Developing a Social Justice Approach to Public Child Welfare Practice: The Effects of a Critical Race Theory-Based MSW Curriculum
Racial disparities in the public child welfare system have been well documented and often discussed. African American children are not only disproportionately represented in the child welfare system, but they stay in foster care longer and receive less supportive services than their White counterparts (McRoy, 2008).
This research project evaluated the effects of a Critical Race Theory-based (CRT) MSW program on the attitudes of public child welfare social workers. Specifically, the project sought to answer the following question: How does a Master in Social Work program that employs a Critical Race Theory-based curriculum affect social worker attitudes about working in a racially disparate child welfare system? Included in this investigation is an attempt to define and explore the meaning of employing a social justice perspective as a social worker in an environment not traditionally associated with transformational practice.
Proponents of CRT seek to critically analyze the ways in which race, oppression, and the dynamics of power structure society. A CRT-informed curriculum includes teaching students methods that allow them to identify structural barriers to progress, examine their own biases and positions of privilege, and approach clients and communities through the lens of Intersectionality.
Methods: Graduates (racially diverse) from a Title-IVE training program who were currently employed in the public child welfare system (in a large, urban area) were selected to participate in focus groups and semi-structured interviews. Two focus groups (7 participants) were conducted to develop major themes and areas of inquiry. Ten semi-structured interviews were then conducted to develop a deeper understanding of the concepts identified in the focus groups. A research team (also racially diverse) consisting of one faculty member, one alumna and three current MSW students of the program analyzed the transcripts of the focus groups and interviews to identify the prominent themes from the data.
Results: The analysis showed that there are disparities in treatment of clients, unjust structural issues, and a lack of cultural awareness within the public child welfare system. Participants defined ways in which they engaged in social justice practice by describing how they conducted full, complete assessments, they related to clients based on shared racial experiences and they went the extra mile when seeking out services. Finally, the participants suggested that the CRT-infused MSW curriculum helped them to identify the context of the client, maintain a strengths-based approach and identify social justice issues in the system.
Implications:Data collected from this project can assist educators in determining if a CRT-based curriculum provides public child welfare workers with the tools necessary to address and mitigate racial disparities and disproportionality in the system. Potential benefits to the participant could include an increased awareness
of how their education has influenced their work with families. It was determined that a program based on CRT yields specific elements that prepared students to work more effectively in racially-diverse communities, thus there is a greater need to replicate these elements in training or other education programs.