The Abortion Barriers and Needs of Black Women

By Daniela Mansbach & Alisa Von Hagel

Anti-abortion organizations aim to make abortion illegal for all women – or, barring that, to make abortion as difficult as possible to access. The war on abortion access has many fronts, including mandated delays, special counseling rules, and rules limiting the reasons a woman can offer for wanting to end her pregnancy. At the end of 2017, for example, Ohio passed a law that bans abortion for women whose fetuses have been diagnosed with Downs Syndrome. Ten states bar women from ending pregnancies based on the sex of their fetus, and some state legislatures are currently considering similar bans for abortions based on race. Regardless of the intention of these laws, they create barriers to reproductive care and can also ignore the typical reasons women seek abortions – because the pregnancy was unintended and unwanted and they do not believe they can financially provide for a new child. Many barriers to abortion disproportionately affect Black women.

How the Anti-Abortion Movement Makes Racial Arguments

As part of their broader strategy to restrict access to abortion, many pro-life organizations claim that higher rates of abortion for Black women are evidence of racism on the part of abortion providers and advocates. Of the 160 pro-life websites we surveyed in the course of our research, almost 20% make this claim explicitly, arguing that abortion clinics and doctors target minority women in a systematic and purposeful way. The organizations that link abortion with race often compare abortion with the Holocaust, genocide, and slavery. For example, one such group, Abortion in the Hood, uses images of the Planned Parenthood symbol and the Confederate flag under the headline “which one kills 266 black lives everyday?” One of the most radical organizations we studied, Klan Parenthood, goes so far as to equate pro-choice advocates to Klan members, featuring an image of a doctor wearing a Klan outfit with the slogan: “Abortion, because Lynching is for Amateurs” on their website’s homepage.

Pro-life organizations deploy such messaging about increased abortion rates for Black women to argue that the fight against abortion is the civil-rights struggle of the day, co-opting the rhetoric of anti-racism movements. For example, the anti-abortion group Protecting Black Lives writes that “if the current trend [in abortion rates] continues, the black community may cease to make a significant positive contribution in society.” A similar organization, Black Genocide, emphasizes the political implications of abortion, falsely stating that African-Americans “are the only minority in America that is on the decline in population. If the current trend continues, by 2038 the black vote will be insignificant.” While some might assume these extreme comparisons and imagery would be relegated to the fringe of the abortion debate, they actually have a direct – and growing – effect on state-level policy. This is evident in the increase in laws that restrict access to abortion based on the race of the baby. One such example is the passage of an Arizona law in 2011 that banned abortions based on the race of the fetus, justifying it as a tool for addressing “race-related discrimination that exists in Arizona and throughout the nation.”

The Real Link between Racism and Reproductive Health

Anti-abortion groups find it possible to make extreme racial claims because statistics, such as data from the Guttmacher Institute, show that women of color have higher abortion rates than white women. Despite significant declines for all groups in the past decade, women of color still obtain abortions at a rate two to three times higher than the rate for white women. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, while non-Hispanic Black women account for only 13.3% of the U.S. population, they receive approximately 35% of all abortions.

Yet even though it is accurate to say that Black women have higher rates of abortions in proportion to their share of the general population, research shows that this is due to higher rates of unintended pregnancy among women of color in general, and Black women in particular. When researchers control for rates of unintended pregnancies, Black women do not have a higher percentage of abortions.

  • In 2008, 69% of all pregnancies among Black women were unintended, compared to 56% of pregnancies unintended for Hispanic women and 42% unintended for white women.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control, from 2006 to 2010, 9% of births to non-Hispanic white women were defined as unwanted, compared to 18% for Hispanic women and 23% for Black women.

The percentage of unwanted pregnancies that end in birth rather than abortion suggests that Black women are actually more likely than women of other races to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. Further, given that many more of their pregnancies are unintended, it is not surprising that the abortion rates of Black women are higher than those of white and Hispanic women.

Why do minority women in the United States have higher rates of unintended pregnancies? There are many reasons, but limited access to affordable and effective contraception is among the most important causes. Limited access, in turn, is often attributed to funding cuts to programs that provide contraception to low-income and minority communities, plus the scarcity of reproductive healthcare providers in neighborhoods where high concentrations of minority women live and work. Other recent studies – such as the Turnaway Study of women who did and did not receive desired abortions – find that many women of all races cite economic reasons for terminating a pregnancy.

The overall picture is that Black women in the United States often face difficult socio-economic circumstances, which influence their reproductive access and choices. As long as pervasive racial disparities in health care and economic wellbeing persist, Black women will face disproportionate risks of unintentional pregnancy – and many of them, as well as many white women, will choose abortion.

Abortion providers are hardly the ones discriminating against Black women. Instead, they are trying to address their needs and choices. Abortion providers will continue to serve the unmet needs of Black women who are making the best parenting decisions they can for themselves and their families.

The Jon Gruden Case and Why the NFL Still Isn’t Serious About Social Justice

On October 11th, the National Football League (NFL) community was shocked when news surfaced that Las Vegas Raiders Head Coach Jon Gruden announced his resignation just five weeks into the season. Gruden was one of the most high-profile figures in the NFL over the last 20 years, serving both as a Super Bowl-winning Head Coach and Monday Night Football Commentator. His resignation came after a slew of emails sent by him were made public that included a racial trope, antigay language, and a generally wide range of hurtful and insensitive rhetoric. The news was groundbreaking and hard to fathom for many who had beloved Gruden over the years, but there’s more to the story. The focus has rightfully been exclusively on Gruden and his fall-from-grace. Still, the lens of judgment has failed to focus on the multi-billion-dollar organization that has facilitated such behavior for far too long: the NFL. In the following, we’ll break down the necessary details of the Gruden case and why his resignation was essential. But we’ll also take a look into the NFL and what this case means for an organization that has a lousy track record of failing to support social justice issues, its players, and what’s morally right.

Details of the Case

As tends to be the norm in situations like this, there are many moving parts and details that are perhaps too complex to cover for this piece. With that being said, we must understand the chain of events here to better comprehend the whole picture.

From a public perspective, the Gruden ordeal began on October 8th, just a few days before his resignation. That Friday, The Wall Street Journal published a story revealing that the NFL was investigating Gruden for using a racial trope in a 2011 email to describe the NFLPA Chief DeMaurice Smith. Additionally, WSJ also reported that the NFL had been analyzing over 650,000 emails as part of their investigation that had begun back in June of 2021. The NFL’s investigation was spawned from a separate investigation on the Washington Football Team for workplace misconduct – a perhaps even more disturbing case if you’re unfamiliar.

In part of the NFL’s investigation, they came across the initial email in question, sent to then Washington Team President Bruce Allen. At this point, the NFL stated that the investigation had been launched under NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s direction. Goodell had then received a summary of the inquiry earlier in the week the story was published. The NFL also stated that it was sharing emails related to Gruden to the Las Vegas Raiders, who then employed him as their Head Coach.

The WSJ story broke headlines and sent a shockwave throughout the league. Many instantly began calling for Gruden’s resignation and action from the NFL. However, the NFL simply stated at the time that it was reviewing Gruden’s status for potential discipline. Gruden went on to coach his team’s game that Sunday, and it seemed as if a suspension, at best, was looming in the near future for Gruden. But then Monday came around.

On October 11th, The New York Times reported that Gruden was cited using anti-transgender, antigay, and much more offensive language in additional email correspondence with Bruce Allen for several years. Once again, the story shook up the league, and it seemed inevitable that Gruden would not escape this one. By the end of the day, Gruden met with the owner of the Las Vegas Raiders and would shortly thereafter announce his resignation as Head Coach.

A Word on Gruden

Before we look at this issue in a broader scope, we must be clear on Jon Gruden and his fate. Without question, his fall-from-grace was well-deserved, and he certainly doesn’t belong on an NFL sideline, now or ever again, for that matter. Gruden was a beloved coach and personality for many years, but no resume or persona outweigh actions. If we’re serious about shifting societal norms and scales of what’s accepted and not, then individuals who engage in such behavior must be dealt with in such a fashion. But with that being said, there’s a bigger issue at play here that hasn’t gotten enough press, and that’s the continued incompetency and lack of authenticity from the NFL to take social justice issues and questions of morality seriously in favor of the bottom line.

The NFL’s Culpability

Let’s start with the case in question. For starters, it’s a bit questionable that an investigation of emails, especially once the initial one was found, took nearly five months. According to the NFL, it took from June to the second week of October for a summary of the investigation’s findings to be presented to the Commissioner, the same one who supposedly launched the investigation in the first place. Even if this is true, it shows a severe lack of legitimate and effective protocols in place at the NFL to take matters like this as seriously as possible. Five months is far too long for a multi-billion-dollar organization that claims these issues are among their top priorities.

Then there’s the inaction after the initial story. Gruden faced no discipline, not even an indefinite leave of absence when the initial racist email was made public. For a league that has recently launched a massive social justice campaign that allows players to wear decals such as “End Racism,” “Stop Hate,” “It Takes All of Us,” and more, it’s highly problematic that they let Gruden go on to coach a game just a few days later. Plus, they hadn’t even met with and briefed the team that employed Gruden as their Head Coach: the Las Vegas Raiders.

The way this whole case played out and the lack of action from the NFL is concerning, to say the least. It begs the question, what happens if the second story never came out? Better yet, what about the first? It makes one seriously wonder if this issue would’ve ever seen the light of day. When it comes to racism or any form of hate for that matter, we all know by now that it takes more than just being opposed to the actions; you have to be anti-racist, anti-hate, and do more than just launch a multi-million-dollar PR campaign. I said before, and I’ll say it again, nothing outweighs actions here. And once again, the actions, or lack thereof, show that the NFL is still miles behind in taking social justice issues seriously.

Closing Remarks

It may seem as if the criticism of the NFL is perhaps too harsh for just this one incident, but the point is, it’s not just one incident. The way the NFL handled the Colin Kaepernick situation and players kneeling during the national anthem is a perfect example of a league that has failed to evolve and support its players above all. This is the same league that has banned multiple players for over a year for Marijuana usage, yet they hesitated with Jon Gruden. This is also the same league that has repeatedly shown that they don’t take domestic violence or sexual misconduct actions seriously either. The NFL has a bad track record when it comes to how they handle social justice issues, and if this case proves anything, it’s that they haven’t seemed to learn much of a lesson. A PR campaign might inspire some change, and we can all support that, but when your actions don’t reflect your words, then words mean nothing.

Why Understanding Black Women’s Beliefs About Motherhood Can Help Improve Reproductive Health Care

Chanel, now a middle-class mother of one, is just one of many women who have used abortion to end a pregnancy. “In college,” she explained, “I had two abortions and I had them not because I didn’t want to be a mother but because I wasn’t ready. I wanted to finish school and I just felt like I was too young… [M]y mother really stayed on me about not having kids and I saw what it was like for her to have kids at such a young age and to be unmarried… I never wanted to do that.” Researchers can distill Chanel’s lived experience down to the briefest of statistics: Black woman, college-educated; three pregnancies, one child. But her candid testimony sheds needed light on the complexities of personal choices about pregnancies. When I interviewed her, Chanel made it clear that her abortions were her own decision. But such decisions are always made by women in the context of external forces that constrain their options.

Decades of previous research have illuminated the significant racial and economic disparities that affect women who seek access to reproductive health services. Black women, especially, bear the brunt of socioeconomic and political factors that impede their full autonomy in making reproductive choices. Much has been made of data from the Guttmacher Institute showing that abortion rates for Black women are almost three times higher than for white women, and that unintended pregnancies are nearly twice as frequent for Black women. Meanwhile, abortions are increasingly concentrated among poor women, who accounted for nearly half of all abortions according to the latest available 2014 data.

What might create more favorable and equal conditions for Black women dealing with reproductive health issues? Studies have suggested many possible solutions – including better sexual health education for young people; expanded health insurance coverage; and increased access to reproductive care, including all forms of contraception, abortion care without stigma, and quality pre- and post-partum care for mothers and children. Many scholars are now also probing the ways in which institutional racism undercuts good health care for Black women.

Effects of Wealth, Class on Black Women’s Ideas about Motherhood

Although a focus on collecting and analyzing systematic data contributes to our overall understanding of women’s reproductive decisions and consequences, my research using in-depth interviews seeks to fill gaps left by previous studies. Discussions about abortion and contraception for Black women, I find, are often influenced by Black communities’ understandings of the centrality of motherhood in the reproductive life course. A richer understanding of the importance of motherhood to the Black community may help researchers and policymakers provide resources and programs grounded in the realities of Black women’s reproductive lives.

My conversations with research participants highlight the role of class in Black women’s definitions of motherhood and interpretations of “choice.” For poor and lower-class women, womanhood is deeply imbued with the value of motherhood. These women largely approach motherhood as destiny rather than as one choice among many. In contrast, upper- and middle-class women grapple much more with the “hows” and “whens” and “with whoms” – with the mechanics of fitting motherhood into their lives. Kim, a young working-class mother of one, explained that her own mother controlled some of her early reproductive health choices: “When I was younger my mom put me on [birth control] and said it was for my periods.” In contrast, Mia, a 33-year old middle-class women with no children, described a more deliberate decision to avoid pregnancy: “Kids are expensive… It’s cheaper to take birth control than have the kid. [laughter] so um yeah I’ll just keep taking birth control until I hit the lottery.” Both women exercised reproductive autonomy by taking birth control, but only the higher-income woman expressed the feeling that preventing pregnancy was her own choice to make.

Including Understandings of Motherhood in Reproductive Health Policy

As they make reproductive decisions, Black women struggle with expectations and obligations about motherhood. Devising policies that take account of community expectations and constraints may help reduce unintended pregnancies, increase access to reproductive healthcare services, and improve health outcomes for Black women. Exploring the meaning of choices made by Black women can reveal how variously situated women make different decisions. This, in turn, will allow more equitable provision of reproductive services.

My work begins to paint a detailed picture of Black women’s reproductive health journeys. But more research remains to be done. To combat the obstacles Black women face, we must interrogate and supplement quantitative data with qualitative explorations of personal experiences and beliefs. Data and interviews so far suggest a number of useful steps to be taken by key stakeholders ranging from policymakers to doctors:

  • Increase access to insurance to reduce the financial burden of preventing pregnancies or bearing children.

  • Foster cooperation among researchers, clinicians and educators – to improve understandings of beliefs important to the Black community, including ideas about motherhood and the meaning of womanhood. Such understandings can help providers improve the dissemination and reception of reproductive health education and services in the Black community.

  • Earmark funding for more research about the ways Black women in various social positions understand their reproductive lives. And encourage studies that encourage community participation and place a central emphasis on hearing Black women’s voices.

Black women make all sorts of reproductive choices, from using birth control to having abortions to raising babies. As their stories reveal, every choice is influenced by social class and the expectations of their families and communities. Researchers and advocates who want to improve reproductive health outcomes for Black women would do well to listen to what Black women have to say and view individuals’ choices as profoundly shaped and limited by social circumstances and cultural ideas and expectations.

How Focusing on Teen Pregnancy as a Personal Moral Failing Deepens Social Inequality

In the 1980s and 1990s, concerns about teen pregnancy voiced by policymakers and pundits helped garner support for welfare reform – as the public reached a consensus that teen pregnancy contributes to poverty and was encouraged by overly lenient welfare programs. Resulting welfare changes in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 imposed strict lifetime limits on the number of months a poor family can receive assistance while making it harder for impoverished families to qualify and remain eligible for aid. This policy was supposed to reduce welfare dependency by promoting work, reducing out-of-wedlock and adolescent pregnancies, and promoting marriage.

However, studies show that the age at which a person gives birth is not causally related to poverty or negative health outcomes for the parent or child. Teen pregnancy is a symptom of poverty, rather than its cause. While the 1996 law is credited with reducing the welfare rolls, experts argue that it has also increased the number of Americans living in at the deepest level of poverty. Declines in adolescent pregnancy cannot be attributed to that policy shift. If anything, welfare reform may have increased the rate of adolescent pregnancies among welfare recipients.

Welfare Reform and Shifting Perspectives on Teen Pregnancy

After the 1996 passage of welfare reform, conversations about teen pregnancy that had previously included attention to urban conditions, unemployment, inadequate health care, and the shortcomings of public education turned to an almost-exclusive focus on adolescent sex and the personal and moral failings it supposedly represents. My research examines political discourse, popular culture, and national and local efforts to prevent teen pregnancies to better understand why teen sex and childbearing remain central to popular culture and policy debates, despite research showing that teen pregnancy is a symptom of poverty and not a cause. I further examine why there has not been a reevaluation of welfare policy despite the documented shortfalls of earlier reforms. And I also probe how these two phenomena may be related.

Moral arguments have featured prominently in debate about adolescent sex since the 1970s, when teen pregnancy was first named as a special problem. Before the 1996 welfare legislation, however, the moral aspect was one of many. Only since then have the personal moral responsibilities of teen parents become the only lens through which responses are discussed.

Who Shapes Images of Teen Pregnancy and Why?

Some of the same voices that narrowed the discussion of welfare reform in the 1990s still shape discussions today. In 1996, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (recently renamed Power to Decide) was founded as a counterpart to welfare reform. Power to Decide remains influential and is guided by leaders who helped popularize the overly-narrow view that teen pregnancy is largely a moral issue. In addition to helping enact welfare reform, these politicians and social scientists changed the debate about teen pregnancy. But to what end?

By studying shifts in public portrayals of teen pregnancy as a problem in national debates and in the activities, social media output, and television contributions of Power to Decide, I discovered that the moralized focus has specific effects:

  • It removes teen pregnancy from the context of welfare. Whereas the issue was almost exclusively part of political debates about the welfare system in the 1980s and 1990s, in subsequent decades it is discussed primarily within debates about sex education and abortion.
  • It paints the issue as an equal-opportunity problem. No longer is teen pregnancy represented as primarily plaguing Black and Latina communities. In shows like 16 and Pregnant, which has a mostly white cast, as well as in online games with multicultural characters and public service announcements with high-profile celebrities such as Bristol Palin, teen pregnancy is now publicly portrayed as equally affecting all races and classes.
  • It depicts burdens of teen pregnancy as primarily physical and emotional. Stress on the pains of childbirth and the strains of parenthood for young relationships displaces earlier discussions of the potential impacts of teen pregnancy on a young person’s economic self-sufficiency and educational attainment.

Such shifts in public discussion fail to account for race, class, and the importance of social institutions in shaping the rate and experience of adolescent pregnancy. If U.S. systems of education, welfare, taxation, criminal justice, and health care are not portrayed as contributing to this problem, they will be left out of proposed solutions. The current focus on personal morality avoids addressing any societal roots or remedies. Instead, politicians and advocates informed by the rhetoric of the 1996 welfare reform offer attractively packaged information about sex and morality – often safely conveyed on the Internet – as their response to teen pregnancy. Questions of racism, inequality, and the inadequacies of the social safety net do not arise. In effect, public framings of teen pregnancy as a personal and moral problem blink at systematic racial disparities and leave low-income Americans vulnerable as inequalities widen.

Better Approaches

Focusing on teen pregnancy as a moral failing distracts citizens, policymakers, and advocates from addressing the real problems in young people’s lives. Instead, the priorities should be:

  • Reducing discrimination against pregnant young women and young parents in schools.
  • Providing comprehensive sex education and reproductive health care to all young people, not in the name of stigmatizing certain pregnancies but to equip adolescents with the knowledge and tools to make informed choices about sex and reproduction.
  • Replacing earlier failed welfare programs with economically redistributive measures to help people in difficult life circumstances – and boost the resources of marginalized communities.

New Center to Combat Global Human Trafficking

Each year, an estimated 800,000 people are trafficked globally, though the true number may be higher. In a quest to arm officials and stakeholders around the globe with more accurate and trusted data to better understand and address this global problem, the University of Georgia has established a new interdisciplinary center to combat human trafficking through research, programming and policy development.

The Center on Human Trafficking Research & Outreach will be housed in the School of Social Work, and David Okech, an associate professor at the school, will serve as the center’s first director. This collaborative effort aims to identify better ways to measure the prevalence of trafficking while crafting real-world solutions to best equip nongovernmental organizations and policymakers with the tools and information they need to combat trafficking.

Joining Okech in driving research and program development at the center are Nathan Hansen, a professor of health promotion and behavior at the College of Public Health, Tamora Callands, an assistant professor of health promotion and behavior at the College of Public Health, Jody Clay-Warner, professor in the department of sociology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, and Lydia Aletraris, an associate research scientist in the School of Social Work. They have been part of the African Programming and Research Initiative to End Slavery, known as APRIES, which is providing the foundation for the transition into a center.

“Science is always a building block,” Okech said. “You build it up, and sometimes it’s big and sometimes it’s small, but you keep building. Through the center, we want to let the research speak for itself. If particular research or methodologies work, good, and if it doesn’t, then we need to think about what else could work because right now we don’t know what really works well in terms of estimation methods and generating reliable data that can inform anti-trafficking policies and programs.”

Faculty members across campus from law, political science, psychology, public health, social work and sociology as well as postdoctoral research associates and students all will be active in advancing the center’s mission in enhancing the science around measuring and monitoring the prevalence of human trafficking and implementing plus evaluating evidence-based programs and policies to reduce the problem.

“Human trafficking and modern slavery are large, complex problems that require solutions from multiple perspectives to address,” Hansen said. “Thus, a multidisciplinary center allows a variety of disciplines to work together on these problems. Further, locating this center at the University of Georgia allows access to the broader university community, including many talented and motivated faculty and students, who can contribute to finding solutions to these issues.”

“Having a center will enable us to take all of our collective expertise, knowledge and skills, and package it in a way where we can get this information out to those who need it,” Callands said. “This will be a center that will benefit from the connections we have, the work we’re doing and the lessons learned, enabling it to be successful. That means sharing information with others, and providing trainings, programming and other resources to advance this important work.”

It’s the culmination of a years-long effort by Okech and his team to advance efforts to not only better understand and track global human trafficking and human slavery, but also curb this epidemic of cruelty.

Estimating the Prevalence of Trafficking

Okech has been instrumental in guiding the success and growth of APRIES, securing close to $24 million in implementation research funding from the Program to End Modern Slavery at the U.S. Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons since 2018. Research, policy and programming work is being done in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Senegal. In Brazil, Costa Rica, Morocco, Pakistan, Tanzania and Tunisia, the center is collaborating with U.S.-based and local  researchers to test and validate the existing methods of human trafficking prevalence estimation through the Prevalence Reduction Innovation Forum program.

“As far as we know, this is the first time that researchers are applying and comparing more than one method to measure human trafficking prevalence on the same population,” Aletraris said. “The results from the Forum should be able to provide guidelines on which methods work best and why. This will be extremely helpful, not only for research on human trafficking, but for research on other hidden populations as well.”

By rolling APRIES into the center, its work will benefit from greater collaboration and an infusion of funding to help Okech’s team better monitor prevalence, while also developing effective interventions that are appropriate and customized for those who have been trafficked. The center will also expand its focus to include domestic trafficking, including trafficking here in Georgia as well as in other parts of the U.S.

Crucial to that work is eliminating that knowledge gap when it comes to prevalence. Without a practical understanding of the severity of the problem, it is difficult to craft solutions.

And while Okech said one distinct measurement of success for the center is a drop in the prevalence of human trafficking, he noted an initial increase could also be interpreted in several ways, including more public awareness leading to more reporting. This would indeed be a good thing but ultimately, efforts should lead to measurable and drastic reduction in human trafficking.

“Human trafficking is a multidimensional and complex problem,” Okech added. “It is important to address the root causes of trafficking by focusing on the drivers and facilitators of the phenomenon.”

Preparing Future Researchers

Also crucial to the center’s success is preparing the next generation of anti-trafficking researchers and advocates. As such, the center will offer an immersive learning experience to students across the university. Okech noted many programs and centers of study offer ample opportunity for research, but he and his team envision integrating students into nearly every facet of its operations.

“They’ll be involved in writing manuscripts for publications and grant applications. They will be involved in engaging with various stakeholders so they can grasp the problem holistically as well as the array of solutions to mitigate the problem,” he said. “They’ll be involved in meetings with local government officials so they can understand how policy is made. They’ll be involved with our programs so they can see and experience how such initiatives are run.”

Partnering with Clergy to Prevent Domestic Violence

Domestic violence remains a serious and widespread problem in the U.S., particularly for women from racial or ethnic minorities, who experience higher rates of abuse than the national average. Now, a team of researchers from the University of Georgia have developed an online training that leverages the influence of religion to prevent intimate partner violence in Korean American communities.

The CDC defines intimate partner violence as physical or sexual violence, stalking, or psychological harm caused by a current or former partner or spouse.

“For many immigrant communities, the commonality that I witnessed, and that research bears out, is that religious organizations and religious leaders are a very important piece of the puzzle to prevent partner violence because they have so much power in the immigrant communities,” said project lead Y. Joon Choi, an associate professor in UGA’s School of Social Work.

While some religious traditions have at times reinforced gender inequity and norms that discourage women from seeking help, religious leaders have the power to shape attitudes and behaviors within their communities and promote new norms that support healthy relationships and reject partner violence.

Aware of this critical influence of religious leaders, Choi wanted to not only educate clergy on the problem, but empower them to speak out against violence and support parishioners who come to them for help.

Choi collaborated with Pamela Orpinas, professor of health promotion and behavior in UGA’s College of Public Health who also studies intimate partner violence, and instructional designer ChanMin Kim with Penn State University, to build a program comprised of four interactive case simulations that guide clergy through real-world scenarios. The program is called Religious Leaders for Healthy Families.

The researchers worked with domestic violence prevention groups and gathered feedback from Korean American faith leaders to present cases that were culturally appropriate and supported the clergy’s ability to be domestic violence prevention advocates.

“What we wanted to see was behavior change,” said Orpinas. “After this training, are faith leaders going to be able to help victims when they suspect abuse? Are they going to be involved in the prevention of partner violence within their congregation?”

The key, say the researchers, is to build confidence within faith leaders that they could take action to promote healthy relationships and connect domestic violence service providers to parishioners who need their support. The interactive case simulations allow clergy to practice responding to victims who are experiencing different types and degrees of partner violence in a safe space.

“We wanted to make sure that through this medium, they were able to practice how they are going to interact,” said Choi, “and also they are going to learn what are good responses versus dangerous, unsafe responses for the victims. We are hoping to increase their self-efficacy through this intervention.

Though this project is focused on Korean American clergy, the team designed the modules to be easily translated to other communities.

“Much of what they need is there,” said Orpinas, “in terms of asking open-ended questions and supporting and believing the survivor. The case simulation helps clergy practice how to talk about those things.”

The team is eager to see the program be adopted more broadly by immigrant communities or any community where faith leaders are trusted and influential resources.

The full development of the online program, including theoretical underpinnings, community feedback, and performance objectives, is described in a paper published in Health Promotion International. It is available here.

How Investing in Young Black Women During Sexual & Reproductive Health Care Can Address Inequities

Dina took to Google after feeling some discomfort in her pubic area. Although she was in graduate school several hundred miles away, she waited to see a healthcare provider until she could return home. During her visit with her gynecologist, she learned that her intrauterine device had become dislodged and was moving around—this was the cause of the pain. After talking with her healthcare provider, she decided to get a new device inserted within two days. This outcome was relieving, because what she had found online had scared her and created additional uncertainty around the symptoms she was experiencing. While Dina was able to find the support she needed from her provider, she also experienced a delay in care because she was unsure that she could expect the same level of support from a different provider closer to her school. Dina’s story is not unique: due to previous mistreatment in healthcare settings, some young Black women fear contraceptive care visits will be harmful—or, if they have had favorable experiences, that a worse healthcare encounter is likely.

Aja approached her visit with worry and some optimism. She had been experiencing pain during sexual activity that was becoming increasingly bothersome. She reluctantly shared this information during her annual visit with her gynecologist. Despite having seen more than five different providers over the years for this issue, this provider was the first to empathize with her and acknowledge that sex should not be painful. Although Aja already understood this, hearing it from her healthcare provider and coming up with a plan to find a solution were healing for her. This provider explained the various tests she would order and the reasons why, and solicited Aja’s opinion. Aja described feeling included and informed throughout the visit, and left feeling more at ease and confident that her provider took her seriously. Other providers had not taken the time to listen to her, and often prescribed new methods of birth control without acknowledging her pain or frustration with having to deal with the condition.

While technical aspects of contraceptive care provision can be improved to save patients’ time and money, social and emotional aspects of care provision should not be overlooked. Interviews with cisgender Black women ages 18-29 about their experiences receiving contraceptive care highlighted how important it was to feel heard, understood, and included during provider visits. Women appreciated when providers took the time to empathize, especially if they presented to visits with uncertainty, unexplained pain, and other health issues. These findings demonstrate a need for health systems to “put the care back into health care” and focus on sexual and reproductive health and well-being as a primary goal of healthcare encounters. Health systems can equip providers to engage patients in ways that are adequate, affirming, and responsive to their health needs, especially for those who have historically experienced neglect and mistreatment by health care providers.

Although health care systems would likely believe that their providers offer care that is person-centered and high-quality, women’s narratives do not align with these perspectives.

How to Invest in Contraceptive Care Services for Young Black Women

Before engaging with patients in the clinic, providers should:

  • Learn about and acknowledge the role structural oppressions have on people’s access to contraception and health care in general, and
  • Engage in training and education related to cultural humility and person-centered contraceptive care.

During visits, providers should:

  • Greet patients warmly and consider sitting, rather than standing next to a seated patient
  • Ask the patient about what they want to discuss during the visit
  • Inform them of care procedures and processes before performing them
  • Engage individuals in a dialogue around their health, providing appropriate and relevant education as needed
  • Engage in active listening, asking questions for clarification and repeating back pertinent information
  • Take the patients’ concerns seriously, demonstrate empathy
  • Gain their permission before placing orders
  • If patients experience physical or emotional discomfort during visits or examination, try to reduce discomfort, stop performing the procedure, and ask what could mitigate discomfort
  • Acknowledge when they do not have the answers
  • Demonstrate an overall commitment to helping them achieve their goals and sexual and reproductive health and well-being

A small investment in person-centered care approaches may significantly change the perceptions and experiences of young Black women who use contraceptive care services. As this group has borne the brunt of poor contraceptive care encounters, changing a person’s care experience early in the reproductive health care trajectory may help to address inequities in reproductive healthcare settings. Collectively, contraceptive care service users, healthcare providers, and healthcare systems can work together to achieve sexual and reproductive health and well-being. Health systems can incentivize providers to engage in person-centered contraceptive care approaches by offering training and monitoring person-centered care outcomes. Third party payers focused on ensuring quality provision of healthcare services, including a focus on health equity, could incentivize health systems to implement such measures through pay-for-performance structures. At the provider level, clinicians should partner with service users during visits to establish relationships and foster the trust needed to learn of people’s needs before helping to find solutions. Although the focus here is young cisgender Black women, person-centered and equity-oriented approaches to sexual and reproductive health care can be applied to any service user population—by investing in people, we can help them attain better sexual and reproductive health and better well-being overall.

The Future of Criminal Prosecution for Self-Induced Abortion & Pregnancy Endangerment

The intensifying avalanche of restrictive U.S. abortion laws since 2012 has made it more difficult for many people to terminate their pregnancies. These restrictions have also had the effect of increasing what are considered illegal abortions. But the face of illegal abortion has shifted since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision by the Supreme Court. Today’s procedures rarely resemble the back-alley abortions of the past, given the availability of medications that can effectively induce abortions and the rise of the internet as a tool women can use to procure such medications and to learn how to use them. Some things, however, have not changed. Just as pregnant women were sometimes prosecuted after aborting or attempting to abort pregnancies in the pre-Roe era, pregnant women today are still sometimes prosecuted for similar acts, even if the exact methods are different.

In the United States, pregnancy occupies a contradictory socio-legal space. For many, pregnancy and resultant parenthood are much desired (and encouraged) conditions. But being pregnant can also result in the loss of important constitutional rights, including rights to privacy, liberty, and free religious expression, along with rights to due process, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, and equal protection. Because of the potential for such lost rights, my research argues that pregnancy legally creates a lower class of person – a situation I call “pregnancy exceptionalism.” Pregnant women hold a tenuous position under the law if they go outside legally recognized methods of abortion, either by choice or because are otherwise unable to access those methods. An examination of recent instances in which pregnant women have been prosecuted offers possible clues as to future directions of the law, insofar as reductions in pregnancy prevention services continue along with erosion of legal options for ending pregnancies.

Prosecuting Pregnant Women

Three states – Alabama, South Carolina, and Tennessee – have expanded criminal law through legislatures or courts to include what they define as “unborn children.” My research on these three states has identified nearly 900 cases of arrest of pregnant or formerly pregnant people for terminating, attempting to terminate, or otherwise causing harm to their pregnancies between 1973 and 2016. In all three states, arrests of pregnant women for these offenses occurred before formal definitions were entered into the code of law.

Other states have taken similar steps. To date, every state but Vermont and Delaware has participated in the arrest and prosecution of pregnant women, allegedly in defense of their embryos and fetuses. Most of these arrests have involved pregnant women or newborns who tested positive for drugs, but cases involving attempted suicide have also been documented. One woman who attempted to evade the police was additionally charged with reckless endangerment of a minor because she was running while pregnant. Mysteriously, two women were charged with crimes against their “unborn children” but were later released when they were found not to have been pregnant in the first place. Other arrests occurred when pregnant women attempted to abort their pregnancies illegally, or were accused of doing so.

Prosecutions of pregnant women have gotten little public attention, with some exceptions in cases where medical providers reported women who were later prosecuted:

  • In Indiana in 2013, a woman named Purvi Patel was hiding a pregnancy from her conservative Hindu parents. She expressed some ambivalence about the pregnancy and texted a friend about procuring abortion pills online. After having a miscarriage at her family’s restaurant, Patel placed the fetus in the dumpster. She eventually went to the hospital, where policy interrogated her. Later, she was arrested for causing the fetus’s death, convicted and sentenced to two concurrent 20-year sentences. An appeals court later vacated the feticide charge and reduced her sentence to 18 months.

  • In Tennessee in 2015, Anna Yocca allegedly attempted to perform a self-induced abortion using a wire clothes hanger. At 24 weeks pregnant, Yocca would have needed to travel to Washington, New York, Maryland, or Colorado to obtain a legal abortion. When she began to bleed heavily, her boyfriend drove her to the emergency room. She received medical care and her baby survived, although the baby was born prematurely and likely to have lifelong disabilities. After Yocca’s healthcare providers notified police that Yocca made “disturbing” statements about wanting to end the pregnancy, she was charged and arrested for attempted murder.

Key Questions for Continued Research

As nascent research proceeds on prosecutions of pregnant women dealing with new legal restrictions, many important questions remain to be investigated:

  • How and why are people pursuing illegal abortion in the United States?

  • How has illegal abortion changed since Roe v. Wade, both legally and practically?

  • How are state legislatures and courts addressing illegal abortion?

  • What are the characteristics of criminal cases brought against women who have sought or procured illegal abortion?

  • What are the legal arguments used in making these criminal prosecutions?

No matter the answers to these questions, it is already clear that as legal abortion becomes harder to access, women will likely seek extra-legal means of terminating undesired pregnancies, even if such efforts may result in their prosecution and imprisonment. As researchers examine the safety of newer medications and technologies for self-induced abortions, they must also explore the legal risks and treatment facing people who make use of those methods. The possibility that a new Supreme Court majority may overturn Roe v. Wade or further eviscerate legal abortion rights warrants a thorough examination of the precedents that will go into adjudicating cases like those of Puri Patel and Anna Yocca that, while rare in the past, may appear more frequently in the future. More research now can help all concerned be better prepared for the new legal as well as medical world that may arrive as legal abortions become more circumscribed in the United States.

Unpacking the Historical Relationship of Racism and Ableism

A key part of anti-racist social work practice is engaging in the art of reflection as we consider the person in the environment. This also involves being aware of the larger social context in which we live and practice. The social context can, for some people, include experiences of racism and ableism. Recently, I wrote about the symbiotic relationship between racism and ableism and why social workers should care about it. Now, I want to take a step back and look at the historical context that leads us to where we are today with the relationship for disabled people of color. Through the consideration of history, we can understand how to better move forward with integrity as anti-racist social work practitioners.

As the poet Maya Angelou said “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” So what are the historical roots of this relationship between racism and ableism? Let’s explore.

Historical Roots of Ableism and Racism

We began to see the interaction between ableism and racism way back in our nation’s history. Let’s look at four examples to make this relationship clear. During slavery times, slaveowners conjured up the idea of drapetomania, the alleged psychosis that was experienced by runaway slaves which in retrospect was emblematic of the interaction of ableism and racism. This is an example of how race is pathologized to create racism. In other words, people of color were treated in specific oppressive ways in order to create barriers and conditions that resulted in the origination of disability categories. In reflecting on drapetomania, Isabella Kres-Nash points out that “the concept of disability has been used to justify discrimination against other groups by attributing disability to them.” Of drapetomania specifically, Kres-Nash says this is an example of a “disability being created by people in power in order to preserve social order” all of which occurred in a racialized context during slavery.

Moving into the 19th century, we can point to the popularity of phrenology, a pseudoscientific technique originally developed in the late 1700s which purports to determine an individual’s character and abilities (and therefore, alleged superiority). This could be deduced from the size and shape of various bumps on a person’s head. Phrenology, among other things, was used to justify the practice of slavery, as was depicted in the film Django, Unchained. Although this pseudoscience has long been discredited, this technique is considered a precursor to modern neuropsychology and rears its ugly head once in a while in current-day conversations about the use of technology and facial recognition (which is known to be much less accurate for people of color).

Scientific Racism

If we look to more recent times, such as the turn of the 20th century, we can see connections between racism and the ableist Eugenics movement which sought to breed a perfect human race through a form of “scientific racism.” This movement often targeted what were known as “feebleminded” people (now known as intellectually and developmentally disabled people), among others, for sterilization, many of whom were people of color. In his discussion on the treatment of African American and Black “feebleminded” people, historian Gregory Dorr says “African Americans had become the targets of extra-institutional and extra-legal sterilizations, reflective of a more general southern racist view that it was necessary to further protect the white race itself from black folks.” Thus, scientific racism is a prime example of the relationship between racism and ableism.

An Unusual Island in Maine

In the early 1900s, what transpired with the inhabitants of Malaga Island in Maine is also emblematic of the relationship between racism and ableism. This small coastal island was a multiracial fishing community originally founded by an ex-slave. While inter-racial marriage was illegal, the community apparently allowed people to live and let live in this regard. It is said that many of the inhabitants of the island were “feebleminded” or intellectually and developmentally disabled, as we would now say. Whether this is accurate is unknown. As the Eugenics movement gained popularity and as the value of Maine’s coastal islands became more clear as potential tourist destinations, state government officials issued an eviction order to all of the Malaga residents – of all races and ethnicities. All residents who had no place to go were to be placed in the Maine School for the Feebleminded, where some were eventually sterilized and lived out the rest of their lives. The price of miscegenation was banishment from a happy community due in large part to ableism and racism.

An Inextricable Link

These four historical lessons give us some important context for what we may see in social work practice today. So, to put it all together, when we look at how structural racism works, we see the ways in which it has pathologized Black and Brown bodies for the purpose of keeping the White status quo in place. We can see how a society that benefits from structural racism is simultaneously responsible for facilitating environments that promote the development or highlighting of disability. These historical situations set the foundations for present day scenarios in which racism and ableism interact regularly – in our criminal justice system, in our education system, in our health care system, in our child welfare system and beyond.

Action Steps

How can you learn from this history and move on in a positive direction? Your job is to reflect on the ways in which the past plays out in the present day, and to identify the ways in which you can disrupt the powerful relationship between ableism and racism in your social work practice. Here are five steps you can consider taking today as an equity-minded social work practitioner:

  1. Become aware of all of your client’s social identities, think about disability as an identity, not just race.
  2. Use data to identify inequitable processes and outcomes based on both race and disability.
  3. Reflect on the differential consequences of social work practices on people and communities based on race and disability.
  4. Exercise agency to produce equity across racial and disability groups.
  5. View the practice context as a potentially oppressive and marginalizing space and self-monitor interactions with clients/patients/constituents of different racial and disability social identities.

Understanding DACA & the Role Social Workers Play in Advancing Immigration Justice

Written by Christeen Badie & Karina Velasco

There are approximately 10.5 million undocumented individuals in the United States according to Pew Research. Immigrants often leave their home countries seeking better opportunities and a brighter future. Refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants are escaping poverty, political conflict, natural disasters, and violence. To provide limited relief to some undocumented immigrants, on June 15, 2012, former President Barack Obama used his executive power to create the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA provides approved individuals with work authorization and a social security
number, allowing recipients to apply for driver licenses and identification cards. DACA is a deferred action, meaning that it is discretionary and available only for certain undocumented people who came to the U.S. as children. To qualify for DACA, individuals must meet strict eligibility criteria, which include: arriving in the U.S. before the age of 16, meeting certain educational requirements, being under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012, never being convicted of a felony, and never posing a threat to national
security or public safety. In the following, we’ll explore this program further and the role social workers can play in regards to immigration justice.

DACA in Action

When DACA was first introduced, it brought a sense of relief to the hundreds of thousands of individuals who could benefit from this executive action. One DACA recipient, who was interviewed for this article, discussed in-depth what DACA meant to her and her family. Nataly*, a 32-year-old Mexican woman, was brought to the United States by a coyote at the young age of six. Before DACA, Nataly expressed living in constant fear of deportation and arrest. She stated, “As a kid without documentation, I was embarrassed to talk about my status. When other students talked about going to college, I felt like there was no future for me and I couldn’t move forward.” DACA provided hope to hundreds of thousands of young people like Nataly. After gaining DACA, Nataly described feeling relieved and excited. “I felt hope, happiness, and security about my future. I felt like I could become whoever I wanted; although I faced racism as a DACA recipient trying to enroll in college, I didn’t give up.” DACA recipients must pay out-of-state tuition at most universities, regardless of how long they have been in that State, and in most States they do not qualify for financial student aid.

A Deeper Look at DACA

To fully understand DACA, it is critical to know that DACA does not lead to a path to citizenship or permanent residency and it can be revoked at any time. Although approximately 643,560 people have benefitted from this action, DACA has received wide criticism and opposition from citizens and political figures according to the Center for American Progress. Despite being upheld by the Supreme Court, DACA’s critics cast it as an unlawful solution to deal with undocumented immigrants residing in the United States. As we continue to witness the legal battles unfold in the courts in attempts to rescind the program, Nataly cries and expresses being scared because the U.S. government has access to all of her information and can easily locate her now. Just like Nataly, many DACA recipients, often referred to as Dreamers, are experiencing fears, anxiety, and sometimes depression. They constantly worry about what the court will decide and whether the decision will affect their ability to continue attending school, working, staying in the country, and pursuing their dreams. In addition, they face the persistent fear of deportation and the inability to support their families emotionally and financially. The lives of hundreds of thousands of Dreamers continue to be in turmoil due to the lack of comprehensive immigration reform.

Today, the DACA program is 9 years old and as we look into the future, we need to recognize that Dreamers have demonstrated that they belong in the United States. They are our colleagues, neighbors, friends, and essential workers. They pay $613.8 million in mortgage payments and $2.3 billion in rental payments annually. They also pay $5.7 billion in federal taxes and $3.1 billion in state and local taxes every year. They are part of the fabric of this country. They make tremendous economic contributions to our society, and many of them are on the frontlines treating patients suffering from physical illness and mental health issues caused by the global Coronavirus pandemic.

The Responsibility of Social Workers

As social workers, we are tasked with fighting for social justice for all people. Whether we are allies or are directly affected by this issue, it is imminent that we support and raise our voice on behalf of all the Dreamers. Undocumented immigrants are a vulnerable population and social workers should challenge how Congress, organizations, universities, and all other institutions see and treat Dreamers. Nataly is now a dental hygienist, a small business owner, and a mother of two. This is the only home she knows and remembers. You can help Nataly and hundreds of thousands of Dreamers like her by calling your representatives in Congress, signing petitions, attending calls to action, and educating the public. For more information about how you can get involved, check out immigrant rights organizations such as United We Dream, the UndocuBlack Network, and join the Social Workers United for Immigration network (SWUFI).

*A pseudonym was used to protect the identity of the interviewee.

 

SWUFI is a network committed to the well-being and advancement of immigrants,
asylum seekers, refugees, and fighting for their rights. Together, we envision access to
resources for immigrants, an immigration movement where social workers stand strong
alongside immigrants and allies at the local, state, and federal levels, and collaboration
among social workers that includes peer support, and educational opportunities. To join,
send an email to socialworkersforimmigration@gmail.com.

Cultivating an Equitable and Anti-Racist Workplace

2020 was filled with unprecedented events in all facets of life, and, as many have noted across the globe, the year became a landmark for the call to action against racism.

From the incident in Central Park, where a white woman called the police on a black bird watcher, to the murder of George Floyd by police officers, and when the police officers who murdered Breonna Taylor in her home were not indicted for their involvement in her murder, it is clear that racism is still very prevalent and pervasive. It reaches far and wide, including at home and in the workplace, where power dynamics and structural racism can be multiplied. 

Through his talk, “Social Work’s Role in Black Lives Matter,” Wayne Reid discussed racism’s reach into social workers’ professional lives. In the workplace, there are certain barriers that people of color face that white people do not. To address these barriers and inequities, equality, diversity, and inclusion advisory groups are often created. Too often, the burden of creating these groups and addressing racism in the workplace falls solely on people of color, when it is a fight that requires everyone’s involvement, especially those in positions of power. This is part of the push for people to go beyond being non-racist and to become anti-racist– actively fighting against racism and advocating for changes against racist policies and practices. It is an active, ongoing process, not only in one’s personal life but in professional environments as well.

Creating an Anti-Racist Workplace

Wayne works for the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), which currently has a goal to create a universal anti-racist framework that is applicable to all aspects of the social work field. This includes creating an anti-racist workplace, and Wayne and the BASW have an idea for how that would look. As Wayne described, an anti-racist workplace would have a very specific anti-racist mission statement, making sure to interview people of color, to integrate an anti-racism mentality into policies and procedures, to provide adequate anti-racism training to all staff, and to conduct annual pay reviews for employees of color to ensure they are being paid fairly relative to their white colleagues. With these steps, workplaces would have to take active steps to ensure they were discussing race within the workplace and enforcing anti-racist policies.

On top of these ideas for an anti-racist workplace, including mandatory professional development courses aimed at educating people on how to be anti-racist, anti-discriminatory, and anti-oppressive would be beneficial. There are already experts in the world of anti-racism who have done the groundwork, and their expertise can be utilized to help implement anti-racist practices within workplaces. For example, Stanford University has created an “Anti-Racism Toolkit” for managers to better equip themselves to address racism in the workplace and move towards a more inclusive environment, and the W.K Kellogg Foundation has created a Racial Equity Resource Guide full of training methods and workshops to provide structure for anti-racist professional development.

Leadership Inequality

Wayne also discussed the importance of leadership programs for people of color within their workplaces. In the US, black people only make up 3.2% of senior leadership roles, and only 0.8% of Fortune 500 CEO positions. Employers need to sufficiently invest in leadership training programs and provide the resources to ensure the success of people of color within them. Leadership programs for people of color would help address the lack of people of color in leadership positions within the social work field and beyond. For social work specifically, in conjunction with these leadership programs, employers should create programs allowing social workers of color to mentor senior staff members as well, providing insight for them regarding the challenges people of color face in the workplace. That said, while the benefits of this type of program are important, boundary setting and confidentiality are just as vital and would need to be well thought out prior to implementation.

Addressing Education

In order to assist in diversifying leadership, higher education must also be addressed. Despite the increase in people of color attending college, there is still a large imbalance in representation compared to the general US population.

For the social work field, it is important to address the accessibility of social work education programs. Because they are often expensive and have numerous requirements for entry, entry into the field is inaccessible for many. They also need to include a more deliberately anti-racist curriculum, which can be guided by people of color through their lived experiences, as well as experts in the field. The field of social work has long been dominated by white women, and that imbalance has impacted the curriculum that we use today.

Moving Forward

As long as people continue to ignore racism and the effects it continues to have, nothing will change. Wayne and the BASW’s work to integrate anti-racist education and policies into the workplace and social work schools is crucial to the future of social work and the progress of anti-racist work. Social work needs to play a large role in the changing of policies and practices to ensure that the future is more equitable for all.

Getting It Wrong, Making It Right: A Call to White Helping Professionals

Audre Lorde famously wrote that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and in 2020, few passages ring truer. According to the National Association of Social Workers, the profession is meant to “enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people.” We want to help clients and organizations identify tools for survival, healing, and growth, but what we say we’re about and what we’re actually doing don’t always line up. The SWHelper-run Anti-Racism Virtual Summit on September 16 and 17 in 2020 offered a space for social workers and other helping professions to reflect on and rebuild our toolboxes. Speakers Crystal Hayes and Dr. Jennifer Jewell used their workshop, Dismantling White Supremacy in Social Work, to explore the field’s racist history and to offer steps that providers can take to transform our work. (You can learn more about this year’s Anti-Racism Virtual Summit here, taking place October 26th and the 27th.)

In last year’s event, Hayes, MSW, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Connecticut, and Jewell, Ph.D., the Director of Social Work at Salisbury University, depicted a steep uphill battle from complicity to transformation, initiated by progressive leaders but in need of more support. Hayes, a Black feminist reproductive justice advocate, opened the workshop with a powerful reflection on colonialism and the cultural genocide of Indigenous and First Nations people, whose sacred land we occupy. In truth, many of our struggles (colonialism, police brutality, and the climate crisis, to name a few) share the same root problem: white supremacy. Critical race theorist Frances Lee Ansley characterized white supremacy as the systematic hoarding of power and resources by White people paired with widespread views of Whites as dominant and non-Whites as subordinate. This is the foundation on which the social work profession was built and the fire from which many “helping” tools were forged. 

Deep-Roots

Hayes’ call for an intersectional, decolonized approach to social work requires us to take off our rose-colored glasses and take a hard look at our origin story. Jane Addams, often lauded as the mother of social work and a leader for suffrage (a movement imbued with racism), was no saint. Addams, the 1931 recipient of the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize and a celebrated figure even today, was also an example of segregation, paternalism, and gatekeeping in action. It is not enough to quickly admit these flaws and move on; we need to sit with the full weight of the damage inflicted, to understand how deep our racist roots reach. There is no quick fix for the discomfort we feel, but we can learn and grow from it. Less than 100 years later, the field is still dominated by White women, beneficiaries of white supremacy just as Addams was.

From segregated settlement houses to the sanctioned kidnapping of Indigenous children and disparate rates of removal of Black children from their families, to eugenics and the forced sterilization of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people, our field has been using tools of oppression, not liberation. All signs point back to white supremacy: these disparities happen in settings where social workers hold power and control decision-making. We see ourselves as progressive saviors, but we have also done deep harm, not just healing. These legacies are not a relic of our past, either. They have lived on through redlining, internment camps, prisons, and the ICE detention centers where women today still endure needless hysterectomies under the supervision of doctors who were spoon-fed covert racism in their training. Health and economic outcomes from COVID-19 show plainly that racism still touches all the spaces where social workers practice. 

Evolving the Social Work Profession

The “ah-ha” moment of Hayes’ and Jewell’s presentation emerged when Jewell gets at the difference between non-racist and anti-racist. Ibram Kendi teaches that anti-racism is a verb, and non-racism does not exist at all. As Jewell put it, “kind does not equal anti-racist.” Kindness and decency are not liberation tools, but anti-racism – actively working to take down oppressive systems – is. Social work did not begin as an anti-oppression movement, but it can become one. Research consistently shows that the whole profession needs an overhaul. Not sure where to start? Here are a few places to focus your attention:

  1. Education access and integrity. We can look upstream to the racialized K-12 opportunity gaps and school to prison pipeline that create barriers for future change-makers. Academic institutions must make schooling affordable; pursuing an MSW requires wealth or strong credit, but wealth is directly connected to race because of white supremacy, perpetuating the cycle. Student unions can demand anti-oppression commitments from field placement sites and protest the exploitative norm of unpaid internships
  2. Policy reform. Social workers need to be explicitly anti-racist and reflect on how our identities and biases help or hinder our effectiveness in clinical and macro roles alike. There is a time and place for us to surrender our privilege as much as there is a time to leverage it for change and reform in law enforcement, child welfare, and the many other settings where we operate. 
  3. Decentering whiteness. In schools, we can decolonize curricula to showcase the contributions of BIPOC providers in social work theory, research, and practice. In our agencies, we should prioritize the recruitment, retention, and promotion of people from the communities directly impacted by racial oppression. We can look to community-led revolutions like Black settlement houses, the Black Panther Party, and BLM for best practices on equity and healing. 
  4. Accompliceship and accountability. Being accomplices against white supremacy means reconsidering how we share the air – are we whitesplaining oppression to BIPOC clients and colleagues but staying silent when oppression occurs, expecting them to call it out? Racism going under our radar is not an excuse – it is a symptom of the problem. Most of all, when we get it wrong (as we all do), we must be accountable and commit to doing better.

Like most revolutions, the charge is being led by young people: doctoral and graduate students in the field, community organizers, and clients who experienced harm at the hands of oppressive systems. Not only White social workers but all White “helping” professionals have an ethical responsibility to unpack our toolboxes and to get rid of what’s broken. After all, liberation work is about impact, not intent. Some people would call a hammer a tool, and others would call it a weapon; who holds it and how they swing it is what makes the difference.

Recognizing Ableism’s Link to Racism

These days, many social workers are pretty clear that anti-racism is something they need to consistently work on in their practice, but when it comes to ableism, well, that’s something else altogether. Let’s start with a quick definition of ableism to build our disability competence a bit. Disability activists Talila Lewis and Dustin Gibson frame ableism as “a system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence, excellence, and productivity.” But seriously, ableism, you may say…what has that got to do with racism? Why are we even talking about this?

It turns out, ableism and racism are related, and quite strongly. In fact, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi himself, host of the podcast Be antiracist and author of the book How to be an antiracist, says “It is pretty apparent to me that one cannot be anti-racist while still being ableist…I think for many people who are indeed striving to be anti-racist they may not realize the ways in which they’re still being prevented from moving along on this journey due to their unacknowledged or unrecognized ableism, or the ways in which they’re in denial.”

Social Work, Race, & Disability

As we begin to break this down, as a disabled woman, I’d like for our profession to own that social work often forgets to realize the disability community in diversity considerations. And with this, is a failure to see ableism, despite the fact that we, the disability community, comprise 26 percent of the U.S. population – that’s 1 in 4 Americans according to the Centers for Disease Control. And if you consider the racial and ethnic diversity within the disability community (and vice versa if we are being intersectional) then we need to be considering how ableism and racism interact and intersect.

Let’s just start with the basic demographics. A recent study on disability, race and ethnicity tells us that 1 in 4 members of the Black and African American communities have a disability, while 1 in 6 members of the Hispanic/Latinx communities do. In the American Indian and Alaskan Native communities, it is 3 in 10, and among Asian and Pacific Islander communities, it is 1 in 10 and 1 in 6, respectively.

When we start to look at social issues connected to these types of data points, we find out bits of information such as the fact that people of color with disabilities have higher rates of unemployment than do their White counterparts, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Then there are the realities that many school social workers have seen in classrooms nationwide for decades, with disproportionate numbers of students of color being sent into special education. And in the post George Floyd era, we are also more aware of the connection between racism and ableism due to the fact that 50 percent of people killed during encounters with police in a two year period were people of color with disabilities, as the Ruderman Family Foundation documented in their landmark report.

The Impact of the Pandemic

Then we have the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted communities of color. We know that initial research suggests that about one third of people who had the virus will develop what is called “long COVID” which will now be classified as a disability. According to disability justice activist Rebecca Cokely, that means that we will be adding an estimated ten million people to the disability community who will be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. This law provides workplace and other protections for disabled people – although the implementation and enforcement of this law is far from perfect, and thus the cycle of ableism and racism starts again given the overrepresentation of people of color in this population.

These are just a few current-day snippets that tell us we need to be paying attention to both ableism, racism and the ways in which these two forms of oppression are related to one another. Ableism and racism exist in a symbiotic relationship, with each acting as the tool of the other. Being aware of the intersection between racism and ableism is part of how social workers can begin to disrupt this reality in their practice and in their larger communities. So, what can you do to be more aware of racism and ableism in your social work practice? You can start by paying attention to the disability side of the equation that often gets forgotten! Here are some activities for you to consider as you engage in this vital social justice work:

  1. Start by exploring your able-bodied privilege. Read the following prompts on able-bodied privilege from the Autistic Hoya blog, written by Autistic disability justice activist and lawyer Lydia X. Z. Brown. Which items were most salient to you? You may consider the list items from a personal and/or a professional perspective, focusing on how you may or may not experience these issues yourself or how you may have encountered these issues as a social worker. How do race and ethnicity factor into able-bodied privilege?
  2. Continue by building your personal disability awareness. What values and/or ideas do you hold that may unconsciously perpetuate ableism? Where did you pick up these values? How does this play out with your disabled clients of color? Take time to think these questions out, and be mindful of them as you move forward.
  3. Just as it is super important to acknowledge our potential for racism as people raised in a racist society, so too is it important to acknowledge the ways we may have engaged in the use of ableist language or expression of ableist attitudes. How have you or your agency/organization/company unconsciously or consciously used ableist language, or expressed ableist attitudes? How do race and ethnicity factor in here? How can you change things moving forward?

This article has demonstrated the connections between disability and race, but social work has often failed to see disability. How can you look at the causes you are already involved in through a disability framework that is also attentive to race and ethnicity? How can you lift up the disability perspective and promote disability empowerment while being anti-racist?

NASW Apologizes for Past Racist Practices in American Social Work

WASHINGTON, D.C. – As the nation looks at its long, cruel history of systemic racism, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) acknowledges that our profession and this association have not always lived up to our mission of pursuing social justice for all. NASW apologizes for supporting policies and activities that have harmed people of color.

“The murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in the early months of the pandemic spurred our country and NASW to directly address the effects of racism in our social institutions and among social workers,” said NASW CEO Angelo McClain, PhD, LICSW. “While NASW continues to offer anti-racist training in communities, publicly denounces violence and advocates tirelessly for anti-racist policy changes, we must also acknowledge the role the social work profession has played in supporting discriminatory systems and programs for decades.”

For instance:

  • Progressive Era social workers built and ran segregated settlement houses
  • Social worker suffragists blocked African Americans from gaining the right to vote
  • Prominent social workers supported eugenics theories and programs
  • Social workers helped recruit Black men into the infamous Tuskegee Experiment
  • Social workers participated in the removal of Native American children from their families and placement in boarding schools
  • Social workers also took part in intake teams at Japanese internment camps during World War II
  • And since the founding of the profession, bias among some social workers has limited delivery of health care, mental health treatment, and social services to people of color.

These and other examples are uncomfortable truths. But they also reinforce our commitment to ending racism in the social work field and working with strong coalition partners to dismantle oppressive and racist policies, systems, and practices across our country.  Social workers are called by our Code of Ethics to fight injustice in all its forms and to honor the dignity and worth of all people. While we at times have fallen short of this ideal, our profession has recently reinvigorated and expanded its racial equity mandate.  Details of this work are included in the newly released report, Undoing Racism through Social Work: NASW Report to the Profession on Racial Justice Priorities and Action.

“NASW, the social work profession, and our society have made much progress on achieving racial equity in the last few generations, but there is still a long, challenging road ahead,” NASW President Mildred “Mit” Joyner, DPS, MSW, LCSW, said. “Be assured that NASW will not tire in our quest to help our nation eliminate racism and achieve justice and liberation for all Americans.”

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW), in Washington, DC, is the largest membership organization of professional social workers. It promotes, develops, and protects the practice of social work and social workers. NASW also seeks to enhance the well-being of individuals, families, and communities through its advocacy.

The Presidential Debate, the Supreme Court, and What it Means for the Affordable Care Act

On October 7th, 2020, President Donald Trump went head to head against former Vice President Joe Biden, marking the beginning of the election season and the first debate of 2020. Amongst ongoing chaos, with COVID-19 and racial unrest, this election could make or break the season finale of a monumental year. During the debate, candidates discussed many of the key topics that are at stake during this election, including the open seat in the Supreme Court.

Following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a feminist icon who has paved the way for women, minorities, and the LGBTQ community since 1993, the Court requires a new member, and whether that takes place before or after this upcoming Presidential Election is up for debate. RBG’s final statement was delivered publicly, days before her passing, “My most fervent wish is that I not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

Breakdown of the Candidate’s Segments:

After nominating Amy Coney Barrett the weekend prior to the debate President Trump vouched for her on stage, stating, “I will tell you very simply; we won the election. Elections have consequences – we have the Senate, the White House, and we have a phenomenal nominee respected by all.” Trump asserted that his remaining months in the White House would allow him to appoint Associate Justice Barrett to the empty Supreme Court seat. In his short response, President Trump expressed that her position and academic background qualified her for the seat, and reasoned that if it were up to the Democratic party, they, too, would push to elect someone of their choice for the empty seat.

Vice President Joe Biden argued that Trump’s stance on this matter is unconstitutional, stating that the “American people have a say in who the Supreme Court nominee is. And that say occurs when they vote for United State Senators and for the President of the United States; they are not going to get that option now. The election has already started.  Tens of thousands have already voted and the thing that should happen- is that we wait. We wait and see what this outcome is.”  Vice President Biden expressed his fear that that the nominee for the Supreme Court, who has written against the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and deemed it unconstitutional, would place the ACA in jeopardy. He raised concerns about the impact this will have on women’s rights, those with pre-existing health conditions, and the overall reasonableness of healthcare expenses. Biden summarized his thoughts, stating that this matter should be decided on after the election in February of 2021.

Fact-Checking: What is True About Their Statements?

According to the Chicago Tribune, Amy Coney Barrett has not, as Biden claimed, stated that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional. Barrett has been vocal about her view of the ACA and the laws that upheld it in 2012, but she has not spoken out about whether or not is it constitutionally right within the law.

CNN reported Biden’s concerns about eliminating the ACA would leave approximately 20 million people from having access to affordable health insurance are true. While this appears to be true, and even more so during a global pandemic, the effect of various events of 2020 may have inflated this number. According to a study conducted by the Urban Institute in Washington, which calculated and measured the impact that changing the policy would have on Americans, 20 million people would be without insurance but CNBC reported in August that “up to 12 million Americans may have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance during the pandemic.”

A final point was brought by President Trump about his Supreme Court Nominee, stating that “some of her biggest endorsers are very liberal people.” For example, Barrett has been endorsed by Noah Feldman, a liberal law professor at Harvard as well as some support from former professors of Notre Dame. However, according to Inside Highered, these endorsements sparked a petition from faculty stating, “Many members of the faculty are strongly opposed to Amy Barrett’s nomination,” the letter said. “Many of us do not know her, but she seems to be a kind, decent, and intelligent person. However, we are strongly opposed to her views — as reflected in her writings, opinions, and dissents,” the letter said.

How Will This Impact Americans?

The Supreme Court will eventually be deciding on matters as impactful as the 1973 Roe V Wade decision, which granted women legal access to abortions. Not only does the future of the ACA lie in the hands of the Supreme Court, so do basic civil and human rights. If the ACA overturned, millions of Americans will be left abandoned in the middle of a pandemic with no replacement plan in place. The remaining options of either buying into another insurer with unreasonably heightened prices, or risking getting sick with the coronavirus with little to no support, would no doubt have massive negative impacts on Americans.

Overturning the ACA would also leave the elderly to struggle to pay for their prescriptions, as the ACA currently covers much of the expenses for seniors’ medications. This would also leave women at risk of experiencing gender-based discrimination from insurers who would charge women more than men on insurance coverage. This could lessen women’s job outlooks because businesses with company-covered insurance would view women as more expensive.

On top of impacting various vulnerable populations, America’s current recession may also be worsened if ACA is done away with. Pre-existing health conditions would once again not be covered, and preventative care will need to be paid out of pocket. Among the pandemic, Black, Latinx, and Native Americans are struggling more than ever with the systemic racism that hinders them from receiving care. If ACA is thrown out, this would leave people of color open for further discrimination by insurance companies to higher rates or denial of coverage.  

The Supreme Court has recently made decisions on sex-based discrimination, religious discrimination, and immigration law. With justices’ life-long terms, this could impact the American people for decades. The current Supreme Court balance has five conservative justices and three liberals, so this next nominee could sway the Supreme Court vote to either side, and that will ultimately impact what is brought to the Supreme Court. With all of this in mind, it is imperative that Americans utilize their right to vote during the election.

Amy Comey Barrett was confirmed by the Senate on October 26th, and the Supreme Court will be voting on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act on November 10th, 2020.

Social Workers as Elected Officials and Why We Need More

Social workers play many roles. As advocates, change agents, case managers, educators, facilitators, and organizers, Social Workers play an important part in helping people and communities make positive changes in their lives. Despite their under-representation in elected positions throughout the United States, Social Workers are excellently prepared to run with these positions and build a better life for their constituents.

An Understanding of Advocacy

Elected officials represent their constituents. They must be able to understand the needs of those constituents and what it will take to get said needs met. This is the essential element of advocacy and something that Social Workers excel at. While those in other fields also learn to perform advocacy, Social Workers constantly prioritize listening to their clients and trying to understand each individual’s viewpoint.

A Large Network

Running for any elected position requires networking. With a career emphasizing the importance of social connections, many Social Workers are already involved in community groups, advocacy organizations, volunteering, and client service that can help an election campaign. Leveraging networks and connections allows one to more effectively spread their message. This is a huge benefit, both throughout the process of running for election as well as fulfilling the responsibilities of the position.

A Deep Understanding of Policy

City Councillors make policy. State legislatures write laws. Most elected officials will be working in some kind of policy writing role that requires an understanding of the impact of their decisions. The accumulated training and experience that Social Workers have makes them excellent in this role. Not only will they understand the direct effects of policies like closing schools during COVID-19 or adding a beverage tax, but they will also be aware of the less obvious effects – for example, how these changes will affect people in poverty.

Cultural Competency

More than nearly any other career, Social Work requires an in-depth assessment and awareness of personal bias. Considering the diversity of the United States, with citizens from all different walks countries, ethnicities, cultures, and linguistic backgrounds, this awareness of bias is extremely important. Social Workers can use their understanding of cultural competency to establish coalitions of diverse individuals and ensure that all stakeholders truly feel heard in a government environment that frequently does the opposite.

Conclusion

While there are 682,000 Social Workers in the United States, there are only 2 Social Work-Senators and 4 Social Work-Members of Congress. Compare that number to the 1.35 million lawyers in the United States and the 47 Lawyer-Senators and 145 Lawyer-Members of Congress. This means that there is 1 Senator-Social Worker for every 341,000 Social Workers in the United States, and 1 Member of Congress-Social Worker for every 170,500 Social Workers in the United States. On the other hand, there is one Lawyer-Senator for every 28,723 Lawyers in the United States and 1 Lawyer-Member of Congress for every 9,310 Lawyers!

Social workers are sharply underrepresented in these and various other elected positions compared to members of other career paths. Even so, based on their experiences and training, Social Workers could create very positive and impactful changes in these roles.

Remember the First Presidential Debate – Where Our Presidential Candidates Stand

The first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden took place on September 29, 2020. The 90-minute debate featured a series of bitter exchanges and name-calling as Moderator Chris Wallace of Fox struggled to facilitate the conversation. Wallace repeatedly admonished the president for disregarding debate rules and interrupting Biden’s speaking time. A “will you shut up, man…It’s hard to get any word in with this clown” from Biden serves as a recap of how the night went and resonates with many of the American people.

Among the six debate topics, the issue of race and violence in our cities was prompted followed by a question to gauge each candidate’s ability to combat race issues. In response, Trump claimed that he was better suited than Biden to eliminate these issues and is “doing better than any Republican has done in a long time” – an opinion that is unpopular among Black and Brown voters. The President also referenced the 1994 Crime Bill, a controversial piece of legislation that reinforced punitive responses to deter crime and incentivized states to build more prisons. In an effort to weaken Biden’s arguments, Trump accused Biden of referring to Black people as superpredators. Biden refuted Trump’s accusations with the statement “I did not say that. I’ve never said that.”

Fact- Check: Did Biden Call Black People Superpredators?

According to NBC News, Trump’s accusation was “mostly false.” In fact, it was Hillary Clinton, the former United States Secretary of State, who used the term in support of the 1994 Crime Bill. However, Biden, a co-author of the law, did warn of “predators” in a 1993 floor speech he delivered in support of the bill. According to Biden’s speech in 1993, predators were “beyond the pale” and must be sanctioned away from the rest of society because the criminal legal system does not know how to rehabilitate them. Since then, Biden has publicly apologized for his past stance on criminal legal issues and admitted that the decisions made in that era “trapped an entire generation.”

The term “superpredator” was coined in 1996 by John Dilulio, a Princeton professor who predicted that a wave of ruthless, violent young offenders was on the horizon. According to Dilulio’s theory, these young people were so impulsive that they could engage in violent crimes without hesitation or remorse. A 1997 report published by the Office of Justice Programs at the U.S. Department of Justice found that juvenile courts in the United States processed more than 1.7 million delinquency cases in 1995, a 7-percent increase over the 1994 caseload and a 45-percent increase over the number of caseloads handled in 1986. Compounding an influx of juvenile proceedings was significant research suggesting a strong relationship between childhood adversity and involvement with the juvenile or adult criminal systems. Eventually, public officials supported Dilulio’s theory, which resulted in tough-on-crime policies for young and adult offenders across the country. 

While it is true that incarceration rates were already high by 1994, the passage of the federal crime bill disproportionately impacted communities of color. The bill exacerbated racial and ethnic disparities in state prisons by deploying more police into neighborhoods of color. Considered “one of the cornerstone statutes that accelerated mass incarceration,” a combination of more prisons, racial profiling, and mandatory minimum sentencing funneled a generation of Black and Brown people into the juvenile and criminal legal system. Today, The United States and federal prison population has increased since 1994 and widened racial disparities. According to a 2020 data analysis, more than 60% of people in prison today are people of color and Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men, with Hispanic men being 2.7 times as likely. Consistent with both candidates’ remarks, the Black and Brown community continues to bear the harshest brunt of discriminatory policies and practices. 

Fight the Fake: The Importance of Fact-Checking and How to Recognize A False Claim

In a world with unlimited access to social media and the internet, fact-checking is conducive to making informed voting decisions. Making informed voting decisions means that an individual is knowledgeable about the topics and positions of candidates who are running for office. Additionally, it means that an individual is able to make their own decisions without influence from outside factors, including misinformation found online. Acknowledging that fact-checking is not always an easy task, especially with constant, savvy efforts against it and persuasive content, here are five ways to combat misinformation and cast informed votes:

  • Detect whether the statement is a claim of fact.
    • When a statement that you heard jumps out to you, ask yourself if it is a claim of fact. It’s important to note that opinion, rhetoric, and satire have a place in public debate. Although you can not fact-check opinion, fact-checkable claims can be easily spotted. Sometimes, these claims feature tangible nouns (housing or insurance), numbers, and comparisons (“the economy is doing better under my administration”), and they also contain statements about what a candidate has achieved.
  • Think about the context of the claim.
    • It may be helpful to ask yourself what the claim leaves out. When a candidate claims to have influenced massive economic growth, for example, it’s important to look into the status of the economy before the candidate was elected into office.
  • Find reliable sources to test the validity of the claim.
    • Depending on the claim you are fact-checking, the best sources may be government-run websites and records, peer-reviewed articles with large sample sizes, or well-known organizations with credibility such as The Commission on Presidential Debates.
  • Is the candidate claiming credit that is not due?
    • Another misleading trick is to claim credit for something that was the result of another elected official’s agenda. If an elected official claims that they combated systemic issues while in office, it’s worthwhile to dig deeper to see who was responsible for the specific changes they are referring to. 
  • Accept that you’ll have critics.
    • Lastly, it’s important to recognize that you will have critics. As you know, everyone is entitled to their opinion even if it is different than your own. However, that does not mean you have to conform- you have the autonomy to make decisions based on your lived experiences. 

All in all, ignore the Twitter and Facebook trolls and make informed decisions for you and your loved ones. Despite how advanced and easily accessible information is on TV, social media, and the internet, it is ultimately up to you to remain vigilant and seek the truth.

Black Disabled Lives Matter and How Social Workers Need to Address Structural Ableism

Conversations about police violence are happening all over the world from the killing of Mr. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Black and so many other Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPoC). America is at an inflection point where we are being forced to examine our ugly stain of racism which permeates through every American system and infrastructure.

Difficult conversations on structural racism, police brutality, and inequality are finally be held where its a shared reality. And I want to add a disability thread to that conversation, but first…

Several years prior to 2020, Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw added a different thread to the conversation about BIPoC deaths at the hands of police by talking about gender and all of the women who have died due to police violence, but many of those women names are not known. We got to know the #sayhername movement where people began to think intersectionally about race and gender even if the mainstream news media didn’t report much about the deaths of BIPoC women killed by police.

But only recently have we learned that 30-50% of the BIPoC people who have died at the hands of police in this country over a three year period had something else in common, they had a disability. This fact was unearthed by the Ruderman Family Foundation in a white paper that examined media coverage of such cases (PDF file here). It was necessary to study this phenomenon this way as there is no legal requirement for police to track disability data related to arrests or deaths. Did you know that Sandra Bland had a disability? Freddie Gray? Elijah McClain? And so many more…

In studying media reporting, the Foundation noted that disability was either not mentioned, listed as a non-contextualized attribute, used to evoke sympathy for the victim or to blame the victim. In rare cases, it allowed for discussion of the intersecting forces leading to lethal use of force situations. The report concludes states, “When disabled Americans get killed and their stories are lost or segregated from each other in the media, we miss an opportunity to learn from tragedies, identify patterns, and push for necessary reforms.”

Although disabled people make up 1/3 of all households in the United States, which is approximately 61 million people or about 25% of the U.S. population, it still feels as though we are so often *unseen* and *unremembered* in social work circles or any circles as if our identity is an afterthought.

Social workers need to begin to see with a disability lens, to remember disability as an identity. In working with disabled people, social workers need to think about the ways they can prevent the deaths of disabled people at the hands of police – and especially BIPoC disabled people. Disability justice advocate Haben Girma has been out front on this with respect to individual interactions with the police, but let’s think about this more structurally.

Here are a few questions that can guide your work – notice that they move beyond the usual band-aid “train the police to work with disabled folks” response that we usually get and move towards the goal of structural reform! Just as we need to think about structural racism in confronting police violence, so too do we need to think about structural ableism in police work.

  • How can we raise disability culture awareness *throughout* our local police precincts?
  • Are there ways we can rid those precincts of structural ableism such as through the identification and elimination of ableist thinking, tendencies and practices?
  • Are there strategic partnerships we can facilitate that can bridge disability justice advocates with law enforcement and social service partners toward this effort?
  • Are there alternative conflict and dispute resolution systems that we can fund in order to avoid police involvement in “hot situations?”

Are you willing to step up for disability justice in your social work world? 

Providing Child Support After Prison: Some State Policies May Miss the Mark

Many states have policies that attempt to help formerly incarcerated people find work by limiting an employer’s ability to access or use criminal records as part of the hiring process.

But there is little evidence that these restrictions are helping non-resident fathers provide financial support to their children, according to Allison Dwyer Emory, a University at Buffalo sociologist and co-author of a new study by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from UB, Rutgers University, Cornell University and Boston University.

“We find fathers with a history of incarceration provide less support to their children and accrue greater arrears,” says Dwyer Emory. “Further, in states with more limited access to records, fathers who have never been incarcerated provide less formal support and accrue more arrears, though they seem to compensate with more informal support, possibly due to racial discrimination against black men in the hiring process.”

The findings were published in The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, which provides open access to the study.

States that limit access to online criminal record databases may reduce the costs of incarceration for fathers, but at the same time, they may be creating opportunities for a different kind of discrimination if employers, in the absence of information, default to racial stereotypes.

“It’s difficult to separate discrimination on the basis of a criminal record from discrimination on the basis of race, and policies that address one without the other may not be able to fully achieve their ends,” says Dwyer Emory, an expert on family demography, criminology and social policy.

“Fathers work hard to provide for their kids. When discriminatory labor markets make it difficult for them to pay formal child support, they provide informal cash support to their kids instead — even as they get in debt for unpaid formal support.

“We have to be careful to ensure that policies support fathers’ ability to be there for their kids.

Policy context is critical, according to Dwyer Emory.

“We want to know if these policies are helping fathers to be better parents or making it harder for them to be better parents,” she says. “These policies don’t seem to be associated with fathers who have a history of incarceration paying more support, but they do seem to be associated with fathers, particularly African American fathers, who have never been incarcerated, providing less formal child support.”

The researchers used data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study, a sample of predominantly unmarried parents who had a child in a large U.S. city in the 1990s followed over time.

The innovative research also includes state information from every year of the dataset, including which policies were in place for specific states at specific times, while also breaking out both formal and informal support that fathers provide for their child.

Formal child support is a court order that specifies an amount owed each month to a custodial parent. But some couples have informal arrangements, made outside of the courts, where fathers contribute when they have the money either instead of or in addition to formal support.

The researchers also included arrears in their study, which is the debt fathers build up when they don’t pay formal child support in full.

“Arrears are particularly important when thinking about fathers with a history of incarceration, because in some states arrears can continue to accrue while a father is incarcerated,” says Dwyer Emory. “These fathers start out behind in their payments immediately upon release, which can cause a cycle where high enough arrears puts fathers at greater risk of being incarcerated in the future.”

The results, says Dwyer Emory, suggest a cautionary approach.

“These policies are ideally designed to help fathers provide for themselves and their families, but we have to ask and study if they might actually be getting in the way, especially for those likely to encounter discrimination in the labor market. We may instead have to consider different policy approaches that address racial discrimination in hiring directly, removing barriers faced by fathers with criminal records like licensing restrictions, or change the incentives employers have to hire or avoid people with records,” she says. “We worry that this could contribute intergenerational cycles of disadvantage and discrimination.”

Incarceration and its consequences after prison affect millions of families in the United States, according to Dwyer Emory, who worked with Lenna Nepomnyaschy, an associate professor, and Alexandra Haralampoudis, a PhD candidate, at the Rutgers School of Social Work; Maureen R. Waller, an associate professor at Cornell University; and Daniel P. Miller, an associate professor at the Boston University School of Social Work.

The authors stress the need for additional research if we’re to better understand the mechanisms through which these associations operate to determine how policies could better support fathers’ ability to provide for their children.

Social Work and the Reproductive Justice Framework

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 

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. 

What Now?

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).

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