June 5, 2024

Social Workers Could Provide Legal Services Under New USU Program

Group of collaborating faculty, staff, and community partners pose around the A-block
Collaborating faculty, staff, and community partners recently gathered in support of USU's Transforming Communities Institute. From left: Teneya LeFors, Nikki McGahee, Jess Lucero, Lucas Martin, Emily Van Duren, Jayme Walters, Jonathon Walters, Maureen Boyle, Barbara Warnes, Dorothy Wallis, Saeed Ahmad.

By Andrea DeHaan, CHaSS Communications Editor

Utah State University will host a community event at Bear Lake this weekend to share data on iSocial workers in the state may soon have access to a new certificationto provide legal guidance to underserved individuals facing debt collection.

Utah State University’s Transforming Communities Institute, in collaboration with the Department of Social Work and community partners, is in the process of launching the Community Justice Advocate Program, a new training program to help social workers learn how to provide limited legal services to individuals struggling with debt issues — debt that often stems from the challenge of affording housing, health care and education.

"People who fall in that category have minimal access to representation or quality representation, if any at all,” said new Access to Justice Program Coordinator Jaxon Didericksen, explaining that only a very small percentage of people can work with a lawyer during debt collection litigation.

A 2022 Utah Bar Foundation report noted that debt claims account for as much as 85 percent of general civil legal claims in Utah District Courts.

Pending final approval from the Utah Supreme Court, USU’s training program will offer social workers a combination of asynchronous and synchronous learning, followed by supervised practical experience and ongoing support from legal professionals.

Recently, the Transforming Communities Institute was awarded nearly $80,000 from the Utah Bar Foundation and $50,000 from the Mariner S. Eccles Foundation to establish a sustainable model that can be replicated statewide, potentially revolutionizing the delivery of legal services to vulnerable populations.

"The model that we're proposing will hopefully allow us to consistently produce trained social workers,” said TCI Director Jayme Walters, an assistant professor in USU’s Department of Social Work. "It could look like helping clients write a letter to respond to collection agencies. It could be helping them prepare for court."

Their vision is a statewide non-credit-bearing initiative to “certify new and existing social workers and other community professionals to become Community Justice Advocates (CJAs).” Through partnerships with the Nonprofit Legal Services of Utah and key experts from Utah’s courts, including Third District Court Judge Richard Mrazik, chair of the Utah Courts' Committee on Resources for Self-Represented Parties, and the Utah Bar Foundation, the pilot program aims to train 25 CJAs this year.

The Transforming Communities Initiative program will be possible due to a regulatory sandbox established by the Utah Supreme Court. Utah’s innovative sandbox — a structure where regulators monitor and supervise entities operating inside of it — was the first of its kind in 2020 and allows lawyers and other professionals to provide nontraditional legal services.

According to the Supreme Court’s standing order, the sandbox was created to give consumers “access to a well-developed, high-quality, innovative, affordable and competitive market for legal services.”

Walters and Didericksen, whose position was created to support the new program, are working to finalize the application to the regulatory sandbox and develop the curriculum with an anticipated launch later this fall. The program will initially train and certify licensed social workers in the state, but Walters said the goal is to expand this training to social work students in the future.

"It's not just a program that's providing a service,” she said. “It could change the landscape for how legal services are provided to vulnerable populations and how social workers engage in that process."

Established in the Department of Social Work in 2021 and housed in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, the Transforming Communities Institute was founded in support of USU’s commitment to community engagement and aimed at helping Utahns work together to address important social issues through research, solution-building, and education. According to Walters, more than 700 social workers participated in the institute’s continuing education programs last year.

For more information, please visit: https://chass.usu.edu/social-work/transforming-communities-institute/




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Jaxon Didericksen, pictured, is the new Access to Justice Program Coordinator for USU's Transforming Communities Institute.

Jaxon Didericksen, pictured, is the new Access to Justice Program Coordinator for USU's Transforming Communities Institute.