By Samuel Leibowitz-Lord ‘21
After 12 years of Catholic school, Rutgers alumna Patricia McKernan knew she would end up in a profession dedicated to helping others.
McKernan, born and raised in Camden County, New Jersey, began working in the criminal justice system while pursuing her bachelor’s degree in sociology and psychology. As an undergraduate, McKernan was drawn to the justice system after seeing the effects of mass incarceration and “tough-on-crime” polices on communities of color.
McKernan enrolled in Rutgers School of Social Work’s MSW program in Camden after working with thousands of families struggling with issues related to poverty. With her MSW from Rutgers, she began to work with Volunteers of America Delaware Valley, running a residential community release program for men preparing to leave state prison. Each year since 1996, she has helped over 10,000 individuals experiencing homelessness, mental illness, substance abuse, poverty, disabilities, and domestic violence.
After 25 years in the field, McKernan decided to pursue a DSW degree at Rutgers to hone her skills and learn new, effective ways of sharing her experience and expertise. She chose the Rutgers program due to its flexibility with her busy schedule. As a student, she was kept up-to-date on all the latest research and practices in the field, which helped her develop new skills as a social worker.
“Once in the program, I proved to myself that I could make the time to read important research that added value to my professional career. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the important friendships that I formed and how much they have meant to me during the DSW program and beyond,” McKernan said.
Currently, McKernan serves on the Board of Social Work Examiners and is the President of the Reentry Coalition of New Jersey. She has also published articles on the topic of criminal justice reform, pointing out issues such as the impact of legal financial obligations on prisoner reentry and the intersection of homelessness and criminal justice.
“One researcher stated that ‘criminal justice involvement is both a cause and a consequence of poverty.’ These issues affect all poor communities and social workers should care about this,” McKernan said.
Going forward, she plans to continue her work in the criminal justice system, using her expertise on the effects of poverty and race on the criminal justice system to focus on issues of substance abuse and access to treatment. McKernan would also like to examine the effect of continuums of care and community partnerships that are necessary to promote recovery.
“The ability to practice on a macro-level has allowed me to feel like I am part of systemic change as well as helping people with their immediate needs through the programs we operate,” McKernan said.