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Social Work Doctoral Student Spotlight: Improving training and professional support for infant mental health practitioners

March 30, 2016

Carla Barron

Improving training and professional support for infant mental health practitioners


Professional Biography


A clinical social worker, Carla has for nearly two decades practiced as an infant mental health (IMH) specialist in Metropolitan Detroit, providing in-home, therapeutic services to high-risk infants and families. After receiving an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wayne State and an M.S.W. from University of Michigan, she provided relationship-based interventions to families through Parents and Children Together while earning an Infant Mental Health Certificate from Wayne State’s Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute for Child & Family Development. She joined the Merrill Palmer staff for two years as an early childhood mental health consultant, then spent five years as an infant mental health specialist for the Macomb County Community Mental Health Infant Mental Health Program before returning to Merrill Palmer in 2010. Since that time, she has served as clinical coordinator for the institute’s Infant Mental Health Program, in which role she advises graduate students, helps develop curricula for the new infant mental health dual-title degree program, and assists with the dual-title program’s infant mental health seminar. She is endorsed by the Michigan Association for Infant Mental Health as a Level IV Infant Mental Health Mentor. She maintains relationships with numerous organizations concerned with child welfare, foster care, child care provision, and Early Head Start programs, both as a consultant and as a speaker on training and best practices.




Carla’s doctoral work focuses on the development of research tools to evaluate the quality of reflective supervision and consultation services, as well as education and learning in the infant mental health field. A well-established component of infant mental health practice, reflective supervision recognizes that three key relationships develop simultaneously during in-home, therapeutic practice with a family: that between parent(s) and infant(s), that between practitioner and family, and that between practitioner and supervisor. Ideally, the practitioner-supervisor relationship is supported with weekly meetings in which the practitioner shares experiences and feedback that allow the supervisor to determine if the interventions and therapies being used are appropriate and to ensure the practitioner is maintaining proper perspective. “The professionals are developing a relationship that models the attachment relationship we want parents to develop with babies, so research to operationalize how this professional bond is forged and nurtured is important,” Carla said. “The research on this currently focuses on the supervisor and what they feel is important to reflective supervision; however, I want to be a voice for the practitioner to better understand what they feel are essential supports in a very challenging job.”


Why It’s Important


“Many social work professionals, including infant mental health specialists, often report a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness when dealing with high-risk families, and burnout is always a risk,” Carla said. “Because the relationship between infant mental health therapists and families is crucial to success and takes time to achieve, turnover is detrimental to outcomes and avoiding it through strong practitioner support is a priority. My perspective is that anyone doing home-based practice with parents and babies needs reflective supervision, and hopefully as we strengthen this model through evidence-based research we can extend its use into other areas of child welfare and infant-family practice.”


Faculty Support


The combined experience and knowledge of the School of Social Work faculty and the Merrill Palmer staff made Wayne State the obvious choice for pursuing a doctoral degree, Carla said. She works closely with Ann Stacks, director of Merrill Palmer’s Infant Mental Health Program, and assists with the “Baby On Board” research project of her advisor, Carolyn Dayton, who is an assistant social work professor and associate director of the Infant Mental Health Program. Dayton praises Carla for her “passion, talent, and dedication” to improving the lives of vulnerable infants, toddlers and their families. “Carla is well-positioned to move the infant mental health field forward as we work to provide our students with effective training experiences and build infrastructures that will allow for the provision of reflective supervision to practitioners,” Dayton said. Carla also values Wayne State’s diversity and commitment to community-based partnerships. “The collaborations that the School of Social Work and Merrill Palmer have forged within Metro Detroit benefit social work students tremendously,” Carla said. “I can’t walk into a family’s home to help them without considering the community they belong to.”

To read about other social work doctoral students and the research they are pursuing, click here: http://socialwork.wayne.edu/phd/student-spotlight.php

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