The issues facing troubled youth today have become so severe and numerous that new, bold and creative paradigms are needed to address them, presenters at Jackson State University’s Mississippi Child Welfare Institute conference told social work scholars and practitioners last week.
“This conference brings together social work scholars, faculty, administrators, students and practitioners,” said Dr. Gwendolyn Spencer Prater, conference organizer and Dean Emerita of the Jackson State University School of Social Work.
Prater also told Diverse that the conference includes adolescents who are in group homes and preparing to transition out of the foster care system. “That’s why we bring in speakers who have had some clear adversity in their lives. Many of them have been in the system, and they talk about how they were able to move forward with their lives.”
“Transformation” was the overarching theme as the presenters from around the nation explored ways of improving child welfare services in Mississippi, the state with the highest poverty rate, obesity rate and infant mortality rate in the nation.
Dr. Terry Morris, a NASA engineer with a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, was one of those inspirational presenters. Morris described his childhood as an extended nightmare so disturbing the audience gasped when he provided the details.
“I was abused, abandoned and neglected by my biological family and my community,” he said, “but I knew there were things I had to do to change from what I used to be to what I am today.”
He took advantage of “every opportunity available” including scholarships, science camps and mentors, and, most importantly, he said, he turned his back on the negative influences in his life.
While Morris focused on self-transformation, other presenters proposed changes needed in social policies and programs to radically improve services to youth.
Several speakers emphasized increased health problems among families in the child welfare system. Trinia Allen, MSW, visiting assistant professor at Jackson State’s School of Social Work, stressed mental illness in a session on “the most urgent issues” facing children of color and their families in the state. She cited two lawsuits that have been filed by the Department of Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center, stating that children with mental health problems are not being properly served in Mississippi.
“Teacher education programs must include how to understand mental illness and the role it plays in educating our students and in students’ behavior,” Allen said in her presentation.
Allen also said there is a need for more family literacy programs to enable parents and grandparents to have a better understanding of what children are learning in school and to be able to help them with homework.
Several presenters discussed the role of grandparents and other relatives in caring for children, citing statistics showing kinship care as a growing trend as more parents face incarceration, drug abuse and economic hardship.
“Kinship care is a wonderful thing … . We’ve been doing that for years and years in the African-American community. We just didn’t have a fancy name for it—we just called it Aunt Gladys taking over the kids when their parents couldn’t raise them at the time,” said Dr. Olga Osby of Jackson State’s School of Social Work. “But now we have grandparents and other relatives taking these children in with almost no support services.” Osby said the families often end up “in even more dire situations” after taking on the additional care of relatives’ children.
Dr. Anna Marshall, an assistant professor in JSU’s School of Social Work, expanded upon the health care discussion, focusing on the obesity crisis, which has been well documented by statistics. However, she said another less publicized health problem is emerging among poor children—dental decay, which is leading to a variety of illnesses and even death. She cited a decline in dentists accepting Medicaid and the cost of private dental care as contributing factors.
Marshall cited education of parents and caregivers as one step being taken to address health problems, as well as establishing partnerships and coalitions with the medical professions.
Allen and other presenters called for more advocacy on the part of social work practitioners and educators and their respective organizations to seek policy changes.
Dr. Rowena Wilson, associate dean and professor at Norfolk State University’s School of Social Work, led a session on foster parent training and heard numerous questions and comments about the seriously disturbed and abused children going into foster care today. Practitioners called for smaller caseloads and more therapeutic foster homes; meanwhile, they said budgets are being cut and caseloads are growing.
Wilson suggested that one solution was more advocacy. “I know social workers are not being advocates like they used to be. We’re not trying to upset the status quo. In Virginia we’re building on our successes … and we are doing better. But, when you look at the clients, they’re still coming in the door.”