Posted on September 15, 2020 by Amanda Cerreto

SEPTEMBER 16, 2020 — Sherri Simmons-Horton has spent over two decades working in the child welfare system, including working for Children's Protective Services, with private child-placement agencies in Texas and with the Court Appointed Special Advocates program. Simmons-Horton originally came to UTSA as an adjunct professor in the Department of Social Work . After completing her Ph.D. in juvenile justice, she accepted a position as a postdoctoral fellow before starting the current academic year as an assistant professor in social work with the College for Health, Community and Policy.

"I consider education, academia, research and teaching to be the next level of advocacy that I could do in terms of working for children and families," Simmons-Horton said.

Her most recent published research, "A Bad Combination: Lived Experiences of Youth Involved in the Foster Care and Juvenile Justice Systems," explores the experiences of youth involved in both foster care and the juvenile justice system. Ten individuals, aged 18-24 years old, formed the basis of the research into the dually involved youth.

“I consider education, academia, research and teaching to be the next level of advocacy that I could do.”

Research subjects participated in in-depth, semistructured, and audio-recorded interviews, disclosing their experiences in the two systems. Accounts from participants highlighted experiences of and leading to dual involvement; traumatic experiences; and absence of normalcy.

“In social work, we are community-driven,” Simmons-Horton said. “So our research is generally going to be a reflection of what we're doing in practice. There's not a disconnect between our work in the community and our work in the research arena.”

This is evident in the classroom. Simmons-Horton not only brings her years of experience as a social worker into discussion but also offers students relevant guest lectures and community partnerships in San Antonio.

“Our department has a good amount of community resources where we build relationships with local politicians and students are actually doing internships with them,” Simmons-Horton explained. “Whether they're doing a practice class or whether I'm teaching a policy class, there are opportunities within San Antonio where I'm able to bring actual live experiences into the classroom.”

Simmons-Horton's current study offers rich insights into how dually involved youth make sense of their experiences in the foster care and juvenile justice systems. And importantly, it offers implications for enhanced service provision among child welfare and juvenile justice professionals.

“The voices of the youth and the family and even professionals who have worked in the system are often silenced or not heard,” she said. “It is our role [as practitioners] to implement policy that happens on a national level. And that national level has to include the seat at the table of those kids who actually had to experience it.”

This in-depth study was part of Simmons-Horton's a dissertation project. “I was particularly motivated to do that research because it captures some of the experiences that youth in the foster care system may have experienced. I wanted to capture what their experiences looked like.”

This is only the beginning of her local research, and she has plans to ensure students get a firsthand view of how research can impact policy.

“San Antonio is one of three regions in Texas that have moved into a community-based care model for doing child welfare,” Simmons-Horton said. “There are opportunities within our city to really have an impact on how this particular pilot with the state is rolled out.”

Although she considers research a high form of advocacy, she always returns to the true focus of the studies—the voices of those impacted most.

“I'm working with some of the private sectors here in San Antonio to really ensure that there is a connection with us listening to what children and families are saying about what they need,” Simmons-Horton said. “I want to continue to hear what youth and professionals and families are saying about how this particular model is working for them and what things can be improved upon.”

Read about more of Simmons-Horton’s work in UTSA Today.

— Amanda Cerreto