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Training social workers to look out for baby — and mom

Social work interns with the Department of Children and Family Services take part in a full-day workshop on how to spot signs of depression and anxiety in new mothers.
Social work interns with the Department of Children and Family Services take part in a full-day workshop on how to spot signs of depression and anxiety in new mothers.
Priska Neely/KPCC

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"When somebody asks you, ‘How ya doing today?’ what’s your response?" Gabrielle Kaufman asks a room of 50 graduate students.

"Good." "OK." "Fine," the students mumble back.

"Even if you’ve had the worst day of your life," Kaufman continues, "most likely you're not going to say, 'I'm feeling really crappy today.' "

This is just one of the reasons she presents to explain why these students, graduate students interning with the L.A. County Department of Children and Families Services (DCFS), need to go deeper in accessing the mental health of mothers they may visit. 

Kaufman, a training director with the nonprofit Maternal Mental Health NOW, is partnering with DCFS to teach the social work interns about how a mother's mental health affects a child and how to recognize and respond to depression and anxiety. The goal is to address issues that can lead to neglect and unsafe environments for children, as soon as possible.

"People come in and look directly at the child, but what we’re trying to say is that there’s a mother-baby dyad," said Kaufman. 

"If we’re not paying attention to the mom that might be struggling, we’re missing an opportunity to make a difference."

Gabrielle Kaufman, training director with Maternal Mental Health Now, leads the first-ever workshop for interns with the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services.
Gabrielle Kaufman, training director with Maternal Mental Health Now, leads the first-ever workshop for interns with the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services.
Priska Neely/KPCC

Nearly half of L.A. County mothers reported experiencing depression after pregnancy, according to the latest survey from the Department of Public Health – higher than the national average. Maternal Mental Health NOW, which works to prevent, screen and treat prenatal and postpartum depression in the county, has worked with DCFS over the past few years to offer sessions to social workers. Now, the maternal mental health class is embedded into the traditional training for interns, the future workforce. 

"A lot of times we get calls and we have to go out and access, so knowing this information is very essential to our work," said Tori Correia, a second year master's student at California State University, Los Angeles. 

She said she'll already be thinking differently as she heads out to home visits as part of her internship.

Patrishia Taylor, a children's services administrator with the DCFS training academy, wanted to bring the trainings to the interns at the start of their careers to help change how the department addresses the needs of families. She saw the need after spending decades as a social worker.

"I started to see that one of the major barriers to treatment for women with this condition is that they were afraid that if they reported what they were feeling – whether it be to family, friends, doctors whatever it is – we, DCFS, were one of the biggest barriers, because they were afraid that if they said anything, their children would be removed," Taylor told the students.

This week, 150 interns will learn what symptoms to look for, what questions to ask, the possible underlying causes and the resources available for families in need. Taylor eventually wants all 4,500 social workers in the county to get this training.

"Social work isn't just about coming in after the event has occurred," she said, "it's about prevention and intervention."