Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

16850 Does Worker-Client Racial/Ethnic Similarity Matter for Child Welfare Service Provision? A Test of Representative Bureaucracy Theory

Saturday, January 14, 2012: 10:30 AM
Independence C (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Alicia C. Bunger, MSW, PhD, Post-Doctoral Fellow, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Emmeline Chuang, PhD, Postdoctoral Scholar, University of South Florida, Tampa, FL
Bowen McBeath, Associate Professor, Portland State University, Portland, OR
Background and Purpose: This paper tests for differences in child welfare caseworkers' service efforts when they serve culturally-similar vs. culturally-dissimilar clients. Over the past three decades, public child welfare agencies have sought to recruit and train a culturally diverse workforce to better serve clients from various cultural backgrounds. These organizational efforts are premised in part upon representative bureaucracy theory, which implies that caseworkers who share key cultural characteristics with clients will advance these individuals' interests more readily than those of culturally-dissimilar clients (Meier & Bohte, 2001; Sowa & Selden, 2003). While research suggests that social workers' cultural knowledge facilitates engagement with culturally diverse clients (Kemp et al., 2009; Romanelli et al., 2009), no study to date has examined how caseworkers connect culturally-similar vs. culturally-dissimilar clients with needed behavioral health services and other concrete services.

Methods: Data were drawn from 5,091 families involved with the child welfare system and their investigative caseworkers within 86 public child welfare agencies that participated in the second cohort of the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW II). NSCAW II is nationally representative of all families investigated for maltreatment by Child Protective Services between February 2008 and May 2009 and living in states not requiring agency first contact of sample members. The current study restricted the sample to permanent caregivers assessed as needing mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, or housing services, and for whom a service referral was made in these areas. Poisson regression models were used to examine whether caseworker-caregiver racial/ethnic match was associated with the number of different efforts the investigative caseworker made to link clients to needed services. Models controlled for a range of caseworker, family, and county-level characteristics.

Results: On average, investigative caseworkers reported using 2 of 7 different methods to refer caregivers to domestic violence, housing, mental health, and substance abuse treatment services and roughly half of caseworkers were of the same race/ethnicity as the caregivers they served. Caseworker-caregiver racial/ethnic match was positively associated with caseworker referral efforts in the areas of domestic violence (IRR 1.13, p<0.05) and housing (IRR 1.26, p<0.05), suggesting that caseworkers made 13% and 26% more effort to link same-race/ethnicity caregivers with needed domestic violence and housing services. However, this relationship was not statistically significant in the areas of mental health or substance abuse treatment.

Conclusion: These findings suggest that when caseworkers and caregivers share the same racial/ethnic background, caseworkers engage in a greater variety of referral efforts to connect caregivers to needed domestic violence and housing services. Albeit associational in nature, these results reinforce some basic tenets of representative bureaucracy theory and support organizational policies that promote diversity in the child welfare workforce. These findings also highlight the need for research identifying those caseworker characteristics that facilitate effective service provision to diverse client populations, as well as research examining the content and impact of child welfare diversity training programs on clients. Such research is of continuing importance given child welfare agencies' efforts to engage and better serve diverse client populations.