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Understanding Social Justice in Child Welfare Practice

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Social Work
Wordcount: 8654 words Published: 18th May 2020

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Dissertation Proposal

Chapter 1: Introduction

The American child welfare system provides services to children and families when a child is identified as vulnerable to physical, mental, and emotional harm due to an unsafe environment (NASW, 2018).   The professional position of the social worker is a prominent role in providing appropriate services with better outcomes to the families receiving intervention through the system (Strier & Binyamin, 2013). The leading national and international professional social worker organizations have provided the guidelines for extending appropriate services to children and families (Morgaine, 2014; NASW, 2018).  Social Justice is one of the values, among the six core values, from the NASW standards rooted in the mission of the social work profession (NASW, 2018). Although social justice is a complex term, it is identified as an organizing value and foundation of social work (Morgaine, 2014). The social work profession is aligned with a commitment to social justice (Bhuyan, Bejan & Jeyapal, 2017) over the decades.  Fonta and Maguire-Jack (2015) explained that the practice of social work is historically the profession to promote social justice and challenge unfair treatment toward marginalized members of society.  Currently, social work practice models and frameworks include the implication of social justice in complex issues such as economic, political, and social imbalances along with culture and gender issues (Harrison, VanDeusen & Way, 2016; Moore et al., 2017).  While there is the ongoing association between social justice and social work practice (Moore et al., 2017), according to Segal and Wagaman (2017) there are uncertainties of the alignment due to the challenge for social workers to define social justice and the uncertainty of how social justice is integrated with social work practice (Segal & Wagaman, 2017).  To strengthen the collaboration between social justice and social work there is a need to establish what determines social justice in social work practice (Moore et al., 2017).  The path toward building the stronger alliance as suggested by Harrison, VanDeusen and Way (2016) is to consider the underlying need to establish a unified definition of social justice and application in social work practice.

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There is limited research conducted surveying how child welfare social workers define social justice and how and if they apply the concept of social justice to practice (McLaughlin et al., 2015). Similar to the general practice of social work, associating social justice values to child welfare practice is a major component to performance (DeLong-Hamilton, Krase & Bundy-Fazioli, 2016).  The ethical standards created by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) state that child welfare social workers are to reject social injustice and to pursue social justice for clients (Bhuyan, Bejan & Jeyapal, 2017; NASW, 2017).  What is not provided is a clear definition of social justice and guidelines to integrate social justice in daily practice (Williams, 2016; Wilson-Strydom, 2015). 

In line with the studies of Wilson-Strydom (2015) and Williams (2016, Davidson et al. (2017) too; addressed a social work practice framework of equality and fairness through evaluating an example of child welfare social work-related duties. The results from the Davidson et al. (2017) research discovered a high percentage of participants admitted to the uncertainty of how social justice is incorporated in the child welfare social worker’s performance and revealed self-perception as the means to determine actions aligned with social justice.  When considering child welfare social worker’s application of social justice to practice, Morgaine (2017) specifically questioned the ability of child welfare social workers to define the meaning of social justice.  Morgaine (2017) stated that the difficulty to define social justice within the context of social work practice could be due to child welfare social workers conceptualizing social justice based on individual rights and excluding understanding of global and cultural implications to social justice. Sharing the concern of challenges faced by child welfare workers, Ellet (2014) & Bent-Goodley (2014) also discussed the application of social justice within social work practice by examining the vagueness in the definition for social justice.  Ellet (2014) and Bent-Goodley (2014) explained that the lack of clarity in the definition could impose a level of uncertainty with how child welfare social workers operationalize their practice of the concept of social justice which is essential with working within the communities of marginalized communities. 

Complexities in cases could be considered barriers when applying social justice to social work practice due to the unclear definition of social justice and the uncertainty of how to apply social justice to field practice (Bhuyan, Bejan &Jeyapal, 2017; Morgaine, 2017). Through genuinely embracing this fundamental value of applying social justice to social work practice the profession can embed social justice in social work.  Hence, it is necessary to understand the perception of social justice by social workers and their application of this principle in the practice of social work.

Statement of the Problem

The problem addressed by this study is how social justice is defined by the child welfare social workers and how and if the concept of social justice is applied to practice (McLaughlin, Grayb & Wilson, 2015).  The prime objective in the profession of social work is providing services to improve human well-being and assist with meeting the basic needs of individuals (Irizarry et al., 2015).  While there is extensive literature reviewing discussion of the relation between social justice, social work, and social welfare (Bell & Romano, 2015; Morgaine, 2014; Olson et al., 2013), research specifically relating to how child welfare social workers perceive and examine social justice in their practice toward meeting the needs of children and families is minimal (Davis & Reber, 2016).  Child welfare social workers can pursue social justice for their children and families by aligning practice with the needs of the child and their families (Hansford, Ely, Flaherty & Meyer-Adams, 2017).

Several articles written by scholars indicate value for including social justice within the practice of child welfare social workers (Bell & Romano, 2015; Morgaine, 2014; Olson et al., 2013).  The value of pursuing the definition of social justice and applying the concept to practice may lead the child welfare social workers to lead intervention to reduce or eliminate the trauma which affects the familial structure (LaLiberte & Piescher (2015).  Consequently, the value has a great level of significance to the perception for social justice (Bell & Romano, 2015).  There lies intensely the acknowledgment by the social workers to recognize the impact of defining and applying social justice which affects the marginalized population of clients served in the child welfare system (Davis & Reber, 2016).   

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this qualitative case study is to examine child welfare social worker’s perception of the definition for social justice and the application of the concept of social justice to practice.  In the child welfare system, the concept of social justice emerges through the protection of children against abuse and neglect (Keenan, Limone, & Sandoval, 2016).  Understanding how child welfare social workers formulate the concept of social justice within social work practice will contribute to developing goals and processes that are sensitive to work performance (Morgaine, 2014). The consensus of a definition contribute to the application of social justice frameworks and principals of social work creating cohesiveness and collective understanding when applying social justice to social work practice. A qualitative case study design will be used to understand how social workers define social justice and implement it in their practice.  The participants for the study will be 5-25 social workers. The goal of this study is to attain saturation which occurs when the addition of more participants to a study does not result in further information or perspectives (Creswell, 2018).  For this study, participants will be recruited from the following professional groups: National Child Welfare Workforce Institute and Child Welfare Professionals, Inx. online social media websites.  A flyer containing details of the research study will be posted on these websites. Interested participants can contact the researcher for any further questions. A Qualtrics link to the Informed consent form and semi structured questionnaire will also be provided on the flyer. Once the participants give their informed consent, they will be directed to the semi structured questionnaire.  The completed questionnaire will be reviewed, and the answers will be analyzed through NVivo software to identify patterns, features and themes.

Conceptual Framework

Morgaine (2014) gave a conceptual model to present three distinct levels by which a better understanding of the application of social justice in social work practice can be made, such as individual, microsocial, and macrosocial levels (Morgaine, 2014).  At the individual level, it focuses on the individual rights and the influence of personal values along with culture on the interpretation of social justice (Morgaine, 2014).  At the microsocial level, social justice is a micro aspect, and social workers stress on the relationship ties, associations with the social workers and the social process by which an individual becomes the social worker who advocates social justice for clients, especially the social worker’s group influence at this level (Morgaine, 2014). Morgaine (2014) claims that at the microsocial level social workers conduct critical reflection of the how the nature of the political structure and systematic nature of social justice issues may produce a challenge to social workers ability to apply social justice to practice.  Included in the microsocial level is the perception that the varied meaning of social justice creates non-cohesiveness in the application of social justice frameworks and principles within social work practice (Morgaine, 2014).         

According to the conceptual framework created by Morgaine (2014) on the microsocial level, social justice can bring social change and formulate a progressive perspective yet there are conservative viewpoints that formulate contradictory actions against social justice for the marginalized groups that social workers provide services. In the macrosocial level, the societal characteristics such as the contributing factors of global perspectives/cultural shifts are used to explain social justice (Morgaine, 2014).  Morgaine (2014) explains that through the increase of preparation from school of social work programs, social workers are supported with prioritizing social justice as a base foundation of practice.  The creation of placing the importance of social justice in the social work school programs extended the instructors the responsibility of presenting the concepts of defining and applying social justice to social work students on a global level (Morgaine, 2014).  Morgaine (2014) explained that the two general categories of challenges that contributed to obstructing social workers ability to work toward the perspective of defining and applying social justice are described as:  (1) the social justice rhetoric of an elusive definition controls the function of challenging social problems, and (2) the advantage of those positioned with power in society  reducing the value of social justice for marginalized groups.  Morgaine’s (2014) study also revealed the statements from the participants which regarded to concerns of the barriers such as the political systematic structure that challenged social workers to pursue including social justice in their practice (pg. 15).  With attempting to address the challenges it is considered that social workers encounter an overwhelming sense of difficulty to achieve the social justice goals, the failure to achieve the goals of education, economic stability, and well-being considers the idea of injustice for clients.

Morgaine’s (2014) study presumes a critical method to examine social justice when applied to social work practice which includes a global perspective to advocate for a stronger presence of social justice in social work practice.  Morgaine’s (2014) conceptual framework can be utilized to gain a better understanding of how child social welfare workers define social justice and apply it in practice. The concepts of individual rights, micro level and macro level factors given by Morgaine (2014) can be serve as a foundation to understanding how child welfare social workers perceive social justice and apply it. The critical insights extend conception into the fact that more than individual factors, there are global and cultural factors influencing social justice as a social worker tries to define and apply advocacy for social justice in social work practice.  It would be interesting to look at any similarities or differences related to the conceptual framework developed by Morgaine (2014) in this research study.  

Nature of the Study

A qualitative case study design will be used to investigate the perceptions of social justice by child welfare social workers and application of the social justice to work.  It is beneficial to examine child welfare social workers’ perspectives of social justice and identify the factors for integrating work-related skills of social justice advocacy that are associated with best practice for children and their families (Bent-Goodley & Hopps, 2016; Bhuyana, Bejana & Jeyapal, 2017;Sayre & Sar, 2015).The qualitative approach of the study helps to provide an in-depth understanding how child welfare social workers define social justice and how and if they apply the concept of social justice to practice (Bird, 2016). A questionnaire for this qualitative case study is the most appropriate approach to complete this study.  The questionnaires are expedient methods of obtaining qualitative data about opinions and attitudes (Creswell & Poth, 2018).  The research questions are formulated to evaluate the child welfare social workers’ responses to how child welfare social workers define social justice and how and if they apply the concept of social justice to practice.   From the materials, the data collected is analyzed and aims to understand what the child welfare social worker’s reveal about their understanding of how to incorporate the concept of social justice in their practice.

Marshall and Rossman (1989) and Merriam (1998) and that qualitative research data collection and analysis is a simultaneous process.  It is explained by Marshall and Rossman (1989) that qualitative data analysis includes classifying persons, things and events and the characterizations of the properties.  The Coliaizzi method of data analysis is the approach often used to interpret and organize meaningful information into themes for qualitative research (Coliaizzi, 1978).  For this qualitative research, a semi-structured questionnaire survey is used to uncover how child welfare social workers perceive social justice and how it is applied to practice.

            The seven steps of Colaizzi’s procedure (Coliaizzi, 1978) for analyzing data collected in an interview is used for this study.  The Colaizzi analysis entails the procedural steps as follows: In the first step, a description of each person participating in the study is read to gain a sense of the participants.  The knowledge of the participant’s feelings, thoughts and ideas are included identifying significant statements and phrases to relate the information to the whole content.  For the study this is recognized by the research questions with significance that are extracted such as descriptions of how child welfare social workers define the term social justice.  From analyzing the significant statements and phrases pertaining to the definitions and applications of social justice to social work practice are extracted from the statements, the meaning of the statements is detected, and themes are created from the meanings. Next, the meanings are sorted and organized into themes, and the themes are clustered into categories of all the resulting ideas.  To highlight the specific themed categories a color-coded system is used for a preliminary analysis.  Finally, an exhaustive description of the lived experiences is written which will structure the phenomena.   Validation is solicited to compare the descriptive results from the participants lived experiences. The finding and outcomes sections will be presented of the coherent justification from the themes. As the last step it is the undertaking to discuss the research findings with the participants to provide the results that reflect the experiences and opinions of the participants.

Research Questions

To determine how child welfare social workers’, define social justice and how and if they apply the concept of social justice in social welfare practice, the following research questions have been developed:

RQ1.  How do child welfare social workers define social justice?

RQ2.  In what way do child welfare social workers apply the concept of social justice in social welfare practice?

Significance of the Study

The intent of this study is to contribute to the overall knowledge base about social justice in social work practice concerning the understanding from social workers of how to define and apply social justice to social work practice. Specifically, this study focuses on examining how social justice is perceived by social workers which may explain how the term is utilized within social work practice.  Historically, there has been the implication that social work practice undoubtedly includes social justice when serving the community (Bird, 2016).  Currently there is concern that there is no consensus by social workers to agree upon a definition of social justice and there lies the struggle to apply the concept of social justice to practice for serving clients

(Davidson-Arad & Benbenishty, 2014).  Social workers provide social justice yet, the work is rhetorical and lacks to address the injustices suffered by clients due to the multiple definition and inconsistencies of application (Harrison, VanDeusen & Way, 2016).  

Over a course of years, the initial presentation of social justice to the social work profession comes through instruction from social work education programs.  Social work instructors increasingly find themselves responsible for offering students curriculum that ignites the discussion to explore social justice and the relationship of social justice to social work when applied to practice (Bywaters, 2015; Davidson et al., 2017). This research work can provide insights into how social welfare workers in child welfare system define social justice, which can be helpful to social work educational programs.

Definitions of Key Terms

American Child Welfare system.  The Child Welfare system of America is a system that is created to protect children of diverse populations who are at risk of harm, abuse, and neglect from their biological parents or guardians by providing services of child protection investigation, family-focused services, foster care, and adoption.  (Yang & Ortega, 2016).

Child Welfare Social Work practice.  The child welfare social practice is a service is intended to provide resources of shelter, financial resources, and public health concerned with the social, mental, and physical wellbeing to children identified as the victim of the effects from the lack of protective parental supervision and care and poverty (Whitaker et a., 2015).

Social Change.  Social change is the sociological term defined as the change in social structure to the transformation of beliefs, social interactions, practices, organization, and structures of society (Forenza, 2016).

Social Justice.  Social Justice is the administration of proper and fair principles adapting to the natural laws that constitutes all persons are treated equally without prejudice respective to gender, race, ethnic origin, and religion (Harrison, VanDeusen, & Way, 2016).

Social welfare.  Social welfare is the political advocacy concept aimed at reforming social institutions to respond to maintaining or improving the livelihood of populations in need while contributing to the solution of recognized social problems, or to improve the well-being of persons, groups, or communities (Ruth, Sisco, & Marshall, 2017).

Social work.  Social work is a human service profession with the fundamental objective to improve the quality of life to impoverished individuals and families through policy and program initiatives and direct (face-to-face), case management service delivery (Schiettecat, Roets, & Vandenbroeck, 2016).

Social Work Ethics.  Social works ethics is a defined set of value standards for proper behavior regarding the social system written in codes determined by the National Association of Social Work (NASW, 2017).


  For child welfare social workers, the social justice concept is essential to implement and develop the objectives and goals for a higher level of excellence in practice with children and families (Davidson et al., 2017).  However, research on perception and implementation of social justice in child welfare system is limited (Bent-Goodley, 2017; Dahl, 2016; Gasker & Fischer, 2014). The purpose of this qualitative case study is to examine child welfare social worker’s knowledge of social justice and understanding of the application of the concept of social justice in their practice as social workers in the child welfare system.  The participants of this study will be 5-25 child welfare social workers who will voluntarily participate in a semi-structured interview designed to gain their understanding of social justice as applied to their standard practice.  NVivo software will be utilized to do the content analysis of the interviews. The qualitative analysis will help in generating themes helpful in understanding the definition and implementation of social justice.


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