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Social work leader shares lessons on social policy and social change

Carol Wilson Spigner, DSW, still believes that to create real change, social work researchers, practitioners, and others advocating for marginalized communities must understand the relationship of policy and practice.

“I really believe that all policy should be influenced by what we learn from practice,” said Spigner, a retired associate professor from the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice. “What we learn in terms of research, in terms of evidence and in terms of definitions of problems should influence the development of policy. At the same time, I believe the role of policy is to create environments where we can do good practice—where we have the choices and the flexibility and the freedom within the context of the set of social goals and objectives to do the work really well.”

Spigner, who spent more than 40 years as a social worker at the street, organizational and policy levels, including as the associate commissioner of the national Children’s Bureau, delivered her message on March 8 as speaker for the UNC School of Social Work’s 2016 Bobby Boyd Leadership Lecture. The annual lecture series, which this year fell during “National Social Work Month,” is named after an alumnus and member of the School’s Board of Advisors. The series provides a forum for leaders from various fields to discuss their experiences and strategies to promote social change interventions.

Spigner, the former director of the now dissolved National Child Welfare Leadership Center, which was once housed within the UNC School of Social Work, has focused her lifetime work on reforming public child welfare agencies and child welfare policy. During her speech, she shared lessons she has learned over four decades while trying to best serve children and families. Among those lessons included:

  • Be clear who your client is. “I would be willing to fight my boss to do the right thing for kids and their families. I get really discouraged when I hear people say, I can’t do this because. We have to be able to have the vision that’s anchored in what families and children need in order to begin to move the agenda and to make things happen differently.”
  • Continually monitor your field for innovations. “You need to know what’s going on in communities—what’s new, what’s creative and how those things are being documented and evaluated. That’s part of your expertise.”
  • Facilitate input from consumers and clients into the policymaking process. “It’s not good enough for us to be intermediaries. We have to help our clients articulate their experiences… and policymakers need to know what those experiences are. When you are trying to relay the importance of an issue to people who have no experience with that issue, you have to find authentic ways to make that happen. We should be working to ensure that our families are testifying and that they are participating in the collection of data around their experiences so that there’s an authentic client voice in that process.”
  • Work with the opposition. “What I’ve found in children’s work among conservatives, liberals, progressives and people who’ve had a bad morning, they want things better for kids. So if you can identify common goals and common outcomes, you can fight about the strategy. But if you anchor yourself in common ground, then you can begin to negotiate within your own values.”

The fight to create change also means being willing to call out the profession and society on an issue long before either is “willing to hear it,” she said. For Spigner, that meant finding the courage to challenge racial disparities in the child welfare system—an issue she has spotlighted since the late 1960s. Back then, Spigner, who was working in California with the LA County Departments of Adoption and Probation, learned that children, mainly minority infants, were being moved into an “unadoptable file,” if workers within her agency were unable to place the children into a permanent home by 6 months of age. At the time, there were about 400 children in the caseload, she said.

Spigner, who visited with Professor Mark Testa’s Child Welfare Policy class earlier in the day, shared with the audience, as she did with Testa’s students, how that discovery infuriated her and energized her to push for change.

“You have to understand that I come from a long line of troublemakers,” Spigner told Testa’s students. “As I was sitting there reading these cases, I was getting angrier and angrier and angrier. And I said, what would have happened to me in this system if my mother hadn’t wanted me? Would I trust this system to care for me? Absolutely not. That was the one time I wished I was a lawyer because I was ready to sue them.”

Spigner said it was also the first time she began to understand how systemic discrimination reduces lifelong opportunities for children. “That (understanding) really has driven and been the passion for me because all kids need families,” she said. “Kids need to be treated fairly. You can’t give up on kids.”

Spigner said she and her colleagues were successful in finding families for the children and ultimately, helped to change the California system. Although racial disparities within child welfare still exist across the country today, Spigner said she’s encouraged that the issue is getting more attention because others like her have and continue to speak out.

“Each of us will have a different issue that we’re passionate about—race was mine,” she said during her lecture. “But when you’re seeing things that are not right, whether the climate is right or wrong, we have to name it, label it, call it and begin the discussion to move it forward.”

Although quality practice, good results and fairness still represent the standards of the social work profession, there will always likely be a struggle to achieve those values, Spigner added.

“It requires vigilance, and it requires continuous change,” she said. “We only make progress when we are willing to confront the weakness in our work and the weaknesses in our community and the weaknesses in our society and elevate them to public discussion.”