Ramona Denby-Brinson has built her career by changing the conversations about teen pregnancy, foster care, and social policy for decades. Now the conversation is about her. A social work professor within the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs, Denby-Brinson became the first female researcher to win UNLV's top annual research award.
She earned the university's 2014 Harry Reid Silver State Research Award for her work on social services, including family and children welfare, the foster system, and children's mental health. She is also a senior resident scholar at the UNLV Lincy Institute.
"It's humbling to be a part of a group of such accomplished people that have received the award. I don't see it this as an award for me as much as I see it as an award for the team of social science researchers across campus," Denby-Brinson said. "The university is recognizing the value of social science research and the ability to change the landscape of the community with the type of research we do."
Denby-Brinson, a Las Vegas native, is licensed social worker and received a Master of Social Work from UNLV in 1990. She joined the UNLV faculty in 1998, seeing the need to find solutions for the problems she would see day in and day out. She has spent more than 17 years building community partnerships with local government agencies and non-profit groups.
During the span of her career, Denby-Brinson has earned more than $12 million in nationally competitive research grants from the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Lois and Samuel Silberman Foundation.
"Because of her tireless efforts to use research to advance the public good and to effect program changes on behalf of Nevada's most vulnerable citizens, she was found to be highly deserving of this prestigious award," said Stan Smith, Associate Vice President for Research.
Throughout her professional and academic career, Denby-Brinson has been committed to putting research into action.
Repairing the Bonds Between Relative Caregivers and Kids
Recognizing the need to support families caring for the children of their relatives in the foster system, Denby-Brinson designed a Kinship Liaison Program with Clark County Family Services to mentor relative caregivers.
Statistics had shown re-abuse rates of kids taken in by relative caregivers had skyrocketed. Relative caregivers struggle financially and are overburdened by new responsibilities. Many are unprepared to take care of children who suffer traumatic experiences and have trouble adjusting to a new home. The Kinship Liaison program connected relative caregivers with mentors who had similar experiences.
After Denby-Brinson's team proved the interventions to be effective, the model has now been implemented in other U.S. cities with slight variations. UNLV, in partnership with the Clark County Department of Family Services and other service providers, has helped many local families. Re-abuse rates were cut in half and children improved academically and emotionally. What started as a 5-year, grant-funded pilot program was recognized for its success by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and made sustainable by the Clark County Board of Commissioners.
"Ramona Denby-Brinson develops research questions that produce solutions for Las Vegas and the nation," said Robert Ulmer, Greenspun College of Urban Affairs dean. "Her research is so important because the innovative solutions she develops protect and make the lives of children better. As a faculty member in the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs, her research captures the value of creating urban solutions for the most pressing needs in our communities."
Denby-Brinson is motivated by the change in conversation when programs like the Kinship Liaison program work.
"Now policymakers want to invest in these kids and invest in supporting caregivers and families," Denby-Brinson said. "That's the neat part... when you can use your research for advocacy to change policies and to change programs that in the real world makes a difference for families."
Helping Foster Children Succeed
When Denby-Brinson met a 21-year-old woman who was in the foster system and already had four children, she began to understand why the young woman had planned her pregnancies. The woman wanted to show her own mom that she could be and was a better mother. Denby-Brinson knew there was much more to the young mom's decisions. The woman had a tough time growing up; pieces of her life were missing. Relationships were broken and bonds that children normally create with their parents were nonexistent. The young mom was like a lot of other teens growing in the foster care system. Many suffer from attachment disruptions, traumatic experiences, tremendous loss, and they grieve for moments and experiences they never had.
Understanding this grief is a big part of Denby-Brinson's study examining pregnancy rates of teens in the foster system compared to teens out of the system. She found the foster teen girls were getting pregnant intentionally. For those youth who are emotionally fragile, a baby is often an attempt at becoming loved, connected, and a part of something. It may also be an unconscious desire to fulfill an emotional void, and to demonstrate to others that they can provide better parenting than was provided to them. Also, some youth struggle to envision a hopeful future because of a past that has not been so bright. A baby or parenthood provides a sense of purpose, worth, value, and meaning that is often missing for so many foster youth because they lack other significant and meaningful relationships.
Early pregnancy may be a consequence of unfulfilled, poor, and broken relationships. Understanding the psychology behind early pregnancy (particularly intentional pregnancies) in foster care youth allows professionals to appropriately and more effectively intervene. Such interventions can potentially stop the cycle of generational maltreatment and bring about more positive financial, educational, and psychological outcomes for young adults.
To help young men and women in the foster care system, Denby-Brinson, local community providers, and a team of graduate students helped create the DREAMR program that pairs mentors with the young adults in an effort to prevent pregnancy and help the youth develop positive, healthy and supportive relationships. Several partners including the Department of Family Services, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Southern Nevada Health District, SAFY, and Olive Crest, a local nonprofit group for families and at-risk children, have worked with Denby-Brinson to create an intervention program.
Olive Crest's youth specialists implement the intervention program. The program aims to train young adults in parenting skills and to prevent first-time and subsequent pregnancies. Preliminary results have shown a drop in pregnancy rates as well as a decrease depression and anxiety. Final results will be available early next year. The program is expected to end in 2016 but may continue if grant funding is available.
"We're purposeful in delivering intervention of what it really is. It's loss of grief. It's kids who are experience grief and who never had a chance to grieve," Denby-Brinson said.
Addressing Children's Mental Health
Denby-Brinson is also tackling Nevada's shortage of mental health providers. She was instrumental in organizing the university's Mental and Behavioral Health Coalition, which consists of several health-related academic disciplines. UNLV faculty are launching a new curriculum this summer that will create a pipeline of healthcare professionals specializing in children's mental health. Taught by faculty across health and counseling fields, the program will train graduate students to work with kids suffering from severe mental health disorders, have a history of violence, or who have experienced traumatic events.
Students from psychology, educational counseling, addictions, counseling, marriage and family therapy, social work and nursing will work together to exchange ideas and develop comprehensive treatment plans - the results of which will be examined in the research project. The program and research project are funded through a $1.4 million federal grant.
"The rewarding part is when you get a chance to use your research discoveries to change policy, to change programs, and to bring attention to how we're labeling kids, and how even a minimal level of support and investment can help children live normal and productive lives," Denby-Brinson said.
About The Harry Reid Silver State Research Award
The Harry Reid Silver State Research Award was created in 2001 to recognize faculty who have performed research that is highly regarded and responsive to the needs of the community and state. The award carries a $10,000 stipend funded by the UNLV Foundation.