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Strategic social work

Improving access to legal services in West Virginia

Clendenin native Michelle Richmond arrived at West Virginia University in fall 2017 with a lofty goal: to improve the human condition for all West Virginians. Eventually, that led her to social work.  

Michelle Richmond
Michelle Richmond

“I am motivated by a calling to help people in any capacity I can, but I quickly realized that nursing, the major I originally chose, was not the field I wanted to be in. I was happy to be helping people, but nursing just didn’t have the genuine human connection that I sought,” said Richmond, a senior social work student. “During my sophomore year, I switched to social work as I realized I had more interest in the human condition itself rather than medical conditions of the human body.”  

This year, as she completes a Bachelor of Social Work, Richmond is working with Legal Aid of West Virginia on its strategic plan to improve statewide community access to legal services.

Richmond is using data from a needs’ assessment, including responses from other community agencies and organizations, to help the organization identify goals for improving access to legal services over the next three years. Ideas for expanding services and resources include offering community legal clinics online, building a self-help legal library and other forms of community outreach.

Because the process has been conducted virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Richmond has learned new approaches to work and communication.  

“This year’s strategic planning initiative has taken place entirely remotely, consisting of various subcommittees made up of employees, board members and other professionals from around the state,” Richmond said. “This mix of inter- and outer-agency perspectives is what makes the strategic planning process successful. I serve on the access to services subcommittee, as I felt this subcommittee would be the best place for me to use my social work skills and knowledge.”  

One of the goals includes expanding the use of social work interns across the state to increase clients’ access to services. Social work Students like Richmond complete an intensive, semester-long field placement to learn how to apply social work theories and use their skills in real-world settings.  

“I have helped the organization prioritize, plan for and initiate strategic goals aimed at increasing client access to services through expanding the use of technology with clients, increasing efficiency of services, incorporating social workers and social work interns into service delivery and strengthening the pro bono program,” Richmond said. “The strategic planning initiative has been a great learning experience for me, and I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to be a part of it.”  

Richmond is also supporting a new partnership between Legal Aid of West Virginia and Unicare, a Medicaid program in West Virginia. Through this program, Unicare care managers work with its members to identify any legal issues they may face. These issues often include divorce, domestic violence, housing, education, custody or disability benefits.

“Once the care managers positively identify a legal issue that a Medicaid recipient is having, they make a referral to Legal Aid of West Virginia for possible legal services. Once we receive the referral, we assess eligibility and review the legal issue. The attorney will then provide legal services to the client,” Richmond said. “Since I am not an attorney, I cannot give legal advice. However, I often act as a liaison between the client and Legal Aid of West Virginia. I can assess a client’s needs for services not provided by Legal Aid of West Virginia, such as obtaining food from a food pantry, and work with the client to receive them.”  

March is National Social Work Month. It recognizes the critical roles social workers play in the community, especially essential given the pandemic and ongoing social unrest.

“Social workers are certainly essential, especially in times of great sociological, economic and political instability. The United States is currently experiencing an uptick of issues in all three areas,” Richmond said. “Social work is vital to ensuring that vulnerable populations are represented, supported and advocated for in times of instability and crisis. Social workers forge relationships with clients, helping them to become more self-sufficient and stabilize their lives, so social workers should be recognized as front-line workers during the pandemic.”

After graduating in May, Richmond hopes to continue this essential work, eventually as the owner of her own independent practice.

“Until I get there, I could see myself in a position working with people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities,” Richmond said. “I would also like to be involved in policy or advocacy to advance social justice and human rights for vulnerable populations.”  

This article is part of a series highlighting WVU School of Social Work students during National Social Work Month.