Should Convicted Felons Be Denied Admission to a Social Work Education Program? No!

Article excerpt

Imagine that you have made a very bad mistake. Imagine that you've been convicted and served time in prison for sexual assault of a minor. You've gone through months of extensive treatment using a cognitive behavioral approach. You've been through stages of denial, had your self-perception shattered, and come to accept who you are today. Now, you have a solid relapse-prevention program in place. You have worked hard to get to a point of self-forgiveness, despite knowing others may never forgive you for what you have done.

Should you be allowed to enroll in a program of social work education? Should you be allowed to enter a field placement? After extensive debate, our social work program decided to say "yes" to one such student.

Place yourself in this student's shoes. What would it be like applying to the major and to field work? What would you tell other students about your past and how do you suppose they would react? What issues do you imagine would arise in your field setting? Being an individual in recovery, what contributions could you bring to the profession of social work? Finally, what do you believe is essential for academic policymakers to consider when establishing criteria for admission for applicants who have committed :felony offenses?

Our program's normal admission procedure is for a team of two faculty members to conduct a 30-minute interview with each applicant after careful review of application documents, and then make admission recommendations to the full faculty. For students with special !issues, more extensive interviewing and discussion by program faculty may be employed. Admission to the program and to field work are done simultaneously. The application includes a disclosure statement and informs the applicant that, when applicable, she or he will be asked to allow faculty to gather certain kinds of personal information from the court system, law enforcement officers, or counselors as a part of planning for entry into field work, if admitted. With the aforementioned student, our admissions committee's professional judgement was that this person had accepted full responsibility' for previous actions, was at peace in talking about the past, and had a concrete relapse-prevention strategy. Knowledgeable staff of the correctional system identified the applicant as a minimal risk for committing future offenses. The fact that the student had been tried and convicted for only one offense was helpful in our arriving at a positive admission decision.

Consistent with social work values, it is important to view all individuals from a strengths perspective. Strengths do not erase negatives, but a positive recovery experience can be an asset when teaching others about recovery. People who are in recovery may have the potential to become effective change agents. When our student was asked what contributions the student would bring to the profession, this person spoke of "a desire that goes beyond the `wounded healer'; I have been there; I know the pains of the recovery process. My life experience, good and bad, brings a lot to the table." Our student also spoke of personal belief in and commitment to the recovery process, which the person saw as highly consistent with social work values.

The scenario given requires that social work educators participate in what is perhaps the most difficult ethical decisionmaking process. A faculty may find itself highly polarized when faced with an admission application from an individual who has a history of one or more felony convictions. Consensus can be difficult to achieve. Departmental and university policy and procedures may offer little clear guidance and direction. Core social work values are challenged.

Programs differ vastly in how they approach this issue. Some look to licensing as the gatekeeper. Others ask their university administration to decide who enters their doors. Most identify their process for reviewing applications of convicted felons as less than adequate. …