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Takeaways from April 29 Symposium: Supporting Families, Building a Better Tomorrow for Children: The Role of the Social Service Workforce

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Submitted by guest blogger, Chiedza Mufunde

On April 29, 2014, the Alliance hosted a symposium, Supporting Families, Building a Better Tomorrow for Children: The Role of the Social Service Workforce in Washington, D.C. The symposium, attended by professionals working to promote resilience through child and family-centered interventions at the micro, meso and macro levels featured panelists working in South Africa, Cote d’Ivoire, Tanzania, Uganda, Namibia, Philippines and Zimbabwe. Some of the major highlights included discussions on workforce training, role of community assets, and the importance of coordination and integration in service delivery.  

In the keynote address by UNICEF’s Chief for Child Protection Programmes, Dr. Susan Bissell underscored the 20th Anniversary of the International Year of the Family. Families are the first port of call for children and they play an essential role in development. Sadly, in many places around the world, this port is broken due to violence, conflict, HIV/AIDS and extreme poverty. The social service workforce is the supply in working to protect children in these dire situations.  Dr. Bissell also noted the importance of training and coordination of the workforce to avoid doing harm, even when there are good intentions.  While there are many challenges—certification, resources, supervision, attracting professionals, burnout—in the training of social workers, there is evidence of increased partnerships to train and retain frontline workers in communities.  In her opening remarks, Dr. Caroline Ryan, Deputy Coordinator for Technical Leadership, US Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator, underscored PEPFAR’s support and sponsorship for social service workforce strengthening and programming.

Dr. Nathan Linsk discussed the project training para-professionals in Tanzania in collaboration with the Institute of Social Work and the AIHA Twinning Center. Para-professionals fill in critical gaps in identifying needs and providing support. Kendra Blackett- Dibinga presented findings from a recent study by Save the Children indicating the critical role of community caregivers on children orphaned or made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS in Cote d’Ivoire. According to the study, The Impact of Community Caregivers in Cote d’Ivoire: Improving Health and Social Outcomes through Community Caregivers in Cote d’Ivoire, households that received community caregiver support were about 12 times more likely to receive care and had better clinical and social outcomes. In South Africa, the Isibindi model implemented by the National Association of Child and Youth Care Workers is evidence of the role of community-based child and youth care workers trained to provide child-care services that are family- centered.  Zeni Thumbadoo captured the essence of the role of social service workforce in direct service provision at the micro level: “The core of Isibindi is translating care into action by using everyday life events—ordinary human interactions—that transcend basic needs and foster resilience.”  

Community ownership featured prominently among panelists working at the meso level through community caregivers and case care workers. As Mike Wessells stressed, studies indicate that there are spontaneous, homegrown child protection mechanisms that are often sustainable and effective within communities. Mapping out these assets and resources through connecting the formal and non-formal actors is only achievable when the workforce engages the community as co-learners. Reflecting on positionality relative to local people is essential in cultivating community ownership. Patrick Onyango Mangen presented on work in remote areas of Somalia and Uganda.  He emphasized the need for social workers to develop the ability to navigate dual worlds and respect local traditions without romanticizing or judging them. Social service workers can and are harnessing local strategies that have the potential to improve outcomes for children and families.

Engagement with the community sets the stage for successful integration and coordination at the macro level. Patience Ndlovu elaborated on the case management program with Bantwana Initiative in building the system of the Department of Social Services in Zimbabwe. Through this cadre of volunteers, case care workers ease the burden of social workers and meet the needs of children. Joyce Nakuta of the Ministry of Social Welfare, Namibia also echoed the need to promote an integrated service delivery system in establishing a continuum of care; it is important for governments, and non-governmental actors to embrace partnership as key to building and strengthening national systems. Based on the experience of establishing child protection units in the Philippines, Dr. Bernadette Madrid stressed the need to advocate at all levels to ensure sustainability and institutionalization of child protection laws.  All panels highlighted close collaborations with various universities in integrating curricula on child protection: Bantwana Initiative collaboration with University of Zimbabwe and Women’s University in Africa social work programs; Makerere University in Uganda and TPO Uganda; UNICEF and Harvard School of Public Health and University of KwaZulu-Natal; and Institute of Social Work, Tanzania and PEPFAR. These collaborations build capacity of institutions in training a movement of social workers and para-professionals who embody the core principles and values of social work.

Overall, the symposium fostered a stimulating conversation among professionals committed to developing and supporting a workforce that keeps children and families at the heart of the work. My biggest takeaway from the symposium: It takes humility for all players to effectively engage and coordinate actions that inspire breakthroughs in protecting children. Many thanks to the Alliance for organizing the event!


Chiedza Mufunde recently received an MSW from Boston College Graduate School of Social Work specializing in global practice and policy.



Lucy Steinitz's picture

Thanks for this great summary of the Symposium.  Gaps remain, of course -- for example, by focusing more on protection of vulnerable adults as well as children (e.g. people with disabilities, ethnic or other minorities, also women in some situations), and also in emergency (refugee, migration or conflict) situations.  Also, what role can social service workers play in fostering spiritual support for families and individuals?  I wonder if anyone has information or resources on that aspect.But thansk again!  So many critical points were highlighted.  Very inspiring.... 

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