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Faculty Spotlight: Bernard Bluhm, Human Services

Bernard Bluhm’s career in human services has been as diverse as the people he’s encountered along the way.

From working with the homeless to child welfare and substance abuse cases, Bluhm’s career has seen him work across a number of roles and a variety of initiatives. It has been a career rich with experience and learning, something he now imparts to students at New England College. His experience with both the politics and the execution of human services programs have provided him with a wealth of knowledge.

“The more we can build our skills in combining and integrating services, creating effective cross-system protocols and supports, and keeping up to date on research-based practices, the more effective, and less overwhelmed we will be, and the more likely those we provide support to will end up in a better place after we’re involved,” Bluhm said.

During his time with the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, Bluhm worked with the Bureau of Homeless & Housing and the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families. 

Working in a government funded world can be difficult with no shortage of regulatory hurdles that human services professionals must navigate. Just as difficult to overcome, however, are the preconceived notions people hold when they enter the work. That is something students can expect to have challenged at NEC.

“Our Human Service students can expect to be challenged in their assumptions about Human Services, and those who access those services,” Bluhm said. “They can also expect to be provided with new skills and information that they can apply to their vocation.

“I continue to appreciate the opportunity to partner with students in my course work that focuses on social issues and research. For me, it’s less about the grade, and more about readiness, as well as challenging and assisting students who are motivated and dedicated to make a difference in our society.”

We had a chance to catch up with Bluhm and ask him a series of questions about his work in the human services field and how it has impacted his work with the students he teaches today.

NEC-Faculty-Bernie BluhmTell us about your background and what led you toward a career in human services.

There were so many exciting things happening in community services when I started my career. Federal programs initiated during the Great Society were developing and taking hold in local communities, offering expanded social supports for those in vulnerable situations. There was a strong motivation for social justice, and the sense that we had the means to help families meet their basic needs.

Your undergraduate degree is in sociology. How did that degree path help shape your thinking in your government service career and ultimately, teaching?

It helped to shape my thinking that our various social systems are adaptable and open to change, and are instrumental in resolving those situations resulting in poverty, abuse and social isolation. I also received training in contextual family intervention, which directs us to consider all of the systems that influence our development – family, race, ethnicity, neighborhood, social class, community, education and so on – as we’re assisting families.

Human services careers address so many issues in society, from poverty to criminal rehabilitation and homelessness. What advice do you give students struggling to find what areas of human services they want to go into?

This is such a vibrant field and there are some key points I encourage students to keep in mind. In whatever aspect of human services we become involved in, we will encounter people connected to those issues in your question, and other challenges as well. So, we should be prepared to recognize and adjust our involvement depending on the many facets that make up the lives of those we encounter.

At the same time, we have the ability to move to a particular aspect of our vocation that we are passionate about, such as child health and safety, addressing poverty and homelessness, and assisting people to realize their hopes and dreams even when their individual abilities are considered limited by most of the population.

Finally, add social and professional change into the mix. A mentor once told me that every three years or so, either I will change jobs or aspects of my job will change so much that it may as well be a new one. With our ever-increasing awareness of the human condition, and practices that assist people in better ways, this is an exciting field that requires us to be continuously open to learning and adaptability.

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For eight years, you worked with the Greenbook Project to study child maltreatment cases. Can you tell us a bit about that work and what you found most rewarding in that project?

One dynamic of specialized systems such as child welfare, family courts and organizations that provide refuge from domestic abuse is that we can start to think of solutions more from the perspective of our own particular specialties and less with respect to the larger context of a person’s life. We may use the term “primary client” to describe where our priorities must be directed – safety of the child, safe refuge for the adult target of domestic violence, or the need for confidentiality in the court system so that court information is protected rather than shared.

What many of us in these various specialties did not account for was the significant overlap of child maltreatment and intimate partner domestic abuse, and what happened when the courts became involved with families affected by both problems. Often, the effects on children and the parents trying to protect them were devastating.

In the 1990s, a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of people who were targets of domestic abuse, whose children were removed from their custody and care because the children were in some way exposed to the violence directed by one parent or partner against the other parent, instead of having the children stay with the protective parent and removing the dangerous one. The lawsuit was a major influence in bringing this crisis to the surface.

As a result, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) published a book that contained specific recommendations for each major system to build effective collaboration, direct accountability for the violent actions to the abuser, and keep children safely together with the protective parent as often as possible. The cover of the book was – you guessed it – green.

After the Greenbook’s publication, the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Justice, and the NCJFCJ, collaborated and offered grants to locations in the United States to demonstrate how to initiate these recommendations, and study what happens when they are adopted by the three major systems. 

New Hampshire was the only region east of the Mississippi that was chosen as a Greenbook Site. One reason for this was that our systems were already addressing this crisis through a number of collaborations. For example, our child welfare system was already co-locating staff from local domestic violence programs to provide training to child welfare staff, and to work directly with parents who were referred to the child welfare system and were targets of domestic abuse. Our state also had strong, coordinated leaders in each of the three major systems who recognized this crisis and wanted to do something about it.

I cannot say enough how working together with people at all levels of each system, and with those children and parents involved in these systems was energizing and daunting at the same time. The hundreds of people involved engaged in remarkable achievements and strenuous challenges, and helped to evolve a comprehensive support system that to this day embody the ideals set forth in the Greenbook recommendations. The “co-location” of child welfare staff and domestic violence specialists (DVSs) helped us flesh out our respective biases and assumptions that stood in the way of providing support that best fit the needs of families. The courts modified protocols and the basic elements court orders so that we were all more effective in keeping families safely together, and the actual abusers accountable.

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During that same time, you also worked on Project First Step, looking at substance abuse cases in parents in which intervention is needed on behalf of the children. What did this work show you about child welfare and effective interventions in these cases?

This was another opportunity to show how we could support families better by co-locating key supports. In the late 1990s, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services gave a number of states the right to waive funds that were allocated for specific purposes, and use them to try innovative approaches that could better address co-occurrence of parental substance abuse and child maltreatment. While substance use disorder (SUD) treatment resources existed in the communities we targeted, we decided to test, not only the delivery system of SUD treatment, but also the timing of when that treatment was made available.

Licensed Drug and Alcohol Counselors (LDACs) teamed with Child Protection Service Workers (CPSWs) and initiated assessments and home services for parents, and would continue to support those parents for the five years of the project, regardless of if the child welfare system continued with the family or not.

Acting on another hypothesis, the LDACs were also certified mental health counselors. This provided an additional benefit, as we learned that a high percent of the parents also had histories of exposure to trauma, and related signs of mental illness – particularly depression. Because the Greenbook project was going on at the same time, domestic violence specialists were also co-located in these offices. That resulted in a readily available, multi-discipline response that could be flexibly applied, depending on the particular family situation referred. 

Moving the availability of these services closer to when family crises were occurring, continuing specialized services even when child welfare involvement concluded, and maintaining the individuality and confidentiality of each service (rather than training CPSWs to provide SUD counseling) resulted in significant improvement in family wellness and the parent’s engagement in treatment. Once again, co-location, “cross-cultural” exposure and stepping up key services without the need for court orders worked well for the families involved, and improved the insights and abilities of the child welfare system.

Another significant factor we measured in this five-year project was cost. We were able to show that this new approach was cost neutral; that is, it did not use more or less of those waived federal funds to deliver services that were a better adapted to family needs. We showed that we could rethink supports to keep people from falling through the system’s cracks with existing financial resources. All we needed was motivation and creativity.

In this project, a key partner involved the University of New Hampshire’s Family Research Lab. UNH followed all families involved through the five years of the demonstration and conducted periodic confidential interviews that measured the effect of the interventions, as well as key wellness indicators. 

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