Abstract: Social Workers and Disproportionate Minority Contact: A Mixed Methods Study (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

135P Social Workers and Disproportionate Minority Contact: A Mixed Methods Study

Friday, January 14, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 6, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Jenny Afkinich, PhD, Lead Research Analyst, University of Maryland at Baltimore, Baltimore, MD
Background and Purpose: Disproportionate minority contact (DMC) is the disproportionate representation of racial minority youth at all levels of the juvenile justice system. DMC is evident in rates of initial arrests, referrals to court, delinquency findings/ adjudications, out-of-home placements, and transfers to adult criminal court. Race remains a significant predictor of legal outcomes for youth even when factors such as prior legal history and current charge severity are considered despite White and minority youth reporting similar levels of offending. This mixed methods study examined the relationship between community social workers employed by the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice (SC DJJ) in the agency’s county offices and DMC. Social workers are employed by SC DJJ in some county offices and have a flexible position that allows them to identify and respond to local needs.

Method: First, relative rate indices (RRIs) were calculated for Black youth and youth of other races compared to White youth referred to the state juvenile justice agency in 2018. RRIs were also calculated for the sub-sample of youth referred to counties with community social workers. Logistic regression models were conducted to compare legal outcomes (i.e., receiving confinement dispositions and being waived to adult court) longitudinally (using a sample of youth in counties with social workers in 2018 compared to youth in those same counties in 2011 before social workers were employed) and cross-sectionally (comparing youth in counties with social workers in 2018 to youth in counties without social workers in 2018). The logistic regression models were also run with subsamples of Black youth only. Qualitative interviews with nine of the 11 community social workers were used to identify and understand the mechanisms, barriers, and facilitators for reducing DMC. Interviews were transcribed and coded for overarching themes.

Results: The results indicate that DMC continues to exist in South Carolina when measured via relative rate indices. Multi-variate analyses gave little indication that employing community social workers is sufficient to reduce DMC at the disposition or waiver stage. The findings suggest multiple nuanced ways the social workers can play a role in reducing DMC. The social workers identified two stages in the juvenile justice process in which they can and have had an impact on increasing equity: (1) out-of-home placement decisions for youth on probation or parole and (2) determining probation requirements. The social workers described a need for hiring additional social workers. They also believe they could train police officers and school officials about alternatives to making a referral to SC DJJ to reduce inequitable decisions at the front-end of the juvenile justice system.

Implications and Conclusions: Implications for the study include an expanded role for community social workers (i.e., increased community outreach and training) and new ways to examine DMC quantitatively (i.e., different outcome measures and focus on local decision-making) and qualitatively (i.e., ethnography).