Alumna connects social work and law for her career change to child welfare

Deb Gardiner
Deborah Gardiner ’10 MSW, ’10 JD

Social worker and attorney Deborah Gardiner ’10 MSW, ’10 JD says she was impressed by the Syracuse University social work students she supervised for family defense field placements at the Frank H. Hiscock Legal Aid Society in Syracuse. “I have seen my students sit patiently with clients while they are experiencing the worst crises of their lives. These moments are fraught with emotion, and the empathy and support provided by the students was invaluable,” says Gardiner. At Hiscock Legal Aid, students learn about systems as they work with individual clients, families, and caseworkers, as well as the court system and the Department of Social Services. “Without social work support, it is often difficult for clients to succeed on their own,” she adds.

Field placements are a critically important part of social work students’ professional development. As they take theories from the classroom and apply them in real-life scenarios, students transform from apprentice to professional. “I have found that at first that students are a bit hesitant to jump in, but they are fascinated with the complexity of the work,” says Gardiner. “Later on, as they begin to engage with clients and get to know cases, they gain confidence and lay the foundation for professional relationships that will influence the rest of their careers.” At Syracuse University, graduate students Falk College’s School of Social Work are required to take two separate internships, each a minimum of 500 hours.

Gardiner herself is a Syracuse University alumna of the dual M.S.W. and J.D. program. Her career in child welfare ties together law and social work, each profession taking its own unique approach. “My social work training allows me to admire and cultivate [my clients’] tremendous resiliency and strength,” she says. When she was a graduate student, she completed two social work field experiences in the area of child welfare, through which she gained insights and discovered new passions. In her placement at the Salvation Army, “I learned to respect my clients and showcase their strengths,” she says. At the Department of Social Services, “I became passionate about alternative and preventative approaches to child welfare.”

Gardiner grew up in a small logging village in New Brunswick, Canada, spending her time in church, in nature, playing hockey, and “always challenging the status quo,” she says. After completing her undergraduate degree and pre-med program, she taught high school sciences in New Jersey until she, her husband, and their seven children moved to Upstate New York.

Gardiner’s life changed dramatically when she had to help her children through a serious family crisis. “I did not know what to do,” she says, recalling the process of navigating Family and Criminal Court systems and the Department of Social Services. “It was a confusing and distressing time, but also a time of tremendous personal growth and empowerment for us all.” She was now responsible for raising her children on her own, working long hours at two medical lab jobs to support them. Today, her children all have professional careers and are serving the public interest.

As her parenting responsibilities decreased, she decided to pursue a new life passion utilizing her experiences to help others in similar circumstances. “I felt my input and words would have much more authority coming from a place of professional education, not just of personal knowledge,” she notes.

She enrolled in Syracuse University’s graduate programs in law and social work in 2007 and continued to work in a medical lab throughout her time as J.D. student and M.S.W. “While I was a bit afraid of making a career change so late in my life—I was in my mid-forties—I was also motivated by the desire to gain insight and knowledge into the systems with which I had interacted during our family’s crisis.”

Gardiner’s determination to better herself through education instilled in her children the value of life-long learning. “Most of my children were able to attend my graduation—that meant the world to me!” She remembers her law professor placing the doctoral hood over her head. Since then, she has been present at several hooding ceremonies for her children. “There is no better feeling than to know that your hard work and passion and values are passed onto your children. They have since picked up the torch and carried it farther than I ever could have.”

“I believe there is more out there for me to do, and I want to continue to help people who are underrepresented or in oppressive situations to find their voices.” Gardiner says she continues to utilize her Syracuse University education, which “helped mold my vision and instill confidence in myself,” throughout her career in child welfare.

For more information about Syracuse University dual-degree programs in Falk College’s School of Social Work and the College of Law, visit the Falk College website.