“I remember knowing around the age of 13 that I wanted to pursue a future in counseling because I felt passionate about helping others,” says Rikki House, Foster Youth Policy Analyst with the California Department of Social Services (CDSS).
She followed that passion, pursuing a BA in psychology at William Jessup University. There, she says, she had “really more of a social work experience.” The professor she trained under was an LMFT who was community oriented, she recalls, and taught her principles of social work while she pursued a Certificate in Addiction Studies within the BA. With her professor further encouraging her to pursue an MSW, Rikki says, “Going through the Addictions Studies program and practicum was very formative for me.”
Her choice of a mental health/behavioral health services and advocacy specialty “felt like a natural step for me to take,” she says. “Again, my passion for helping others drove me to grow within the various roles I held early on.”
After graduating, she was Chemical Dependency Coordinator at Maryvale Residential Center in Rosemead, where she developed a drug and alcohol program for the girls living there. Additionally, she implemented an evidence-based practice called the Matrix Model for the program and analyzed, interpreted, and applied standards and regulations to implement the program to fidelity.
Later on, at Koinonia Family Services in Loomis, Rikki was Residential Counselor & School Specialist and subsequently Facility Supervisor Assistant. There she assessed and monitored the needs of adolescent youth in group homes with probation cases and histories of substance abuse. She analyzed situations and conditions that required the application of specialized interventions such as motivational interviewing, trauma-informed care, and cognitive behavioral therapy. In collaboration with the youth, she developed and implemented client safety plans.
“Through my experience working with youth struggling with substance abuse, I learned the power of a caring intervention and the difference that advocacy can make,” says Rikki.
A UNIQUE IV-E EXPERIENCE
As an alum of the Title IV-E Stipend Program, Rikki describes her special experience. She had begun her MSW studies at Azusa Pacific University with a clinical concentration. But, she says, she was drawn back to Northern California, so she worked with Sacramento State to transfer into its MSW program.
“Although I went through the application process like everyone else, I was able to register for one of Sacramento State’s online Title IV-E MSW courses while still attending Azusa Pacific University, and fell in love with child welfare policy,” explains Rikki. “I felt excited and challenged by the Title IV-E course and felt that I could finally conceptualize how my work experiences with youth in the foster care system could empower me to advocate on a large scale.
“I truly appreciate the support I received at Sacramento State from the Title IV-E coordinator who encouraged me throughout the Title IV-E program and empowered me to learn more about macro-level social work.
“I believe my experience in Sac State’s Title IV-E program was unique in its appreciation of policy-level internships. After all, I landed my current job as a direct result of my policy internship at the California Department of Social Services,” she says.
CDSS POLICY INTERNSHIP LEADS TO HER CURRENT JOB
Today, Rikki works in the Placement Services and Support Unit of CDSS’s Child and Family Services Division. Two initiatives she has been involved in are (1) California’s Quality Improvement Project: Improving the Use of Psychotropic Medication among Children and Youth in Foster Care and (2) California’s Healthy Sexual Development Initiative for Foster Youth.
“My favorite thing about my position is that every year is different with each new law that passes. Both the initiatives stemmed from laws that were passed with the help of advocates and engaged stakeholders,” Rikki points out. “I love meeting people throughout the state doing amazing work in order to meet the needs of children and families.”
But policy work presents its own challenges. “It was definitely a learning curve understanding how to be effective in a bureaucracy,” says Rikki. “Learning that change takes time and effort is crucial. I would also say that it is hard to work in policy and be removed from the people that we are working to serve. I love working with clients," she notes, "so I do miss direct practice.”
For that reason, Rikki also started working as an Extra Help employee for El Dorado County as a mental health clinician doing crisis assessments in a hospital Emergency Department.
POLICY WORK AND DIRECT SERVICE: A BEAUTIFUL BALANCE
“Doing both jobs is a beautiful balance. I feel fresh when I do work in the hospital, because my primary role as a policy analyst has very different demands,” says Rikki. “The positions are very different, but understanding bureaucracy makes me feel better prepared to help clients in crisis navigate the system.”
Says Rikki, “I would prefer to do both roles, as it is hard to compare or to pick a favorite, because it is like comparing apples to oranges. Both positions are an honor to hold.”
Reflecting on her career thus far, Rikki says, “I know that working in policy has huge pros, but a few cons as well. For instance, several friends from my MSW program have their LCSWs now and I do not, because earning hours in a macro role is very difficult.”
Still, she is grateful for the experience working at CDSS provides. “I am thankful to have an indepth understanding of the inner workings of state government, to understand laws, regulations, policies, and how programs work together (or don’t). However, I do think that I am being drawn to direct practice again within the next few years.”
From what she has seen, Rikki says, “There are so many different directions an MSW can take, so it is interesting to watch people’s journeys. I truly wish there were more positions that blend macro and micro work, because both roles are crucial to the overall well-being of society.”