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Discussing Kinship Care in Academia: Why the study of kinship care is critical for social work students

In recognition of National Women’s History Month and National Social Work Month, ASCI spoke with its founder, president, and CEO Dr. Sharon McDaniel, assistant professor Dr. Sherri Simmons – Horton, in the department of social work at the University of New Hampshire, and Dr. Elizabeth (Betsy) Farmer, dean of social work at the University of Pittsburgh, as influential thought leaders, and educators in child welfare and academia. This critical discussion highlights the evolution of the study of kinship care in academia, and the importance of eliminating bias in social work studies, leadership, and practice to effectively prepare a culturally and racially competent workforce that truly values family.

Kinship Care’s Current Context in Academia

The discussion of formal and informal kinship care may not be included in all undergraduate and postgraduate curricula, however the concept has been discussed more now in some social work studies than ever.

“I think that there’s more attention to it at this point than there has been historically,” Dr. Farmer explains. “There’s been a lot more focus and recognition of kinship care [in recent years], as a very preferred and very common part of how families work and how children can be raised. I think it still is somewhat secondary. I don’t see it being as focal as kind of non-kinship or stranger foster care, whatever you want to call it, but I think that there’s more of a recognition of it.”

She continued, “I don’t think it’s as fully covered as would be optimal for students going into the field and for really understanding the range of issues that you need to be aware of, to help support families and to make this work well, but I do think there’s more focus than there has been historically.”

Dr. Simmons-Horton adds, “[Kinship care] is discussed and raised as a placement option and as part of the child welfare system, but there’s not enough focus around it, that is, particularly not in the focus around making the distinction between formal and informal [kinship care].” Dr. Simmons-Horton posits that kinship care may not be widely shared in comparison to traditional foster care given the historical stereotypes and misconceptions about kinship care and family dynamics. “[The saying], the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree,” she explains, “It’s like the apple in the tree is bad. So, if the families and the parents are ‘bad,’ the rest of family has to be ‘bad’, too.”

The Impacts of Policy on Social Work Curriculum

Understanding that policy significantly impacts social work curriculum, kinship care advocates must continue to inform policymakers on the importance of kinship care’s positive impacts on children and families. Additionally, advocates must emphasize how critical it is for social work students to know about this life-changing option.

Dr. McDaniel explains, “I sat on the federal commission for ASFA, as well as wrote the paper, the national report for subsidized guardianship that the Children’s Defense Fund moved to scale. That’s the way A Second Chance has really informed the larger national discourse. I think then moving it to academia, [we’ve influenced discourse] by presentations, talking with deans, across the country, and in the public policy work. I think that A Second Chance has influenced some of the conversation, but I think that the reason why it’s still not tied is because there still is a mindset about what foster care looks like in America, and I think it’s rooted in some of our institutional instructional designs in this country.”

The prioritization of kinship care reflected in federal policy has also worked to influence child welfare and academia

Dr. Simmons-Horton poses, “The other thing that I think has helped to bring [kinship] more to the attention within child welfare discussions and academia is the fact that there’s federal policy that’s followed this.

“[Kinship care] has been part of the conversations around child welfare, so when there’s federal policy that speaks to or supports [kinship] care, whether formal or informal, there are more opportunities for students to gain learning around how it all works and [they can] use that as topics for presentations or research.”

Dr. Sherri simmons-Horton

As federal policies begin to reflect the need to address the historical practices of family separation for children and families of color through child welfare, Dr. Farmer remains optimistic that the conversation to maintain family connections and culture is evident through policies such as the Indian Child Welfare Act. “I think in addition to some of the policies that we all think about, I’ve been involved in a fair number of conversations around the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which is also, I think, pushing us more in this direction to recognize the importance of keeping youth in their families, in their communities, with people who know them, and who can raise them in the world as they need to understand it.”

Dr. McDaniel adds, “What I would offer for consideration is that we know that ICWA has been under assault for the last couple of years. In fact, I believe there are some cases going to the Supreme Court around ICWA. We know that [ICWA] was the first standard at the policy level in terms of culture and race, for Indigenous children, but I would offer for consideration that it continues to be under assault. And yet, we consider it from that cultural context.”

She continued, “But really, until there is a universal mindset shift about young people who are in need or in crisis deserve and have, it’s the moral imperative for them to be placed with family.

“…until there is a universal mindset shift about young people who are in need or in crisis deserve and have, it’s the moral imperative for them to be placed with family.”

Dr. Sharon McDaniel

I think that we will continue to grapple with this. It has been around for decades, but yet, we’re still seeing these assaults. So, I would suggest that there is this universal mindset, that is essential. And going back to that ‘apple does not fall far away from the tree’ saying, I said, it’s fallen, it is now apple juice, and it’s good for the soul. And the bottom line is that this mindset shift in this space, at the practice, policy, and academic level, I think is so essential, that we have to figure out a way to get there using this multi-pronged strategy.”

Understanding the Need for Cultural Competence in Social Work Curriculum and Diversity in Faculty

Both Dr. Simmons-Horton and Dr. Farmer agree that universities are working to incorporate tools to assist social workers on how to properly be anti-racist practitioners. However, distinguishing between cultural competence and anti-racist practices is critical for students to understand how both impact children and families.

“All students have had some level of interest and hunger for understanding, diversity and that means,” Dr. Simmons-Horton shares. “I think we’re in a time now, where we’re looking at different terminology. Where there’s cultural competence, there’s usually a whole class [to discuss that]. Some of the modules in those courses are traditional, but I think, depending on the program that you’re in, [they] can be forward, moving and progressive. At the University of New Hampshire, we’re actually having conversations about how to incorporate anti-racist theories, and how to walk out with your degree having tools on how to engage in an anti-racist practice, whether it be in child welfare, or on a macro level. [However I do think that there’s a need to distinguish cultural competence from anti-racist practice because I think I tend to think that they have some similarities, but [there are also] some very clear differences in how we teach students to go into practice and be anti-racist practitioners.”

Dr. Farmer explains, “We have a much more diverse student and faculty population which gives us some opportunities, but our students are pushing for this. Our students are living in the world that we exist in, and they’re not putting up with [racism].”

“I agree completely, that [cultural competence and anti-racism] are very related, but they are distinct concepts that we need to be dealing with. I think that we at Pitt are doing a lot of work around anti-racism, as well as around cultural diversity or racial [diversity], all the different kinds of diversity that you could have, and the understanding of competence versus humility, versus understanding and awareness. We do have specific coursework [on these issues] that students have to take I think that’s true in every school of social work. But, is it sufficient to overcome a lifetime of living in a system that doesn’t necessarily support those values? No. So, how are we getting students ready to really disrupt and to change paradigms?”

We do have specific coursework [on these issues] that students have to take I think that’s true in every school of social work. But, is it sufficient to overcome a lifetime of living in a system that doesn’t necessarily support those values? No. So, how are we getting students ready to really disrupt and to change paradigms?”

Dr. Betsy farmer

Universities like the University of New Hampshire and the University of Pittsburgh are incorporating students with lived experience to aid to the discourse on cultural competence and anti-racist practices in child welfare by formulating group discussions, study groups, etc., on their perception of anti-racism as it pertains to child welfare.

Dr. Simmons-Horton explained, “Another committee that I’m in, at University of New Hampshire, some of my problem evaluation students, as a project is looking at this with undergraduate and graduate students on their perceptions of [anti-racism].

She continued, “As Dr. Farmer explained, students are very much interested. As social work academics, we’re having to really come to grips with how much we don’t know, and some of the complicity of our historical parts of social work that have not really prepared our students to deal with diversity and the racism that is occurring in their practice settings and in the world.”

Dr. Farmer adds, “We’re doing a lot of work around this. We have an ongoing anti-racism learning collective that meets every other week in our school that’s open to students, faculty and staff. We’ve just completed a review of all of our syllabi, to look at what are the materials whose voices are included and how those courses are structured, and that is then feeding into the coming year, where we’re going to be doing a full curriculum review. So, I expect that our curriculum is going to look quite different a year and a half from now from how it looks right now. This is really a focal part of what we’re doing. I think that the issue around lived experience is an interesting one, because clearly, we have a fairly diverse faculty. So, we have a lot of voices at the table as we’re doing these conversations, [asking] who bring lived experience?”

By looking to women pioneers in the field, we can glean from their lived experiences as leaders and teachers to help inform future generations of helping professionals about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Dr. McDaniel shares, “As an intersection, a woman showing up in the space through leadership, what we’ve been taught, the paradigm is the white male form of leadership, in most textbooks.” While the practices of child welfare and kinship care continue to evolve, it is important for future child welfare professionals to understand the best ways to be sensitive to the needs of children and families while breaking down the historical barriers of bias that stem from lessons taught, or not taught, in the classroom.

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

One thought on “Discussing Kinship Care in Academia: Why the study of kinship care is critical for social work students

  • Kindship Care, is parallel in many cases to the mental and physical well being of a child.
    Lived experiences are paramount when developing such a course of study.
    Will there be any Caregivers at the table when expanding this class/course?

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