Social Movements Rise From Need

After the election, I felt a sense of dread. This isn’t so much of a political statement as it is a sense that we just chose a colder and less compassionate way to deal with our nation’s citizens. What’s helping me pull out of this sense of disappointment is watching the human response. I remember hearing Mr. Rogers say, During a catastrophe, look to those who help. This is a way of pivoting our focus from tragic situations to the beauty of humans who come to the aid of the needy. And after the election, this is what I’ve been able to see.

People are standing up for injustice with more conviction and energy than before. People are banding together, creating movements and symbols to show that those who are marginalized will not be victimized, at least not without backlash. Protesters have been filling the streets across the country, showing that they will not be silent as their civil liberties are threatened. A safety pin campaign has arisen to show support for the vulnerable.

I know it might sound Pollyanna, but it is important to understand that big solutions come from big ideas and big ideas come from big opportunities. What Trump and his cabinet appointments provide is a big opportunity. This is particularly true, because he isn’t trying to sneak his destructive forces under the radar. He is boldly bragging about how he is appointing Scott Pruitt, the man who is suing the EPA, to lead it. He appointed the CEO of Exxon, Rex Tillerson, to be Secretary of State. His nominee for Secretary of Education wants to dismantle the school system. This knowledge allows us to move early and get out in front of the issues.

Social justice happens usually in opposition to oppression and not because people just wake up decide to do the right thing. This new president and his cabinet appointments are stirring the pot in such a way that our citizens are becoming more active and less apathetic. Even though I would never root for a tyrannical government in order to create an engaged citizenry, I am optimistic this action and reaction can become a catalyst for real, sustained and important change in our society.

The forces of dissent become particularly powerful when activated because those in need are often living in the margins of our society and lack representation. That is, until more and more of us identify as being in the margins. Then, un-advocated for groups can find some safety in numbers. Non-Muslims begin wearing safety pins showing that they won’t allow bullying. Staggering numbers of people in need of mental health care can come out of the shadows, particularly when they feel like they are not alone. The LGTBQ community can know they are not alone in the margins and they have strength and support in numbers.

These are the forces of society that create cohesion and move social justice forward. Because of  increasing awareness and activation, I am invigorated instead of depressed by the daily news of more cronies being tapped to fill cabinet positions and take our country backwards. We have a great challenge in front of us, and it will require great resolve.

Know Her Truths: Why Black Women and Girls Matter

Know-Her-TruthRecently, I had an amazing opportunity to attend the Know Her Truths: Advancing Justice for Women and Girls Conference hosted by the Anna Julia Coopr Center (AJC) at Wake Forest University.  The AJC, as it’s commonly referred to, is directed by Melissa Harris-Perry, and named for scholar, educator, and author Anna Julia Cooper, a Black Woman whose pioneering scholarship and activism laid the foundation for black American feminism and insisted on the importance of Southern voices in American politics.

The Anna Julia Cooper Center is an interdisciplinary center at Wake Forest University with a mission of advancing justice through intersectional scholarship. The conference was held April 29-30, 2016 and is part of an initiative to develop a meaningful research agenda on women and girls of color.

Scholars, students, community organizations, researchers, policy makers, foundations, and activists were brought together for an intensive series of discussions about the circumstances, challenges, and opportunities facing women and girls of color and the ways that we can identify, access, shape, and utilize research to address existing gaps and increase our collective knowledge.


Some of the featured panels included: School Discipline Disparities and Educational Equity, Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline, Using Participatory Action Research to Investigate Interpersonal Violence Against Women of Color, Picture This: Using Photography to Tell a Black, Girl’s Truth, Translating research to policy, and Engaging Latino Men to End Violence Against Women: Te Invito Primary Prevention Initiative.  Organizations from all over the country were represented at Know Her Truths including The National Black Women’s Justice Institute, Girls for Gender Equity, SisterSong-The National Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, Advocates for Youth, and the Center for American Progress.

I also co-presented on the Reproductive Justice & Unplanned Pregnancy panel with some of my reproductive justice comrades from National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, All* Above All, Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity, and The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. The panel discussed how women and girls are criminalized in birthing and parenting, how the lack of comprehensive sex education and access to reproductive healthcare further perpetuates poverty and exposure to reproductive oppression, and the need for ongoing research particularly in the South in the areas of maternal mental health and infant mortality.


As a Licensed Psychotherapist, fellow academic, and Reproductive Justice advocate, I appreciated the abundance of research, evidenced-informed practice, and the intentional focus on race, culture, history, and geography.  Black women and girls, especially in the South, disproportionately experience discrimination, disparity, criminalization, and reproductive oppression compared to non people of color.

Research has confirmed that Black girls are disciplined and suspended or expelled more than their white counterparts; that Black girls are pushed out and criminalized in essence for being Black, and that people of color are less likely to access mental healthcare due to complex and intersectional oppressions.  Black and brown people, particularly Queer and Trans* with excessive and consistent exposure to violence and poverty, are less likely to break these harmful cycles due to systemic oppression permeating through every social system in all levels of society.

Melissa Harris-Perry and Reia Chapman

Melissa Harris-Perry also took special note to address House Bill 2 (HB2), the harmful legislation passed in NC making it legal to discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community.  “HB2 is scary, dangerous, and violent.  When the Wake Forest campus heard what was happening the campus came out very strongly against HB2 and even worked to create some ‘All Gender’ bathrooms.”

Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Obama even made a special appearance via video message to discuss the White House Council on Women and Girls and the investment the Administration has made to address research gaps and existing cultural challenges.

We understand the risk and adversity for women and girls of color as well as the strengths and protective factors needed to improve outcomes. Research gaps identified include: there is currently no reliable national prevalence for sexual violence or trauma experienced by girls of color including due to exposure to police violence.

Know Her Truths was and is so important to the discourse and praxis concerning women and girls of color.  As MHP stated, “this conference is not the ending point.  It is a contributing part of a ton of work already happening to advance research with and by women and girls of color.” In case you missed it, you can review the conversation on Twitter using #knowhertruths.

Balancing Punishments With Support Networks for Convicted Athletes

Former New England Patriot, Aaron Hernandez, was convicted of 1st Degree Murder in April 2015

Criminal issues have certainly disgraced professional athletes with endless cases of murder, gun violence, domestic violence, drinking and driving, child endangerment, performance enhancing drugs, gambling, unauthorized videotaping, stolen crab legs, whatever the problem, there are daily scandals in the sports world.

The modern era of bad boys in sports dates back to 1994 when OJ Simpson may or may not have murdered his ex-wife, Nicole. He was acquitted, although he certainly endured a public execution and ended up in prison in 2008 anyway.

One problem in demonizing actions is by thinking something is new or shocking. However, the sports world has always been full of misappropriations. Athletes cheating or breaking the law is not new, or particularly shocking. It’s somewhat natural.

Athletes of All Ages Have Tried To Cheat the System

Performance enhancing drugs, for example, have been around a long time. They’ve only been highlighted more recently by rule changes regarding designer steroids. Still, doping has always been an issue. It was an issue going back to ancient Greeks using opium juice in the original Olympics and there are records in the 1940s of cyclists using amphetamines to help increase endurance. Across time, the supply has been different, not the culture.

The same can be said for gambling in sports. It is infrequently discussed enough to only be associated with Pete Rose or the 1919 Chicago Black Sox. These incidents were understandable in context of how they occurred and in context of history. From amateur to professional sports, gambling has been problematic in every era.

George Bechtel was banned from baseball in 1876 for conspiring to throw a game, and that was at a time when bookies circulated through the stands taking bets as if they were cotton candy vendors. As a 19-year-old semi-pro in 1907, future baseball hall of famer, Walter Johnson was purchased by Payette to pitch one game versus Caldwell with a heavy amount of betting. The original football golden boy and winner of the 1961 NFL MVP award, Paul Hornung, along with teammate Alex Karras, were suspended for betting on football. Denny McLain, the last pitcher to win 30 games to go with Cy Young awards in 1968 and 1969, was suspended in 1970 for gambling and quickly destroyed his baseball career on a path to prison.  

Players in the old days were not paid ridiculously high salaries as they are now. Baseball players were sometimes banned for requesting higher contracts prior to 1915. It took the formation of the Federal League in 1913 for player rights to be granted by American or National League owners. As the highest paid baseball player of his era, Ty Cobb made $20,000 in 1915, or roughly equivalent to just under $500,000 in 2015 dollars. The highest paid in 2015, Clayton Kershaw, makes over 60 times Ty Cobb’s adjusted-for-inflation salary.

It was assumed that players conspired with gamblers because they weren’t paid appropriately. As economics changed, players started to be paid more fairly and gambling became less of a problem overall, though the high salaries of modern players have resulted in high stakes gambling in many cases. Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley have been disgraced by gambling. Golfer John Daly is infamously known for his huge gambling losses. As well, modern day soccer players have lost millions in a psychosocial culture of gambling.

Gambling and doping are somewhat taken for granted as part of sports culture, but more violent behaviors, like murder (Aaron Hernandez), armed robbery (Clifford Etienne), child abuse (Adrian Peterson), and domestic violence are subject to harsher criticism. Whatever the social ill, there are many professional athletes guilty of transgressions. A Wikipedia list of crimes committed by athletes is longer than any team roster, many with mafia-like crimes.

Athletes have a drive to be competitive, a tenacity and fighting spirit. They have a desire to win at all costs. And when players of rough sports, like football, are so willing to throw their bodies into other bodies, how does such reckless abandon keep contained? That must be difficult, particularly for players from poor backgrounds subjected to violence as youth and/or with little education. To top it off, violence would seem more likely when condoned by coaches, such as the New Orleans Saints offering incentives for injuring opposing players.

Sometimes, giving someone millions of dollars just opens the door for millions of problems. That is the primary difference between the ages. In either case, it is not up to the athlete to behave. The athlete’s job is to compete at high levels. It is up to society to set the standards and provide the support, or lack of support, for player’s paychecks.

Leveling the Field

The big question becomes what penalties are appropriate? Should life be so strict as locking the door and throwing away the key?

No endorsement should ever be given to Ray Rice’s elevator incident and I personally would support a permanent ban in his, and similar cases. However, it’s also important to consider the element within human nature. Giving people a second chance provides hope.

Nobody is perfect. People know from the start that they will make mistakes. In fact, doctors in training necessarily need to make mistakes to learn. The differentiating factor separating a doctor’s success from failure is “knowledge of the repercussions and instill a character that doesn’t allow them to be the least paralyzed by the fear of the responsibility placed on their hands.” This means exactly that we must accept faults without being tied down by them.

There is much encouragement in learning and growing from mistakes and not being permanently locked away from another chance. The idea of the possibility of living only in fear and without hope is enough to make people more lenient toward criminals.

That much is evident with general prison populations. Most of the millions of prisoners in the United States will eventually be released and return to the public. With no hope or support, there absolutely will be a high recidivism rate. Oregon is admittedly progressive compared to many states, but still a heavy majority of Oregonians support rehabilitation efforts and services to prepare prisoners for reentry through job training, mental health, drug treatment and education. There is no reason to expect convicted athletes also wouldn’t benefit society better by having a support network. Some may say that due to their celebrity status and exceptional situations they would have even more need for certain services.

It is worth noting, however, that Oregonians also support close supervision of ex-prisoners. Basically, that means giving second chances, but with a short leash. My argument for not endorsing criminal activities while suggesting standards for athletes be in line with other people in society is similar. That is why Aaron Hernandez will serve life in prison. That is why Ray Rice shouldn’t get the golden path he had prior to his knocking out his wife. On the flipside, paying Sean Payton the richest coaching contract after a year long “vacation” is not congruent to what would happen in the rest of society.

When we let individuals off easy, we are not setting examples for the rest of society. Still, a second chance is crucial for the hope of future society. These are not individual problems because there are too many individuals committing the crimes. These are societal problems. Society needs room to breathe and recover from these problems.

Building Hope and Enforcing Accountability

Giving hope and holding people accountable can happen together. There are other avenues for Ray Rice beyond the football field. As a leader, or role model, maybe coach, Rice can still accomplish many great things. That’s up to him to show the strength to rebound from a reasonable punishment. Removing him from the game is part of the price paid for his actions. Holding him accountable makes the system fair and sends the message that assaulting other people is not okay.  

Society’s expectations for celebrities are pretty strict considering how many average people have problems staying out of trouble. This makes it problematic to expect more from athletes, yet we often judge them differently. What we need is the balance of toeing the line between knowing what is right, understanding consequences and feeling hopeful that we can succeed in the world despite lamentable actions.

Volunteer programs are one way that people can atone for mistakes. Even where people may come from poor backgrounds, the glamour and the spotlight may be too overwhelming. It is always significant to get people back in touch with more unfortunate situations to realize how bad things can be and how to correct problems to achieve better outcomes. That experience is too valuable to deprive from an individual and society.

Fans are the ones that have the ultimate power to hold athletes accountable. Fans support them with tickets, cable subscriptions and buying from advertisers. Society, in general, continues to offer massive financial support to pro sports leagues, even where they bash poor behaviors. In the end, people seem to still need entertainment in times of crisis. Modern life is full of endless war and strife, resulting in refugees in Hungary, Greece and Syria and elsewhere. At the same time, the Washington Post estimated that six million civilians have been killed by US interventions since WWII. We continue to support this carnage with tax dollars, so in some ways fans continuing to pay athletes for violence and cheating makes sense.

From my perspective, such social support shouldn’t make sense. While I am all for rehabilitation programs and giving outlets for the disgraced to continue to be successful, that doesn’t equal paying to support a destructive culture. There is enough entertainment to go around that I can spend my money elsewhere, so I focus on the betterment of society rather than being entertained by how bad boys can be. As long as fans give any attention, there is no room to complain. Athletes may be bad, but then we all are.

Meanwhile, September was the first month in six years that no NFL player was arrested. So, we’re getting somewhere, right?

Hillary Clinton Can Do Better on Race


Hillary Clinton is currently using a rhetorical device otherwise known as an attempt to be “honest”, and it’s a call for us to be reflective about our own indifference to the racial divide. The problem is, former Secretary of State Clinton reinforces an irrational fear, masked in a logical fallacy, to justify an unsustainable ego defense. She meant well in the context of a larger discussion on race.

But, she could have engaged the same discussion by demonstrating the fear as irrational rather than leveraging the fear to elicit an emotional connection. Let’s apply the Social Work Next perspective to evaluate the rhetorical device. Our central question is one of Politics. How can policy and politics support empathy?

Exploring the Rhetoric
This speech was delivered July 23, 3015 in South Carolina. Some are attempting to use the clip without context to manufacture a Clinton gaffe. Presenting this as a gaffe, it would set up a narrative pitting open-minded Whites against other Whites using Black lives as the key factor in the decision point. Many may fall into that pit, but Social workers cannot.

If you took this position, it argues for Whites to advocate for and acknowledge that Blacks deserve to be treated as equals. Then, the other Whites should join the open-minded Whites and their action in creating a more tolerant United States. What this does is maintain the privilege of Whites as the center of the debate—the decision makers and the one group whose advocacy and opinion matters.

It also limits the debate to an individual level debate, one where each person needs to step up. The danger is to ignore mezzo and macro levels that also need attention. The danger is to miss the opportunity to ask a presidential candidate how he/she will legislate with the empathy necessary to create change. Policy should be the center of this debate leveraged by Justice for all, informed by Appreciation for all.

Clinton states in multiple events over the past month, some version of the following:

“Let’s be honest, for a lot of well-meaning, open-minded white people, the sight of a young black man in a hoodie still evokes a twinge of fear. And news reports that poverty, crime, and discrimination evoke sympathy, even empathy, but too rarely do they spur us to action or prompt us to question our own assumptions and privilege” (June 20, 2015 speech to US Conference of Mayors).

It’s still an inappropriate line. It could have been better. It serves to justify fear of Black males even while highlighting privilege.

Breaking down the Conceptual Semantics

The Social Work Next approach to this begins with the awareness of multiple systems levels: micro, mezzo, and macro. The individual or micro level is where much of this rhetoric resides. Rather than justifying the fear as a reminder to reflect with empathy and action, let us explore the fear as irrational.

The individual assessment would ask what biopsychosocial-spiritual-meaning experiences support the fear of Blacks. Only by addressing those fears at their origin, can the individual address the fallacy (most often) or the trauma (less likely) that supports the fear. The point at the individual level is that YOU have a choice regardless of the past or fear of the future. The risk in this moment is equal to the risk is all other moments.

At the mezzo level, we deal with institutions. What institutions support the idea that being Black is somehow threatening or precursor to harm? The solution is to move away from prejudice and determine the content of a person’s character no matter their race or clothing. The number of Blacks has no impact on your level of fear during a board meeting even if they all wore hoodies.

Let’s be clear, alley ways are scary no matter who is standing around in them. Anyone walking into a convenience store with a hoodie pulled over their head is going to raise your fear level. Remove the “being Black” offense from the evaluation of safety in context. Let us promote institutions that utilize the best in social engineering to support collaborative outcomes. You do that by moving away from social control and toward social capital. You know what I mean. “Protect and Serve” community policing versus “Stop and Frisk” raids and harassment.

At the macro level, we discuss environmental practice—the home for our discussion of politics. This is where we get into the depth of empathy. Empathy can begin with guilt. The problem here is that the guilt-to-empathy construct works at the individual level. The task is to expand the construct to the macro level, to collectively reflect, then politically act. What Clinton got wrong is that we don’t make this choice because of our guilt about our privilege or our fear of Blacks. We make the choice to create a politic of justice and appreciation because it serves our ends. The first level of empathy is to see ourselves or our children as the potential victim of unjust policy. The second level is to care that any other person would be subjected to such unjust policy without our ability to successfully navigate the system.

Policy-JusticeANDAppreciationPolitics of Change
As citizens, we are counting on our politicians to advance policy solutions. As social workers, we must educate a populous addressing a politic that lacks empathy. Clinton discusses empathy that leads to action, but only after justifying irrational thoughts. Reflection on assumptions and privilege is not enough. Many well-meaning people don’t have the energy and commitment for true empathy–understanding how my history makes my choices reasonable. And, how your insistence on my conformity criminalizes my existence. That is the point of #BlackLivesMatter. Not a redress to your privilege, but the assertion of my right to exist, under my own terms.

Use policy to grant me that right. Structure institutions that promote and bolster that right. Make equitably available the tools to defend myself and navigate the system.

In your speeches, structure your rhetoric to ensure a movement of justice and appreciation leading to empathy. Go beyond the guilt of having more, living outside stop-and-frisk zones, and living within successful school districts. Create, support, and enforce policies that provide equity of opportunity without asking me to become like you or more safe for you. I can’t change my color, but WE can change policy.

Afterward to the Social Worker
If you want to explore rhetoric and semantics further, may I suggest the following article as a starting point.

Complex speeches aren’t better speeches. In fact, they’re worse.

The most memorable lines in modern rhetoric—”Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”; “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”; —are remembered precisely because they’re simple enough to understand, memorize, and talk about. Practically every modern sage of language—George Orwell, Steven Pinker, William Safire, Strunk & White—advises non-fiction writers to express themselves with simple language. Even if you like purple prose in your long-form narrative non-fiction, you’ll agree that it’s pleasing to hear complex policy points in clear sentences and parallelisms. (It’s hard to rule out that the dense language of the 19th century was pleasing and cogent in its own time.)

Read More

If you would like to explore the implications and the next steps for social work thought, keep reading this site, or you can do both.

Another Church Massacre Averted Due to Off Duty Officer in Service

Press Statement and photo released by Bishop Orrin K. Pullings

On yesterday evening, after teaching and a special prayer meeting for our brothers and sisters in Charleston, SC, a white male approached our church with a weapon we thought was a machete. He began yelling obscenities and racial epithets while threatening to kill all the niggers at the church.

11536068_1024510380927471_6416034567629919695_n Upon alert, we locked down the church to keep the assailant outside and to keep our parishioners safe. At this point, he began banging on the doors and windows, continuing to threaten myself, other parishioners and all of the “niggers” present.

We are fortunate to employ off-duty officers from the City of Richmond Police Department each time we have a service. One of our officers then approached the suspect with her weapon drawn and asked him to drop the weapon. These warnings were ignored until backup arrived at which that point, the suspect threw his weapon into a nearby bush.

The suspect was apprehended and taken to a mental facility to be further evaluated. Unfortunately, it appears that threatening to kill people with a weapon and using racial epithets is not a crime in the state of Virginia so the assailant will not be charged with a crime, instead released back into the general public after his 72 hour evaluation.

We thank you all for your prayers and well wishes during this time. Continue to pray for us as we try to get change enacted in the state of Virginia. Threats to lives should be taken seriously, regardless of your mental state. One life that may have been lost in our church family due to a sane or insane person, would have been one life too many.

This is a photo of me and one of our Richmond Police Department officers that has been working at our church for more than 9 years. I am thankful for her many years of service at our church and for other instances in which she is protecting our lives.

Medina Pullings and I and the United Nations International Church Fellowship family of Va are very thankful to God for his divine protection.

-Bishop Orrin K. Pullings

Congresswoman Lee Leads Effort Urging President Obama to Ban the Box


Washington, D.C.- More than 70 Members of the U.S. House of Representatives, led by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, sent a letter to President Obama to adopt a federal fair chance hiring policy. This effort was co-led by Congressman Conyers, Congressman Scott, Congressman Davis, and Congresswoman Jackson Lee.

The federal government should not be in the business of erecting barriers between those who have made a mistake and are looking a job, said Congresswoman Lee. By enacting these basic fair chance hiring reforms, the federal government will continue to lead as a model employer while working to end the cycle of mass incarceration, unemployment and recidivism.

The effort was supported by various groups including Policy Link, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), National Employment Law Project (NELP), PICO Networks LIVE FREE Campaign, and All Of Us Or None, a national organizing initiative founded by formerly-incarcerated individuals to fight against discrimination and for the human rights of prisoners.

It’s rewarding to witness the work started in our backyard reach national levels, and continue to dismantle the barriers facing formerly incarcerated communities, said co-founding member, Dorsey Nunn, of All Of Us Or None. This effort could not have come at a better time to reflect that all Black Lives Matter, including the lives of people with arrest and conviction histories.

The letter calls on President Obama to take executive action requiring that federal contractors and agencies refrain from inquiring about an applicants criminal record in the initial stage of hiring. Employers would be able to inquire about convictions and conduct background checks before making an employment decision.

The letter reads: We urge you to build on your administration’s commitment to adopting fair change hiring reforms by committing the federal government to do its part to eliminate unnecessary barriers to employment for people with criminal records.

Specifically, the letter notes that seventeen states, the District of Columbia and more than 100 cities and counties have already adopted fair chance hiring reforms.  In six states, the policy also expands to the private sector. Several private sector firms have also independently adopted fair chance hiring policies including: Walmart, Koch Industries, Home Depot, Bed Bath & Beyond and Target.

There are more than 70 million Americans with criminal records and communities of color are disproportionately affected. One in three African-American men will be arrested during their lifetime.


Banning the box in federal hiring would help those who are fighting for a fair opportunity to show their qualifications for employment.  This is the right thing to do for individuals seeking to provide for themselves and their families, and it is the smart thing to do for our national economy which sorely needs the talents and contributions of all of our citizens, said Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (MI-13), Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee.

The EEOC has ruled that discrimination based on prior convictions without an individualized assessment of the relevance to job performance constitutes illegal employment discrimination, said Rep. Scott (VA-03), Ranking Member of the Committee on Education and the Workforce. The Fair Chance practices, also known as ban the box, are consistent with that EEOC guidance.  Studies have consistently shown  that properly tailoring employment restrictions will help to increase public safety, reduce recidivism, and save money.

The cruel, relentless logic of mass incarceration has now become apparent to all.  One in four Americans has a conviction history which often excludes them from the workforce and from housing creating new layers of crisis for our communities, said Congressman Danny Davis (IL-07). Ban the box is a critical step for formerly incarcerated individuals to a dignified, productive civilian life and helping families and communities become self-sustaining once again.

Almost one in three adults in the United States has a criminal record that will show up on a routine criminal background check. This creates a serious barrier to employment for millions of workers, especially in communities of color hardest hit by decades of over-criminalization, said Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18).

Nationwide, 100 cities and counties have adopted what is widely known as ban the box so that employers consider a job candidates qualifications first, without the stigma of a criminal record. These initiatives provide applicants a fair chance by removing the conviction history question on the job application and delaying the background check inquiry until later in the hiring. Fair chance policies benefit everyone because they are good for families and the local community.

The letter can be found here.

The Purpose of Education in a Democratic Society


The purpose of education in a democratic society is to instill the values of cooperation, fairness and justice into the hearts of our students. I would argue that these values are essential to maintaining and improving a functioning democracy in any country. In Canada, our democracy is in serious need of a shake up. We have rising inequality due to an economic system based on competition and profit, we have a Prime Minister who is acting more and more like an authoritarian dictator and we have followed pace with the United States in dismantling the public good over the last forty years.

As a social studies teacher, and a concerned citizen, I often ask myself what do I want my students to be able to contribute to in their lives. Of course I want them to have successful lives in which they are able to follow their passions but I also want them, regardless of their profession, to be able to contribute to our democracy in some way. Democracy is at the heart of my teaching practice as I see my classroom as a microcosm of what our world could be. I want to create the conditions in my classroom where the principles of democracy reign supreme. I want my students to participate in the process of establishing class rules and culture. I want my students to have a voice in how they can demonstrate their knowledge as well as how they are assessed academically. In other words, I want to share the power in the classroom with my students.

Now, for many teachers reading this you may be thinking that I’m crazy to give up “control” in my classroom. But what we have to understand as educators is that our jobs is not to “control” students but to empower them to be critically thinking democratic citizens. Teachers must do away with any form of authoritarian teaching method and embrace a more democratic approach to ensure that our students understand that the work of democracy is important and worth while. We have to understand as teachers that even in democratic spaces we still have the authority to ensure the classroom is a safe space for all students but that we engage in dialogue with our students about the reasons for any decision we make and ask for student feedback on how the classroom is run.

We can’t run our schools and classrooms like a dictatorship and then pretend to think that our students will be prepared to be active citizens participating in our democratic system. We also have to ensure that we present democracy as a system and process that is always happening by being involved in our communities and institutions. Voting every election is only one aspect of being an active democratic citizen. Part of our responsibilities as citizens is to work with others collaboratively to accomplish shared goals and dreams. Any rights or freedoms that have been granted by politicians have rarely come independent of citizens demanding them as part of a larger social movement.

We have a crisis of democracy in Canada and Alberta with low voter turnouts and a lack of community in many areas. In Alberta, as students have began demanding Gay-Straight Alliances over more than the past decade it has made many social-conservatives in the province uneasy to say the least. These students are exercising their democratic voice and this week the province has decided that they will not protect this democratic right as the province has chosen to make the very political decision to strike a “balance” between those advocating for GSA’s and those who wish to suppress the voice of marginalized students in our schools.

Democracy is not for the faint of heart and it is something that must be protected by citizens of any country. Our schools must be places where students have a voice that is heard and they must be able to take action on issues that they care about. If we adults seek to limit or silence student voice in our schools and education system then we are condemning our democracy to further degradation. It’s time we make the shift towards a democratic approach to education in our classrooms and schools. If we don’t, our democracy and all of us will suffer for it.

Democratic Education Resources:

  1. Bringing Democratic Education to your Classroom and School

  2. What is Democratic Education

  3. Democratic Classrooms

The Rise of Child Killers

During these past few weeks we have unfortunately seen high-profile violent killings committed by young people.  On October 15th, a ten year old boy was arrested for killing a 90 year old woman in Pennsylvania, and after making a chilling confession, he is now being held in the Wayne County Correctional facility, though separated from adult offenders.  He will also be charged as an adult, which despite his age, is allowable according to Pennsylvania law.

In North Carolina, a 15 year old was charged with killing his grandfather on October 19th.  Too young, too violent and incredibly too close in timeframe.  Both cases didn’t appear random, and the victims were close to the young defendants.  Such violent episodes, though not tolerable for any age, often begs for the proverbial question, “why do young people kill”?

murder-children2Was there abuse, mistreatment, neglect, or just a random lack of empathy or compassion for another person that transformed these young people into child killers?  Now, despite the media reports, violent crime has been on a decline according the National Criminal Justice Reference Service.

In a study conducted by the CDC  studying homicide rates for persons 10-24 years of age, showed that violent crime for this demographic was at 7.5%, a 30 year low.  More importantly, the latter part of that age group (20-24), proved to be higher than the younger members of the sample.  The researchers further expanded on continued disproportionate numbers for African-American males (committing violent acts as well as being victims themselves) compared to their Latino and Caucasian counterparts.

So what is the root cause of such violence?  Despite low numbers statistically, how is the public to respond when we see children committing the most violent of crimes?  Is it sociological, psychological, environmental, or just plain disregard?  Are children not able to cope, or communicate their frustration, hence, violence is the preferred method of release?  Is society more violent today than in previous years?  Dr. Michael M. Sinclair, an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, who has worked with disadvantaged youth and gangs for over twenty years, provided some insight:

“It is not solely psychological or sociologically. Our children are being exposed to gratuitous violence in video games, music, movies and television. Without the support of  “effective parents” our youth remain vulnerable to images of violence and are desensitized. They often equate power with violence; additionally they may be exposed to violence in their homes and community. This as many behavioral learning theorists posit, can have an overwhelming effect (traumatic events). Finally, without early    intervention, in which many of youth doesn’t often receive, juvenile justice and the court system becomes the option, hence, punishment over rehabilitation.”

In my book, “Delinquency, Pop Culture and Generation Why”, I also discussed popular culture’s influence on young people.  Where we are seeing more and more violent games, music, and music videos being created, children at times have a difficult time separating such fantasy from reality.  Further, without engaged parents or guardians to offer explanations to these types of influences, children are often left to figure it out alone, unfortunately, maybe after it’s too late.  Granted that doesn’t condone any lack of culpability for violent acts, particularly by young people, but it does provide some contextual explanations as to why some do indeed become more violent today as opposed to prior years.

So then the question once again is raised, is our judicial system, specifically, the juvenile courts, equipped enough to handle violent young offenders, or should we allow them to be waived to the adult system?  All 50 states and the District of Columbia have waiver statues, varying among requirements.  The efficacy in application continues to be debated among researchers and practitioners, particularly on who gets waived.  Does waiving really deter future delinquency or criminality or is it a quick fix to address societal reactions to violent crimes committed by juveniles?  Wasn’t the system created to offer rehabilitation while holding young people accountable?

A representative in Juvenile Court (NC) stated that “despite its efforts, the state is not doing enough on the front end to thwart juvenile crime, particularly violent crime. She further expanded on how parents continue to absolve their roles when juveniles are adjudicated in the juvenile justice system.”  Without their support, juveniles don’t receive the proper support or reinforcement at home and often reoffend.  As a practitioner, she felt that sending juveniles to adult prisons is still not the answer, even for violent juveniles.  As the juvenile court was created to hold accountable and rehabilitate, she feels that should always be the primary consideration in dealing with young violent offenders.

If statistics convey that violent crime is down for young people, does this affect policy or agendas in supporting early intervention or rehabilitation.  Do we have enough mechanisms in place to identify violent children early on?  Do certain children receive more alternatives to punishment or placement then others?  Particularly as we continue to see an enormous disparity in African-American and Latino placements compared to Caucasian youths.  Or does classism afford the more wealthy alternatives to placement, compared to punishment.  This issue is not exclusive to the juvenile justice system, as we also see it with adult offenders as well.

In the end, I’ve always conveyed to my students to first remove the emotion out of decision-making and secondly to figure out the “whys”.  As a society we continue to arrest, lock up, and punish well.  According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the United States are number one in the world in housing inmates which is not a flattering statistic.  Imagine if we invested just as much time, energy and resources in locking up as we did in early interventions, how different the correctional system would look. We continue to falter at being proactive, especially in dealing with young people.  Some of the obvious behavioral cues often displayed are overlooked in elementary and middle schools.

We fail to see the “whys” and respond to the “hows”. Should we lock up all violent children, the answer is not that simple without knowing all the circumstances?  One thing is clear, if we are not concerned with why these young people are committing these offenses and more willing to “lock them up”, then we will continue to see such violence from young people and eventually as adult offenders.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of

Power of Older Adults vs. the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby Decision

What century is this? I have been obsessed lately with the retrograde decision made by the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case. Not only is it an outstanding example of the ongoing abasement of women and women’s health needs, it is a blow to the entire concept of democracy. This decision rips the fabric of our Constitution’s Establishment Clause and the division between church and state that this country was founded on. Additionally, it represents the continuation of the constant humiliation and oppression of over half of this country’s citizens.

images (51)The Hobby Lobby decision also reintroduces the antediluvian concept of women as children unable to make decisions about our own bodies. Not since the abolition of slavery have men had the right to own women’s bodies. Yet the men who serve on our country”s highest court and who voted to allow the erosion of our constitution, are determined to take us back to a very dark time in history and many people don’t understand why?

Perhaps, the most perverse dimension of this decision is that it gives control of our bodies to corporations. The thought of it makes me want to throw up! If this isn’t a call for single payer health insurance, I can’t think of an another example that so clearly illustrates why the concept of health insurance being tied to ones employment is no longer a viable option. In this age of technology, international commerce, and the rise in freelance and “permalance” employment, it is an arrangement that has seen its time. (“Permalance” is a vehicle used by employers who do not want to provide benefits, including healthcare, at all.) Now, added to this is the privilege given to employers by our Supreme Court to be able to determine the healthcare needs of their employees.

Several of my friends and acquaintances have asked me, “what can we do?” The expected outcry against this violation of human rights is from women of child bearing age. And, they should be screaming from the rooftops. We, as aging boomers and seniors, need to use our voices too. More important, however, is using our right to vote while we still have it to demonstrate how disgusted we are with those in power who would like us to be irrelevant. Seniors, both men and women, represent the highest voting demographic in the United States. We need to leverage this statistic wisely.

Our uteruses may no longer be fertile. Our minds, however, are more fertile than ever before. We now possess years of accumulated wisdom, and it is our responsibility to share. This, along with our determination as voters, enables us to exhibit a strength and power that we have shown before…during the Civil Rights Movement, the Feminist Movement (We did do that once, didn’t we?), the Anti-War Movement, and the Gay Rights Movement. We started those movements in the 60’s, and now we are in our sixties. We can’t quit now. If we want our daughters and granddaughters to know that they have to be vigilant in order to be free, we need to lead by example. How? First, by using our voices, and second by using our vote. Or, maybe it’s the other way around.

Yes, we are stuck with this Supreme Court shaped by George W. Bush during his second term in office which doesn’t mean that the tide of public opinion evidenced by who we vote for will not have a role to play as we move forward. As social workers, citizens, and long time members of our society, our individual and collective consciences demand we lead the way. We are not divested of our responsibility to society as we grow older; it’s the other way around. By virtue of our lives lived, the experiences we’ve had, and the wisdom we have gathered, it is incumbent upon us to take a leading role when speaking up for social injustices wherever we see them.

Child Criminals are Victims Twice Over

The arrest of 12 and 13 year old boys for aggravated robbery and murder respectively in West Auckland a couple of weeks ago highlights a growing malaise in society. The incident itself is a tragedy for the victim and his family, but what is alarming to me is that the two offending boys are victims too — of whatever circumstances led them to offend and now, potentially, of the justice system as well.

The bi-polarity of the justice system, which recognises only victim and offender, clearly fails children in these situations. The stories of those like twelve-year-old Bailey Kurariki (NZ 2001), James Bulger’s ten-year-old killers (UK 1993) and eleven-year-old Mary Bell (UK 1968), all of whom were charged and sentenced, point toward a “punishment system” that in no way takes into consideration that these children were too young to be held solely responsible for their actions.

A system that believes kids can be guilty of violent crimes without asking, “How did they become capable of violent crimes?”, is one that lacks empathy and compassion. Having empathy and compassion for the kids does not diminish feeling for the victims. It simply acknowledges the existence of complex situations that don’t follow “victim/perpetrator” patterns.

It could be easy to decide, instead, that parents are at fault, but even this logic is too simple. What we are dealing with is the result of generations of dysfunctional family systems, poverty and inequality.

Until this dynamic is acknowledged and a new system is designed to deal with it, we will see more and more children creating victims as well as being victims of their upbringing and of the justice system.

Prison Reform and Race Equity

Too many people are incarcerated in the United States, particularly people of color. With nearly 1.5 million Americans in prison in 2012, the United States had the highest rate of incarceration in the world, far exceeding runners-up Russia and Rwanda. Despite comprising only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States accounts for 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

People of color have been disproportionately impacted by mass incarceration. While African-Americans and Latinos make up 15 and 17 percent of the population, respectively, they account for 38 and 23 percent of the prison population. Currently, African-American men have a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in their lifetimes and Latino men have a 1 in 6 chance. These figures are overwhelming compared to the rate of incarceration for White men, who have an overall 1 in 17 chance of ever going to prison in their lifetime.

Racial inequality in incarceration is particularly evident for drug offenses. Currently, two-thirds of all people in prisons for drug offenses are either African American or Latino. According to Marc Mauer, Executive Director of the Sentencing Project, “These figures are far out of proportion to the degree that these groups use or sell drugs”. For example, a 2011 survey by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that White Americans use every category of illegal drugs at significantly higher rates than African-Americans or Latinos, yet they are far less likely to be convicted for drug offenses.

incarc rate by race & gender - webWar on Drugs & Race

Advocates for prison downsizing agree that mass incarceration and its disparate impact on communities of color can be directly attributed to policies stemming from the “War on Drugs.” In response to rising drug use in the 1980s, law enforcement and sentencing shifted dramatically to a punitive “hard on drugs” approach encouraging the imprisonment of low-level, non-violent drug users and sellers. Since then, the prison population has increased five-fold and incarceration for drug offenses has gone up 1,100 percent. With as few as 40,000 drug offenders serving prison sentences in 1980, this number has snowballed to over half a million in 20092. Lengths of prison terms have also dramatically increased.   In 1986, drug offenders spent an average of 22 months in federal prison; by 2004, sentences for similar crimes were nearly 3 times longer. In sum, over the past 40 years more and more people have been arrested and sent to prison, while fewer and fewer have been released or diverted.

prison jail drug web-1

Racial bias, discrimination, and unequal treatment under the law have also characterized the United State’s anti-drug crime agenda. As the ACLU’s Drug Policy Litigation Project explains, “By 1980, the link between minorities, drugs, and crime was firmly cemented in American rhetoric and anti-drug policy.” Evidence of discrepancies in the treatment of people of color in the criminal justice system has been well documented.

  • For example, federal sentencing guidelines from 1986 to 2010 held that 5 grams of crack cocaine, a substance more readily available in communities of color, was equivalent to 500 grams of powder cocaine, a substance consider chemically identical to crack cocaine but more readily available in White communities.
  • Further, the Sentencing Project cites that people of color are more likely to be targeted and racially profiled by law enforcement resulting in higher initial entry into the criminal justice system.
  • In addition, legal scholars Fishman and Schazenback found in 2012 that prosecutor are significantly more likely to pursue the maximum length of sentence for minority defendants, while judges are more likely to convict these defendants and agree to longer sentences.

Though not explicitly racist, many anti-drug policies and implementation strategies echo the American Legal System’s long legacy of racial injustice, continuing the American tradition of targeted injustice against people and communities of color.

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Policy

The most notorious and influential policy resulting from the War on Drugs are federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. Mandatory drug minimums are judicial guidelines requiring convicted drug offenders to serve an automatic and standard minimum length of time in prison- regardless of criminal context. These policies are rooted in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which first established the national drug schedule, followed by the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which outlined punishments for federal crimes. The resulting mandatory minimums are “triggered” by specific quantities of eight controlled substances, including heroine, crack and powder cocaine, marijuana, with increasing minimums for large quantities and aggravating factors such as weapon procession or drug trafficking (mandatory minimums are also triggered from LSD, PCP, methamphetamine, and propanamide.). Unlike the majority of crimes in the U.S., for which judges determine sentence length on a case-by-case basis, mandatory minimums intentionally restrict judicial discretion7.

However, mandatory minimums were not considered controversial until the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act. With this omnibus drug bill, President Reagan significantly increased the length of minimum sentences while reducing the quantities of controlled substances that trigger the minimum. These guidelines form the basis for our current federal drug sentencing and require either a five or ten-year sentence without parole for the majority of convictions9. Due to aggravating circumstances, some offenders can be sentenced to life in prison without parole. These changes had major implications for first time and low-level offenders. For example, before 1986, simple possession would have required offenders to pay a fine. After 1986, these same individuals could be sentenced to a federal penitentiary for a minimum of two, three, or five years for the least severe offense depending on the substance.

In 1994, Congress approved the “Safety Valve” exception to mandatory minimums. These provisions allow prosecutors to refrain from requesting mandatory minimums for defendants found guilty of low-level offenses, such as simple procession or intent, while meeting certain case key criteria. These requirements include a lack of criminal history, violence, weapon procession, as well as limited involvement in drug enterprise and full compliance with sharing information with law enforcement.

Most recently, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the disparity in sentencing guidelines between crack and powder cocaine. Previously, 1 gram of crack cocaine was held to the same standards as 100 grams of powder cocaine. After 2010, this gap was amended to a 1 in 17 ratio. While this ruling represents a positive step towards sentencing equality, a disparity between the two substances remains.

11-18-1to100-disparity2Policy Shortcomings

Despite the efforts of the Fair Sentencing Act and Safety Valve procedures, federal mandatory drug minimums continue to support an unsustainably large and racially disproportionate prison population. These shortcomings are highlighted when considering the two primary intentions of the mandatory minimums- both of which have failed to be realized.

First, mandatory minimums were intended to reduce major drug trafficking. Rather, these procedures have been used to incarcerate low-level offenders. As penalties are determined by the quantity of drugs involved, this broad policy fails to recognize the function or threat of the individuals who are typically arrested and charged with drug trafficking. For example, a currier may be carrying large quantities of a substance but often represents the least culpable participant in an international drug selling organization. In the Sentencing Commissions September 2013 report to Congress, they reported the category of drug offenders most often subject to mandatory minimums are street level dealers, many levels away from major suppliers and trade leaders. As their report explains, “While Congress appears to have intended to impose these mandatory penalties on ‘major’ or ‘serious’ drug traffickers, in practice the penalties have swept more broadly.”

Second, mandatory minimums were intended to reduce sentencing disparity. The original authors believed limiting judicial discretion and fixing sentence range would result in uniformed prison terms. However, contemporary research indicates the opposite has occurred because sentencing guidelines continue to require a tremendous amount of judicial discretion while doing little to address the issue of racial inequity head on. For example, judges must decide if a mandatory sentence can be triggered in the first place and if any aggravating circumstances can be proven to increase the sentence above the minimum.

According to a national study conducted at Northwestern University, defendants of color were significantly more likely to qualify for mandatory minimums and aggravating circumstances compared to white defendants, and were also less likely to qualify for Safety Vales exemptions. Their findings indicate 41.1 percent of Latino offenders were subject to minimum guidelines compared to only 28 percent of White defendants. Further, 70 percent of drug cases involving white offenders proved aggravating circumstances, as compared to 88.4 percent of cases involving African-American offenders. Qualitative data from the Northwestern study indicate a number of judges would have preferred to reduce the sentences for people of color, in particular, due to mitigating circumstances but were unable to due to restrictions in judicial discretion. As the conclusion explain,

In short, our findings suggest that judicial discretion does not contribute to, and may in fact mitigate, racial disparities in Guidelines sentencing. Policy makers interested in redressing racial disparity today should pay much closer attention to the effects of mandatory minimums and their effect on prosecutorial and judicial discretion.”

The Smarter Sentencing Act

In light of growing national awareness about the current state of crisis in our prison system, not limited to a failed War on Drugs, overcrowded facilities, skyrocketing recidivism rates, and irrefutable racial inequity, federal policy makers, think tanks, and Attorney General Eric Holder have been pouring over the issue of sentencing reform for the better part of two years. The current status of this effort is a bill known as “The Smarter Sentencing Act” submitted to the Senate floor by the Judiciary Committee on January 30, 2014.

If approved, the Smarter Sentencing Act would:

  • Reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders and direct the US Sentencing Commission to lower sentencing guidelines accordingly;
  • Give judges more leeway to ignore mandatory minimums in cases with mitigating factors;
  • Make the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive. The Fair Sentencing Act reduced the sentencing disparity between powder cocaine and crack cocaine from 100:1 t0 18:1 by reducing the amount of crack triggering five and ten year mandatory minimums from 5 and 28 grams respectively to 50 and 280 grams. This act also eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum for possessing five grams of crack. However, the Fair Sentencing Act only applied to offenders prosecuted after 2010. The Smarter Sentencing Act would retroactively reduce the sentences of individuals currently serving sentences based on the old crack cocaine sentencing guideline.

The Smarter Sentencing Act is a step in the right direction and is likely to have a major positive impact on the prison population if passed. In particular, the retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act is likely to reduce the over-representation of people of color in the prison system. However this act is not enough. In particular, a disparity between crack and powder cocaine continues to exist. In addition, only a small cross-section of the sentencing guidelines will be reformatted.

As social workers, we must remain active in the fight to end mass incarceration and the over-representation of people of color in the criminal justice system. We must be creative and vigilant in creating new solutions to prison reform. According the Urban Institute’s “Stemming the Tides” report, here are some suggestions for additional “Front-End Changes” (i.e. reducing the number of people committed to prison and reducing their sentence length) and “Back-End Changes” (i.e. increasing the number of people released from prison and reducing recidivism).

Front-End Changes

  • Reduce all drug sentencing minimums by half
  • Increase access to Safety Valves exceptions
  • Increase the use of drug treatment diversion
  • Increase access to community-based drug treatment and services to prevent drug crime

Back-End Changes

  • Apply all current and future sentencing guideline reductions retroactively
  • Increase use of Early Release programs for good behavior and negative drug tests, as well as for the terminally ill and inmates over 70 years old
  • Increase transition and re-entry services and begin services prior to release date
  • Increase the use of probation and house-arrest

What are your thoughts on prison reform? How can we reduce the prison population, increase racial equity, and find an alternative approach to drug treatment? How can we, as social workers, be more involved in this fight for justice? Share your thoughts and comments below!

You Blew The Whistle and Lost Your Job – What Should You Do Next?

Being terminated from a job is never a pleasant experience, even when the work environment is toxic. Termination from a professional management position can have severe repercussions, depending on the reasons for the termination. The current political impetus being placed on workplace whistleblowing is a unique situation.

Retaliation by termination for whistleblowing, or providing material evidence to a government investigation, is deemed illegal by federal law. But, the government agencies are not always as receptive to the information as the whistleblower may expect, and the employer will often terminate the employment relationship regardless of the law.

1. Prepare for the Long-Term and Do Not Despair
whistleblowerWhistleblowers may have a very difficult time finding subsequent employment if they are in an industry which utilizes unscrupulous business practices in everyday operations. There is a skeleton in the closet for practically every business. It is important to update your resume immediately and prepare a defense for why you were terminated if it is a direct result of providing information to the government.

2. Do Not Speak Ill of the Previous Employer
This is an important part of the process. Be succinct about the dispute; and in the interim, demonstrate all of the most positive attributes of your profession. Being caught in the middle of illegal activity which could leave an employee legally culpable is a solid reason for acting in self-preservation. Contrary to popular belief in many companies, morality is still a virtue and a desired characteristic in a professional employee.

3. Hire an Attorney Immediately
It is always a bad idea to report information directly to a government agency without  first seeking legal representation. Your best choice will be an experienced and effective legal team like the firm at . Ideally, to ensure your ability to claim the financial award for providing information, an attorney presents a qui tam application for a closed hearing before the information is delivered.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) can then assign whistleblower protection and legal standing to sue with the proper government agency as an et al co-plaintiff and oversight investigative agency. Be forewarned, this is not a guarantee, so diligently attempt to maintain anonymity. In cases where legal representation is not retained beforehand, there can still be an application hearing process during the investigation, and notification of the DOJ that there are illegalities in the system.

4. Consider Filing a State Court Civil Action
The Whistleblower Act and the False Claims Act both will apply in any legal claim against a prior employer. The material evidence in the case is reviewed according to a preponderance of that evidence, and a winning lawsuit at state court level can also be part-and-parcel to a subsequent whistleblower protection application and additional financial claim. There is always the potential for multiple cases because of coercion and harassment at work before the termination. Always use the court system to your maximum advantage, as any attorney will advise.

The decision to provide information to the government regarding fraud is very serious. It is always a good idea to get legal advice first and do some research on the process. But, when the act is already committed, there is still a recourse for the whistleblower. It is best to do this legally and get an experienced whistleblower attorney.

Photo Credit: Virginia Tech University Study on Whistleblowing 

Is Your Spouse The Next Walter White?

By Deborah Nguyen

Walter White

Walter White, the fictional character of Breaking Bad fame, has quickly become the antihero that people couldn’t avoid loving. In reality, however, life isn’t always like it’s portrayed on television. While the difficulties that White faced were extreme, it’s often the family of a criminal who ends up hurt, both physically and emotionally.

While it’s hard to say just how many people have spouses who are drug dealers, the reality of the situation is that a drug arrest happens every 17 seconds in America. With these types of numbers, it’s imperative for those who suspect a spouse of criminal activity to know what they’re up against.

Domestic Violence

One of the most serious risks that a person faces when their partner is engaged in criminal activity is from the spouse themselves. This is especially the case when the person in question is not just trafficking drugs but using them. Drugs such as benzodiazepine (Valium), cocaine, crack, meth and anabolic steroids can all increase aggression in a person. Sadly, as was the case with wrestler Chris Benoit, this can lead to violent and sometimes deadly outcomes for a user’s spouse.

A person engaged in criminal activity, however, doesn’t have to be on drugs to be violent. Simply being involved in such a stressful atmosphere can lead to violent behavior. One of the main precursors for domestic violence, for instance, is displaced anger. This occurs when a person showcases anger or acts violently towards a subject who is not actually the cause of their anger. This displaced anger can lead to repeated physical abuse in a relationship.

Other Risk Factors

Even if a person has the most mild-mannered spouse in the world, his criminal activity puts his family’s safety at risk. His colleagues may not always be so concerned about the welfare of his family. As a matter of fact, families stand the risk of being used as a bargaining chip, or are seen as a liability, when complications occur in the illicit goings on. This was portrayed in the movie Alpha Dog which told the true story of 15-year-old Nick Markowitz being kidnapped and murdered over drug money that his half-brother owed.

There are a few options of recourse that a person has when their spouse has put them into danger. One option could be developing a safety plan in order to protect yourself and your family in advance. Contacting the national domestic violence hotline to obtain information and identify resources may help you process the chaos around you. Also, you may want to consult a divorce attorney to see what options are available to dissolve the relationship.

Getting Out Alive

The first step to getting out of these situations with your level head intact is recognizing that there is an issue. If you don’t know where the source of income springs from, this could be an immediate red flag that something suspicious is going on. Do your research and start collecting financial information and by performing a criminal history check.

If you find out the whole ugly truth to be real, be prepared to walk away. You have to ensure your and your children’s safety. But you probably don’t know the extent that his influence reached within his business colleagues. Your future could be wrought with danger. No level of criminal activity is safe, so getting out as quickly as possible is the only safe recourse.

While watching the character Walter White was undoubtedly enjoyable for millions of people, the realities of living a life that is funded by illegal drugs is undoubtedly accompanied by many risks.

Caught Driving Tipsy? The DUI Legal Process In The U.S.

Durham Police Department DUI Awareness Campaign
Durham Police Department DUI Awareness Campaign

The U.S. justice system is becoming more and more strict with drunk drivers, and Inocencio Muniz of Pennsylvania is someone who found that out the hard way. During the late 1980s, Muniz appealed his conviction for driving under the influence (DUI) all the way to the Supreme Court. His lawyers argued that his arresting officer asked him questions before reading him his Miranda rights. In the famous case of Pennsylvania v. Muniz (1990), the Supreme Court agreed with Pennsylvania.

According to Yahoo News, “the Court maintained Muniz’s conviction, finding that statements made, even while in custody, that were not elicited through interrogation, intended or otherwise, by the police did not fall within the bounds of an individual’s Miranda rights. As such, an individual is not protected by what he or she tells the police freely without solicitation, whether they have been informed of their Fifth Amendment rights or not.” If you were arrested for DUI in Pennsylvania or any other state, it’s highly unlikely that the Supreme Court would help you out. But there are important steps you can take to protect yourself legally.


In 2012, 11,956 alcohol-related car accidents took place in PA; 404 people died in such a crash. Approximately 31 percent of these car accident deaths in the state involved alcohol, a proportion that has been holding steady since 2009. And 74 percent of people who died in those crashes were the drunk drivers themselves. This is just Pennsylvania, other states, such as Florida or Georgia have even more staggering statistics.

Blood Alcohol Content Limits

In most states, you’re under the influence if your blood alcohol content (BAC) is 0.08 percent or higher. Under state law, you’ll receive stiffer penalties if your BAC is between 0.10 and 0.159 percent, and harsher punishments still if it’s 0.16 percent or greater. If you’re younger than 21, you’re a DUI offender with a BAC of 0.02 percent or above. Commercial drivers, meanwhile, break the law if their BAC is at least 0.04 percent.


A first-time PA DUI offense results in fines of up to $300. A second offense involves fines of $300 to $2,500, a one-year driver’s license suspension, and a prison sentence of five days at minimum and six months at maximum. The punishment for a third offense is ten days to two years in jail, a fine of $500 to $5,000, and another one-year license suspension. You cannot plead guilty to a lesser offense in this state. Although penalties will vary slightly from state to state, this is a good model for fines throughout the rest of the country.

Your Rights

When police officers pull you over, they are not necessarily required to read you your Miranda rights unless and until they arrest you. Whether or not you’ve been read your rights, you may remain silent. Say as few words as possible and tell the officer politely that you cannot answer questions without a lawyer. In particular, do not reveal whether you’ve had a drink. You also have the right to decline all field sobriety tests: walking in a straight line, touching your nose, and so on. However, if the officer brings you to a police station and instructs you to take a chemical DUI test, a test for which you may be asked to provide a urine or blood sample, your license will be suspended for a year if you refuse. The second and third times you reject that test, you’ll be punished with 18-month license suspensions.

In conclusion, keep in mind that the justice system is imperfect. It’s possible to receive a DUI conviction even with a BAC below the legal limit. Therefore, even if you’re positive you’re sober, your wisest course of action when charged with drunk driving is hiring a DUI lawyer right away.

Pope Francis Speaks Against Capitalism and Urges Rich to Share Wealth

Pope Francis has certainly made an impression on the people with his compassion for the sick and less fortunate. However, what has been received as a call for capitalism to share wealth with the poor is not garnering any favor with right-wing conservatives and Wall Street. From the day he was announced as the new Pontiff, Pope Francis has been hailed as a “defender of the poor and a champion of social justice”.

In an article written today in the Catholic Online, author Deacon Keith Fournier claims that Rush Limbaugh is wrong and Karen Finney of MSNBC is nuts for their perception on Pope Francis’ comments relating to capitalism. Fournier writes, “The word capitalism does not even appear in the Apostolic Exhortation entitled The Joy of the Gospel. In fact, there is nothing new in what Francis says about economics in this document at all”.

In the 84 page document, known as the Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis defines his platform and outlines top priorities for his papacy. Prior comments by the Pope has only focused on the declining state of the global economy, but the document does provide more insight into the belief system of Pope Francis. However, right-wing conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh are making claims that Pope Francis crossed the line by equating “unfettered capitalism” with “tyranny”.

“Pope Francis attacked unfettered capitalism as ‘a new tyranny’ and beseeched global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality, in a document on Tuesday setting out a platform for his papacy and calling for a renewal of the Catholic Church. … In it, Francis went further than previous comments criticizing the global economic system, attacking the ‘idolatry of money.'” ~  Rush Limbaugh

Pope FrancisPope Francis wrote, “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” He also went on to say, “Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless”.

Pope Francis praised measures by global leaders to improve social welfare, health care, education, and communication, but he also reminds that the majority of people are still living from day to day in dire circumstances. Pope Francis drew from an analogy of the Ten Commandments stating, “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”

Maybe the document does not include the word “capitalism’ in its word count, but this tidbit does not undermine the weight of his words and its reception by the people. In November, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz was elected as the leader of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). According to his biography, Archbishop Kurtz received a Master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Maryland, and he has spent the bulk of his calling working with the Catholic Social Agency and Family Bureau.

In a statement released by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good on Kurtz’s election states:

We thank God for the election of Archbishop Joseph Kurtz as the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. With his long pastoral experience, he’s a man who is clearly capable of moving the bishops’ conference forward in the vision laid out by Pope Francis. During this time of great excitement and fanfare for the universal Church, the bishops of the United States have a unique opportunity to renew the American Church as a place of welcome for all God’s children and as a tireless protector of God’s gifts in the public sphere, particularly as a defender of the poor and the marginalized. We look forward to journeying together with him in the years to come.

As an organization, we once again renew ourselves in our dedication to the Church. During his inaugural homily, Pope Francis asked all of us to work together to be protectors of God’s gifts. With Archbishop Kurtz, the bishops of the United States and the entire American Church, we plan to do just that.

The election of Archbishop Kurtz, who has diligently served in the area of social services, appears to be more inline with the vision and direction of Pope Francis’ manifesto. What is your thoughts? Do you feel the media has unfairly reported the intent of Pope Francis’ words?

Hospice and Palliative Care: Where Are We?

November is National Hospice and Palliative Care month and palliative care is still in its infancy. We are still learning and growing, and in many ways, fine tuning who we are and what we do. As social workers and as leaders, we have work to do. It is critical that we continue to hold true to our core values: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity and competence, especially as we look at these numbers provided by the Administration on Aging (AoA):

  • PopulationThe older population (65+) numbered 41.4 million in 2011, an increase of 6.3 million or 18% since 2000

  • Older women outnumber older men at 23.4 million older women to 17.9 million older men

  • In 2011, 21.0% of persons 65+ were members of racial or ethnic minority populations

  • About 28% (11.8 million) of non-institutionalized older persons live alone (8.4 million women, 3.5 million men)

  • Almost half of older women (46%) age 75+ live alone

The statistics go on and on and we know that members of our older population will be requiring care of all kinds in ever increasing numbers. Enter…the critical role of the social worker. But, I hate to ask, is the role of the social worker really critical? Let’s take a look: Palliative care is defined in part by the following:

  • Holistic care, utilizing the biopsychosocial/spiritual model

  • Addresses the needs of the patient and her/his family system

  • Assists people to design and achieve their best possible experience

  • Guides, supports and empowers people through the process of understanding what is important to them in their lives

  • Utilizes highly skilled and well-coordinated interdisciplinary teams

  • Assures teams are guided by the patient/family centered plan with the goals they have given to us, and…

  • Aggressively addresses both pain AND suffering

Eric Cassell describes suffering as distress brought about by the actual or perceived impending threat to the integrity or continued existence of the whole person. He states that suffering can include physical pain but is by no means limited to it.¹

But it is not just “pain and suffering” on people’s minds as they live in the light of serious illness. In addition, people struggle with thoughts of letting go of life and as they look for ways to find meaning in their experience. Hospice and palliative care can never have a predominant focus on pain and symptom management with the rest of the team serving in a “by-the-way” capacity. That is not who we are and it is not what we promise. All members of the team are necessary for a person to have a true palliative care experience – and all need to be working in concert around a person-centered plan.

It is now critical for social workers to step up as leaders in palliative care, whether it is raising the bar for more efficient teamwork or at the mezzo level, influencing care nationally and internationally. The goal is to help assure a more consistent approach to care that includes our clinical skill development and best practice approaches.

With this in mind it is exciting to discover that educational opportunities for palliative care and hospice social workers abound. Everything from live intensives to all online programs are available to accommodate diverse learning preferences.  Online programs offer social workers the flexibility to obtain certificates without ever leaving home and completing modules/assignments while working part or full-time.

So here is my challenge for hospice and palliative care social workers this month:

  • Service – work on raising the bar for true inter/transdisciplinary practice

  • Social justice – make a special effort to identify the underserved individuals and populations in your community and reach out

  • Dignity and worth of the person – never forget that “the person” not “the patient” is who we seek to serve

  • Importance of human relationships – “problem focused care plans” are not who we are…nor is our approach “diagnose and treat”. This about assisting people to have THEIR best possible experience which includes “opportunities” they might not have identified on their own

  • Integrity – Our job is to do the best job we can, in every situation, with every person

  • Competence – it is our responsibility to never stop looking for better ways to serve – to never stop seeking ways to improve/complement our skills

In the book “Phantom”, author Ted Bell describes a conversation between a young naval cadet and his boxing instructor. The instructor said:

The ideal fighter has heart, skill, movement, intelligence, but also creativity. You can have everything, but if you can’t make it up while you are in the ring, you can’t be great. A lot of chaps have the mechanics and no heart; lots of guys have heart and no mechanics; the thing that puts it all together, it’s mysterious, it’s like making a work of art, you bring everything to it and you make it up while you are doing it.²

This sounds like social workers. We pack our bags full of skill (mechanics) and life experience (heart) and then…we make it up while we are doing it. During this special month, let’s remember to recognize the importance of all social workers in every area of practice. Stepping up as leaders is truly in our blood and at the heart of who we all are.

For more information on palliative care courses for social workers, visit


¹Cassell, Eric J. 2004. The Nature of Suffering, Oxford University Press, New York, N.Y.

²Bell, Ted (2012). Phantom. Harper Collins, New York, N.Y.

Leaving Room For Change: Beyond Evidence Based Practice

Those of us in the social work profession have spent at least 4 years at university studying the intricacies of human behaviours, and thousands of hours analysing a myriad of models and theories that claim to provide the “solution” to people problems. Every model taught has undergone rigorous testing by suitably qualified professionals in order to prove validity, and to claim its stake in the world of “best practice” or “evidence based practice”.

We exit university feeling well equipped with an abundance of knowledge and an ability to adapt what we have learnt to any given client situation. Ethically, we’re bound to continue our professional development and keep ourselves up to date on the latest findings that add to, question or replace the strategies we were taught, and have started to use with our client groups.

prescriptiveHeading into the “real world”, we soon realize that the organisation (or its funding body) will regulate which models we will use with our particular client group. This may feel “prescriptive” for a while, but soon we’ll either be convinced, or told, that this is the latest and most effective evidence based method of intervention for your particular client group.  We may sprinkle in a portion of our own personality, and if particularly brave, insert a couple of our own ideas throughout the intervention process.  How and when this sort of “insertion of the worker’s own interpretation” occurs does not appear to be of much (if any) concern in overall evaluations.

The assertive among us may even go so far as to suggest CHANGE to some of the old “tried and true” strategies. But we’ll soon realize that we need a team of researchers and multitudes of clients willing to be guinea pigs, to provide that much-needed “evidence”. Time consuming. Probably cost prohibitive.  We’re probably already overworked and underpaid.  Perhaps it’s best to just stick to the existing  prescription.  After all, the “experts” have stated that all the research points to evidence that this works. Furthermore, organisational managers who have a management perspective (as opposed to a client perspective) start to adapt these models as “evidence”  to show they are following procedures which have a “proven” methodology. Models have measurements to gauge outcomes, and outcomes justify organisational spending.

Here comes the irony. Interestingly, we encourage our clients to embrace change. As social workers, we are often called “change agents”.  How then, can we justify a profession that is becoming “prescriptive” by the very nature of insistence on “evidence based practice”?

Now before I am bombarded by those proponents of evidence based practice who only read part way through a document – I urge you to read on.

changeBy no means am I inferring we do away with tried and tested models of intervention. Nor would the removal of “evidence” of effective practice achieve anything bar chaos. What I am suggesting is that “prescription intervention” has an inherent risk of the helping professional becoming complacent in his/her  practice. Take that complacency to its limits and we may well end up with workers who  place expectations on client responses. After all, if there is a generic “correct” model of intervention, then there must a generic “correct” client response.  Yet nothing could be further from the truth – we all know that client responses are as diverse as client circumstances.

So wherein lies the balance? The balance lies in perspective. It’s about how we view a particular model. The key is this – models are not meant to be prescriptive, they are a guide.  We value individual differences, so leave room in your practice to adapt, to be innovative, to be flexible according to your particular client needs and circumstances. Look beyond the prescription. Best practice is about best outcomes for clients.

Most of all, focus less on the need to be rigidly mindful on a model and start to use creativity, flexibility, authenticity, innovation and adaptability to ensure that any model of intervention remains relevant to client needs.  And if you think perhaps you’ve fallen into the trap of complacency, consider the need for some time out to regain that sense of wonder, intrigue and sense of justice you once had in your early practice years. Why? It is important for social workers to retain the ability to function effectively as a “change agent”.

Let’s just look at those words again – creativity, flexibility, authenticity, innovation, adaptability. A little outside your comfort zone? Not quite sure where these things fit into social work?   Let me remind you of Einstein’s quote “the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.  If you are not creative, flexible, innovative, authentic and adaptable in your own practice, then how can you empower your clients to make change?  If you adopt one particular “modus operandi” in your practice, relying solely on what has been presented to you as “evidence based practice”, then where will new ideas come from?  If you view one particular model as the generic answer to your client group’s issues, how will innovative new practices ever evolve?

It isn’t simply a case of sitting in the status quo of a current model and insisting on its merits because it has “proven results”, or because the company that pays your salary insists that you utilize a particular method. If you see a need for change, then speak out. Act on it. Find others in the helping professions and discuss their experiences.  After all, isn’t that what we encourage our clients to do?

Community Organizes to Stop Racial Profiling by the Durham Police Department

In response to the community activist group Fostering Alternative Enforcement Action (FADE) ongoing efforts to expose troubling reports of racial disparities and bias by the Durham Police Department, Mayor Bell convened the Human Relations Commission on Tuesday October 1, 2013 to hear from the community.

As the meeting commenced, there was a palpable sense of urgency and somberness among the packed audience. In a orderly and quiet manner, a steady stream of community members, eighteen in all, came before the Commission to speak. They were an impressive cross-section of Durham—old and young, black and white, the primly and casually dressed, all united by a desire to make the community they love work better for all people.

With three minutes to address the 15-member Commission, speeches ranged from those highlighting SCSJ’s recent Durham PD Racial Profiling data to emotional pleas regarding the perilous state of young black men in Durham. One white pastor talked of “two Durhams”, one where he was able to do drugs freely as a Duke undergrad and another where a black neighbor was unable to get police to respond in a timely matter to a missing child report.

When he called on her behalf, the police promptly responded. This combination of data and personal stories of ill treatment at the hands of law enforcement was a potent mix. While Commissioners asked no questions and made no comments, it is hard to imagine they could have sat through the testimony and not been deeply moved and alarmed. At one point, one speaker addressed the Commissioners directly, rhetorically stating that all of the African American members knew what he was talking about, that they had either experienced police mistreatment because of their skin color or knew someone that had.

As the meeting came to a close, the Chair of the Commission informed the audience that members would now take time to review written and oral testimony and data reports, conducting further research as needed. Ultimately, the Chair said, the Commission would make recommendations to City Council regarding the issues raised at the hearing. When it become apparent that there would be no further comment from Commissioners, an audience member haltingly shouted out, “Will we know what recommendations you make?” The Chair responded formally and somewhat unconvincingly, “You will know.”

Want to get involved? You can visit the FADE Facebook page to learn more and attend the group’s next meeting. You can also email to join SCSJ’s Criminal Justice Reform Initiative email list and receive regular updates.

Child Welfare: Where Are We Going And Where Have We Been

Child Welfare refers to a set of government services that are designed to protect children, and also to encourage stability within the family.  These types of services include, but are not limited to:  foster care, adoption services, and child protection services.  The “child protection services” were aimed at investigating child abuse and neglect, and if necessary, removing the child from the home.

Policies and legislation regarding child welfare trace back all the way to 1825, when states were given the right to remove neglected children from the abusive parents and the home.  The children were then placed into an orphanage or in another home, which later became known as “foster care”.  In 1835, the Humane Society founded the National Federation of Child Rescue.

These agencies had the authority to investigate child maltreatment.  It the late 19th century, private agencies, decided to follow the Humane Societies’ agenda and were able to investigate maltreatment, present cases to the court, and advocate for proper child welfare legislation.

Moreover, in 1874 the first case of child abuse that was criminally prosecuted in court was in regards to Mary Ellen, a young girl that was moved from place to place and beaten by her stepmother.  Etta Wheeler, a Methodist social worker, sought assistance from Henry Bergh, founder of the ASPCA, to use the defense of “cruelty to animals”.  Mary Ellen was removed from the home and placed into a safe environment.

Government officials continued to make changes and create policies to benefit workers fighting for neglected children.  President Roosevelt, in 1909, created a “publicly funded volunteer organization to establish and standards of childcare”, and in 1930, the Social Security Act provided funding for interventions needed for the “neglected and dependent children in danger of becoming dependent”.  In 1958, the Social Security Act was amended and mandated that states would fund child protection efforts.

However, the Child Abuse Prevention and Tax Act (CAPTA) was passed in 1974, and US Congress implemented a number of laws that made a major impact on the state child protection and welfare systems, by providing federal funding wide-ranging federal and state child maltreatment research and services.  This helped lead up to Congress passing the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, which was the first federal child protective service act which primarily focused on the state economic incentives to help decrease the length and number of foster care placements.

Interesting enough, also paving the way for social workers today was Helen Boardman.  She earned her Master’s in Social Work in Chicago, and worked as a Social Worker at a Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles until 1972.  It was there that Boardman developed a passion for advocacy for children and the prevention of child abuse.  She was the first to recognize the true depth of child abuse and make it known to the medical and legal systems.

Boardman pressured Henry Kempe to write, Battered Child Syndrome Awareness of a Child, as a social issue, and pressed the National Children’s Bureau for mandatory laws in reporting child abuse.  Helen Boardman was the founding member of the Social Workers Association of Los Angeles (SWALA), which played an enormous role in the planning and development of the National Association of Social Work (NASW) (Univ. of SC, 2005-2006)

Therefore, the mid-70s through the 1980’s seemed to be where child welfare gained a lot of momentum in the policies and reform.  However, policies will continue to be amended and added in efforts to ensure that children remain safe and secure in their home environment.  Following the footsteps of Etta Wheeler and Helen Boardman, social workers must continue to advocate for the voices that cannot fight for themselves.


American Humane Association. (n.d.) Retrieved from:

Bryjak, G.J. (2011, April). Parents, Children, Faith Healing, & the Law. Retrieved from

Michel, S. (2012, April).  Child Care: The American History. The Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from american-history/

North Carolina Division of Social Services. About Child Abuse and Neglect.

University of Southern California. (2005-2006). California Social Work Hall of Distinction.

Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2012). Major Federal Legislation Concerned

With Child Protection, Child Welfare, and Adoption. Child Welfare Information Gateway. Retrieved from

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