Abstract: Navigating Competing Goals and Perspectives in a Prostitution Diversion Court Workgroup (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Navigating Competing Goals and Perspectives in a Prostitution Diversion Court Workgroup

Friday, January 13, 2023
Laveen A, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Nancy Franke, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, University of Maryland at Baltimore, Baltimore, MD
Corey Shdaimah, PhD, Professor, University of Maryland at Baltimore, Baltimore, MD
Background and Purpose: Criminal legal system diversion programs are now ubiquitous throughout the US. While such programs remain firmly embedded within the criminal legal system, they draw on a range of community resources, with therapy and mental health treatment prominent among them. Such programs require a team approach, with multidisciplinary working groups comprised of stakeholders from a range of professional backgrounds, skill sets, and training who come from organizations and agencies with different philosophies and mandates. This study examines the experiences of diverse professional stakeholders and participants in a prostitution problem-solving court and how they navigate often conflicting individual and institutional goals, ethical standards, and perspectives within the workgroup.

Methods: One-time semi-structured interviews were conducted with current and prior criminal legal system professionals (N=22) and PDC participants (N=3), using an interview guide. In keeping with a phenomenological approach that privileges what is most meaningful to respondents, questions were open-ended, and respondents were encouraged to share what they felt was most relevant to the topic. Thematic analysis was conducted according to Maguire and Delahunt’s (2017) process with the aid of NVIVO, using a combination of open, selected, and axial coding to analyze the qualitative data.

Findings: Collaboration and consensus building among workgroup members is a central part of problem-solving courts. It requires a blurring of traditional roles and professional positions. Our respondents described often uncomfortable and complicated team dynamics requiring an ongoing balancing act to negotiate acceptable parameters for compromise and boundary blurring. Many respondents, particularly public defenders and therapists, questioned whether the group of stakeholders was a team, with one public defender reminding other stakeholders: “We’re not a team, stop saying that to me. We’re not a team. I have different goals than you. We can’t be a team.” In addition to holding discordant goals and philosophies, many stakeholders felt ignored. Stakeholders’ need to balance professional ethics and practice norms with team principles and expectations is nuanced and constant. Though stakeholders are expected to participate in boundary blurring and take on roles that depart from their positions and training, there are no clear expectations about role enactment in the courtroom. Respondents repeatedly highlighted complications related to their respective professional roles, which were often untraditional or even counter-normative. The diversity of stakeholder roles revealed competing notions of professionalism, how those disputes were resolved, and by whom. People who were more traditionally on what one public defender described as the “humanitarian side” of the spectrum were most vocal about their concerns about the program, creating a balance sheet to determine to what extent collaboration was worth it—for professionals and participants. Many stakeholders acted strategically to minimize harm for current and future participants.

Implications and Conclusions: Diversion programs like this one are becoming popular alternatives to more traditional criminal legal system processes. Social workers are increasingly involved in these courts and must navigate complex ethical and logistical challenges without direction, established best practices, or many other alternatives, while centering social work values and participant well-being.