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Balancing the Scales of Justice with Social Work

Social workers are ubiquitous in cases of child abuse or neglect.  Their concern for the child’s safety and welfare dictates the resources and planned courses of action as the case unfolds.  Social workers are there on behalf of the child.  But when family reunification is determined to be the goal, shouldn’t these skilled professionals also be involved with the parents?

This was the intent of a recent Utah Indigent Defense Commission (IDC) pilot program.  The program added a social worker to the team of public defenders whose role was to advocate for the parents involved in child abuse cases.  It’s a program that has had great success in other states, so the Utah IDC decided to launch a pilot in Utah County.  Because it was a pilot, the program followed one social worker and her work on nearly 30 cases.  Her involvement was extensive—from helping parents navigate and understand the court system, to connecting clients to services, to helping parents access therapy.  College of Social Work Assistant Professor Jeremiah Jaggers and Research Analyst Aurene Wilford, both evaluators with the University of Utah’s Utah Criminal Justice Center, analyzed results from the program. 

A screenshot of a video conference with College of Social Work and Utah Criminal Justice Center employees Aurene Wilford and Jeremiah JaggersMost of the feedback was positive.  Parents who had a social worker on their team felt they made progress more quickly, more milestones were made on time, and reunification efforts seemed to be more successful.  In contrast, those without a social worker consistently struggled—with court mandates, with their own medical issues, with deadlines, and more.  “This is a really difficult process for parents who are not familiar with the court system,” explained Ms. Wilford.  “DCFS case managers should be advocating for the parents, as well as the children, but they are overwhelmed with work and often cannot give the parents the guidance and support they need.  A lot of them are also coping with other barriers, such as language and economic challenges.  Having a social worker helps them process meetings, understand expectations, and meet milestones.”

In all of this, it can be difficult to understand why there is so much emphasis on keeping parents and children together.  This was a reoccurring concern in the feedback Dr. Jaggers and Ms. Wilford found in their examination, particularly from the attorneys representing the children.  If the parents are bad parents, isn’t the child better off in foster care?  Ms. Wilford explained that though it’s very easy to dichotomize parents into “good parents” and “bad parents,” it isn’t always that simple.  Most of these parents are facing multiple compounding difficulties—poverty, lack of education, substance use disorders….  People are complicated, with complex histories and difficulties.  “When you have a social worker who is focused solely on the parents, they’re able to understand the situation better and, in a more productive way, address barriers the parents face,” said Dr. Jaggers.  “These social workers also can more clearly gauge parent motivation, which is often a concern raised by children’s attorneys and other guardians ad litem.”  Dr. Jaggers is hopeful about what this change could bring.  “This is the kind of thing that can help balance the scales of justice,” he said. 

Reunification is also supported by the research.  People generally do better when they’re with close ones, people who are connected and invested in them as individuals.  “Research shows that children fare better when raised by their biological parents; except for some extreme cases, the child will have better outcomes,” said Ms. Wilford.  Less time in foster care often translates to better long term outcomes.  It often means less involvement with the criminal justice system, less substance use, and less aversion to systems.  The ramifications of separated families are huge.  Dr. Jaggers explained, “By intervening earlier, we’re hoping to be able to prevent some of those negative outcomes.”  This sentiment was echoed by Ms. Wilford.  “After interviewing so many stakeholders and families, I feel that this pilot project actually made a difference for these families,” she said.  “It’s wonderful that Utah is investing resources into a project that has such beneficial long term consequences for families.”

If you have questions about this pilot program, please contact Jeremiah Jaggers at jeremiah.jaggers@utah.edu or (801) 581-7644.

Last Updated: 4/7/20