Corey Shdaimah, CJAE Founder and Director

Corey Shdaimah HeadshotCorey Shdaimah is Daniel Thursz Distinguished Professor of Social Justice at the University of Maryland, School of Social Work and the Academic Coordinator of the MSW/JD and MSW/MPP Dual Degree Programs. Dr. Shdaimah’s research and writing focuses on how people respond, adapt to, and try to improve policies as they are implemented on the ground across a number of substantive areas. She has ongoing projects exploring dependency court reform and court-affiliated prostitution diversion program. Dr. Shdaimah relies on a variety of primarily qualitative methods to elicit the important insights that people have about improving the systems in which they work and interact. She is the author of many articles and several books, including The Compassionate Court: Support, Surveillance, and Survival in Two Court-Affiliated Prostitution Diversion Programs (under contract) with Shelly Wiechelt and Chrysanthi Leon (Temple University Press); Research Handbook on Law, Movements, and Social Change (forthcoming) with Steve Boutcher and Michael Yarbrough; Social Welfare Policy: A Dynamic Model (2020) with Shannon Lane and Elizabeth Palley; Challenging Perspectives on Street-Based Sex Work (2017) with Katie Hail-Jares and Chrysanthi Leon; In Our Hands: The Struggle for U.S. Child Care Policy (2014) with Elizabeth Palley; Change Research: Collaborative Research Methods for Social Workers and Advocates (2011) with Roland Stahl and Sanford Schram; and Negotiating Justice: Public Interest Lawyering, Low-Income Clients, and the Pursuit of Social Justice (2009).

Read Corey’s Casual Conversation Here

How did you come to work at the intersection of legal systems and social work?

Corey Shdaimah: I came to social work after practicing law, where I found myself wondering about the co-construction of relationships between lawyers and people they serve that can both be helpful and harmful. One theory that resonated with my thinking about helping relationships within bureaucratic and legal systems is Michael Lipsky’s “street level bureaucracy”. Street level bureaucrats are people at the frontlines of policy implementation, who work face to face with the individuals that they are supposed to control or help. Even though SLBs have circumscribed options because they work in hierarchical structures with limited resources and conflicting mandates, they have a lot of power over people that they surveil. This depiction of being situated between having a lot of power and very little power is compelling.

I also think that most people act rationally and ethically within the bounds of what they consider possible, whether they are professionals who implement policy or the people they regulate or serve. However, policy is often made with the idea that people are irrational or unethical actors, and so we have to convince them not to do “bad things” without really understanding why people do them. Given that we can’t always know what motivates people and it’s likely some combination of these, I prefer to believe in a world where most people are motivated by their caring for others. If we set that expectation, then maybe we will get that response. Whereas if we set an expectation that we have to punish people into submission, then we create systems that make it harder for people to be kind and to do right by themselves and others by making their resources even more limited and making them even more desperate.  So that's a fundamental interest that I always tapped into in law practice and it was confirmed for me when I came to social work in my dissertation research on legal services lawyers and clients.

A combination of opportunities and my own interest led me to focus on particular areas at the intersection of law and social work including sex work, which is criminalized in the US, and dependency courts. I look at state or county/city level reforms designed to make systems more responsive to professional stakeholders including judges, lawyers, and caseworkers or probation officers and those in the system, such as children, parents, foster parents or folks arrested for criminalized sex work.


Can you talk a bit about your current projects?

Corey Shdaimah: I’m working in two areas. The first is a series of projects for the Maryland Foster Care Court Improvement Program (FCCIP) where I conducted interviews with parents whose children have been removed under Child in Need of Assistance processes. The FCCIP wants to learn what facilitates and impedes parents’ engagement, as part of a series of projects looking at the experiences of various dependency court stakeholders including young adults, kinship caregivers, and foster parents. The other project is with people who worked with or participated in a Philadelphia’s Project Dawn Court (PDC) and Baltimore Specialized Diversion (SPD) Program. This is a follow-up on an ethnographic study of PDC and SPD from 2011-2014. In this study, I’m trying to understand how peoples’ thoughts about the program have evolved over time as they look back and in light of recent calls to defund the police and the class, gender, and racial inequities in our criminal legal systems, as well as in response to a national movement around what are called progressive prosecution practices that are taking place at least in Philadelphia where I did my research.


What do you see as the social justice implications of the work you do?

Corey Shdaimah: The social work Code of Ethics tells us that whether we work as a researcher, therapist, case manager, community organizer or lobbyist, we must strive for social justice, equity, and anti-oppressive practice. Grounded in a view of human beings as inherently worthy and capable, we should ask how can we build systems where everyone can thrive; that support human agency, rather than reduce people's capacity to act; and that are in tune with people's self-identified goals and aspirations? Social work has a problematic history of social control and oppression, and so we also need to apply our Code of Ethics reflexively both in regard to past and current harms. Social work has a commitment to self-reflection, and I'm seeing that among many of my colleagues and students at the SSW. 


Another way that social work can add to a social justice perspective is through the person-in-environment lens. The criminal legal system, child welfare, and other state agencies under neo-liberal regimes focus on how to change individuals to get them to behave the way want.  But if that individual’s actions and behaviors are facilitated and constrained by the systems in which we live and work, then we need to see how existing structures and societal factors influence people's behaviors. Our current legal systems ignore structural issues like poverty and lack of living wage employment; social work reminds us that you can't ask people to change in a vacuum. We also tend to ignore the fact that people have multi-faceted and complex lives, and that they make decisions based on not how they perceive the options available, but in light of their multiple identities and obligations? That also ties into why people do what they do. On the flip side, policy work in a vacuum tends to ignore individual suffering. Social work at its best doesn't say one is more important than the other, but that we need to - at least collectively - pay attention to both.


Are there other ways that your social work perspective plays a role in your work?

Corey Shdaimah: Yes. Social work value base also tells us to center people as experts in their own lives. This has social justice implications for everything, including the kind of research that we do. So asking why are you planning a PDP that isn't talking to people who are going to be arrested and “offered” services under this program? It makes no sense from an efficacy perspective: if we don't know how and why people make decisions about their actions, how do we intervene? More importantly, we are ethically bound to consider programs that we develop or evaluate from the perspective of the people who have the most to gain or lose from them.


Are there social work perspectives that can add to the field generally?

Corey Shdaimah: Having been socialized as a lawyer and teaching mixed groups of law and social work students, one of my general observations is that law students tend to ask questions like: “what are the rules?”, “how do I do this?” Whereas social work students often ask questions like “is this the right thing to do?”, “is this just?, “is this fair?”.  These kinds of questions that social work students ask should come first. So the professional socialization to ask these fundamental questions adds a valuable voice. Rather than assuming that we have the right goals, let's ask about those goals and then we can figure out the “how.”


How do you envision a critical collaborative centering on legal systems?

Corey Shdaimah: I'm working in areas that seem different, but I see a lot of overlap. Child welfare and criminal legal systems are class street level bureaucracies in that they are under-resourced, have conflicting goals, and a tremendous amount of power over folks. They are experienced as punitive, even though child welfare systems is supposed to be ameliorative, and children may be removed for good reason and supposedly only when necessary. These systems are experienced, if not by the same individuals, disproportionately by people from low-income, urban communities, particularly African American communities. And they are systems of control.  So getting people together who look at different aspects across different kinds of systems to look for patterns or convergences can be fruitful. For example, it allows us to think, “Well, maybe this is not just about saving children because we see similarities across systems that are supposed to be fundamentally different.” It can help to identify systemic injustices, and perhaps better understand the exponential and intersecting impacts of these systems of control. 

Ongoing dialogue also allows us to challenge each other. It’s been important to me to be part of groups that are collegial, meaning we are kind to each other, but we also hold each other accountable. When I say us, I mean folks at the UMB SSW, our collaborators, and anyone else who wants to join us, especially any community partners who might want to work with us.

Finally, I have an interest in creating platforms that may be valuable to students, faculty and staff to lift up each other's work and provide a space for support and brainstorming. That can be around applying for a grant, writing a paper, research ethics or methods, or thinking about how our School acts within or around legal systems. I hope this can be a resource hub, and a way to really uplift and share the wonderful work that I hear that people are doing that we don’t always know about. We are doing exciting work at the UMBSSW, and have an important opportunity to lead in framing these ethical challenges for ourselves and the broader community

CJaE Fellows

Linda-Jeanne Mack

Linda-Jeanne MackLinda-Jeanne M. Mack, MSW, LICSW is a PhD student at the School of Social Work, University of Maryland, Baltimore. Prior to becoming a doctoral student, Ms. Mack worked in the child welfare system for over a decade in Massachusetts. She was also a community mental health therapist specializing in therapy for individuals and families impacted by family separation and adoption. She continues to consult and lead trainings for mental health providers and child welfare workers. Ms. Mack has been an adjunct lecturer for several years. She has also been active in policy and legislative change at the state and federal levels. Now a full-time PhD student, she channels her passions for social work practice and policy advocacy into research.

Her research interests include the impact of social and child welfare policies and implementation on the experiences of all stakeholders involved in the child welfare system, preventing family separations and reuniting families when possible.

Ariya Hayes-Lawson

Ariya Hayes-Lawson is an Advanced Year student at the University of Maryland, School of Social Work, pursuing a dual Clinical/Macro concentration with a specialization in Behavioral Health. Prior to arriving at the School of Social Work, Ariya spent four years working in undergraduate admissions, partnering with high schools and community organizations across several metropolitan cities on the East Coast and in the Midwest to create more equitable pathways to admission for Black and brown students, and those who are first-generation and low-income. Beyond this professional role, Ariya also spent time in partnership with youth and community leaders as a Community Advisory Board member for an organization that uses youth-led restorative practices to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. Her work with youth within and across both spaces has influenced her orientation to social work and her belief that youth-centered and community-led action should frame how we address the carceral systems embedded in our schools and neighborhoods. At the School of Social Work, Ariya engages with groups across different roles in ongoing conversations about systems of inequality and the impact they have on our work. As she continues to develop her social work praxis, Ariya intends to leverage her field experience in a Baltimore City Community School and at Family Connections Baltimore, a community-based agency, to build power and partnership with community members to better effect change and disrupt these inequitable systems of racism and power.

CJaE Members

Jenny Afkinich, Postdoctoral Scholar in Implementation Practice, UNC School of Social Work

Jenny Afkinich, PhD, MSW, is a Postdoctoral Scholar in Implementation Practice at the University of North Carolina School of Social Work. Jenny focuses on equity in implementation research and practice. Jenny also has an interest in decision-making in human services systems, particularly within the criminal legal contexts. Previously, Dr. Afkinich was Lead Research Analyst with the Parenting, Infants, and Early Childhood team of the Institute for Innovation and Implementation at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. She supports the data management, evaluation, and outcomes reporting for federally- and state-funded projects. These include B'More SUCCEEDS, which supports youth who may be pregnant or parenting and who are experiencing homelessness and substance use disorders, and B'More Reconnects, a multi-faceted project supporting the reunification of parents and children in Baltimore City by providing wraparound services for parents who are incarcerated and newly released from prison. Both projects include a mixed-methods evaluation component. Her dissertation was a mixed-methods study of an initiative by the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice in which social workers were placed in county offices to provide direct mental health services and consult on decision-making. Prior to her research training, Jenny practiced as a social worker serving children and families who experienced family violence, homelessness, and juvenile justice involvement.

Rebecca Bowman-Rivas, Law & Social Work Service Program Manager

Rebecca Bowman-Rivas is a clinical and forensic social worker who has run the Law & Social Work Services Program at the University of Maryland Baltimore’s Carey School of Law for the past 18 years. The program provides social work services and support for the Law School’s Clinical Program, providing law and social work students the opportunity to collaborate and provide holistic services to their clients. Areas of practice include criminal justice, immigration, low-income taxpayers, gender violence, and healthcare and HIV/AIDS. The program provided support and case management for more than 100 individuals released under Unger v. Maryland (2012), after serving decades in prison. She received the University System of Maryland (USM) Board of Regents’ Staff Award for Extraordinary Public Service to the University or Greater Community in 2017. Ms. Bowman-Rivas has been in private practice for more than a decade through Bowman-Rivas Consulting, LLC, providing mitigation and sentencing advocacy in capital cases and other felonies, juvenile LWOP and transfer of jurisdiction cases. She is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

Margo Candelaria, Co-Director, Parent Infant Early Childhood (PIEC)

Dr. Candelaria has considerable clinical and research expertise in infant-early childhood mental health (IECMH) screening, diagnosis, assessment, evidence-based practices (EBPs), and parent-child interactions across multiple community systems. She has worked with young children and families in medical systems, community mental health agencies, early intervention agencies, and Head Start/Early Head Start.  Dr. Candelaria also has a history of working in the NICU, NICU Follow-up Program and the Growth and Nutrition Clinic with medically fragile and substance-exposed infants.  She participated in the development of the E-SMART Clinic in Carroll County Maryland focusing on building a developmental clinic to serve children with behavioral and developmental needs and their families.  She also has overseen or currently oversees the evaluation efforts for two SAMHSA funded IECMH SOC grants (BRIDGE and E-SMART), two programs focused on programing for pregnant and parenting at-risk youth (HHS pregnancy Assistance Fund and SAMHSA funded TREE grant), a locally funded intervention (The TREE Project) with MD AAP in pediatric primary care, training providers on promoting parent-infant interactions, and a HRSA funded project evaluation of implementing the same TREE project virtually through dedicated pediatric developmental coaching telehealth visits. Furthermore, Dr. Candelaria oversees evaluation and research efforts of IECMH Consultation and National Pyramid Model activities funded by MSDE.  Across all these projects, she has focused on program evaluation and implementation science aimed to improve programs for families with young children by using data and engaging in a continuous quality improvement processes.

Inbar Cohen, CJAE Post-Doctoral Fellow

Inbar Cohen HeadshotInbar Cohen was the CJAE Postdoctoral Fellow on the Israeli prestigious Haruv scholarship from September 2021-September 2022. Dr. Cohen’s research focuses on the interchange between criminal law and mental health, examining the mutual effects the two discourses have on each other. Her main scholarship concerns are therapeutic jurisprudence and critical discourse analysis. In her work with CJAE, Dr. Cohen examined the effect of punitive goals on court-mandated therapeutic interventions in prostitution diversion programs. Her interest in the interchange draws from her 20 years of social work practice in the Israeli Sexual Assault Crisis Centers, ten of them as the head of the Witness Assistance Program, assisting victims throughout criminal proceedings and facilitating courses for prosecutors and judges about sexual assault trauma. In addition, for the past eight years Dr. Cohen has been teaching socio-legal courses in the School of Criminology at the University of Haifa, and in the school of law at the College of management, in Israel.

Read Inbar’s Casual Conversation Here

How did you come to work at the intersection of legal systems and social work?

Inbar Cohen: In 2004, I started working in the sexual assault crisis centers in Israel. There are nine centers. I worked for eight or nine years in Haifa, which is a northern city in Israel. Afterwards I worked at the center in Tel Aviv, which is a large metropolis, at the center of Israel. In the  Tel Aviv sexual assault crisis center, I was the head of the witness assistance program. The program was based mostly on volunteers who escorted victims through sexual assault criminal proceedings. Another part of my role was to improve the working relationship between legal practitioners and sexual assault victims. I facilitated courses for legal practitioners, mainly prosecutors and judges, regarding the emotional effect of sexual assault and its effect on victims' ability to testify in court and on the way they’re perceived by the court. That started my interest in implementing mental health knowledge within criminal proceedings.

What interested me even more was how mental health professionals testify in court. I gradually started receiving calls from mental health professionals, social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists that had to testify in court regarding the victims' emotional state or regarding theoretical questions such as PTSD.  What was astounding to me was that they were very much preoccupied with the same questions, anxieties, and fears the victims were dealing with, such as what if they don't believe me in court or should I retain the services of a lawyer. When you think about a professional that testifies regarding professional issues, you don’t think that they would be afraid of the testimony, after all it's a professional testimony. It's not as if you're testifying about your own traumatic experience, but they are.

So my PhD focused on sexual assault criminal proceedings that required mental health professionals to testify in court on behalf of the prosecution and the defense. I interviewed mental health professionals and legal practitioners, such as prosecutors, defense attorneys and retired judges. I found that mental health practitioners perceived legal proceedings as theatrical and not authentic. They compared it to therapy as being this authentic space and court being over-dramatized and theatrical, and rehearsed. The way they dress, how they address each other. It can feel very archaic, as it involves archaic language.

Many of the mental health practitioners experienced court testimony as  aggressive, demeaning, and sometimes even traumatic. This enabled me to form an understanding regarding what enables a person to testify in a way that fulfills legal requirements, but doesn’t result in a person being traumatized or hurt. On the legal practitioners’ part, there were legal practitioners that thought that implementing mental health knowledge in criminal proceedings could result in damaging due process. They didn't have much appreciation regarding mental health knowledge. Most of the lawyers perceived mental health knowledge as being imperative to legal proceedings as long as it fit legal requirements. What surprised me regarding the legal practitioners was that some thought that implementing mental health knowledge was so imperative that it changed their legal discretion into a therapeutic-legal one. I named it the ‘theralegal” discretion, where therapeutic considerations occasionally became more important than legal considerations. For instance, there was this prosecutor that said that she doesn’t think that therapy records should be admissible in court, although they are very important to her case, because they might discourage victims from going to therapy and asking for help.

Basically what I found was that the implementation of mental health knowledge in legal proceedings affects legal thinking, discursion and conduct.


Can you talk a bit about your current projects?

Inbar: What’s interesting in my eyes in how the interchange between these two very different worlds, mental health and law, affects both of them. In my PhD, I studied how mental health knowledge affects legal thinking and procedure. And now in my post-doc, I want to study how the legal sphere, legal discourse, and legal language affects therapy when conducted under a court order. And what I focus on in my research with Dr. Corey Shdaimah, who is a world-renowned expert in the field, is on prostitution diversion programs (PDPs), specifically Project Dawn, in Philadelphia. PDPs divert away from criminal proceedings. People can be charged with prostitution and get sentenced and punished, or they can be diverted to a rehabilitative processes, such as in PDPs. It sounds nice to social workers’ ears, but what is interesting is what happens when therapy becomes a way to punish people. What are the goals of this therapy? Who decides about the goals of this therapy? The client? Is he or she even perceived as a client? When therapy is punishment, how does it affect the relationship between the therapist and the client? And what constitutes success? Now, I know what constitutes success when you ask a lawyer. When you ask a lawyer, it will be her stopping engagement in prostitution. But when you ask a therapist, “what is success in your eyes?”, then you have different outcomes. Like for example, not endangering herself, not endangering her children, or not being poor. When you ask a social worker "what you have to do to achieve this goal?", then he or she will answer that you need to conduct individually centered intervention as well as promoting social change in the community and in society. Because most of the people that are engaged in street level prostitution are located within  marginalized groups, they’re mostly poor, and have limited access to education. So you have to address all of these macro problems.

            Now when you ask lawyers how you help people that engage in prostitution or sex work, most of them will say, “well, you have to help them through therapy.”  But that’s not enough. You have to address it by applying a social lens, and I apply in my study a social work lens. What is unique about social work, compared to psychology for example is its multi-layered perception regarding multi-layered problems, which include the individual centered intervention, but also the macro or social intervention. Even though the therapists in these programs are not always social workers, applying a social work macro lens to examine therapy within PDPs is much better suited than any other therapeutic lens.


So you started to talk to talk about the social work lens. Will you explain how your social work perspective plays a role in your work? How does or could social work add to the field generally?

Inbar: I think that when a social worker in a social work agency—not in a rehabilitative service and not in a correctional facility—approaches a problem, they approach it in a multilayered view. Most prostitutes come from disadvantaged circumstances. They have multiple challenges that all need to be addressed. Courts conduct themselves on a case-by-case basis, but social work does not do just that. Many social workers do that, but social work as a profession does not do just that. So when you approach a problem, you approach it on a social level—social, social work, it’s in the name—not just on the person. You should create meaningful connections with people but you should also and always apply a social perspective. So a social worker would address the educational facilities, work related options, social change, and poverty—not just by addressing a certain person’s ability to go to work, but how they can change it on a policy level. So social work can contribute to how therapy is perceived in PDPs by applying multilayered perceptions. And that is radical because most rehabilitative programs in correctional facilities or in legal facilities do not approach these problems through a social lens. It’s criticizing themselves, the establishment, so there’s this contradiction of terms. And this is what social work should do and how it broadens the scope of how therapy and rehabilitation should be perceived. This is social work’s contribution. It’s not criminology, it’s not psychiatry, it’s not psychology. It’s social work’s contribution. No other profession perceives these problems as being socially constructed like social work.


How do you envision a collaborative hub or collaboration fitting into your work or the field overall?

Inbar: What's challenging about an interdisciplinary field of research and profession is that it doesn’t quite belong to any profession. It’s psycho-legal, psycho-social-legal profession. So is it legal? No. Is it social work? No. It’s both. It’s being bilingual. That’s a good thing, but also makes it very challenging—to find the right venue to publish your articles, to find the right supervisor, to find the right collaborators. Because people tend to study only one field, and those of us who are crazy enough to study both fields are very few. So we have to have a group in order to collaborate. Interdisciplinary research has a very important contribution because it broadens the scope of inquiry and the scope of both legal thinking and legal inquiry and social work thinking and social work inquiry. Because of that, you should foster these interdisciplinary areas because they broaden the scope of the discipline itself. That is why it's imperative to have a peer group of interdisciplinary folks that will enrich each other, help each other, conduct other studies, until it becomes a discourse by itself—not social work, not legal, but a discourse by itself. And then you have other interdisciplinary discourses, and that’s how this discursive world evolves.

Nadine Finigan-Carr, Associate Professor

Nadine M Finigan-Carr, Ph.D.,is a prevention research scientist focused on the application of behavioral and social science perspectives to research on contemporary health problems, especially those that disproportionately affect people of color. Recently, she was named the inaugural Executive Director of the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s Center for Violence Prevention. The center is a multidisciplinary initiative that seeks to bridge the activities of those across the University and in the community in a collaborative fashion to conduct community-based participatory research, provide creative and impactful education, and inform and advocate for policies that strengthen our communities to prevent

violence and trauma. Its mission is to build resilient and equitable communities for all through the prevention and intervention of all forms of violence and trauma. Dr Finigan-Carr's scholarship is grounded in theories and methods found primarily in the field of health behavior change among individuals and the environments that support or impede chronic disease prevention or management, injury, and violence. She is an internationally recognized expert on minor human trafficking and sexual exploitation having collaborated with colleagues in the UK, Canada, and the Caribbean. In 2018, she presented aTedX talk titled, Child Prostitutes Don’t Exist. She is the Principal Investigator of research projects at both the state and federal levels designed to intervene with system involved youth–those in foster care or the juvenile justice system. These youth have a double vulnerability–adolescence, a critical stage marked by increased risk for negative social and behavioral outcomes including aggression and sexual risk behaviors; and, being removed from their families of origin. Dr Finigan-Carr is the author of Linking Health and Education for African American Students’ Success (Routledge Press). She has served as special guest editor for the Journal of Negro Education (2015), the Journal of Violence and Victims (2020), and Children Youth Services’ Review (2021). She also serves as a Commissioner of Community Relations in the Baltimore City Office of Civil Rights, Equity and Wage Enforcement. Dr Finigan-Carr can be reached by email at 

Natalie Flath, Lead Research Analyst

Flath, Natalie Natalie is a Lead Research Analyst in the Research and Evaluation Unit at the Institute for Innovation and Implementation and a PhD student at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She works on several juvenile justice-focused projects. Natalie received her MPH from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and previously worked at Baltimore City Health Department as an epidemiologist. She has authored and co-authored several journal articles which have described the intersections of criminal justice and health among key populations affected by HIV.

Nancy Digby Franke, CJAE Doctoral Fellow

Nancy FrankeDr. Nancy Digby Franke was the Inaugural Doctoral Fellow for the Community Justice and Equity (CJAE) Initiative from 2022-2023. Dr. Franke defended her dissertation in May 2023, a mixed-methods study focusing on relationships, social networks, and well-being of people who were incarcerated for at least 10 years beginning in childhood, and then released. Through CJAE, Dr. Franke worked on two main projects: one about prostitution diversion programs in Philadelphia and Baltimore and another about practitioners working with people in mandated sex offender treatment. Prior to joining the PhD Program, Dr. Franke was the Director of the Goldring Reentry Initiative, a program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice that provides therapeutic case management services to people pre and post release from the Philadelphia Department of Prisons, while training MSW students to work in the criminal legal field. Dr. Franke is currently Assistant Professor of Social Work at LaSalle University.

Read Nancy’s Casual Conversation Here

How did you come to work at the intersection of legal systems and social work?

Nancy Franke: In 2005, when I was a junior in college, I took a philosophy course called Gender and Identity, through which students were expected to do some sort of volunteering with a local organization. I volunteered at a transitional house for women who had just been released from prison. It was pretty accidental that I ended up there, rather than in a shelter or an after school program, but I worked with the women and supported them with everything from resume writing to apartment hunting to figuring out how to regain custody of their children. While I was there, I simultaneously read a great deal about US prison systems. The more I learned, the further and further I fell down into this rabbit hole and was naively astonished that this wasn't something people were talking about every day. The next semester I took another philosophy class called Imprisonment, Identity, and Liberation, which was an Inside-Out course, meaning half of the students were traditional college students and the other half were incarcerated at the time of the course. We read Foucault and Sartre and talked about philosophy as it intertwined with and was experienced through incarceration.

Six years later, I returned to school for my masters in social work and had an internship in a reentry program called the Goldring Reentry Initiative (GRI).  I worked with people pre- and post-release from the Philadelphia jail system, while also learning about the reentry process, broader criminal legal systems, and how to navigate these systems from a macro and clinical social work perspective. After I graduated, I became the Associate Director of the GRI and then became the Director, where I worked for another five years. In the GRI, we collaborated with the Public Defender’s Office, the District Attorney's Office, probation and parole, and folks in the courts. We partnered with one judge to petition for the early release of people incarcerated in the Philadelphia jail system. The program supported 100 people a year as they left jails and returned to the community while training 15 MSW interns. The GRI’s job was simple yet complex: to support people with whatever they wanted and needed to get out and stay out. 

The more I understood about how criminal legal systems casually and continually inflicted a barrage of injustice on people who were often poor, often Black and brown, and often marginalized, the less I could imagine myself working in any other field.  People who are entangled in criminal legal systems are exactly the people who social work purports to defend and support. Social work is a very obvious and necessary lens through which to interrogate and push back against criminal legal systems.


Tell me a little bit about your current projects.

Nancy: I am currently a fourth year PhD candidate. I am involved in a number of projects connected to criminal legal systems. My dissertation, for instance, is focused on the impact of relationships and social networks on the post-prison well-being of people who were sentenced to life or long (over 10-year) sentences when they were children, meaning when they were 17 or younger. In the United States there are about 12,000 people who are serving life or de facto life sentences that began during childhood. In the last handful of years, there have been at least 700 people who have returned following juvenile life without parole sentences that have been overturned or changed. I am using a mixed-methods methodology that uses both a social network analysis component as well as qualitative semi-structured interviews to investigate this question of how relationships impact someone’s well-being following a life or long sentence that started during childhood.

I am also working on a few other projects. I'm working with Dr. Shdaimah on a follow-up study of her previous project interviewing stakeholders and participants in a prostitution diversion program. We are looking at lessons learned and how people think about this program in retrospect. We are currently writing a manuscript regarding roles of the team of stakeholders involved in prostitution diversion programs, and how stakeholders navigate the collaborative aspects of those programs despite common ethical and professional tensions.

Through the Promoting Smart Decarceration Grand Challenges of Social Work group, I am the co-lead of the Reentry Workgroup, and have been involved in two different projects around policing. The first is a systematic literature review about police assisted diversion that investigates past research on this topic. The second project is a qualitative study in which we have been interviewing the leaders and directors of law enforcement and police assisted diversion programs across the United States. We are in the midst of collecting qualitative data.

Another project I’m involved with is with Dr. Alexandra Wimberley. We're using qualitative data from her dissertation, which included people who had substance use disorders, had recently returned to Philadelphia from incarceration, and were HIV positive. In our current study, we are considering how respondents describe times in their lives when substance use impeded daily life and times when it did not.


How does your social work perspective play a role in your work, or what does or could social work add to the field, generally?

Nancy: If we think about social work’s core values according to NASW, then we can see a lot of ways in which social work values should and could play a role in research, practice, and policy within criminal legal systems and for folks who are currently or previously involved in criminal legal systems. For instance, social values center the dignity and worth of the individual. It is crucial that we work against policies and practice that are only about the bottom line and finding the cheapest way to put people in cages. We're also thinking about person-in-environment so, in terms of my work, thinking about the ways that individuals rely on one another to live their best lives, increase their well-being, and build community.

I also think that focusing on the knowledge that people with lived experiences have in relation to research, practice, and policy related to folks who are involved in the criminal legal system is crucial. As a white woman who has never been incarcerated myself, it is really important that I am intentional about my own shortcomings, my own biases, and realizing that there are certain things that I will never be able to know from reading, studying, and talking to people who were involved in criminal legal systems themselves. So being really clear about that for myself and using my own power to get out of the way and/or lift up the voices of people who have been directly impacted is fundamental to doing this work from a place that reflects the ideals of social work values.

Another social work value is competence related to social work practice. If we are going to say that social workers are competent enough to work with people under criminal legal system surveillance, we need to do a much better job of doing the research, figuring out what the best ways are to support people who are currently or previously incarcerated, or other people who are entangled in criminal legal systems from probation and parole to arrest and everything in between.


How do you envision a collaborative hub or space fitting into your work or the field overall?

Nancy: There is a great need to connect the dots in terms of who is involved in research and practice at this intersection of social work and criminal legal systems.  Part of the hub means finding my people and being strategic about collaboration and connection. There are a lot of individuals who are doing tremendous, tremendous work in social work as related to criminal legal systems, and I think connecting individuals so that our work is not done in silos and so that our work is building upon the work of other people is imperative.

Social work is often made up of white women and white men, many of whom have not been incarcerated themselves. Figuring out what that mutual support looks like, but also white people pushing each other and calling people in—not necessarily only calling people out—is necessary to address our inevitable biases and advance the research, practice, and policies that we contribute to daily.

To me, this hub is a way to build bridges between individuals who are already doing good work and fighting the good fight.  We have over 3,000 counties in the US, meaning we have over 3,000 criminal legal systems. They were not created through one single policy or law, but because of tens of thousands of policies and laws created over decades. There will not be one single solution that fixes the enormous problem of mass incarceration. Rather, we need creative approaches of intersecting foci to meet our social work ideals and truly honor the dignity and worth of the millions of people entangled in criminal legal systems.


Nili Gesser

Nili Gesser is an interdisciplinary mixed-methods research fellow at the Juvenile Justice Research & Reform Lab in the Department of Psychology at Drexel University. Previously she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Anderson Sexual Violence Prevention Lab at the University of North Dakota. She received her PhD in criminal justice from Temple University, and her LLB (JD) from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She worked as a prosecutor and a victim advocate for over a decade in her home country, Israel. Her research focuses on street prostitution, substance use, sexual violence prevention, therapeutic jurisprudence, and peer support. Her research has been published in journals such as Victims and Offenders, Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, and Psychology, Public Policy, and the Law.

Geoff Greif, Professor

Dr. Geoffrey Greif is a Professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work where he has worked since 1984. He was Associate Dean from 1996 to 2007. He received his MSW from the University of Pennsylvania and his PhD from the Columbia University School of Social Work. He is the author of more than 150 journal articles and book chapters and fifteen books including four that are co-edited. These include: When Parents Kidnap (co-authored with Dr. Rebecca Hegar); Single Fathers; Beating the Odds: Raising academically successful African American males (written with Drs. Freeman Hrabowski and Ken Maton); Overcoming the Odds: Raising academically successful African American young women (written with Hrabowski, Maton, and Monica Greene); and Group work with populations at risk (co-edited with Dr. Carolyn Knight).

Within the past few years, Dr. Greif has explored horizontal relationships with the publications of Buddy System: Understanding male friendships, Two Plus Two: Couples and their couple friendships (with Dr. Kathleen Holtz Deal) and Adult Sibling Relationships, written with Dr. Michael Woolley (2016). A new book, In-law relationships: Mothers, daughters, fathers, and sons was published in 2021. In 2001, Dr. Greif chaired Governor Parris Glendening’s Commission to study sexual orientation discrimination in Maryland. Between 2011 and 2016, Dr. Greif co-led a fathering group for federal detainees at a Detention Center in Baltimore and, more recently, ran a group for fathers at a residential employment center.


Caroline Harmon-Darrow, Assistant Professor, Rutgers School of Social Work

Caroline Harmon-Darrow, PhD, MSW, LMSW, is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers School of Social Work. Previously, Dr. Harmon-Darrow worked as the Senior Community Program Specialist in the Prevention of Adolescent Risks Initiative at the University of Maryland, Baltimore School of Social Work, where she collaborates on several projects related to the Maryland Human Trafficking Initiative. She coordinates training for child welfare workers, pediatricians and other medical providers, law enforcement professionals, and members of the community about preventing child trafficking, and engaging with survivors. Her research and scholarship center on reducing violence, victimization, and incarceration, including through a graduate research assistantship with the National Institute of Justice, and serving as co-chair of the Grand Challenges of Social Work Smart Decarceration Committee’s Policing Work Group. A community mediator of 24 years, she trains, mentors, and evaluates other mediators, and has held leadership positions in local, state and national conflict resolution organizations, following work with survivors of intimate partner violence.

Ashley Jackson, PhD Candidate, Washington University in St. Louis

Ashley Jackson is a PhD Candidate at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research focuses on the impact of police contact on youth and families. Specifically, her dissertation research examines the factors influencing how youth engage in discussions about preparation for police interactions. Prior to her doctoral studies, Ashley supported communities addressing public safety issues, conducted mixed-methods research on youth experiences with the juvenile legal system, and examined how police contact impacts youth and families. She has an MSW from the University of Chicago, Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice (formerly the School of Social Service Administration (SSA)) and a BS in Administration of Justice from George Mason University. Ashley is collaborating with CJAE on the qualitative police-initiated diversion study. 

Brook Kearley, Research Assistant Professor

Kearley Brook

Brook Kearley is a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and research faculty at The Institute for Innovation and Implementation. She was a dissertation fellow of the National Institute of Justice and received her Ph.D. in Criminology and Criminal Justice from the University of Maryland in 2017. Dr. Kearley’s research interests include criminal and juvenile justice policy and program evaluation with a focus on substance use and delinquency prevention and intervention programs. She has expertise in experimental methods, with over 15 years’ experience managing randomized field trials and multi-site evaluations. Dr. Kearley's recent research has appeared in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention Science, and Criminology and Public Policy. 


Kyla Liggett-Creel, Clinical Associate Professor

Dr. Kyla Liggett-Creel (Dr. K) is a Clinical Associate Professor at the School of Social Work, University of Maryland. Dr. Liggett-Creel and the Director of The Collaborative: A Healing-Centered Community. She is the chair of the Mayor’s Youth Trauma Workgroup, facilitator for the Mayor’s Cabinet for Boys and Young Men of Color, and staff person for the Baltimore City Trauma Taskforce Youth Workgroup. Dr. Liggett-Creel is also the founder and Director of the Healing Youth Alliance. She is working on several initiatives partnering with community-based minority run non-profits to prevent, and heal from, community violence. Dr. K’s area of specialization is youth leadership, healing-centered engagement, trauma, and equity.

Judith Park, MSW, MPH

Park, JudithJudith Park graduated from UMB in 2021 with a Master's degree in social work and public health. She is currently working as a research coordinator with the UMB SSW to study the impact of drug criminalization on communities and explore approaches to decriminalization in Maryland. 




Michael Schlossman, Lead Research Analyst

Michael Schlossman is a Lead Research Analyst at the University of Maryland Baltimore’s Institute for Innovation and Implementation. Dr. Schlossman’s research focuses on the implementation and impact of community alternatives to incarceration and evidence-based practices in juvenile justice. He previously worked as a Research Analyst at the Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission, where he analyzed trends and patterns in court decision-making and the implementation of the state’s Juvenile Justice System Enhancement Strategy. He received his Ph.D. in Sociology from Princeton University and an M.Phil from the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge.

Ruth Shefner, PhD Student, Columbia University

Ruth Shefner is a doctoral student in Sociomedical Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health, on the sociology track. She is focused broadly on criminal legal systems, with interests in policing, court based interventions, and collateral consequences of mass incarceration. Prior to coming to Columbia, Ruth was the Director of the Goldring Reentry Initiative, a program housed at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice that supports individuals pre- and post-release from Philadelphia’s county jail system while training Master of Social Work students to work in the field of criminal justice. In this role, Ruth provided direct therapeutic case management services, as well as oversaw all program operations, including client selection, collaboration of community and legal partners, clinical supervision of social work students, and program evaluation. Ruth is collaborating with Nancy Franke on the mandated sex offender treatment study. 

Alexandra Wimberly, Assistant Professor

Alexandra WimberlyAlexandra researches interventions for individuals with substance use problems and associated challenges such as criminal justice involvement and HIV risk. She is interested in complementary health approaches to improve stress coping as a pathway to reduced substance use. For example, she designed and implemented an RCT testing the effect of a yoga intervention on stress, substance use and HIV outcomes for individuals in reentry from prison or jail. Alexandra also researches interventions that recognize the chronic nature of substance use disorders, particularly continuing care. 

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