Policies and debates about contraception, abortion access and the ability of individuals to make their own reproductive decisions have consistently been central for many reproductive rights and justice scholars and activists. These topics have also mobilized individuals to take political action. Social workers have often been at the forefront of mobilizing for social justice issues, however their involvement in the reproductive justice movement has in many ways been limited. In a review of the reproductive justice literature in social work journals conducted in 2018, only 3 articles substantially included a discussion of reproductive justice in their work.
This gap is particularly concerning considering the politically-crafted crisis in reproductive health care exacerbated by recent abortion restrictions, which particularly undermine the reproductive and sexual health concerns of women, individuals with uteruses and non-binary individuals impacted by these laws. Social workers who are conversant in, and practice from, a reproductive justice framework are part of a necessary antidote to this crisis. Abortion bans, limited access to contraception, the criminalization of miscarriage and the undermining of Medicaid expansion and access to health insurance all require the increased mobilization of social workers to deal with the impact these policies will have on communities and clients.
Reproductive Justice as a political movement and analytical framework emerged out of critiques that reproductive rights discussions were often centered on the concerns of white, straight, and formally educated women, ignoring the issues that were key to individuals outside of these groups. As scholars and activists Loretta Ross and Kimala Price have noted, reproductive justice was developed as a unifying framework that went beyond the legal right to abortion and contraception access issues central to the reproductive rights movement and included the reproductive health concerns of poor women and women of color.
Ross (2006) and Price (2010) have defined “Reproductive Justice,” as “the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, social and economic well-being of women and girls…” and as being realized when “…women and girls have the economic, social and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about our bodies, sexuality, and reproduction for ourselves, our families, and our communities…”.
Reproductive choice is defined broadly and holistically in this framework. It includes personal freedom related to governmental regulation and polices, but just as importantly, centers the importance of choice related to additional constraints, such as environmental contaminants, or a lack of access to childcare. Price describes Reproductive Justice as centering on the three core values of “the right to have an abortion, the right to have children, and the right to parent those children”.
These core values provide a way to conceptualize the linkage between larger social justice movements with reproductive health. Reproductive Justice is strongly rooted in intersectional and feminist theory and critiques the exclusion of women of color in the reproductive rights movement. Though originally theorized primarily in relation to movement building for political action, disciplines such as law and sociology are increasingly using the reproductive justice framework in academic and scholarly work, though social work has not yet integrated this framework into the research and practice of the profession.
Social Work and the Reproductive Justice Framework
Reproductive Rights and Justice frameworks are highly congruent with the ethical and theoretical foundations of the social work profession in addition to the profession’s goal of promoting and advocating for social justice. However, despite Social Work’s focus on incorporating and applying social justice theories to practice and research, reproductive rights and justice are not frequently focused on in social work publications. The social work profession is unique in being one of the few that specifically mandates this requirement to promote social justice.
As highlighted in the preamble of the Social Work Code of Ethics: “the primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being…with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty…social workers promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients…[and] strive to end discrimination, oppression, poverty, and other forms of social injustice”. The emphasis on advocacy and performing work which promotes justice is one of the distinctive qualities of the occupation.
The importance of utilizing the reproductive justice framework in this call to more broadly promote social justice is highlighted by the fact that social workers increasingly provide a large number of reproductive and sexual healthcare resources and services and frequently act as gatekeepers for those seeking medical care.
In 2018 I conducted a literature review of the top 50 social work journals. The search term “reproductive justice” was used to identify 10 articles published between 1994 and 2018. Though 55 articles were found with the search term “reproductive rights”, only 3 articles were found that substantially included a discussion of the reproductive justice framework. A content analysis of the articles was done to explore the study population, location, purpose and topic, year published, journal, key findings, and social work implications.
An upsurge in reproductive justice research was called for by all 10 articles. Though it is encouraging that the social work profession was highlighted as being congruent with the reproductive justice framework, this research shows that there is a lack of articles on reproductive justice and that the framework has yet to be integrated into research on sexual and reproductive health within the profession.
As my work and other scholars have noted, there is an existing gap in social work research and practice which the reproductive justice framework can begin to address. This framework is required because of the limitations in how the language of “choice” has been used to categorize the sexual and reproductive decisions of marginalized groups of people as “poor choices” while ignoring broader structural barriers. This rhetoric continues to direct and influence debates around reproductive and sexual health and further marginalizes vulnerable groups of people. Social workers have historically and continue to often be in positions of facilitating or restricting access to social services, making the need to incorporate a reproductive justice framework in this work essential.
The use of a reproductive justice framework offers social workers the chance to facilitate a holistic model of healthcare for their clients and to preform research on healthcare access and systems that centers social justice. Although social work has yet to meaningfully incorporate a reproductive justice framework into its research or practice, there are many opportunities for the reproductive justice framework to be applied. Recent government restrictions and legal battles highlight the immense urgency of this work, as social workers will no doubt continue to be at the forefront of advocating for reproductive and social justice.
Read more in Jessica Liddell (2018), “Reproductive Justice and the Social Work Profession: Common Grounds and Current Trends” (Affilia).
How Social Workers Can Practice Trauma-Informed Care
Over the past few decades, there has been increasing recognition of the widespread and profound impact of trauma on individuals and communities. The results of an international mental health survey suggest that traumatic events have affected over 70 percent of the population, and can lead to prolonged physical and psychological harm.
These findings have transformed the field of social work, shifting the focus of education and training onto practices that recognize, support, and empower survivors of trauma. Referred to as “trauma-informed care,” this framework is especially important for social work professionals who have a high likelihood of encountering people with a history of trauma in practice settings.
Expanding the Definition of Trauma
Trauma-informed care starts with an understanding of the intricacies of trauma, and how it impacts individuals and communities. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”
For most people, the concept of trauma conjures up images of soldiers who have survived violent combat. Others may think about people who have been exposed to physical abuse, sexual assault or natural disasters. While these are some of the most distressing experiences that an individual can endure, trauma isn’t defined by an extreme event—it’s what the event means to the individual.
Trauma-informed social workers must take the time to understand a person’s unique perception and response to an event, taking into account the complex layers of identity, power, and oppression that contribute to trauma. Adopting this framework, researchers have expanded the definition of trauma to include the following categories:
- Complex trauma: The result of being exposed to repeated, ongoing, or simultaneous traumatic events, such as chronic neglect from a caregiver or long-term exposure to war conflict.
- Intergenerational trauma: This type of trauma is passed from those who directly experience trauma onto subsequent generations.
- Historical trauma: A type of intergenerational trauma that is experienced by specific racial, ethnic or cultural groups that accumulates across generations. Some experiences most commonly associated with historical trauma include the colonization and forced migration of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans.
- Institutional trauma: This is a type of trauma that occurs when institutions take actions that worsen the impact of traumatic experiences; for example, when a university covers up a sexual assault violation.
- Secondary trauma: Many helping professionals experience this type of indirect trauma, through hearing or witnessing the aftermath of a traumatic event experienced by a survivor. In addition to expanding the definition of trauma, the social work field has begun to outline some essential components of trauma-informed care.
Promoting a Sense of Safety
Trauma-informed social workers recognize that clients may have a history of trauma and prioritize creating an environment that feels physically and psychologically safe. Physical safety can be ensured by keeping areas well lit, monitoring who is entering and exiting the building and providing clear access to exits. Psychological safety involves a client’s feelings of trust in their relationship with the social worker, and can be ensured by modeling respect, consistency, acceptance and transparency.
Acknowledging and Reinforcing Patients’ Strengths
Many social service and healthcare professionals focus on diagnoses and interventions, framing symptoms as problems or weaknesses. Trauma-informed social workers, on the other hand, recognize that these symptoms are coping strategies in response to trauma. These practitioners highlight resilience and acknowledge strengths, cultivating hope for recovery and change.
Creating Opportunities for Choice
Trauma survivors often feel a sense of powerlessness, resulting from a loss of control and predictability in their experience of trauma. Trauma-informed social workers attempt to return the client’s sense of control by offering them choices and actively involving them in goal-setting and decision-making. As clients practice making decisions in the social work setting, they develop coping strategies and self-advocacy skills that support their functioning in the outside world.
Applying Your Knowledge
To maximize your impact as a social work professional, you need an extensive understanding of the latest theoretical perspectives, including trauma-informed care. An online master of social work program can help you acquire the conceptual knowledge and hands-on field instruction that you can apply to improve clients’ lives and achieve your professional objectives.
The Adelphi University Online Master of Social Work program brings decades of expertise and a legacy as a leading social work school to a flexible curriculum designed for working professionals. As a graduate student in the program, you’ll have the opportunity to engage with faculty members at the forefront of research on trauma-informed practices. Our graduates complete the program prepared to become Licensed Master Social Workers and fill the need for a skilled trauma workforce.
In A New World, Social Work Leads the Way
This is a sponsored article by California State University at Northridge
How Cal State Northridge is doing its part.
The pandemic, if nothing else, exacerbated the unequal distribution of resources in society. For millions of people, access to food, shelter, and health care is now more uncertain than ever.
What’s emerging is a new, somewhat dire need for experienced social workers – professionals able to compassionately address a disparate and evolving set of issues. Not only here in Los Angeles, but all over the world.
For much of the pandemic, the field has championed relief efforts, such as the rent moratorium. This provided a necessary, if temporary, reprieve from the daily fear of eviction. Outside of California, however, this moratorium is over. As are federal unemployment benefits.
And the impact is tragically visible. In California alone, the homeless population is over 151,000, with 41,000 of that in Los Angeles. And that’s just according to official estimates. The true number, allege some experts, may be much higher.
This is the sad, beautiful truth of social work. No matter where a client is, whether it’s in the classroom, at home, or on the streets, the field will be there.
But the field itself is evolving, too.
Following the death of George Floyd, social workers are increasingly involved in policing, augmenting first responders with a new option: one aiming to mitigate crisis and, as importantly, prevent the use of force.
As cities and states consider policing alternatives, social workers can help to ensure each community’s voice is heard, especially communities of color. Gaining popularity, the idea is to offer a more compassionate approach to law enforcement. Rather than responding with aggression, an arriving unit could instead respond with care, assessing the situation from a mental health standpoint, not one of criminality.
Likewise, opportunity youth – sometimes referred to as “at-risk” – now face many new challenges (among them, a skills gap from a year of remote learning). On top of food scarcity and uncertain housing, there’s also the real risk of contracting COVID. And for these youth, who often lack access to health care, this can be especially dangerous.
In all these cases, a humane approach is needed. Many social work programs incorporate hands-on experience, giving students access to the communities they’ll serve. One such program is the Master of Social Work (MSW) at California State University, Northridge (CSUN).
Unlike many social work programs, CSUN’s MSW expands participants’ career possibilities by offering a generalist approach. This enables graduates to work at ALL levels of the field: individual/family (micro); group/community (mezzo); and societal/policy (macro).
The program is offered fully online in two- and three-year formats. The two-year option is a full-time program with an intensive curriculum designed to help students complete their degrees and enter the field in as little time as possible. The three-year option, on the other hand, is an excellent choice for those who would prefer the same curriculum at a less intensive pace.
The master’s degree, which is often ranked among the best in the country, promotes the well-being of urban communities. Through its curriculum, participants learn how to assess a community’s needs from the inside, in large part through active listening.
As the field continues to evolve, those who comprise it must evolve too. That begins with knowledge of the new world, but ends, as it always has, with the people who need us most – the ones for whom we care.
Technology and Entrepreneurship in Social Work
After helplessly watching her sister try to navigate the international adoption process, Felicia Curcuru launched Binti in an effort to reinvent foster care and adoption. Since the launch of the company in 2017, Binti has expanded its network to over 190 agencies across 26 states in the U.S. The software Binti creates helps social workers and others who work in foster care to effectively approve 80% more families and decrease their administrative burden by up to 40%.
Jimmy Chen, a Stanford graduate and the son of struggling immigrants from China, created Propel in 2014 after noticing that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients needed to call a 16-digit phone number to check their balance. In order to check their balances, some of the recipients would resort to strategies such as buying cheap items such as bananas. Currently, the Propel app helps 5 million households who are eligible for SNAP benefits to manage their finances!
Besides using technology and entrepreneurship to transform human service systems, what do these companies have in common? They were not started by social workers.
Technology and Entrepreneurship in Social Work
Technology and entrepreneurship have and will continue to transform our profession. But social workers have stayed on the sidelines of this creative process for too long. If we are to be successful in effectively disseminating our incredible values and pushing forth the mission of social work, social workers must play a more direct role in embracing the movements of technology and entrepreneurship.
This is not a new concept. Research articles on technology and entrepreneurship in social work have been published for years, and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has published reports on technology in social work. Furthermore, universities such as Columbia University in New York have embraced the movement, and have created a minor for social workers called “Emerging Technology, Media, and Society,” which trains social workers to understand the latest developments in the world of technology. Finally, thousands of social workers operate their own private practices and embrace the benefits of entrepreneurial practices.
This slow, yet continuous shift towards technology and entrepreneurship is important, but it must be accelerated. The question still remains: how do we enable social workers to embrace the power behind technology and entrepreneurship? Here are some ideas:
Enabling Social Workers to Embrace Technology and Entrepreneurship
First and foremost, social work curricula must embrace technology and entrepreneurship. The curricula must incorporate mandatory courses on technology and entrepreneurship, and these courses should be taught by experts in these fields.
Social work departments must enable field placements for social workers in technology or startup environments. By being a part of successful organizations in these spaces, social work students can be exposed to this type of thinking and be inspired by the possibilities!
Social workers themselves must take time to explore and learn about these fields. Although it is difficult enough to maintain our mental health while managing our caseloads, we can utilize the time we spend on webinars or Continuing Education Units (CEUs) to take classes in technology and entrepreneurship.
Social workers can become intrapreneurs, or employees that create new projects from within organizations and businesses. For example, during my time at a community mental health organization, I helped launch a social media channel for the organization’s therapists, which allowed us to feel more connected, share resources, and learn from one another.
As social workers, we uphold an ethical code that enables us to represent the most marginalized members of our society. But we can only do this effectively by embracing the intersection between technology, entrepreneurship, and social work. Although there is no silver-bullet answer, we can help social workers gain entrepreneurial and technological skills by broadening the education available to social work students and ourselves so that we can all better understand the possibilities that are out there.
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