Thirty years after APA's first congressional fellow, Pamela Ebert Flattau, PhD, used her psychology background to work on the Senate Subcommittee on Children and Youth, 94 other psychologists have followed her lead, by applying psychology to law making on Capitol Hill--including five new APA-sponsored fellows this year.
For example, one of them--Jill Hunter-Williams, PhD--is stationed in the office of Rep. Danny K. David (D-Ill.), where she has worked on legislation related to Head Start, foster-care and the Individual with Disabilities Education Act. The common thread in her Hill work, she says, is the legislation's aims to prevent low-income children or children with disabilities from falling through the bureaucratic cracks.
Hunter-Williams is the first APA Educational Assessment Congressional Fellow, a position the association created with funding from the American Psychological Foundation and contributed to by Psych Corp. to give psychologists interested in educational assessment, testing and other related issues a place on Capitol Hill. She says the newly created position fits well with the clinical and community psychology research she conducted in graduate school; she assessed the effects of organizational norms on employees and the effectiveness of school-community partnerships on the broader community.
"In graduate school I was interested in preventing school- and organizational-related problems," says Hunter-Williams. "How better to address many of the widespread problems affecting kids and families than setting up a safety net at the federal level?"
In addition to allowing psychologists like Hunter-Williams to explore the intersection of their research and policy interests, the fellowship program benefits the profession as a whole, says Ellen Garrison, PhD, APA's director of public interest policy and co-director of the program with Annie Toro, APA's senior legislative and federal affairs officer for child, youth and family policy.
"The program helps develop a cadre of psychologist policy experts, and it increases psychologists' visibility in the policy process," she says.
Each year, APA members with at least two years of postdoctoral experience apply for the fellowship. Fellows work in Washington, D.C., from September through August. APA's Practice Organization sponsors an additional yearlong health policy fellowship at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (see sidebar, page 106).
Meet the 2004-2005 congressional fellows.
Roberta Downing, PhD
Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
Her background: Downing served as the coordinator for an HIV prevention project targeting probationary youth and as an HIV/AIDS educator to health-service providers in Los Angeles County prior to entering the social psychology doctoral program at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Her Hill experience: Downing has been working on issues related to minority and women's health care, obesity, HIV/AIDS and Medicaid. Because of her committee's diverse command, she has also worked on Food and Drug Administration and bioterrorism-related policies.
"Most of my research is policy-focused," she says. "Being involved in the process has allowed me to translate my research into policy."
Her next step: Downing plans to work at Johns Hopkins University as a research fellow with the Kellogg Community Health Scholars program. She will conduct community-based participatory research on discrimination against the poor in health care, as well as on the political mobilization of low-income communities.
Diane Elmore, PhD
Office of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.)
Her background: Elmore received her PhD in counseling psychology from the University of Houston and then completed her internship at the Honolulu Veterans Affairs Medical Center/National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders, Pacific Islands Division. Elmore then worked as the 2002-2004 James Marshall Public Policy Scholar for APA's Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues) in APA's Public Policy Office, where she was responsible for legislative initiatives involving aging, hate crimes, and trauma and abuse.
Her Hill experience: In Sen. Clinton's office, Elmore has been working to improve access to health care for family caregivers, older adults with mental health disorders and survivors of trauma and abuse. She also helped shape long-term care, obesity and eating disorders legislation.
"It is a privilege to work for a member of Congress who is so committed to physical and mental health issues," she says.
Her next step: Elmore aims to keep a hand in the federal policy arena, noting that her policy experience in Washington has added a new dimension to her professional identity.
"Some people come to Washington for a year and then return home," she says. "I'm not quite ready to leave the policy world."
Jill Hunter-Williams, PhD
Office of Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.)
Her background: In graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in clinical and community psychology, Hunter-Williams conducted research on organizational norms and policies affecting school-community partnerships. She also investigated the effects of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Her Hill experience: As APA's first Educational Assessment Congressional Fellow, Hunter-Williams has been working on the reauthorization of Head Start and developing the cognitive assessment provisions for special-education determinations through the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, as well as on Davis's foster-care legislation, which has not yet been introduced. She has also helped craft postal reform legislation.
"Although it's outside of my professional expertise, I've had an incredible view of how policy is made because my boss is a senior Democrat on postal issues, allowing me to actively negotiate with the majority and administration on his behalf," she says.
Her next step: Hunter-Williams is interested in staying on the Hill or working in a federal policy-related position.
"There's such a need for psychologists and other scientists on the Hill so that they can communicate important concepts briefly and in a form relevant to policy-makers, not in a 30- or 40-page journal article," she says.
Christopher Loftis, PhD
Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
His background: With a background in clinical psychology, Loftis has been involved with National Institutes of Health-funded studies on autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and research on Tourette's syndrome at the Department of Developmental Cognitive Neurology. In addition, he has chaired the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students.
His Hill experience: Loftis has been working with the Democratic staff of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on issues related to substance abuse and mental health, international health and health insurance. He's written a bill on children's health to improve the collection and analysis of child health data in federal agencies and national surveys. He also has worked on bills to promote proper care for children with diabetes, evidence-based interventions for injury prevention and control, and access to mental health services within schools, as well as other bills, like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reauthorization.
"As a psychologist, I feel that my clinical and research skills have well prepared me to mediate and offer solutions that balance the use of good quality data along with the emotional, interpersonal factors that often direct decision- making on the Hill," he says.
His next step: Loftis seeks to stay in Washington and work at a nonprofit policy research organization. "[Such a position] would allow me to use the knowledge that I've gained on the Hill while allowing me to broaden my focus," he says.
Elizabeth Winkelman, JD, PhD
Office of Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.)
Her background: Winkelman earned her law degree from Columbia University in 1988 and her clinical psychology doctorate from the New School for Social Research in 1996. After a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York City, she worked there as a staff psychologist. Most recently, she started a private practice that specialized in cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Her Hill experience: As the Catherine Acuff Congressional Fellow, Winkelman has been working on nursing home reform, health-care financing, accessibility and confidentiality, as well as military mental health-care issues. She has also been involved in the reauthorization of the Ryan White CARE Act, which provides services to people with HIV and AIDS.
"There's something about the Hill that you just have to learn by being there," she says. "It's a complex, exciting, dynamic environment, and without actually spending time there, it's difficult to understand how policy gets made."
Her next step: Winkelman plans to carve out a career in either the government or health-care policy. "I feel like I can bring an interesting perspective with my legal background and my understanding of the issues faced by providers and consumers," she says. "Not many people on the Hill have worked in hospital clinics and seen problems with access to health care firsthand."
For information on 2006-2007 congressional fellowship opportunities, visit www.apa.org/ppo or contact APA's Public Policy Office.
To meet the fellows and hear firsthand about their experiences, attend the presentation "Perspectives of APA congressional and executive branch fellows on federal policy making: What's a psychologist to do?" at APA's 2005 Annual Convention at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 20, in the Washington Convention Center, Meeting Room 208.