Social work graduate Justin Bennett makes a difference in the community, the classroom and the State Capitol

Social work alumnus Justin Bennett has worked for the Missouri Department of Mental Health and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs while also serving as an adjunct instructor at UMSL and on the Missouri State Committee for Social Workers. He views his social work as a connection to the community through advocacy, service and social justice. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Justin Bennett spent his childhood in rural Missouri – a place with little access to social services.

One particular experience in that environment affected him deeply.

“When I was a young kid, my grandfather passed away from complications of ALS,” Bennett said. “I grew up in a small town that didn’t have access to services like hospice. I remember my family’s experience and thinking how much they could have benefited from that kind of support.”

Bennett reflected on that moment when he started working at a hospice while pursuing an associate’s degree at Mineral Area College. He transferred to the University of Missouri–St. Louis’ Mineral Area College outreach campus and started studying business. But the experience at the hospice pushed him to change course, and he switched to studying social work, eventually graduating from UMSL with a BSW in 2007 and an MSW in 2010.

Since then, Bennett has gone on to help people from all walks of life at the Missouri Department of Mental Health and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. He’s also given back to UMSL by teaching as an adjunct instructor and represented his peers as a member of the Missouri State Committee for Social Workers.

After switching his major from business to social work, Bennett found incredibly supportive teachers and classmates. It was more akin to a family than a department, and he credits the UMSL School of Social Work for fostering a setting where students can succeed.

“It was a fantastic experience,” Bennett said. “We were able to develop relationships naturally, and networking is such an important part of social work in building resources and being aware of providers. We still touch base about resources on occasion. I think that sense of community was really important.”

Despite the supportive environment, not everything went according to plan.

After graduating with his BSW, Bennett started working at the Farmington, Missouri, branch of the Missouri Department of Mental Health in a facility that rehabilitated sexual offenders. It was a challenging position compounded by the start of his master’s program.

Toward the end of the program, the emergency room at the Farmington DMH branch where Bennett completed his first master’s practicum closed – a victim of state budget cuts. He tapped his contacts, scrambling to find a way to finish his second practicum and degree. Luckily, he was able to find a position at a hospice and complete his education.

The academic achievement coincided with a transition professionally.

Bennett returned to  the Farmington DMH branch and eventually moved into a new position as a case monitor. The role is vital to ensuring patients with mental illness or disabilities continue their progress after completing psychiatric rehabilitation.

“I was monitoring people in the community to make sure they were stable and maintaining a level of safety for themselves and others,” Bennett said. “I partnered with community agencies and residential care facilities to make sure that they were in the community successfully.”

While in that position, Bennett made good on a promise from his time as a student. At UMSL, he had been adamant about coming back to teach. Adjunct instructors had been pivotal in his education, and he wanted to help a new crop of social workers.

“In my degree program, I always felt like adjunct instructors were crucial to our learning because many of them were not just in academia,” he said. “I think learning from professionals in the Mineral area, which is also the Farmington area, was really helpful because they were aware of how rural social work works versus urban social work.”

Bennett teaches classes on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and human behavior in social environments. He also took advantage of an opportunity to become the faculty liaison for the School of Social work at the Mineral Area College campus from 2015 to 2018.

“It allowed me to work with students in their practicums and allowed me to teach a couple extra classes at Mineral Area College,” Bennett said. “I was able to really help grow the practicum database in that area because of the connections I had made over the years.”

Around the same time, the office of then-Governor Jay Nixon contacted Bennett about filling a position on the Missouri State Committee for Social Workers. The body oversees the licensing of all social workers and also helps form legislation regarding social work practices in the state.

Bennett’s interest in the committee had initially been piqued in 2010 near the time of his MSW graduation. The state passed legislation creating a new tier of requirements to become a licensed master social worker. Bennett was interested in the decision-making process and applied to be on the committee.

His application remained in limbo for about three years, but he sensed “something was going on” when the governor’s office asked him to forward a resume. He was finally appointed in December 2015 and confirmed by the Missouri Senate in February 2016. His initial four-year term – during which he served as secretary and chairperson – has ended, but he will continue to serve as chairperson until the governor appoints a replacement.

Teaching and serving on the committee has been a lot to take on with a full-time job, but the classroom and committee work fuel Bennett’s passion for his work.

“Sometimes with your 9-to-5 you can lose perspective,” he said. “Teaching helps keep me grounded. It keeps me excited for the future of social work. It helps me realize that I have plenty of information and experience to share with the students.”

In 2018, Bennett left the Missouri Department of Mental Health to take a job with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Columbia, Missouri. His work with the VA mainly involved partnering with local housing authorities to find homes for unhoused veterans. It was heartening to make such a tangible difference in people’s lives.

“It’s a fantastic feeling,” he said. “Working with the community to accomplish a shared goal is a powerful thing. Housing is one of the barriers to  continued recovery or success, reestablishing connections with loved ones, restarting their life and getting a job – all of those things.”

He recognizes that each individual has unique barriers, but housing helps to promote a sense of safety and stability that allows individuals to work on other life goals.

Bennett returned to the Missouri Department of Health in March to manage the institution’s forensic responsibility program in St. Louis. The chance to come back to the place where he cut his teeth professionally was too good to pass up.

Through it all, Bennett is grateful for a career in social work, which is more than a job to him. He views it as a connection to the community through advocacy, service and social justice. At its foundation, Bennett believes social work should always strive to recognize and honor the inherent dignity and worth of individuals, which often involves social workers confronting their own biases.

“I’m 12 and a half years into this, and I’m honored to continue to work in this field to help people in need, to help attract some attention to issues that are happening on a larger scale, to share that knowledge, but to also learn from the students because they have different life experiences,” he said. “I’m very fortunate in that regard, that I can continue to work and continue to see the profession grow.”

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