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An open letter to my students

Dear students,

The campaigns leading up to the elections last night were divisive and revealed some ugly truths about how some in our country view many of the very populations we, as social workers, are working so hard for. Regardless of your own personal political views about issues such as the role of government, taxes, and constitutional rights and privileges, we have to acknowledge that this election has shown us that despite the advances in civil rights, many in our country blame people of color, LGBTQ people, women, those with disabilities, and those who do not practice Christianity as “taking away” and disenfranchising White Americans, or for causing the challenges our country has faced over the past several years. Of course, not all who voted for the President-elect hold these views, but this election has shown us that far too many do. I know many of you, both white and from communities of color, are disheartened about this knowledge.

Some of you are feeling scared and frightened. Already we are hearing reports of children of color being told to “sit in the back of the bus” by their white peers and KKK marches and demonstrations meant to intimidate. I fear there will be more of this to come in the next months and perhaps even years. If you are feeling scared or intimidated and need to exercise self-care for yourself or your loved ones, I understand if you feel you cannot attend class this week.

However, I hope you do attend class if you can because as MSW students and social work professionals, you will feel the impact of this new president-elect and his office even more than the average citizen – you will feel it professionally as well as personally. This is a time when more than ever your commitment to advocating for social justice for your communities and clients is at the forefront. You will be practicing in an overall society that might push back on our profession’s core values and core ethics and attempt to make our work in our communities more difficult. Our profession was founded on the premise that it is our responsibility as citizens to advocate on behalf of those whose voices have been silenced. You will have clients who will express their fear and concerns about safety for themselves and their loved ones. What are you going to say to your clients? How do we go on to support them in this uncertain time? Let us use this time to support each other in how we move forward from here.

Despite the challenges we face in the upcoming future, remember that we are a community that values the dignity and worth of each person; we believe in the potential for personal and societal change; we have a core professional value for fighting for social justice. My office is always open for those who need a safe place. Let’s roll up our sleeves and work even harder to ensure a just society for all our citizens.

Dr. Kim

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Article in The Roundtable

I wanted to share the first official written article related to my dissertation study for the National Resource Center Adoption (NRCFA) publication, The Roundtable. My article is on page 12, titled Internationally Adopted Children with Disabilities in Out-of-Home Care: Emerging Research on Adoptive Parent Perspectives. You can download the article here.

February doldrums

So we have been experiencing quite the winter weather this year, what with the polar vortex and all, making a day like today (19ºF, what?) feel like springtime. In my personal life, things have been pretty normal (that means great) and academically I’ve been making substantial important progress on my dissertation and am where I need to be for right now. Work wise, I continue to enjoy the work I do. So why the doldrums? Is it more than an endless winter?

Lately it seems that a fair number of people I know have been more than a little frustrated by life on a systemic, more than personal, level; in the academy (for academics and/or graduate students) or in the profession (for social workers) and in the adoption community. I am definitely no Pollyanna to begin with, so all the news I read easily makes me feel a little more pessimistic about the state of our world and my fellow humans. I inherently believe in the strengths and empathic capacities of people, but wow, do our institutions often just wear us down until it feels we are all playing a more polite, yet just as ruthless version, of the office-place hunger games. I admit I sometimes need to skip through my facebook and twitter feeds because of all the dismal and wretched news about the academic landscape. Since this is what I hope(d) to be someday when I grew up, it’s disheartening. In addition to the dismal academic stuff, there is all the frustrating news I read, hear about or witness regarding the way the system chews up and spits out social workers and clients alike – and particularly in child welfare and adoption, my areas of professional and academic interest.

Yesterday at a department meeting, a colleague I respect a lot talked about changing the paradigm of “preventing burnout” to “sustainability” and that clicked something in me. Several of my women of color friends in academia and I have discussed Audre Lorde’s “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of warfare” and read bell hook’s “Sisters of the Yam” as preventative measures against burnout.

In every social work class I teach, I bring up the concepts of burnout, secondary trauma, and vicarious trauma, all related but slightly different concepts (at least in the way I have conceptualized them). Because social workers are often working with clients that are or have experienced trauma (both crisis and sustained), they are susceptible over time of experiencing burnout, secondary trauma and/or vicarious trauma themselves.  It seems to me that once upon a time we talked in hushed whispers about “burn out” typically when referring to someone we knew who was crabby, mean,  sometimes overtly hostile to clients, or maybe generally unprofessional. When the shift toward viewing burnout as a symptom of vicarious and secondary trauma came, it felt more strengths based in that at least we could recognize the behaviors as being symptomatic of a larger issues and could see our colleagues as more than their symptoms (novel idea – we often forget this).

I like thinking about this in terms of sustainability. Sustainability is even more strengths focused. Social work in general, despite it’s value in strengths based perspectives, still tends to focus on symptoms to be managed instead of people and communities to grow and thrive.

sus·tain·able  (according to Merriam Webster) is:
– able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed
– involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources
– able to last or continue for a long time

How do we support each other in our personal and collective self-care, in a profession that often not just expects, but requires, us to go over and above on a regular basis? How can we look at each other’s self-care activities and think of them as being integral to long-term sustainability in the profession, rather than being selfish or disengaged?

Treating difference

– otherwise known as the post in which I ruminate on the “other” and whether inclusion or exclusion is the answer.**

We (those of us who fit in to a dominant group) like to tell people who don’t (the other) how they should live. And then we often expect gratitude from them for our generosity in thinking about their “best interests.”

One of the books I’m currently reading is “Developmental Disabilities and Child Welfare.” by Ronald Hughes and Judith Rycus. This book, published in 1998, is a good primer for anyone looking to become more informed about how child welfare professionals need to understand and respond to children in the child welfare system with disabilities. While reading this book earlier today, I was struck by the author’s discussion about the importance of the inclusion of children with disabilities into mainstream settings (here I believe they mostly are referring to educational settings, but could definitely be expanded to all settings in which typically developing children interact).

The authors stress that segregation is a disservice to both individuals with disabilities as well as to society in large, because for the individual it 1) denies the person the opportunity to be part of the same world as anyone else, 2) it sends a message that they inherently can’t participate in the same activities as the rest of society, and 3) singles them out for special treatment rather than treating them as their typically-abled peers.

The disadvantage to society at large is that segregation perpetuates the stereotypes and myths about persons with disabilities, and that society will not recognize the many contributions that are made to society by persons with disabilities . The authors write, “An extension of this myth is that people with disabilities prefer life and activities with ‘their own kind.’ It is true that years of segregation can contribute to feelings of anxiety and fear when a person with a disability is confronted with an integrated environment…This myth is often a rationalization to cover and reinforce our own discomfort in the presence of persons with disabilities” (p.23).Continue Reading →

Does the benefit of an exposé outweigh ethical problems?

I’m taking a class this semester called Disability Policy and Services. In last week’s first session we saw the documentary, Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace, an expose of the dehumanizing treatment of institutionalized persons with disabilities.

We were asked to write a summary response to the documentary. While the film precipitated the world’s attention to the plight of those who were institutionalized, I couldn’t help feeling really uncomfortable about watching the documentary.

The words I wrote in my notebook immediately after the film include: exploited, victimized, re-victimized, hopeless, helpless, sensationalized.

As much as I understand that Geraldo Rivera’s expose did SO much to bring attention to the disgraceful treatment of those institutionalized at Willowbrook and other institutions, the first thought that ran through my mind as the cameras panned on the naked, dirty residents was whether the film was exploiting these residents once again, for the purpose of journalism. Did they have consent? Could they even have elicited consent? Would I want my family member, naked and dirty and running through an institution be filmed for the whole nation and world to see? I understand that the purpose was to highlight how awful the living conditions (if you can call it that) were, but I felt viscerally that they were still portrayed as inhuman.

I am all for the use of journalism to highlight inequity; I just wish it didn’t also sometimes exploit the very persons they are claiming to respect. One more thought – I guess what I’m asking is, to what extent is it justifiable to exploit the vulnerable? We might say the ends justified the means…but that makes me really uncomfortable…I’d love other people’s thoughts about this.

Below is the trailer for the documentary.

Part 2 – Discriminating against parents of color in the child welfare system

This post was published on Harlow’s Monkey blog in April 2008.

ShatteredbondsIn trying to figure out how to begin this post on communities of color and child protection issues, I found it difficult to know where to begin and where to end. Trying to finger the exact places and times that the child welfare system discriminates
against communities of color is like trying to pick out which piece of hay in the haystack is to blame. The issues are so intertwined that it is impossible to sort through.

The discrimination occurs on micro, mezzo and macro levels; everything from the federal legislations that either purposely targeted communities of color or structurally supported hidden bias against these populations to the individual
social worker whose inexperience or bias resulted in discriminatory treatment. Most of the time, it’s a combination of many levels of discriminatory interventions by the child welfare system and society at large.

To begin, I feel it is important to clarify some definitions and themes that you will often see in discussions and research about communities of color and child welfare:

  • When we talk about research we need to keep in mind that correlation does not equal causation. One thing often miss-communicated in articles about child welfare is when a correlation becomes misrepresented as causation. For example, there is a correlation between being poor or in poverty and having
    child protection interventions. This does not mean that being poor or in poverty causes child protection interventions; it means that of those people involved in child protection there is a stronger likelihood of being poor or in poverty.
  • Over-representation refers to a group’s percentage or number is larger than other groups. An example of over representation would be the number of African American men in prison in the U.S. in 2003. Of the 1,316,415 men in prison that year, 586,300 were African American versus 454,300 white males. African American men are overrepresented.
  • Disproportionate refers to a higher percentage in a given circumstance than in the overall population. An example of disproportionate would be that African American children were 21.4% of the children in foster care for the state of Minnesota in 2003– despite the fact that African American children made up only 5% of the overall population.

There are two important books that are must-reads for anyone interested in examining the historical and current practices of child welfare discrimination towards the African American population. These are Dorothy Robert’s Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare and Children of the Storm: Black Children and American Child Welfare by Andrew Billingsly and Jeanne M. Giovannoni. I believe every single social worker who works in the child welfare system should be required to read these books.

Continue Reading →

A brief history of child removal/child protection (part 1)

This post was first written in February, 2007 on my Harlow’s Monkey blog.

Seesaw_1 One of the first things that a social worker who focuses on child welfare issues soon realizes is that the practice of child welfare is fraught with several inherent value and ethical conflicts.

At the core of this conflict is the question of whose rights take precedence: the parent or the child.

Over the past 200 years, our society has struggled with this conflict. Thus, at some points in history we will find that the rights of the child are considered more important; at other times we see laws and policies that support the rights of the parents.

We tend to think that child abuse happens squarely within the context of a nuclear family and often, we blame those who are responsible for the day to day care of said child or children. But I agree with Pecora, Whittaker, et. al (2000) who also place the responsibility for care of children in the hands of society at large – on the community, social and institutional levels. With that perspective, we might claim that any society or community that does not provide safe housing, adequate nutrition and education or violence-free environments as committing child maltreatment.

Shireman (2003) points out that on an institutional level, for example, our society is guilty of maltreatment when “schools, legal authorities, or institutions designed to care for children and families fail to provide adequately for all children.” To me, this includes the structural discrimination that negatively targets certain populations. I’ll delve into this further in my next post, but think of things such as equal education, housing, medical care, finance, employment, etc. that have/continue to purposely discriminated against some populations. If we are structurally contributing to suppressing the opportunities for targeted populations, and those children suffer as a result, then we are guilty for the maltreatment of those children.

This is not to say that individual parents should not be held responsible for the care and treatment of their children; but I believe that our institutions and policies also need to be responsible.


Continue Reading →

Rage against the machine*

* with apologies to the band (I was college undergrad when the band was popular)

I thought I’d cross-post some of the blog posts I wrote on my other blog about child welfare. My other blog is focused heavily on adoption, so I wrote several posts to help articulate some of the broader contexts that influence and impact what happens specifically regarding the adoption process in the United States. This post from March 2007 in particular reflects my experience working for a large public county child protection/child welfare program.

Titanic_2

It’s a precarious position for anyone who tries to be an agent of change within any institution. It can be difficult to balance the needs between individual people and systems that were created to help and instead have become so bureaucratic that it is a wonder anyone is helped at all.

When I was in graduate school for social work, we were often told that social reform and social justice were as important to the profession as the ability to empathize and help. Truthfully, however, the field of social work is quite polarized.

I would say the majority of the people in the field (and most of them are women) came into the program because they wanted to "help people"  (I could go into a whole separate post about how women are valued in our society and why that created an over-representation of women in the "helping professions" because that deserves an investigation as well. But I’ll leave that for another day).

Many of my colleagues spoke passionately about how their personal spiritual beliefs "called them" to the field.Well, I have no argument with that because in a way I also feel "called" to my work, though not by a sense of spiritual duty. My "calling" if you can call it that, was based on many goals;  first, I did not want to participate in a profession that was based on the production, marketing or selling of consumable goods. Secondly, I wanted to try to be an agent of change within the field and represent as a voice not included in the existing framework (as both a person of color and as an adoptee). Third, I strongly felt I could contribute to critiquing and challenging the current paradigms of practice and research.

I think "helping people" is a nice goal too. And I believe that it is very important. But in my view, having only a tight focus on "helping people" is limiting. We can "empower" people to change their lives on a singlular basis and I believe that is all well and good. But without looking at the rest of what is happening in the forest, we might be encouraging people to try and work within an overall system that is set up to fail them and send ’em right back to your doorstep.

We give a lot of lip service to the abstractions of  "social reform," "social justice," and "empowerment." But it would be more accurate to say that a great deal of social work involves social control more than our obligation to empower the people we serve. And, in fact, I have difficulty with the concept of "empowerment" because as one of my insightful fellow grad students once stated,"empowerment is a gift we bestow on our [clients]." We’re speaking about privilege here, because as social workers we have the power and control (backed up by our government and agencies) to make people do certain things in order to receive services. Right, we don’t just believe in the welfare state – people need to prove or earn their way to services.

What we are really about is telling people how to fix their lives the way we think it should be fixed, as arbiters of whatever framework of morality we believe.

The result is a push-pull between "worker" and "client" (on a tangent, let me just say that I really despise the way social work has chosen to appropriate business/market economy language – as if the people who use services are free to choose among a buffet of options).

The push-pull in adoption services is balancing the needs of prospective adoptive parents and the children who become adopted. I’m not selling goods, but I’m definitely selling ideologies. In order to make prospective families and children in foster care appealing to each other’s social workers, we use marketing strategies. Wednesday’s Child or Thursday’s Child as many "markets" call them are features of foster care children in newspapers. Just like the puppies and kitties they feature for adoption on other days. We use brochures and flyers and videos of the kids to show prospective adoptive parents. And prospective adoptive parents are asked to make brochures and flyers about themselves so the children’s social workers can determine if they look like "a good match." Many adoption agencies have web sites where prospective parents can look at featured children and read a little blurb about the child. If that doesn’t seem eerily like shopping on the internet, then you are not being honest with yourself.

It’s one part marketing and one part matching services like an on-line dating service would provide. Which begs the question: who is the real "customer" in this transaction? The prospective parent, or the child?

Continue Reading →

Secrets

One of the regular blogs I subscribe to in my RSS feeder is PostSecret. If you haven’t heard of PostSecret yet, it’s a blog hosted by Frank Warren (who has also written numerous books), and according to his web site, PostSecret is “a community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard.” Each Sunday he publishes “Sunday Secrets” a blog post of postcards that people send in to him.

The internet is the perfect environment for this kind of secret confessional. I read Sunday Secrets each week because I know I’ll find at least one card that really speaks to me. This past week there were two of them that as a child welfare scholar I found moving.

The first one, pictured above, spoke to me because I think that people outside the field believe that child protection workers enjoy taking kids away from their parents. While I am sure there are some punitive and cynical child protection workers – in fact I’ve met some and worked with some – I have never met a worker who finds pleasure in it. I have seen them express heartbreak over having to consider whether they need to remove a child from their parents. It is not an easy decision to make and I have to believe that if there comes a time when the worker does not agonize about whether the trauma of removing a child is worse than the trauma of leaving them there, then that is a sign that it’s time to put in for a transfer. It should never be a rote decision; even when using the “tools” of the trade – structured decision making forms and assessment checklists and the like – the decision to remove a child is often a mixture of art and science.

Because the other side of the coin might be represented in the postcard below. What I found sad about this postcard is that this person did not call social services on behalf of their nieces. This postcard leaves me with many questions. If the children were removed, would the author of the card be willing to take those kids? How involved is the extended family? Has the family been supportive of those children and the parents in the past or have all efforts failed? How long have the children been at risk?

The dilemma I have struggled with for a long time now is this: when we take a child away from their parents because we are afraid of their safety and well-being, then the state has made a promise that they will be treated better in another home. However, this is not being done very well. Foster care is not a substitute for a family. Institutions are often worse and many foster homes are merely small institutions. So the push in child welfare is to move the child to “permanency.” That means adoption. However, most of the kids do not get adopted. So where do we put our resources? Towards family preservation? Towards improving foster care? Towards tighter deadlines for termination of parental rights and adoption?

When I see this postcard above, I wonder why this person chose to do nothing and hope that some day, someone would call child protective services for them.

What motivates us?

My partner sent this to me today, knowing that it warms my social work-y heart. I think that social workers often feel that this is a no-brainer. I haven’t yet met a social worker who went into the “business” for money and financial reward. In fact, we brag about it sometimes, don’t we?

Yet, the reality is that many social workers who work in government or public social services do feel tied to “the golden handcuffs” – making more money than in the non-profit world. We are always concerned in public child welfare, for example, on how to improve worker performance. Child protection workers, due to the nature of the job, often make more money than other public social service workers, for example. Yet even with the higher salaries (compared to other social work jobs) and government benefits, there is a lot of worker turnover.

I thought this video was intriguing for a number of reasons. First, it highlights the idea (based on research) that $ tied to performance does not improve worker productivity – in fact it makes it worse in many cases. Second, I liked the idea that giving workers a sense of mastery and autonomy is huge in increasing worker productivity.

Which leads me to wonder how much this also applies to our “clients” or the people who are served by social work services. We talk a lot in this profession about autonomy, mastery and empowerment. I talk a lot about parallel processing; how much more would child protection workers be able to help families actualize these concepts if workers themselves felt it was achievable in their own lives?