We asked several outstanding Hispanic social workers to tell us why they chose social work as their profession and what they see as challenges to serving the Hispanic community today.
Ana M. Leon, PhD, LCSW
Associate Professor, University of Central Florida
Q. What is your area of expertise?
For the past 30 years I have specialized in the mental health field working with children and families in diverse agency settings and roles. My passion for working with children has led me to various roles as a clinician and administrator, including serving as Executive Director of Psychiatry the Winter Park Memorial Hospital in Winter Park Florida. My work has also included years in private practice, as a program evaluator and a program consultant.
I am currently an Associate Professor of Social Work at the University of Central Florida where I have the opportunity to teach courses on clinical practice with individuals and children as well as courses in social work documentation and on research. I am passionate about sharing what I have learned as a clinical social worker who has practiced in both New York City and now in Orlando, Florida.
My training and research interests are primarily in the health and mental health issues of young children, specifically in Infant mental health. I also serve as a Vice Chair for the University of Central Florida's Institutional Review Board.
Q. Why did you choose social work as your profession?
Coming from a Latino family that experienced parenting, child abuse and domestic violence challenges, I have always believed that social work chose me. From as far back as I can remember, my role in the family was one that involved problem solving, advocacy and emotional compassion.
As a third grader, I knew that I wanted to help children find hope among the myriad of stressors that this vulnerable population so often experiences. Formal education and training gave me the skills needed as a social worker to use my compassion and drive to help others. Once in the field I realized that social work offered many diverse and stimulating roles and afforded wonderful opportunities using a wide range of modalities and interventions. One example of this has been the opportunity to integrate my clinical and research skills in creating the Collaborative Assessment of Life Functioning (C.A. L. F.). The C.A.L.F. is currently being used in 13 community based sites with various client groups in the Central Florida area.
Q. What challenges do social workers face in serving the Hispanic community?
My own challenges as a Latino child growing up in New York City have influenced my deep compassion and commitment to working with very young children. Children are "under construction" for a long period of time and therefore influenced greatly by their parents, families, communities and society. I feel strongly that children and especially Latino children represent one of the most vulnerable client groups social workers serve.
While my clinical, research and training focus has been directed towards all children, regardless of race or ethnicity, a major interest for me is the mental health of very young Latino children. Latino parents in the United States can sometimes lack the necessary child development knowledge to help their children reach optimal social and emotional potential within the mainstream culture.
The challenges that some Latino parents face are rooted in traditional values and role expectations, the multiple stressors they face related to poverty, immigration/migration experience, difficulties in English language communication and cultural value differences. Despite these obstacles and often with the support of parents finding their own way through the system, many Latino children demonstrate great resilience.
The rapidly increasing population of Latino families with young children across the country requires that more attention be paid to these issues. It will be critically important to conduct research and develop interventions that help parents create environments that are socially and emotionally healthy for the 0-5 year old Latino child population.
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