Sunday, December 18, 2022

“Child welfare” and the moral bankruptcy of social work

Are the failures of social work really just a matter of degree?
(Image from Depositphotos)

This post was revised and updated in January, 2024

Call it The Perennial Whine of the Licensed Social Worker.  It crops up over and over when there’s any story about what family police agencies (a more accurate term than “child welfare” agencies) do to families.  Most recently I saw it repeatedly in comments on the Washington Post story I discuss here, about a family traumatized by a midnight raid by the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families.  Multiple commenters offered some version of: Well, they couldn’t have been social workers! Social workers would never do something like that!  As one such commenter put it: 

As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I wish news organizations such as Wapo would be more clear with using terms such as “social worker.” I suspect the person who visited the mother in the child’s hospital room was not truly a Social Worker, but a case manager of some sort with probably only a bachelor’s degree. 

The same sort of comment appears after publication of any story exposing racial bias in family policing.  Because we all know that genuine social workers – especially well-trained social workers could never be biased. 

The main reason the it-would-all-be-fixed-if-they-were-social-workers argument comes up so often is that it is one more way for supremely arrogant all-powerful family policing systems to avoid accountability.  Why have actual due process protections, why have real checks and balances if everything can be solved with a piece of parchment and a licensing exam?  It’s similar to the way family police agencies and their apologists seek to cling to their near-absolute power by claiming the solution to any problem in the system is more “training.” 

So with that in mind, consider three vignettes from the world of social work. 

Vignette #1 

In Kentucky, a boy is found dead in the “residential treatment center” where he had been institutionalized.  The coroner rules it a homicide.  The boy was 7 years old.  NBC News found that the center has an ugly history.   The mother of a second young child is suing, alleging abuse at the same institution. 

Meanwhile, another boy runs away from another residential treatment center in Kentucky and drowns.  He was institutionalized because he had autism, ran away a lot, and his grandparents couldn’t afford therapy and someone to watch him.  But at least he was older.  He was 9. 

All this in a state that routinely tears apart families at a rate 50% above the national average, even when rates of child poverty are factored in – creating an artificial shortage of placements that is used as an excuse to institutionalize young children. 

Now, let’s see what Stephanie Saulnier has to say about all this.  She’s not just some caseworker.  She’s a bona fide social worker.  She’s an M.S.W. and a C.S.W. She’s a professor of social work.  She even chairs the Department of Social Work and directs the B.S.W. program at Eastern Kentucky University.  So what kind of insights did all those credentials produce?  Saulnier told NBC News: 

“One of the problems that we run into is if we shut down a problematic facility, where do those kids go? That leaves kiddos that are in need of residential treatment with no place to go. There aren’t enough beds for little guys that need this level of care, and the child welfare system has to kind of figure out ‘how can we do the best with what we have?’” 

In fact, no “little guy” or “kiddo” needs a residential treatment facility of any kind, much less one that’s “problematic.”  Prof. Saulnier, M.S.W., C.S.W., seems to have overlooked the research on that one. 

Vignette #2 

Whenever there’s a big news story pointing out that yes, there is racism in child welfare, there’s a good chance that somewhere in the comments will be an objection from someone calling herself “Jane Addams.”  The comments are all pretty much the same: There is enormous accountability in child welfare, she says, we certainly don’t need more!  Courts have to approve everything we do (a stunningly misleading claim I address here, here, here, here, here and here).  And anyway, says “Jane Addams,” if you’re not a bona fide social worker working in a “child welfare” agency, how could you possibly know what you’re talking about?  This is usually followed by a recitation of horror stories that are strikingly similar from comment to comment.  

She did it -- three times -- when The New York Times exposed foster care as “the new ‘Jane Crow’.” She was back in November when the Times wrote about a study in which the New York City family police agency’s own caseworkers condemned racism in the agency.  Among those the Times quoted to add context to the story: Joyce McMillan of JMAC for Families whose own children had been needlessly taken, and family defenders.  (They also quoted a statement from the agency, after the agency refused to comment on the actual report). 

All this made “Jane Addams” very upset.  She wrote: 

I’m a licensed clinical social worker who spent my career in public child welfare, primarily providing foster care services. A peculiarity of child welfare is those given voice as experts are people like Joyce McMillan who have lack [sic] experience in this complicated work, while the knowledge & expertise of those who dedicated careers [sic] is regarded with suspicion. As a result we have a nation of armchair critics, sanctimonious public defenders among them, with no child welfare service experience who believe they know what’s best.  

There followed Adams’ standard litany of horror story cases, which are as rare as they are horrible, all leading up to: 

Understandably nobody wants to get their brain around the gravity of maltreatment.   

Oh, and, of course, she also wrote this: 

We throw around the term "social worker" when in fact few have those credentials. 

Again, this comment was about a report in which the agency’s own caseworkers condemned racism in the agency.  Presumably, Addams believes, if only they all had the appropriate "credentials" they’d know better. 

But here’s why I bring up “Jane Addams”: Her real name is Judith Schagrin, L.C.S.W-C. For decades she was Assistant Director of the Baltimore County family police agency.  And she’s not just any L.C.S.W.-C.  In 2004, the National Association of Social Workers named her “social worker of the year.” 

She's far from alone.  You can find similarly arrogant denials of racial bias in the field from oh-so-distinguished academicians such as Richard Barth, MSW, PhD, former dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work Sarah Font, MSW, PhD, at Penn State, and Emily Putnam-Hornstein, MSW, PhD of the University of North Carolina.

Vignette #3 

A group of social work students developed this excellent guide for colleagues in Illinois concerning alternatives to calling the family police.  But as is explained in this excellent story in In These Times, this is what the social work establishment tried to do to the student who led the development of the guide, Elena Gormley:

Gormley’s group project got an A, and the guide was disseminated far and wide. It’s even being taught in other social work programs. But when Gormley emailed the guide to her school’s listserv, the university initiated disciplinary proceedings, charging that ​“the content of the email encouraged students to commit a crime, which could lead to harm or the death of a child if the suggestion were followed.” The official complaint calls Gormley’s actions unprofessional and unethical and claims Gormley’s​“behavior indicates that she is unsuitable for the profession.”

Gormley spent five weeks defending herself against a litany of conduct violations, the threat of expulsion looming over her. She successfully fought the proceedings and graduated in 2021, but the experience was harrowing.

M.S.W.s in the real world 

Now, let’s see how the “if only they were social workers” argument plays out in real life. 

We are not privy to the resumes of the workers in the Massachusetts case or the workers in New York City who condemned racism in their own agency. We don’t know which workers have the minimum credentials required in these jurisdictions and which have more. 

We do know that qualifications vary from state to state and, in locally-run systems, county to county.  Washington, D.C., for example, requires all of its family police workers to have master’s degrees in social work.  As a matter of fact, the author of the column that prompted this apology from The Imprint for trafficking in what the publication called “a crude and often racist stereotype” was one such D.C. social worker – and she never tired of reminding readers of her M.S.W. degree.  The agency “Jane Addams” helped to lead in Maryland also has an M.S.W. requirement. 

I’m aware of no objective observer who says the best child welfare casework in America is performed by workers for the family police in either of these places.  Nor are they too keen on the largest locally run family policing system in America, the one in Los Angeles County. 

True, you don’t absolutely have to have an M.S.W. there in order to investigate families.  You could get by with a master’s in marriage and family counseling, psychological counseling, psychology, or clinical psychology.  But that still means there probably are a whole lot of M.S.Ws out there tearing apart Los Angeles families at the second-highest rate among America’s biggest cities.  And a lot of M.S.Ws are responsible for the fact that 58% of Black children in Los Angeles will have to endure the trauma of a child abuse investigation, almost always as a result of a false report. 

As for the holy grail of licensure – that often requires passing an exam created by a group called the Association of Social Work Boards.  Turns out there’s quite a problem with that, a problem involving racial bias.  

Yes, we need degrees and credentials 

But there’s a dilemma.  Simply declaring any and all credentials and training meaningless doesn’t work either. We know this because we’ve tried sending untrained overwhelmingly white middle-class amateurs into the homes of families who are overwhelmingly neither to pass judgment upon them – it’s called Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), and it’s vastly worse than anything even the worst social work school has come up with. 

We also know that there are places where social workers do enormous good.  One reason high-quality interdisciplinary family defense is so effective is the work of social workers demonstrating the profession at its best – helping keep families together by helping to craft alternatives to the cookie-cutter “service plans” dished out by family policing agencies.   

There are students like Elena Gormley and her classmates - and  the many social work professionals and students from across the country to rallied to Ms. Gormley's defense.  And yes, there are social workers trying to genuinely change family policing from within. 

In short, the field is full of outstanding individuals who could help social work emerge from moral bankruptcy.  But its leaders are desperate to make sure that doesn’t happen.