Abstract: "It Takes a Village": Understanding the Role of Social Workers in an Abolitionist Future (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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"It Takes a Village": Understanding the Role of Social Workers in an Abolitionist Future

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Paradise Valley, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Victoria Copeland, PhD, Senior Policy Analyst, University of California, Los Angeles, CA
Background and Purpose

The phrase “it takes a village” is an “adage” that has been used to describe the ways that individuals and communities care for one another. The phrase is said to have originated from African and Indigenous peoples to describe the ways that community members communally cared for one another and their families. The current paper explores the way that both children's social workers and families impacted by the child welfare system. This paper begins to address deeper diverging discussions about what a post-child welfare system future might look like, and is important due to the ongoing conversations about the ethics of the child welfare system.


This reflective paper builds from a community based qualitative research project that was conducted in collaboration with The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition and the Downtown Women's Action Coalition. The study was rooted in a Black Feminist Abolitionst Epistemology which influenced the research questions, methods, and analysis. Four community conversations (focus groups) were held with Black and Latinx family members who were impacted by the child welfare system, with 4-6 participants in each conversation. Additionally 13 interviews were held with individuals who worked within the Los Angeles County child welfare system and child welfare system activists and organizers. A thematic analysis was used to analyze the data collected.


When asked about perceptions of child welfare system abolition, all children’s caseworkers in this study stated that the current system must remain intact as a protective entity for children who may be maltreated. Almost all system workers were hesitant to accept abolition as a viable answer, due to the lack of distinct replacements that could ensure child safety. Several children's social workers stated that they believe children's social workers should instead partner more closely with community members, claiming that “it takes a village” to address both systemic racial inequities and child maltreatment. Conversely when asked the same question, most mothers who participated in the community conversations stated that they envision a future without partnerships with the child welfare system. Mothers did not envision a future in which caseworkers were a part of “their village”, as the system has had a long history of violence that was described by mothers as “a contination of slavery”. Instead, mothers’ discussed the need for reparations in the form of money, housing, and land.

Conclusions and Implications

Although many social workers in their pursuits for social justice and racial equity seek to be highly involved in movements to “help” families and communities, findings from the research show that impacted family members may not trust these efforts or find them viable. These findings ask social workers to reflect on their current and future positionalities within community spaces. Social workers' relation to carceral punishment systems and paradoxical relation to families has created a tension, albeit an often times violent tension, that requires a deep reflection on the role of the social work profession in movements to resist inequity. What does the helping profession look like outside of carceral systems?