PhD Student Explores Methods of Reforming Child Welfare System

April 29, 2013
by Eric Lindberg
Jaymie Lorthridge

As a police officer on the streets of Atlanta, Jaymie Lorthridge had her fair share of tough calls. Among the most difficult were those involving children in unsafe situations. Unless she responded to the same location for another incident, Lorthridge rarely had the chance to see what happened to those children after they left her custody.

One particular experience has stuck with her through the years. Called out to an apartment for one reason or another, she found a tiny baby, several months old at most, left alone on a bed in the empty residence.

“I was thinking, how long has this baby been here? Is anybody going to come back?” she said. “This child is so young. What kind of future are they going to have if they are already being abandoned?”

Her desire to have a positive impact on the lives of children on a long-term basis prompted Lorthridge to leave her job in law enforcement in 2002. A year later, she had enrolled in the master’s program at the USC School of Social Work.

Now she is set to complete her doctorate in social work at USC and has focused her research efforts on how best to make major changes in child welfare.

Her passion for large-scale solutions to critical issues plaguing the child welfare service system has not gone unnoticed. She was among 15 scholars selected nationwide for the highly competitive Doris Duke Fellowship for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, a two-year program that aims to develop a new generation of leaders in child welfare policy and practice.

The fellowship, which includes a $25,000 stipend, enabled Lorthridge to focus her attention and energy on her dissertation. In essence, her research involves outlining the key aspects of change that are critical to successfully reforming child welfare services and policies.

“When you are talking about a system and a reform to the system, there are lots of moving parts,” Lorthridge said. Her dissertation utilizes data from the child welfare system in Los Angeles County, an incredibly diverse and expansive region.

“What works in San Fernando Valley may not work very well over in Santa Fe Springs,” she said. “You want to make sure any reform that the system makes, even though it’s very broad and it’s applying to all locations, it’s going to work for all of those locations.”

Lorthridge is familiar with the Southern California region, having grown up in the Inland Empire. She moved to Atlanta to attend Spelman College, where she earned a degree in psychology before joining the police force.

As a master’s student, she worked on a child welfare prevention research project during her required field placement and quickly became hooked on the topic. When she decided to pursue a doctorate at USC, Lorthridge found a mentor in Jacquelyn McCroskey, a professor with the School of Social Work.

The two share a common interest in using social work research to improve large-scale public systems, and Lorthridge has worked closely with McCroskey on a variety of research projects largely focused on Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services.

“I was really fortunate to get connected to Jaymie,” McCroskey said. “She’s very smart, she’s very passionate about social work, and she is a person with a lot of integrity and strong values.”

Lorthridge helped McCroskey evaluate a $5 million child abuse and neglect prevention project in Los Angeles County that sought to create community-based networks to prevent child maltreatment.

She also assisted on an evaluation of family preservation, one of the largest service programs overseen by the Department of Children and Family Services. In particular, Lorthridge reviewed qualitative data from interviews with frontline social workers and their supervisors concerning their level of satisfaction with community-based child welfare agencies.

McCroskey said Lorthridge’s interest in prevention—attacking the problem of child maltreatment at its root before intervention is necessary—made her a perfect candidate for the Doris Duke fellowship. Fellows are selected from an array of disciplines, ranging from social work and public health to economics and psychology, but must be interested in and passionate about pursuing initiatives that advance the prevention of child abuse.

In addition to purchasing textbooks and other needed supplies, Lorthridge has used the fellowship stipend to support herself rather than taking on additional research or teaching responsibilities. That has allowed her to focus on her dissertation, which builds on previous research to examine reform efforts at 18 county child welfare offices.

Lorthridge is particularly interested in Point of Engagement, a county program designed to serve as an early response and referral system for families that become involved with the Department of Child and Family Services. She was initially attracted to the program due to its effort to involve families in the decision of whether a child should be removed from a home.

“The family’s involvement allows for exploration of the possibility that the child may not have to leave the home, and if they do, concrete and efficient plans can be made for placing the child in the best environment possible,” she said.

Although there is some existing research on system-level change in social work fields such as child welfare, Lorthridge has also been pulling knowledge from other disciplines such as business, computer science and even astronomy. It is much easier to manipulate variables and observe effects in physical systems, she said, particularly compared to complex social systems that often have multiple uncontrollable variables that require more time to track.

Lorthridge didn’t initially envision pursuing a doctorate in social work when she came to USC, but encouragement from Jan Nissly, Devon Brooks and other faculty members steered her in that direction, as did the opportunity to learn from top scholars throughout the university.

“When you have that USC education behind you, it opens doors and sets you apart,” she said.

As she gets closer to completing her dissertation, Lorthridge has started considering her future plans. Although she is looking into tenure-track faculty positions, she is also interested in pursuing additional studies.

“More than ever, postdoctoral opportunities are really a valuable tool for new graduates,” she said. “It allows you to continue the learning process in a very focused manner.”

Her time as a police officer has also sparked an interest in issues surrounding child trafficking, and she has been following related legislation and initiatives on a nationwide and statewide level. As a result, she is considering getting involved with a nonprofit organization working to address the problem.

“I’m committed to going where I think I can make the most contribution,” Lorthridge said. “I want to go to an organization where the culture and the mission is to keep bridging frontiers.”