Friday, June 5, 2009

The naked emperors of social work

Yesterday's post to this blog about still another study, from Prof. Joseph Doyle of MIT, showing that children left in their own homes generally fare better than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care, prompted a question to a listserv from a lawyer, which I will paraphrase this way: Why aren't more people paying attention? In other words, with all that solid research pointing to the harm of foster care, why do our laws and policies still encourage a take-the-child-and-run approach?

There are a couple of reasons. For starters, lawmakers are far more likely to base legislation on the latest horror story in the news than on actual research. It's hard to imagine legislators reading Prof. Doyle's study and then rushing off to pass "Joseph's Law" to make it harder to tear apart families.

But also, there is a profound bias in the social work community – a bias favoring child removal. (Prof. Doyle is not a social worker, and his studies have not appeared in social work journals.) Indeed, in child welfare, the more a researcher pompously proclaims his neutrality, the more he insists he is a paragon of objectivity who merely goes "where the research leads," the more he looks down his nose at mere mortals and, to paraphrase an old Chevy Chase routine, says "I'm a scholarand you're not!" – the more you'd better look very, very closely at the "methodology" section in the actual research. There are some outstanding scholars in the field of social work – but there are others for whom "scholar" is just a euphemism for ideologue-with-a-Ph-D.

I can't prove that empirically, of course. But I can show evidence of a profound bias in social work scholarship, thanks to some wonderful research done more than 20 years ago by, yes, a professor of social work.

His name is William Epstein, and this is what he did: He submitted to various journals a study concerning the efficacy of taking children from their parents when the children had asthma. But the study was a fake. The real research subjects were the editors of scholarly journals. Half of the editors got studies "concluding" that taking away the children helped with their asthma. The other half got studies concluding that taking away the children didn't work.

The results: 53 percent of the journals that got the study with the positive outcome accepted it for publication. Only 14 percent of the journals who got the version with the negative finding accepted it.

One would hope that the social work profession would have taken the findings to heart and cleaned up its act. But alas, no. On the contrary. The Royal Court of Social Work was not pleased when Prof. Epstein pointed out that the emperor had no clothes.

A group of angry journal editors filed an ethics complaint with the National Association of Social Workers. They said it was unethical of Prof. Epstein to fail to get their informed consent before trying to fool them! It could have led to Epstein being drummed out of the NASW. The furious "scholars" were led by one John Schuerman, who was, at the time, editor of the Social Service Review, and a professor at the University of Chicago. As The New York Times explained:

[Schuerman's] journal was not fooled by Dr. Epstein's paper because an alert editor noticed that part of it was copied from an earlier article. … While Dr. Schuerman acknowledges that there are some circumstances in social science research where it is accepted procedure not to obtain informed consent, he said, ''You have to weigh the benefits of the research against the risk of harm to the subjects.'' He added, ''Here the harm was the cost and time to busy professionals, the large numbers of reviewers and staff involved.''

Another cost, Dr. Schuerman noted, was emotional: ''The chagrin and embarrassment of those editors who accepted the article.''

Ultimately NASW decided it was not unethical to point out a naked emperor. But the social work profession wasn't through with Dr. Epstein. NASW threatened to bring him up on new charges – for talking to the press about the old charges!

When I went back to that New York Times story yesterday, it was the first time I'd looked at it in more than 20 years – I'd first seen it when I was researching my book, Wounded Innocents, which first was published in 1990.

Back then, the name John Schuerman meant nothing to me. But in the following years he would join the Chapin Hall Center for Children, an organization prone to that "Chevy Chase" attitude I mentioned above. There, he would lead a team that would produce a series of studies claiming that Intensive Family Preservation Services (IFPS) didn't work. I think the researchers firmly believed it. And I think that Schuerman, like most people in child welfare, really wants to help children. But each study had the same fatal flaw – they failed to study IFPS programs that actually followed the model of the original such program, Homebuilders, in Washington State.

To me, admittedly a mere advocate, it appeared that each study was a more strident attempt to justify the one before. And to one of the leading honest-to-God scholars in the field, Prof. Ray Kirk of the University of North Carolina, the results of Schuerman's biggest study were "a non finding from a failed study."

Several more rigorous evaluations have found that IFPS is successful. Details are in NCCPR Issue Paper 11. But because the Schuerman group said what the child welfare establishment wanted to hear, his work has gotten far more amplification in the social work echo chamber - the very echo chamber Schuerman himself was so desperate to defend in 1988.

None of this means we should be free to retreat into the cop-out of saying, in effect, "since the studies disagree, I'll just believe what I want." Rather, it means that all research must be subjected to rigorous critique and fair competition in the marketplace of ideas. As it happens, Epstein himself has written things with which I strongly disagree (but at least he has a really good sense of humor). But What Epstein's study reveals is that there is no free market of ideas in social work scholarship. Rather, the modern successors to those who, in the 19th Century, proudly called themselves "child savers" have a near-monopoly in that market; to the detriment of vulnerable children.

We all have biases. Epstein's study reminds us that a Ph-D does not inoculate us against them.