Ways of Seeing in the Dark: Addressing Child Maltreatment in Underserved Populations

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From our essay collection Child Maltreatment in Insular and Isolated Communities. View the Table of Contents here.
Editors: Christine James-Brown, Child Welfare League of America; Julie Collins, Child Welfare League of America; Rachel Adams, Child Welfare League of America; Debra Schilling Wolfe, Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research, University of Pennsylvania; John L. Jackson, Jr., School of Social Policy & Practice, University of Pennsylvania; Antonio Garcia, School of Social Policy & Practice, University of Pennsylvania

Several years ago, two Amish girls were kidnapped from their family’s farm stand by the side of the road in rural New York. The police responded and found their attempts to investigate frustrated by the realities of a family that did not trust outsiders or contemporary technology. As the Amish culture shuns photography, the family had no photos they could provide to aid in the search for their children. Law enforcement realized that they needed to work on this crime in a very different manner. They utilized a culturally respectful approach with both the parents and the larger community, first focused on gaining their trust and then bringing in sketch artists to draw likenesses of the two missing girls.

While much has been written about overrepresentation in the child welfare system, little attention has been paid to the opposite side of the equation (Fluke, Harden, Jenkins, & Ruehrdanz, 2011; Shaw, Putnam-Hornstein, Magruder, & Needell, 2008). Though there has been minimal mention of the representation of specific ethnic groups in previous research (Fluke et al., 2011; Hill, 2006; Hill, 2007; Shaw et al., 2008), the literature lacks research about cultural groups, including insular and isolated communities, who are disproportionally underrepresented in agency caseloads. This phenomenon begs a series of questions: Are some groups so isolated that they don’t come to the attention of mainstream social service systems? Is there less child abuse found within some cultures? Do we possess the understanding and skills necessary to effectively engage families from insular or isolated communities? We need to better understand why such gaps exist and how research can inform improved policies and practices. In the example of the Amish family, law enforcement took an alternative, targeted approach to engage this isolated community, focused on developing trust and engaging the family within their cultural norms—and ultimately locating the children and returning them home. The child welfare community needs to explore who is underserved and think of new ways to assist a wide range of families and communities in the protection of children.

In response to this need, CWLA and the Field Center, based at the University of Pennsylvania, partnered to issue a call for essays that address the need for more substantive research and increased awareness regarding child maltreatment in insular and isolated communities. We were, frankly, very surprised by the diversity of topics and perspectives presented in these essays. Some articles provide additional insight into topics with which we are familiar, such as those by Belanger (rural populations), Shipe (single fathers), and Whitt-Woosley and colleagues (grandparents raising children). Other articles concern specific religious sects, such as those by Palusci and colleagues (Orthodox Jews), Doig (the Lev Tahor community of Ontario, Canada), and Harder (the Amish). Authors Hom, and Mshigeni and Jenkins, discuss a group (Asian American families and children) that is well known as being underrepresented in child welfare. Davis and colleagues focus on CPS reporting in isolated indigenous communities, while Lucero and Leake explore American Indians and Alaska Natives in urban settings, both describing underresearched aspects of communities that are overrepresented in the child welfare system. And Chatfield looks at the impact on teens of the insular nature of totalistic residential treatment programs. Some of these essays report on early research results, while others describe proposed future paths of scholarship. However, all of these contributors help to thematize the analytical value of examining groups that ostensibly operate beyond typical—or popularly stereotypical—assumptions about which youth are vulnerable and what such vulnerability entails. These pieces not only shed light on communities that might be little known to many readers, but also help to re-assess what many well-meaning researchers might take for granted in studies of more seemingly mainstream or discursively over-represented social groups. Indeed, getting the story right about what people might dismissively call “fringe” groups like the Amish can allow scholars and practitioners to recalibrate what they see when interrogating more familiar social groups, as well.

As noted, the impact of raising awareness of the occurrence of child maltreatment in insular communities is evident across all of these essays. The contributors, however, highlight a diverse range of populations that our authors define as isolated or underserved in child welfare services, and are varied with respect to the empirical process of examining isolated experiences. These contexts open many doors as to how to translate innovative ideas into further research. For those at the beginning stages of generating new knowledge, a needs assessment might be warranted: What do leaders and helpers understand about the signs, causes, and consequences of maltreatment? How do (or should) child advocates and the community at large respond to concerns of child maltreatment? Relying upon this initial assessment, researchers might then think about innovative methodologies that will generate a theoretical basis or framework for culturally responsive healing practices to prevent and/or address the occurrence of child maltreatment. In regard to topics that are already familiar, or for those studies that have cited preliminary results, how can additional knowledge generated be used to develop or enhance healing practices? Who might need to be invited to the table to implement strategies that support insular and isolated communities to help prevent or respond to child maltreatment?

Irrespective of the knowledge already generated about this diversified topic and population, we are pleased to publish this varied group of essays and encourage further study regarding a subset of child welfare that has received too little attention to date. These essays also will serve to inform a future special issue of our Child Welfare journal.

To access the essay collection, login as a CWLA member or purchase and download it here

About the Author:

Rachel Adams is the managing editor of CWLA's Child Welfare journal and the editor for Children's Voice magazine, CWLA textbooks, and curricula. She manages the weekly "Last Week in Child Welfare" blog, which features state-level updates on foster care, adoption, policy-making, juvenile justice, child protection, and other child welfare-related news.

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