Abstract: Social Workers Are Key to Socio-Legal Collaborations: The Australian Landscape and Experience (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Social Workers Are Key to Socio-Legal Collaborations: The Australian Landscape and Experience

Friday, January 13, 2023
Laveen B, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Jennifer Davidson, PhD, Lecturer, University of Melbourne, Carlton, VIC, Australia
Inter-professional collaborations between legal and social services have emerged as a growing and innovative framework for assisting clients with high degrees of disadvantage, vulnerability and complexity. While some individual programs have been working this way for well over twenty-five years, internationally there has been a growth in collaborative programs from medical-legal partnerships, to community legal or public defender based services and therapeutic jurisprudence.

While lawyers and social workers would seem to have a natural synergy in these programs, focused social inequity and the human rights of shared clients, research examining the specific role of social work, how social workers and lawyers collaborate and influence each other and the social work practice being delivered within programs, has remained limited. Discourses around medical-legal partnerships or therapeutic jurisprudence have remained dominated by law and in many contexts the specific contribution of social work has been overlooked for professions such as psychology or generalized to social services.

This paper is a presentation of research which mapped the nature of inter-professional collaborations in Australia, highlighting the specific contribution and influence of social workers and social work practice.

The research presented is a mixed methods study using online surveys and semi-structured interviews to explore these programs and the experiences of staff within them. A census of collaborative programs (n=67) was conducted across Australia, collecting program demographic data from managers and program coordinators. From the census data a further staff survey (n=144) and semi-structured interviews (n=18) were conducted. All staff in programs identified in the census were invited to participate. The staff survey provided staff demographics, program detail and measures of practice change, and the interviews explored in more detail experience of collaborative programs, practice change and influence.

Results of the study show that in Australia social work practice and social workers take up a significant role in inter-professional collaborations and are central to a model of effective collaboration between legal and social service professions. Social work was found to be not only the most common form of social service practice found in these collaborations but also one of the most influential upon other professions and professional practice including law. Social workers contributed both an understanding and demonstration of relational practice with lawyers, alongside specific practice perspectives such as trauma-informed care and strengths perspectives.

From these findings, a call for social work leadership in these socio-legal settings is made, with the results of the study demonstrating the need for social work to understand and promote their contribution. Social work is encouraged to participate and take up leadership roles in otherwise legally dominated discourses such as medical-legal partnerships and therapeutic jurisprudence. Further research in this area to examine the impact of collaboration on client outcomes and further develop trauma-informed socio-legal care is also called for.