Helping vs. Controlling: Q&A with Dr. Sara Goodkind

ASCI had the opportunity to speak with critical feminist scholar, and social work and sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Sara Goodkind, to discuss women and intersectionality in the field of social work and the importance of raising awareness about social work’s historical complicity in carceral systems to effect meaningful change for children and families.

Please discuss the importance of the critical feminism special interest group (SIG) and how it opens conversations about women in social work.

Dr. Sara Goodkind: The Critical Feminisms Special Interest Group is associated with the Society for Social Work and Research and with a journal called Affilia: Feminist Inquiry in Social Work. I’m currently one of the editors for Affilia and we formed the special interest group as a space for critical feminist scholars and researchers in social work to meet up and collaborate and learn from each other.

I think social work has long been a feminized profession, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is automatically a feminist profession nor that it doesn’t reproduce long-standing gendered, racial, and other kinds of inequities. So, the journal that I talked about, Affilia, which was founded about 37 years ago by feminist scholars in social work and then this special interest group for critical feminist scholars, both seek to support social workers and social work scholars in integrating critical feminist theories into research and practice in ways that can promote social justice and liberation, and also in ways that account for the intersectional identities and social locations of all of us. Both of these spaces, the journal and the special interest group, think about and account for how all the forms of oppression and inequity in our society are interconnected. When we talk about them as critical feminist spaces, it’s a way to think about how the gendered foundations of social work can’t be separated from all the other aspects of identity and social location.

If social work’s awakening to structural oppression is to be taken seriously, how can we recognize and address the systemic barrier linked between structural inequality and epistemological dominance in child welfare?

SG: There is a conversation happening now about abolishing the child welfare system. I would say that conversation is more evident now than at any time, certainly in my social work career, and I’ve been a social worker for about 25 years. I think there are more honest conversations now about the tension between helping and controlling that’s always present in social work and that has been from the beginning. By that, I mean that there’s often a fine line between helping and controlling someone. And I think that we’re having more honest conversations now about social work’s complicity in carceral systems, in systems that are not actually ending oppression but are perhaps perpetuating oppression and injustice even when intentions have been good.

I’m a professor of social work, so I teach a lot of social work students, and one of the things that I often say is that good intentions are not enough. Every student I’ve ever had has been well-intentioned, almost always delightful, lovely people. But you can be the nicest person in the world and still be complicit in oppressive systems and be reinforcing oppression even if your intention is quite the opposite.

But you can be the nicest person in the world and still be complicit in oppressive systems and be reinforcing oppression even if your intention is quite the opposite.

Sara Goodkind

So, I think that there’s a growing awareness of the historical and political roots of a lot of the issues that we seek to address in social work and a recognition that we too often try to address these issues at an individual level, by helping a child or a family, rather than thinking about their structural roots and preventing the issues from happening. This is not to say that we don’t support children and families in need. We don’t want to turn our back on them, but I think that in social work we need to be thinking about people who are suffering or in need of support now, and providing that while at the same time working to end the need for social work.

Social work in the U.S. is not just a feminized profession. But a lot of the history we learn about is of white women in social work, even though there have been many women of color who are important founders of the profession. I think social work has also worked to reinforce racism in our society. It’s important that we’re having a reckoning about that, and systems in particular, like the child welfare system, which has been critiqued as a carceral system that punishes poor families in a lot of ways, when our society could be doing more to support families. The way that I think we as a society, not just social work, but society more broadly, respond differently to similar situations when experienced by white people and people of color is something we need to change.

How do you think social work has evolved since the beginning stages, and where do you see it going?

SG: Social work has evolved a lot in the U.S. and, at the same time, in some ways, it hasn’t changed that much. As I said before, I think there’s always been a tension between helping and control in the work of social workers, but I do believe that we’re at a moment in our history where at least some of us are more willing to acknowledge and examine this tension and really think about how we can limit the involvement of social workers in carceral systems and rethink the way that we support people and communities in efforts towards liberation and social justice. I think that a lot of social workers have those lofty goals, but they sometimes get lost in the day-to-day work, especially working in a society where we don’t have a strong social welfare system for everyone. I mean that broadly defined, we don’t have nationalized healthcare, and we see the impact of that on so many people’s lives. We don’t have a federal minimum wage that represents a living wage, and so there are just too many families who can’t make ends meet and so many families where parents are working multiple jobs to try to make ends meet and then don’t have time to spend with their children. So, I think there’s a lot more that we could do.

Since young Black girls are referred 10x the amount of white girls in the juvenile justice system, what reform measures are being implemented to address these disparities within the system?

I’m part of a juvenile justice work group for the Black Girls Equity Alliance, and when we saw these rates of disparity in referrals for Black and white girls we immediately began to try to understand what was causing them. There are racial disparities throughout the country, but they are particularly bad here in Allegheny County. We also looked at data that show us that there’s nothing about young people’s behaviors that could account for these different rates of referrals. So that means we know that it’s something about how individuals and schools and systems are responding differently to similar behaviors by different youth, by white girls versus Black girls in this case.

I think there are a couple of things that account for these different referral rates. One is just this differential response to the same behaviors among young people. Some of the behaviors that get responded to differentially are typical teenage behaviors that most young people engage in that really aren’t a sign of a great need for intervention. Sometimes we just need to give people a second chance and allow young people to learn from their mistakes. So sometimes we’re talking about behaviors that don’t need our response. One thing we need is training for teachers, police, and other adults that engage with youth around implicit biases, around adultification bias, so that they understand that these behaviors that they might be dismissing among white youth as typical teenage behaviors, that we’re criminalizing when engaged in by Black youth. But then some of the behaviors that are related to Black girls’ entry into the legal system may be manifestations of trauma. And so, they might be signs of a need for help and support, but we also know both locally and nationally that some of these kinds of behaviors are responded to differentially. White youth who are having some of these trauma responses might get mental health treatment, whereas Black youth are more likely to be funneled into the legal system. We need to have systems of support for young people who might have experienced trauma and need support but referring them to the juvenile justice system is not the way to do that. You might have heard about Caring Connections for Youth. That program came about because of this collaborative work from the Black Girls Equity Alliance that said we need a pre-arrest diversion program for young people in Allegheny County. There was some post-arrest diversion here already, but that was after young people were arrested, which then they’re already one step into the system. So, this program was started as an alternative to calling 911, which can provide connections to programs and supports in the community for young people instead of referring them to juvenile justice.

What important policy recommendations should be made to address the inequities facing Black girls on the local, state, and federal levels?

Allocating funds for mental health support in schools and supporting diversion programs like Caring Connections for Youth. One thing that we’ve seen is that many young people are referred to the juvenile legal system for failure to pay fines, so we certainly can have policies – this is starting to happen in Allegheny County – to stop fining young people, to forgive some of their debt, and to refuse to refer them further into the system for a failure to pay fines. I think we could pay living wages, which would help address some of the inequities that we see.

The Black Girls Equity Alliance has great policy recommendation documents. I can refer you to those. But I think there are even school-level policies that we didn’t talk so much about today, that could make a real difference. There was also a state task force on juvenile justice that came out with a report just in the past couple of years that had some really, really useful recommendations.

Our High Impact Unit (HIU) program is designed to provide youth in need of a higher level of service and engagement with support, improved ability to reduce disruptions, etc. As a child welfare agency, what are other ways we can support and promote alternatives to youth involvement in the juvenile justice system?

I think for anyone – young or old – involved in systems like child welfare or juvenile justice, it’s very stigmatizing. It’s a label that’s put on you. And there are a lot of ways in which I think our systems are structured to tell people who are involved with them that there’s something wrong with them. I think we know very well that we live in an unequal society, and people are not starting off in the same places or with the same circumstances. A lot of the young people who end up involved in systems, end up involved because of their social circumstances, difficult things that have happened in their homes or environments, or broader communities because of discrimination and inequality that they’ve faced. I think it’s important to do consciousness-raising with young people about how our society is structured and how we can collectively work to change it. As individuals, we can’t so easily change it, but I do think we can come together and make changes, and it’s incredibly empowering for us to shift that framework so that we can help young people push back on the messages that they’re getting that are telling them that there is a problem or there’s something wrong with them and help them see how society is structured in unequal ways. But also, there are ways, again, that we can collaboratively work to change it. Because it can be disempowering if you feel like, oh, the deck is stacked against me and there’s nothing we can do about it. But we know that there’s a lot that can be done. And I know through my work with the Black Girls Equity Alliance that there are young people who have been very involved in that work and that we continue to work to ensure that they are centered in that work.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of A Second Chance, Inc.

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