HU Program to Improve Social Work Access for Native Communities

Melissa Riley

Melissa Riley

Las Vegas, NM – The new director for Highlands University’s Native American Social Work Studies Institute will help improve access to trained professionals in Native communities.

Melissa Riley, who was hired as the director of the institute July 20, began her career as a lay social worker and brings broad experience in education, social services, and community development to the position.

“I feel strongly about helping social workers,” Riley said. “Tribal social services are not just about child welfare. We also act as advocates, work with disabled people, and provide adult services.”

Riley said the institute will be a valuable resource in helping build relevant coursework and training opportunities for social workers in the field.

“It’s going to empower social workers and empower tribal communities,” Riley said. “Most importantly, it’s going to empower families. Often times the system works on behalf of an institution and not for the children and families.”

Riley, who is from the Mescalero Apache tribe, said growing up, her experience was similar to what tribes and pueblos currently face, little or no experience with trained social workers due in part to geographically remote locations.

“Often times, we didn’t have the professionals in the field, so the tribe relied on community members with little or no experience to be social workers and advocates for families going through the court system.”

Riley said the institute’s work will combine the community skills lay social workers learn with additional knowledge to better serve Native populations. Data show lay social workers retention rates in tribes and pueblos are better than people who had a degree and little tribal experience.

“In the short term, I want to develop a strategic plan and increase our partnerships in New Mexico,” Riley said. “This includes federal, state and tribal and other stakeholders working with us to build a network of people with a vested interest and deep concern for our tribal communities and families.

“It’s so important we do it right and build the institute’s foundation so it sustains itself for years to come,” said Riley, who served on the committee conceptualizing the institute.

Facundo Valdez School of Social Work created the Native American Social Work Studies Institute in response to a resolution passed by the All Pueblo Council of Governors and the Navajo Nation, asking the school to enhance training and preparation of social workers to more effectively serve tribal communities. The institute is supported by funding from the State Legislature.

“We are indeed fortunate to have Dr. Riley serve as the permanent director of the institute,” said Cristina Duran, dean of the Facundo Valdez School of Social Work. “Her extensive background and experience as a leader working in the areas of social work and education in tribal communities throughout New Mexico and nationally will help the Institute achieve its goals, and result in more culturally relevant services to tribal peoples in New Mexico,”