Honoring 100 for the 100th: Susie Vaughn Settles

Photo of Susie SettlesWhen notified of her selection into the group of honorees, Susie Vaughan Settles responded, “Oh, my! I wasn’t expecting this, but I am proud to be included in the group! You know when you throw your life into the roller coaster of experiences you will have as a social worker, you never expect this kind of recognition for anything you have done. I’m happy to have my over 40 years of social work be honored by my friends, coworkers, professors and classmates. How exciting!”

In 1973, Ms. Settles received her Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work. She immediately went to work for DHS, first as an eligibility worker, then as a crisis intervention worker, and finally, as a Child Protection Worker. She was awarded a scholarship by the Indian Health Services to attend the University of Oklahoma’s School of Social Work Graduate Program and began her first year of study in 1980. Concentrating on the Administration and Planning Specialty chaired by Dr. Wayne Chess, Ms. Settles graduated with her MSW in 1982. What she didn’t expect from going back to school was meeting her life partner, Bob Settles, in Rhyne Hall. The result is a marriage of 34 years and two beautiful children, John Gregory and Maggie. What also resulted from her obtaining her MSW was an administrative social work career.

When her Chief, Ross Swimmer, heard she had completed her MSW, he recruited her to work for the Cherokee Nation as the second Director of Indian Child Welfare. She followed in the footsteps her sister and fellow OU MSW Alumnus, Martha Anne Vaughan, who was the first MSW the Cherokee Nation hired and was the first Director of Indian Child Welfare. Their mother, Margaret Vaughan, also a Cherokee citizen, was a former Red Cross field social worker during WWII. She had imparted on her daughters they had to share their intelligence and gifts with their community, so social work was a logical vocation for both.

Later, Chief Swimmer accepted the job of Assistant Secretary Indian Affairs, and he invited Ms. Settles to join him at the BIA in Washington. D.C. so they could put some of their ideas into motion. Under her leadership, she drafted rules and regulations for welfare assistance for Indians living on reservations, revised the rules of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) program to remove it from its competitive grant status, provide a budget justification for a first time increase in ICWA funding (from $8M to $20M), and drafted rules to allocate the ICWA funding to all federally recognized tribes as a base source of funds. For her efforts to make these fundamental changes in social work policy for Indians, she received a monetary performance award annually.

By 1991, Ms. Settles was drawn to Northern California where she and Bob were hired as social workers in the Humboldt County Division of Social Services. While in California, they worked together providing Child Welfare Services while receiving their supervision for licensure. When they returned to Oklahoma two years later, Ms. Settles was hired by NASW-OK Chapter as their Executive Director. It was in this role that she worked to strengthen the relationships between NASW and the Oklahoma community, and joined in partnership with the University of Oklahoma’s School of Social Work following the Murrah Bombing in 1995. She used the vehicle of NASW to find and recruit social workers to help, coordinated with the School of Social Work and the Oklahoma Department of Health, and expanded the role of NASW following disasters that has been replicated nationwide. With the leadership of social work pioneer Ina Javellas, Ms. Settles Co-Chaired the Long- Term Recovery Committee to coordinate services provided by charities, state and other parties interested in the long- term issues that arise following a major disaster. It was for this work, Ms. Settles was recognized by her fellow NASW Directors to receive the Gilman Award for Outstanding NASW Director. She was also recognized by her social work peers as NASW’s Social Worker of the Year.

Ms. Settles worked again with Ms. Javellas to develop a way for alumni to support the Director of the School of Social Work. This was institutionalized in the establishment of the Board of Visitors with the College of Arts and Sciences. Ms. Settles was a member of the first Board and served first as a member on the Nominating Committee and then on the Building Committee. She continues her support of the Board in her current role of Emeritus member.

Following her work at NASW, Ms. Settles began working for the Child Abuse Training and Coordination Program (CATC) in the OK State Department of Health’s Office of Child Abuse Prevention. As coordinator, she provided support to the CATC Council and contracted for professional trainers to teach law enforcement, social workers, therapists, prosecutors, and physician how to have a multidisciplinary approach to investigating and prosecuting child abuse and neglect. It was while she was working for CATC that she received another call from Washington. This time her help was needed to strengthen the role of social work within the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Ms. Settles accepted the challenge and was hired as Chief, Division of Human Services.

After a twenty-year absence from the BIA, Ms. Settles returned to Washington to find the BIA Human Services as needing the attention it deserved to provide the resources needed across the country. Under her leadership, she recruited MSW staff, started delivering help and support to field social workers, encouraged tribal development and worked to increase the connections between the BIA and other federal agencies, including the HHS Children’s Bureau. She also was handed the task of building a new computerized human services system, and waded through the complex funding and contracting issues inherent in its implementation. Her goal was to transition from a computerized payment system to a case management system that could support the social workers in all aspects of their complicated jobs. She was given a Gold Medal from Computer World Magazine for creating a new method of social work delivery systems in the public domain that could be replicated by social work programs nationwide. Ms. Settles retired from the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2013, thus ending her 40-year career of services. Her retirement party in DC was well attended and she was invited to the Office of the Secretary of Interior for her final goodbyes from the Secretary.

Ms. Settles and her husband, Bob, have returned to her childhood home in Sallisaw where she can’t resist her need to fulfill her social work mission. She talks with people in line at Walmart, helping them when she can, if only to tell them they have beautiful, smart children and to cherish their time with them. As she often tells people, “Once a social worker, ALWAYS a social worker!”

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