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As an industry, we need to address systemic racism in child welfare. Agencies, firms, and universities develop training models to educate social workers on systemic racism, implicit bias, and other topics. These courses attempt to improve how social workers provide services to diverse populations and especially communities of color. However, regardless of how many times a social worker takes these courses or their effectiveness, systemic racism is present in the child welfare system. And in addition to systemic problems, implicit bias affects the child welfare system at the ground level.

The ground level is where we, as an industry, can focus our efforts in a practical way to address how we collectively treat communities of color.

In this example a Masters in Social Work (MSW) intern is raised in an upper-middle-class family on the northwest coast of the United States. The student selects an internship at a school in a predominately Black and Latino, South Los Angeles community. The intern has a meeting with the Black parent of a student receiving mental health services. The parent becomes animated in front of the intern. They expressly declare the school disciplines their child unfairly. And at this moment, despite receiving no threats or physical contact, the intern feels that their life is in danger.

This reaction is a microcosm of a ground-level issue in child welfare. Social workers graduate from their MSW programs and step into low-income communities of color without any prior experience in that community. Consequently, this affects the families that inexperienced social workers serve. In addition, since this profession serves at-risk communities, we need a practical way to address any bias about low-income families or families of color; while encouraging social workers to become more engaged with the families they serve. In short, they need to become the family’s advocate. The way the child welfare industry can approach this is through family-centered services.

At SHIELDS for Families, we focus on family-centered services. For example, SHIELDS utilizes a family-centered model for our perinatal substance use disorder (SUD) treatment program for women called Genesis. At Genesis, participants work in group and individual sessions and with SUD counselors during the day. Meanwhile, their babies are cared for in our child development center next door. In addition to the child development center, our Heroes and Sheroes program provides afterschool programming for the participants’ school-aged youth. And to not forget the fathers, we have our Fatherhood program, which offers parenting classes, groups, and family-centered events to help nurture the men we work with into the fathers they wish to become.

At our agency, we often collaborate between programs serving members of the same family. During special events, say a Fatherhood or Christmas event, all family members are welcome. At the same time, case managers, therapists, and other staff that work with their respective family members join in the event. Consequently, we create lasting bonds with families in the community. In this sense, we serve the family, not the individual. And as we collaborate between programs and members of the family, we create our community. This community helps our team transcend the original definition of a social worker. We are extended family, advocates, and coworkers. We are with these families through multiple generations, loss, struggles, triumphs, graduations, new jobs, and more.

When you commit to the family-centered model, you begin to develop this type of culture. Too often, we see child welfare workers callously handle cases in community of color, removing children from homes, and contributing to the grave problem we have, often due to systemic racism. The family-centered model benefits the families we work with by offering a comprehensive continuum of services to the whole family. And in this approach, we as an industry can improve how social workers treat communities of color, indigenous communities, and other communities far too often maltreated and misunderstood by child welfare agencies and social workers.

For more information regarding the Family-Centered Model, please email: c[email protected] or visit