Moving Beyond “Cultural Competency” in Child Welfare

Moving Beyond “Cultural Competency” in Child Welfare

April 20, 2015 | Amy Cipolla-Stickles, Senior Program Specialist


For more than a decade, child welfare conferences have included workshops and/or keynote addresses on cultural competency, culturally relevant practice, cultural humility, and racial disparities and disproportionality. With this array of efforts, why haven’t we seen a drastic shift in outcomes for families of color?  

For more than a decade, child welfare conferences have included workshops and/or keynote addresses on cultural competency, culturally relevant practice, cultural humility, and racial disparities and disproportionality. With this array of efforts, why haven’t we seen a drastic shift in outcomes for families of color?  

Much of the existing effort toward creating cultural competency has focused on raising awareness and sensitivity. Additional efforts have attempted to increase knowledge and understanding about the unique characteristics, history, and culture of certain groups, mostly African Americans, Native Americans, and Latino Americans. However, awareness, sensitivity, knowledge, and understanding are not enough. Until we address issues of privilege and oppression, we will not impact practice in ways that reduce disparity.  

There have been efforts to more deeply examine the complex relationships surrounding issues of race, class, and SOGIE (sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression). But these efforts have been largely sporadic. Surface-level “cultural competency” models fail to increase understanding of the direct connections between privilege and oppression and child rearing. Without this vital lens, child protection work will continue to unintentionally create disparate outcomes for families of color and poor families.  

 Models that do integrate an understanding of external societal factors can help us better serve a family like this one:  

 Kayden is a tall, dark-skinned, nine-year-old Black boy. Grandpa has been using physical discipline with Kayden because he wants to beat the “feminine ways” out of him—but why? If we dig deeper to understand the drivers behind the behavior, we may learn that Grandpa is afraid for his grandson’s safety and that he doesn’t want his life to be harder than it already is. Grandpa truly believes that stopping Kayden from expressing “femininity” will actually keep him safe.   

We know the atrocities that happen to feminine black men and black trans women. This understanding of Grandpa’s anxieties around Kayden’s safety—anxieties that are logically born out of our racist, sexist, homophobic environment—can help child welfare workers deal more effectively with Grandpa’s poor child-rearing practice of beating his grandchild. We can use this practice of contextual understanding to actually give families new skills, new language, and the confidence to navigate this harsh world on behalf of their children—and most importantly, the tools to adopt new, safer child-rearing behaviors. Just ordering families like this one to stop using physical discipline will not address Grandpa’s well-founded anxiety and fear around his grandchild’s survival or Kayden’s own ability to keep himself safe from others’ brutal remarks or physical actions.   

Effective engagement is more than just recognizing that not every family is white, heterosexual, economically stable, and born in the United States. If we merely measure all families’ efforts against this limited template of child-rearing practices and focus solely on interpersonal relationships, we miss the influence of external factors like racism and classism on how families raise their children. These factors can complicate a family’s ability to provide safety, permanency, and well-being for their children. By failing to engage with an integrated lens, our services fail to support families’ ability to understand the drivers (impact of oppression) behind their harmful behavior.   

Before joining NCCD’s Children’s Research Center (CRC), I worked with VISIONS, Inc., a nonprofit training and consulting organization specializing in diversity and inclusion. Their executive director and co-founder, Valerie Batts, developed a model for understanding the dynamics and impact that privilege and oppression has on us all, that I believe has great potential for helping to move child welfare cultural competency efforts to the next level. The VISIONS, Inc., model suggests that we deepen our analysis around how our differences impact our worldview and how cultural, systemic, and personal privilege and oppression play out on an interpersonal level by:    

  1. Recognizing self in relation to culturally distinct others.  

  • Recognize the ways you are different than the youth/family you are working with;  

  • Share the ways you are conscious about your various privileges (e.g., institutional power, race, sexual orientation, etc.) with the youth/family you are working with;  

  • Make a commitment to yourself and the youth/family that you will revisit these discussions, especially when there is a miscommunication or a breakdown in the relationship; and  

  • Update your knowledge and continuously reexamine your assumptions.  

  1. Understanding the impact that privilege and oppression have on relationships.  

  • Understand that institutional and cultural norms impact our morals, values, and ideologies on child rearing, all of which play into the relationship between the worker and the family;  

  • Realize that privilege is like “wind at your back,” so you must make an intentional effort to slow down, observe, and deconstruct your behaviors and decisions; and  

  • Know that oppression is like “wind in your face”: it is dehumanizing and causes individuals to devalue their worth in society and at times engage in behaviors that are self-denigrating.  

To prioritize children and families’ safety, we will have to commit to stop doing business as usual and engage in this work in a radically different way. As Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, has said, “We must be bold, and we must think big, if we are serious about bringing about fundamental change, not just in the way child welfare and other systems respond to poor families and families of color, but also in the underlying drivers of child maltreatment and family distress—the problems of poverty, closed-off opportunity, exclusion, and structural racism.”i   

NCCD’s commitment to equity has led us to incorporate principles from VISIONS, Inc., into our work. In both the content we bring to jurisdictions through implementation of the Structured Decision Making® system, and the process of how we work with jurisdictions, we strive to incorporate the important lens of privilege and oppression. This is not work we feel is “done,” but rather work we commit to on an ongoing basis.