Social Work faculty at JMU usually work in the field before they begin teaching and often stay active in the community when they become professors. Instructor Beth Oliff serves as Assistant Director for the Shenandoah County Department of Social Services, an agency she has worked with since 1997.
Oliff attended Virginia Commonwealth University as an undergraduate and then began practicing in Shenandoah County . While moving through roles in Adult Protective Services, foster care, Child Protective Services, and Prevention Supervision, she completed her MSW and LCSW degrees. Now, Oliff works as Assistant Director for the agency.
“It’s the hardest, most rewarding work there is,” said Oliff.
As Assistant Director, Oliff writes grants, attends court meetings, collaborates with multidisciplinary professionals, and collects data among other administrative and interpersonal tasks. Staff oversight is also a major part of her position.
“The most rewarding part of my job is seeing the agency staff working hard with and for the families of Shenandoah County,” said Oliff. “When I see a family achieve their goals; when we can avoid traumatizing a child by removing them from their family; when I see a worker truly engaging.”
A position in social services can occasionally lead to burnout due to the demanding nature of the work. Oliff lists authenticity, strong communication skills, engagement, commitment, and reliability as necessary qualities. Social workers must also practice self-care and remain objective, she said.
“You have to believe in families and their ability to change,” said Oliff.
Social Services may have a stigma of removing children from their homes, but the social workers of Shenandoah County employ a strengths perspective. Their work aims to solve problems within the family system and avoid separation. First, Social Services turns to legal investigations, counseling services, psychiatric treatment, and school personnel in attempt to improve conditions within the home.
“We believe families can make positive changes and protect their children,” said Oliff. “They are experts on their needs. Every family and person has strengths.”
Oliff has found that teaching at JMU and working in the field compliment one another.
“I learn from my students and the material and bring it back,” she said. “I’m constantly seeking out current and relevant material for my students and am able to share those with my staff.”