From Classroom to Capitol: Touro Social Work Students Engage in Legislative Process

Dr. Jennifer Zelnick Leads Students in Advocacy Efforts for Social Justice

April 12, 2024
group of students standing in office in state capitol smiling at camera
Touro social work students advocating for change in state capitol on LEAD DAY.

Touro University Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) students traveled together to Albany last month with other social work schools in New York State to advocate for bills that would create positive change through social policy.

The effort was part of a national and local initiative that takes place every year in March, which is celebrated as “Social Work Month.”   Students further their education by participating and engaging in the legislative process.

Titled Legislative Education and Advocacy Day (LEAD), the trip is organized every year by GSSW Professor Dr. Jennifer Zelnick, who chairs the social welfare policy sequence. 

“The LEAD event is often the highlight of students’ first-year policy training. It is amazing and inspiring to watch them go through this experience,” said Dr. Zelnick. “Social work is a practice and introducing students to 'policy-practice' is empowering and a key part of social work education.”

Kyra’s Law, Miranda Rights Top the Agenda

For Touro’s social work students, the event began officially at 6 a.m. when they climbed aboard a bus for the four-hour ride to the state capitol. But preparation started earlier with a series of zoom meetings with their peers from other social work schools in New York.

At the prep meetings, students learned about the bills they would be promoting and how the day likely would unfold. The bills were:

  • Kyra’s Law (A. 3346A), which would require judges to consider a parent’s history of abuse or neglect in child custody cases more than is now required;
  • Family Miranda Rights Act (S.901), which would require Child Protective Services to notify parents and caretakers of their rights at the outset of an investigation;
  • Anti-Harassment Reporting (S.902), a bill that would require a caller reporting suspected child abuse to leave their name and contact information.

The students organized into small teams composed of students from different schools, with each one having a role to play – from introducing the bills and why they had come to Albany, to advocating why the bills should pass, to closing the meeting.

Tiffani Santiago, who works as an advocate at a foster care agency on Staten Island with foster youth, was in foster care herself as a child and is passionate about protecting children and families.

One of the most powerful moments of the trip, she recalled, was standing behind Jacqueline Franchetti, Kyra’s mother, while she held a press conference in support of the bill at the top of the “Million Dollar Staircase” in the capitol.

“Social workers should be involved in policy making. A lot of the time legislators are so busy with the political side of things…they lack the knowledge and experience of the actual populations that are affected,” she said. “So it’s important to have that social work perspective to bring to light the impact the bills will have on lives.”