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Innovating Social Work Practice for the Future

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Dr. Richard Barth

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Richard Barth at the Society for Social Work Research (SSWR) conference in Washington DC. Dr. Barth is President of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (AASWSW) in addition to being the School of Social Work Dean at the University of Maryland. Dr. Barth has previously served as a chaired professor at the University of North Carolina and the University of California at Berkeley.  He is also a past recipient of the SSWR Lifetime Achievement Award.

We got together to discuss the Grand Challenge initiative launched by the Academy during the conference, and its potential impact on the future of social work practice. The Grand Challenges for Social Work is a groundbreaking initiative to champion social progress powered by science, but it is also a call to action for all of us to work together to tackle our nation’s toughest social problems.

SWH: Why was it important to launch the Grand Challenge initiative, and what do you hope it will accomplish?

Richard: The goal is for the profession to improve its capacity to assist society to be safer, more supportive, and healthier. Our aspiration is to identify areas where we already have a history of accomplishment and those which we can be expected to have significant future accomplishment if we strengthen our focus and our scientific work.

In some cases, this may require readiness to take the interventions we are already engaged in to scale and testing them in different ways. This also means expanding partnerships with professionals, organizations and businesses who are interested in the same outcomes as we are. For other Grand Challenges we will need a longer period of development although we have identified measurable improvements that can be achieved in the next decade for all the Grand Challenges.

An additional benefit is to help the entire nation understand what social work does, what w are good at, what we care about, and why social work is such a vital partner in addressing each of these issues.

SWH: How do you envision turning the Grand Challenges into actionable policy changes?

Richard: As we develop interventions or take existing interventions to scale there will be policy implications all the way along. Sometimes those policies are just to identify newly needed research.

As an example, we have a grand challenge on ending homelessness and we are looking at youth homelessness. This is a significant problem and so to start attacking that problem one of the things we would need to do is to get very good estimates about youth homelessness, and the array of causes, that would the help us to see what are the opportunities to devise additional interventions that have compelling results. This may include changes in policies for child welfare, mental health, education, and juvenile services that help support youth in a broader range of ways.  There will, undoubtedly be some homeless youth who we can’t help right away and who may require a different policy approach, which could include finding ways to help them stay out of jail or otherwise not become part of the incarceration of America during their period of homelessness.

This leads to another one of our grand challenges, which is “Smart Decarceration”. We expect that these grand challenges will integrate with each other and what we learn about ways of achieving decarceration–such as modified family courts–may be helpful for runaway homeless youth and people with behavioral health problems.

We’re interested in policy changes that affect as many people in a positive way as soon as possible. But that said, there are certainly policies that are primarily governed at the local level. Education policies for example are often determined at the school district level because most of the money to support education comes from local taxes. There are school and school district policies and procedures related to suspension and expulsion, which we talked about today in our discussion about success for African American children under the grand challenge of “Achieving Equal Opportunity and Justice”.

There are other areas where federal policy would need to be changed. For example, Medicaid supports groups for smoking prevention but they don’t support groups for parenting and yet if you’re really going to change family violence then you need to improve parenting.  This is also true if we are going to achieve the Grand Challenge of “Ensuring Healthy Development for All Youth”. We are looking at ways to work at the national level to address that issue. Policy implications that arise out of the Grand Challenges will in many ways depend on the question that is being asked and the way that it’s currently being supported.

SWH: The Grand Challenges are being launched at a macro level, how do you plan to reach frontline social workers?

Richard: We’re hoping that each of the grand challenges will end up with a cadre of interested members putting their ideas on the website at www.aaswsw.org and who go to the grand challenge section clicking over to the areas that they are interested in and signing up to get information. People will be able to post and retrieve information there. We are also encouraging all the grand challenges work groups, which are currently in their formative stages, to do what they can to reach out to practitioners to get their voice and to reach out to consumers to hear their voice.

In terms of frontline practitioners, one of the things we talked about today was trying to cohost some webinars with National Association of Social Workers. For example, we would like to open conversations with state social work organizations and non-governmental organizations about the goals of the grand challenges and ways we can collaborate for collective impact. For instance, when talking about our goals for education or goals related to decarceration, it’s important for us to connect with groups already specializing in those areas. We’re going utilize as social media as much as possible to expand our efforts and reach.

SWH: If the Grand Challenges has any hope of being successful, how will the Academy support Child Welfare social workers?

Richard: The Grand Challenges do not have a specific grand challenge about child welfare services. Yet, I expect that a grand challenge touches the lives of every child welfare involved client related to homelessness, decarceration, education, education pipeline, family violence, equal opportunity for all, and improved health for all.  By making progress on these Grand Challenges we will create greater opportunity for families to succeed and will greatly strengthen child welfare’s capacity to help families to live together safely.

There’s a group that’s forming that’s dedicated to ending gender based violence, which of course intersects with family violence. There’s a very interesting grand challenge about “Build Financial Capability For All”, which has to do with helping low income families to manage the challenges they have around their resources, debt collection and management, eviction, and the many financial challenges that plague families. Further many of the approaches that will be further developed and disseminated under this grand challenge will be preventive in nature. Child welfare workers have to often try to address these issues after they’ve already impacted families. The Grand Challenge will look at preventive tools and also research how to help families maintain benefits they have received from their interaction with a child welfare worker.

SWH: How is this research going to be translatable to frontline workers and people in the field?

Richard: It is our goal to put really good science together and create intervention models that are more powerful than what we have now. As an example, the work on ending or reducing severe and fatal maltreatment is one of the working papers we are working on under “End Family Violence”. There has been a discussion about using birth records and prior child welfare records and other data to predict what cases should be screened in and looked at rather than screened out even though they’re high risk. So we’re trying to look at the groups that are working on testable questions that actually have a benefit in reducing the rates of untoward outcomes.

We’ll have to talk to child welfare workers to figure out how they would use that information. Let’s imagine we could create some excellent predictive analytics. Even so, we will still find it  important for us to work with child welfare workers to see for example, how do you want to see that information? What don’t you want to see included in those predictions that might institutionalize bias? What do you think would actually lead to unfair uses of this information and how can you help us to take our science and use it to make a difference? We don’t want to overwhelm frontline workers with either too many ways or vague suggestions about what they would like to see.

SWH: If you could tweet one message about the Grand Challenges, what would it be?

Tweet: The Grand Challenges will be transformative if people buy in, join a challenge, & commit to partnering with others to make it happen. #Up4theChallenge

Melissa Bird, MSW is a passionate feminist whose education in social work has led to a career advocating for children, women, and their families.  She is a fierce believer in social justice advocacy and preparing women for leadership roles in politics. She has a wealth of experience working with policy makers, community leaders, and other stakeholders to improve access to reproductive health care for women, men and teens. Melissa is currently obtaining her PhD at the University of Southern California and is the owner of Bird Girl Industries, an innovative public speaking and coaching company.

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