Abstract: Conflicting Selves: Confronting and Negotiating Multiple Identities in Child Welfare Training (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Conflicting Selves: Confronting and Negotiating Multiple Identities in Child Welfare Training

Friday, January 17, 2020
Marquis BR Salong 13, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Michael Henson, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI
Background and Purpose: The bulk of research on social work students transitioning to child welfare workers focuses on effects of individual characteristics (i.e. knowledge, attitudes towards work, educational background, long term goals) on what is considered successful transition (i.e. job satisfaction)( Hartinger-Saunders & Lyons, 2013; Moriarty, Manthrope, Stevens, & Hussein, 2011; Scannapieco, Hegar, & Connell-Carrick, 2012).  Little research, however, has explored deeper questions about how students renegotiate their existing social identities in relation to being child welfare workers. This presentation explores how social work students confront and remake their identities by presenting the results of an ethnographic study of the Wayne Together Collaborative (WTC), a specialized social work education program aimed at preparing master’s students for child welfare work.

Methods: A 15-month ethnographic study was conducted following a cohort of WTC students enrolled in the 9-month program and six months after graduation.  33 in-depth semi-structured interviews with 11 of the 15 students were conducted beginning, during, and after the program to explore how students confronted and remade their social identities over time to include the values and expectations of being child welfare workers. Participant observation of WTC group meetings and required courses was used to discover and describe how conflicts in social identities manifested in day-to-day discussions and educational practices.  45 in-depth interviews with field liaisons (n=2), field instructors (n=11), and course instructors (n=2) were conducted to further explore the structure and design of WTC educational and training practices.  Interview transcripts and field notes from observations were coded thematically and cross-compared to identify ways in which identity conflicts were discussed and the social practices through which such conflicts were resolved.

Results: WTC training and education focused on mediating tensions between values and expectations of child welfare and non-child welfare identities. Legal mandates for child welfare workers to report possible child maltreatment competed with family rights to be free of excessive state interference; these surfaced poignantly in personal stories of reporting family members and community members to state agencies.  Obligations to fulfill bureaucratic administrative expectations conflicted with social work values of promoting and enhancing relationships within families. Due to the intense oversight and auditing of the state child welfare system, achieving "child safety” has become increasingly equated with meeting rapid “standards of promptness” (SOP) deadlines dictating when case documentation must be completed. SOPs force workers to prioritize timely paperwork and worker evaluations target meeting SOPs over quality of family work and was a frequent topic explored in WTC group discussions, classroom activities, and field placement supervision.  WTC graduates were highly valued among agencies because of their deeper understandings and skills to navigate complex tensions and dilemmas of child welfare work.

Conclusions and Implications:   Findings highlight that child welfare work entails confronting conflicts between multiple sets of values and expectations with different professional and nonprofessional identities.  Capitalizing on key features of ethnographic research (i.e. prolonged engagement, diverse data sources, participant observation) helps identify social work education and training strategies that develop student capacities to navigate identity conflicts in child welfare practice.