Sherece Shavel says the driving force behind her new course at the University of Texas at Arlington is the need for students to understand the intimate connection between law and social work.
“Often social work students don’t recognize this connection, this intimate relationship that our profession has with the law,” said Shavel, assistant professor of practice at the School of Social Work. “The presence of the rule of law is woven throughout what we do as practitioners.”
Created in collaboration with the UTA Pre-Law Center, “Social Work and Law” highlights the importance of understanding the legal environment on multiple fronts as it relates to the social work profession. There are breakdowns of the legal landscape at the federal and local levels, procedural lessons, including how to read statutes and cite legal sources, and explanations of how social workers should act in certain legal contexts, such as when testimony or when they receive a subpoena.
Not knowing how to navigate legal waters could have consequences for both the social worker and the person they represent or serve, Shavel said.
“If you don’t have the necessary legal knowledge, you risk causing harm to someone you are trying to help,” she said. “It could mean imprisonment, termination of parental rights or a child remaining in an abusive situation. It could be extreme.
The roots of the course go back to Shavel’s first appearance in a courtroom as a social worker. She said she stumbled, made mistakes and had “no idea” of the courtroom process, recalling the experience as a “burning mess”. It was then that she made it her mission to ensure that the social workers who came after her entered a courtroom prepared.
“From that moment on, I did what it took to develop my knowledge and my skills,” she said. “My passion is to give students the opportunity to learn these skills before they end up in the position I was in.”
The hallmark of the course is a simulated courtroom conducted with the assistance of the UTA Mock Trial Class. Social work students must write a witness statement based on an assigned case and then testify as expert witnesses with mock trial students questioning them as a defense and prosecution. It’s a partnership born out of a conversation between Shavel and Amber White, director of UTA’s Pre-Law Center and mock trial coach.
“My students, who are going to be lawyers, are used to working with people who will be treated as expert witnesses,” White said. “And social work students have the advantage of becoming witnesses and having this direct experience of the lights and the pressure of a real hearing. We loved the idea.
During the simulation, the social work “witnesses” do not know the questions that the mock trial students will ask. At the same time, the mock trial “defense” and “prosecution” no longer have the safety net of a structured framework of mock trial competition, forcing them to react instantly.
“Speaking from personal experience, you have no idea what these witnesses are going to say. Sometimes your own client can turn the tables and tell the court something they’ve never told you before,” White said. “This collaboration is beneficial for all students involved.”
Sophia Gyles, a junior pursuing her bachelor’s degree in social work, said she considered the course a blessing as she now knows how to better advocate for her clients.
“I think anyone who is going to be a social worker needs to take this course to get a feel for what it will be like in court, to speak on behalf of my clients and to be their representative,” she said.