Cultural Competence in Child Welfare: What Is It? How Do We Achieve It? What Happens without It?

By McPhatter, Anna R. | Child Welfare, January/February 1997 | Go to article overview

Cultural Competence in Child Welfare: What Is It? How Do We Achieve It? What Happens without It?


McPhatter, Anna R., Child Welfare


The overrepresentation of minority children in the child welfare system is well-documented. Providing culturally relevant and effective medical and psychosocial services in the field, while an enduring goal, still remains elusive. This article asserts that before significant progress toward achieving these goals can be made, what constitutes cultural competence must be elucidated. A Cultural Competence Attainment Model, comprising a grounded knowledge base, affective dimensions, and cumulative skill proficiency, is described for use by child welfare practitioners. The effects of cultural incompetence are also addressed.

The overrepresentation of racially and culturally diverse children and families in the child welfare system is wellestablished. In the general population, four times as many African American children as Caucasian children become wards of the state; the former also spend a longer time in the child welfare system [Everett et al. 1991; Edelman 1987]. Nationally, 26% of the children entering out-of-home care are African American and 10% are Latino [National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect 1992]. Moreover, in a number of jurisdictions and states, the percentage of African American children in the out-of-home care system is staggering. These figures range from a high of 87.5% in the District of Columbia to over 45% percent in Illinois, New Jersey, South Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia, and Mississippi. Latino children are overrepresented in several states as well; they comprise 45% of the children in New Mexico, 31% in Texas, 29% in California, 25% in Arizona, and over 15% in Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and New York [Children's Defense Fund 1994].

It is also well-established that the professionals who provide health and social services to these children are predominantly Caucasian. For well over a decade, a variety of efforts have been undertaken to enhance the ability of child welfare practitioners to respond to the needs of children and families of color in ways that are culturally congruent and effective. These efforts have been largely sporadic, with an emphasis on raising awareness and sensitivity. Additional efforts have sought to increase knowledge and understanding about the unique aspects of the history and culture of specific groups, primarily African Americans and Latino Americans. These efforts, however, have not addressed culturally effective practice in a comprehensive and sustained manner, and have been inadequate.

Cultural competence in child welfare practice has become a buzz phrase in dire need of elucidation if we are to move beyond the fragmented approaches that have characterized previous efforts. This article seeks to advance the conceptual understanding of what child welfare practitioners have identified as a goal-cultural competence. A comprehensive model for achieving cultural competence in child welfare is presented and implications of cultural incompetence are discussed. The underlying assumption of this model is that children and families should be provided with health care and psychosocial services that are culturally acceptable and that support the integrity and strengths of their culture. Child welfare practitioners have an obligation to provide culturally congruent interventions if they are to achieve, in actuality, the goal of preserving the best interests of children, families, and communities.

Literature Review

Social demographers project that in less than two decades, racial and ethnic minorities will become the numerical majority in the U.S. [Sue et al. 1992]. Motivated by long-term profit projections, corporate America has taken seriously the inevitable racial and cultural diversity of the future labor force and is investing tremendous resources in preparing for this eventuality. It recognizes that productivity in the workplace is greatly enhanced by the extent to which people engage effectively in crosscultural interactions.

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Cultural Competence in Child Welfare: What Is It? How Do We Achieve It? What Happens without It?
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