The latest issue of Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, published by the Alliance for Children and Families, features a discussion of “the essentialness of community voice in realizing the potential and well-being of individuals and families.” The nation’s oldest social work journal, Families in Society focuses on a broad array of issues that relate to the capabilities of families and communities, including consideration of various biopsychosocial, economic and cultural factors that impact those capacities. This discussion is depicted in an editorial that focuses on community collaboration examples from education and health care, and an article on the critical nature of authentic engagement in child welfare practice.
In “Unpacking Transformation: Committing to Community in Education and Health Care Reform,” emphasis is placed on the “growing trend” by federal agencies and foundations to call for some form of partnership with a community agency as a prerequisite for funding. The editorial also links the concept of community involvement to a central idiom of the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. Quoting a paper on community engagement by the Prevention Institute, the editorial states “all professionals working in communities have an obligation to strengthen collaborative efforts, as they are essential to community empowerment and self-determination—key ingredients for healthy, sustainable, and equitable communities.”
However, the editorial goes on to state that the process can be “complicated” and “not always successful.” Examples of these challenges are given with the push for more meaningful parent engagement in education, and the “significant” increase in funding for community-based public health projects under the Affordable Care Act. Looking at cases from these different sectors, the editorial lays out “implications for practice and policy” among social workers. The editors end by saying, “Now is the time for social work… to take the lead in facilitating impactful public participation. It is in our Code of Ethics and part of our value system to encourage and support our neighbors and communities to be healthy, strong, and autonomous.”
Continuing the focus on community voice, the article “An Unsuccessful Partnership: Behavioral Compliance and Strengths-Based Child Welfare Practice” further unpacks some of the ways in which the value of collaboration and community involvement can be difficult to put into practice, particularly in relation to fulfilling child protection mandates concurrently with providing supports for family self-determination and improved functioning. Although child welfare policy “prioritizes family engagement,” behavioral compliance is often used as the primary indicator of parents’ desire to improve the conditions of child safety and wellbeing in their families. In fact, as the article argues, focusing on the typical understanding of compliance is antithetical to a strengths-based model and can lead to resistance, reactive behavior, uneven power dynamics, and, ultimately, negative outcomes for children and families.
Recommendations in the article emphasize clinical implications for social workers and child welfare professionals, but the crux of the topic is the difficulty of putting values into practice. Although the child welfare system is increasingly prioritizing family engagement outcomes in mandated and voluntary services, a combination of strained resources and imperfect indicators often causes people to focus on the wrong things. In the end, it is not mere lip service to the values of collaboration and community engagement that matters. Authentic engagement, and real impact, can only come when these values are reflected in policy, practice and action.