profession to advocate with elected officials,” Roby said. “We don’t know what we don’t know. If something is concerning to a constituent of mine, I want someone to tell me.”

In addition to meeting with Congress members, students learn from approximately 15 speakers, including experts from policy and advocacy agencies, and train intensively for the presentations they will make.

Alexis Ferruccio, who attended the 2017 Fly-In and now attends law school at George Washington University, says students learn how to communicate most effectively with legislators. “In our policy class in D.C., we’re taught to use statistics, but to make it personal – by including individual stories and by demonstrating how the legislation will affect communities the legislators care about,” she says.

MSW D.C. students completing internships during the spring semester prepare fact sheets about each bill and help train Fly-In students to give three-minute presentations to lawmakers. “The bills we were advocating for were many, many pages, and we had to boil them down to one sheet of paper with the highest priority points,” she says, adding that politicians have to be cognizant of budgets and costs vs. benefits. “You really have to explain to them why this is something they should spend money on and why it can make a difference. It’s a lot to do in three minutes.”

Phelps matches students with Congress members from their home states whenever possible. “Members of Congress listen to their constituents, so it’s important for students to talk with members representing their districts,” Phelps says. Students also research the lawmakers they will meet and their priorities.

Before the trip, meeting with a Congress member as an undergraduate student and saying, “‘Here’s a bill, and I want you to pass it,’” seemed like a monumental task, says Kaleb Crabtree, a senior from Scottsboro, Ala., who promoted a bill that would help foster youth obtain drivers’ licenses. “I thought it was going to be so uncomfortable, and it wasn’t. It was almost like a conversation, with questions and answers. Afterward, I knew I had done my part to push this important bill through. I honestly felt like a change-maker and a social worker.”

Katie New, an MSW student, said the Fly-In helped her realize policy work and advocacy are fundamental elements of social work practice. “Prior to participating in the DC Fly-In, I saw social work as a way to care for those individuals I was working with; now I see social work as a platform for improving the lives of not only my own clients but of society as a whole,” she says.

Helping foster youth, human-trafficking victims and opioid addicts
In addition to advocating for the “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act” and the “Foster Youth and Driving Act,” students who attended the 2018 Fly-In also talked with Congress members about a bill that would make college more affordable and accessible to homeless and foster youth and legislation that would improve education, prevention and treatment related to substance abuse. (See the box for more information about each bill.)

“The four bills students advocated for in 2018 reflect important current issues,” Phelps says. “They embody what social work is about.”

UA students interning in Washington during Spring 2018 advocated for the trafficking act throughout the semester. After students discussed the bill with senators during the Fly-In, they observed the Senate vote March 21. “We watched them vote our bill in, which was really cool,” Smithson says. “We followed it for so long and met people in the weeds with it and learned how hard it is to get a bill passed.”

Smithson, who interned with the International Justice Mission in Spring 2018, says the bill will reach beyond the United States. “Online sex trafficking is not like anything else,” she says. “The customer might be in America, but victims could be in the Philippines or other places.”

Smithson says she realized the preventive power advocacy can have. Social workers don’t have to meet with abuse victims in an office if they can prevent the abuse through policy, she says.

Crabtree says he made three main points when discussing the “Foster Youth and Driving Act”: many foster youth do not obtain drivers’ licenses due to the costs of car insurance, license fees and drivers’ education classes (required in some states); lack of transportation is the leading barrier to higher education; and having a vehicle vastly improves one’s ability to find and maintain employment.

Congress members expressed interest in moving the bill out of a House of Representatives subcommittee and introducing companion legislation in the Senate.

“To have a member of Congress say, ‘OK, I’m going to co-sponsor this bill,’ or ‘I’m going to vote for this bill,’ or ‘I see a different perspective now and I’m going to consider this,’ that is total success,” Phelps said. “Those results mean mastery of policy analysis and advocacy, which brings students so much confidence.”

Samone James, a BSW student, participated in the 2017 Fly-In and promoted the “Violence Against Women Veterans Act,” which would provide prevention resources and assist victims. James is from Clarksville, Tenn., a military town near the Fort Campbell Army base.

“I was able to use that connection to talk to them about creating policy for service members,” she says. “I told them the bill was important to me personally because it impacts people in my home town.”

James says the 2017 Fly-In motivated her to apply for a 2018 BSW D.C. internship in Washington.

“The Fly-In definitely affected my decision to focus on policy in my career,” James says. “I thought, ‘This is something I could do every day.’”

A reputation in Washington
In Spring 2018, James became the first bachelor of social work student in the nation to intern at the National Institute of Health’s clinical center. “The fact that NIH chose the University of Alabama is extraordinary,” Phelps says. “Samone did a remarkable job at NIH and paved the way for another BSW student to intern in Fall 2019.” Several UA MSW students also intern with NIH each year.

Of more than 600 schools of social work in the United States, The University of Alabama School of Social Work is the only one outside the Washington, D.C., metro area that offers students pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees a semester-long internship in the nation’s capital. In 2018, students worked with 16 organizations.

Phelps says students have represented UA so well over the past four decades that she often gets calls from agencies requesting UA interns at additional Washington social-services agencies.

At NIH, James helped find funding sources for patients who needed assistance travelling to and from the clinical center, assessed patients for risk factors and stressors, such as substance abuse, mental-health issues and lack of support systems, that could interfere with their treatment and compiled resource lists for patients with various needs. People from across country and around the world come to the NIH clinical center seeking treatment for rare diseases and disorders.

One of James’ first patients made a lasting impression on her. He was in his 20s and needed neurosurgery. Because he was in the hospital a long time before the procedure, the social worker James shadowed made sure he went on trips around the city so he wouldn’t be in his room all the time. The patient had a positive outlook, and James saw his care as an ideal case. “I don’t know if I could be that optimistic if I was facing that situation,” she says. “But having seen him be that way was something I kept with me when I worked with different patients.”

Ferruccio completed an internship at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Central Office, the VA’s governing-policy branch.

She was instrumental in expanding two projects – a medical/legal partnership and the Intimate Partner Violence Assistance Program.

Domestic violence among veterans and military members is a big problem, she says, and traumatic brain injuries can play a role. One-third of women veterans experience intimate partner violence in their lifetimes compared to less than a quarter of civilians, she continues.

Ferruccio analyzed what was working in the existing program and what wasn’t, improved program materials and increased funding so the initiative could expand.

She also helped develop a medical/legal partnership at the VA. Many health problems veterans and military members experience stem from unmet legal needs such as impending evictions or foreclosures, child-support and child-custody issues, questions about military discharge status and outstanding fines, Ferruccio says.

“For veterans with these types of outstanding needs, standard medical care will have little impact on long-term health outcomes and will more likely provide a temporary ‘band-aid’ effect,” she says. “To ensure long-term well-being, providers, as well as the greater healthcare system, must look beyond presenting symptoms and towards root causes.”

When Ferruccio’s internship began, attorneys and doctors at a few VA medical centers were working together to care for veterans. She researched and offered support to existing programs, launched a legal clinic at the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center and helped other VA centers start clinics.

In national presentations, Ferruccio told VA representatives 86 percent of clinicians working with patients through medical/legal partnerships report improved health outcomes for patients and 64 percent report improved patient compliance with medical treatment.

All Washington interns are placed with organizations based on individual interests and career goals.

Phelps suggested Ferruccio’s placement because she knew Ferruccio was interested in the legal side of social work and could help the VA get the medical/legal partnership off the ground.

Similarly, she recommended Smithson for placement at the International Justice Mission because of Smithson’s desire to work with people from different cultures and backgrounds, specifically refugees and human-trafficking victims. 

“IJM is something I always dreamed about being part of,” Smithson says.

Based in Washington, IJM handles cases ranging from sexual exploitation of children to labor trafficking and property grabbing, a practice in which villagers take belongings from widowed women.

Smithson researched policies and minimum standards in different countries. In the United States, some laws and policies are not implemented the same way for all groups, Smithson says, but in certain parts of the world, impoverished people are not protected by any laws. “People can traffick girls with little to no risk of getting in trouble,” she says. “Police literally won’t protect them. They turn a blind eye – systemically, completely.”

Smithson also supported IJM’s after-care team, which reintegrates trauma survivors into society. She conducted research and developed best practices to assist in training field workers. Methods that address unique cultural challenges are often needed.

“I’ve learned about the global impact a social worker can have that I didn’t understand in Alabama,” Smithson says. “It took me coming to D.C. You just don’t walk away the same person from an experience like this.” 

Internship courses
Both undergraduate and graduate students take two courses while in Washington.

UA students Desiree Foy [left] and Maley Gibbons advocate for bills by speaking with an aid to Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

SW 490 Field Education and SW 595 Field Education II are attached to the internships. SW 443 Seminar in Generalist Practice assists BSW students in integrating foundation content with their field experience. SW 501 Advanced Policy Analysis teaches policy analysis and implementation from the perspective of all three branches of government: legislative, judicial and executive.

Phelps travels to Washington to work with students bimonthly during the fall and spring semesters, teaching SW 443 and SW 501 and meeting with supervisors and students to ensure student success.

After a field trip to the Holocaust Museum, one class discussed how differences in culture, ethnicity and race affect how people are treated. “Then we talked about how it affects how people are treated within the agencies where we were working,” James says. “It was a way to draw connections and understand the importance of the work we were doing.”

SW 501 Advanced Policy Analysis students observe Supreme Court arguments, meet with Justice Clarence Thomas’ law clerks and discuss policy implementation with executive-branch representatives from the Office of Budget and Management.

“The classes are very experiential and hands-on,” Phelps says. “Students are given opportunities to do things that cannot be done outside of D.C.”

The policy course also is integral to the Fly-In. MSW students prepare for the event as part of the course. “Without that class, we wouldn’t have known what to do,” Ferruccio says.

Phelps plans to continue growing the Washington, D.C., social-work programs while maintaining rigorous training standards. “I really do think it’s working,” she says, noting many former students have quickly risen to supervisory positions, and a number of them have become CEOs at organizations including Voices for Alabama’s Children and Children’s Specialized Hospital.

Ferruccio says the internship and Fly-In showed her a path through difficult terrain. “It can seem intimidating to get things done in such a politically driven society,” she says. “To have career goals like writing public policy and making an impact on a large scale means that I am constantly trying to adapt to the environment and break through barriers. D.C. was a strong component in me learning how to do those things.”

To learn more about the School of Social Work Washington, D.C., Internship Programs or the Policy and Advocacy Fly-In, contact Carroll Phelps at or 205-348-5571.

Social-work students and instructors at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center


Bills students advocated for during the 2018 Washington, D.C. Policy and Advocacy Fly-In are:


  • HR 2512: Foster Youth and Driving Act, which would provide funding for driver-education classes, license fees and car insurance for foster youth, increasing their access to employment and higher education;




Speakers at the 2018 Washington, D.C. Policy and Advocacy Fly-In included:

  • Terri Sewell, D-Ala.
  • Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio
  • Martha Roby, R-Ala.
  • Doug Jones, D-Ala.
  • Angelo McClain, chief executive, National Association of Social Workers
  • Darla Coffey, president, Council on Social Work Education
  • Cara Baldari, senior policy director, First Focus
  • Kristen Torres, policy associate, First Focus
  • Lisa Thompson, vice president and director of education and outreach, National Center on Sexual Exploitation
  • Clay Armentrout, legislative assistant to Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.
  • Vikki Vandiver, dean, UA School of Social Work
  • Tom Gregoire, dean, The Ohio State College of Social Work


A random act of kindness

A group of UA social work students in Washington, D.C. for the Policy and Advocacy Fly-In decided they also wanted to make an immediate impact on a hard-working individual’s life. Temmy Aladeokin and Jay Williams, both master of social work students, asked restaurant managers to identify a deserving employee and encouraged other students to contribute $10 each to the cause.

On March 21, students presented $450 to Ashley Dawson, a waitress at Tortilla Coast near Capitol Hill. Dawson is a 31-year-old single mother of three who works two jobs, is earning a bachelor’s degree in business and hopes to open a bakery in Washington soon. She works six or seven days a week at the restaurant and has not missed a shift in her three years there.

The manager of a nearby restaurant, Good Stuff Eatery, is providing one free meal to Dawson every day for 30 days.

“My heart is warm,” Dawson said through tears. “I had such a bad morning. It’s crazy that the day ended like this. It wouldn’t have mattered if it was $5 or $10. The value is the fact someone thought of me and wanted to relieve some of my burden.”

Dawson commutes to D.C. from Maryland and has no family in the area. She said her day got a rough start because schools were closed due to snow and she had trouble finding a sitter.

Aladeokin said students wanted to find a person who is in need, but is working hard and could use motivation to keep going. “We feel blessed, and it would be cool to do this for another person,” he said. “Even though we’re from Alabama and Ohio, we want to make a mark here in D.C.”

UA master of social work students Temmy Aladeokin and Jay Williams (back row) and waitress Ashley Dawson (center) after students presented Dawson with $450 in cash.