UVA Wise Sociology Professor Explores Kentucky’s Child Welfare System In First Book

Professor standing at foot of stairs

UVA Wise Associate Professor of Sociology Christa Moore is set to tour her first book examining Kentucky’s child welfare system and exploring future solutions for families.

The book, “Gendered Power in Child Welfare: What’s Care Got to Do with It?” co-authored by Moore and Patricia Gagné, was published last year by Lexington Books, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield. Gagné served as Moore’s dissertation chair and mentor at the University of Louisville, where Moore obtained her doctorate in applied sociology and Gagné is professor emerita.

So far Moore has given book talks in Tennessee and Kentucky with plans for venues in New York, Georgia, Florida, Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia later this fall.

“Even though my research was focused on Kentucky, the issues and challenges my research identified are everywhere. They're system issues. That's why I hope the book translates broadly, at a regional and national level,” said Moore, who received the UVA Wise Outstanding Research and Publication award for the book last year.

The book is aimed at sociologists, human services practitioners, social or child protective services workers and organizations working with vulnerable families facing issues such as poverty, domestic violence, substance abuse and generational child abuse or neglect.

The book is also applicable to a broader audience including those who work in the schools, courts and as physical and mental health providers, Moore said.

Recently, “Choice,” a review magazine published by the Association of College and Research Libraries, evaluated the 350-page, eight chapter book offering praise and a “highly recommended” stamp of approval.  

As the review states, the book offers potential system reforms through “more feminized orientations that hearken back to the earliest extensions of community-centered care for those most vulnerable, especially children with protective needs.”

Moore and Gagné call for a change in the child welfare system which holds a systemic focus on efficiency rather than the best interest of the family.

“Throughout the text are sad and frustrating stories of the social workers and families caught in this flawed system. A meticulous review of the case files reveals how, in story after story, children are rarely returned to their families after being removed,” the review states.

A history of child welfare in the U.S. illuminates the current system’s origins “beginning in the colonial era when poor children were sent to live in workhouses or auctioned off to other families for their labor. Poor families were considered lazy and immoral, a legacy the authors document to the present. This is an excellent exploration of the barriers to family reunification. Highly recommended.”

“How can you turn off your caring at 5 p.m.?"

Moore’s nearly 20 years of experience as a Kentucky social worker is the basis of the book. Before attending graduate school she worked as an in-home crisis intervention specialist and data analyst for the state’s division of protection and permanency, which investigates and monitors child protective services issues.

“I was really focused on these different organizations from these different disciplines and how well they work together to support the needs of a shared, targeted pool of families within a rural community. How can we partner better not only with each other, but with the family, too? And through doing that research and reflecting upon my own experiences I realized that the issues that the family faces can sometimes be further complicated by system barriers,” Moore said.

Taking an in-depth look at those systems became the foundation for her dissertation and later the book.

The book provides a history of the child welfare system in Kentucky and other states proposing it’s based on masculine values that were institutionalized before women had the right to vote, hold public office or have a voice in public law and policy.

“Historically, child welfare systems grew out of the local, community-driven, faith-based efforts of unemployed women who volunteered within their community because they were discouraged from holding jobs, especially elite or wealthy women,” Moore said.

These women started charity systems within communities for families in need.

They would help these mothers learn how to be better mothers,” Moore said.

The book also highlights the historical development of the workplace that has traditionally been a space for men and fathers. The development of social work, including nursing and teaching and other more “feminized occupational roles,” created a gendered pathway for care work within communities for women.

“Those women could only be direct service workers, not set policy or laws or supervise. The child welfare systems and other human services systems of today still are grounded in those orientations,” Moore said.

Moore conducted more than 200 hours of participant observations partnering with approximately 45 different programs as part of her research for the book.

She sat in on and observed court proceedings and child advocates while working. She analyzed open and closed cases with child protective services and the child advocacy center. She spoke to forensic nurses, doctors, psychiatrists and therapists. She observed counseling in the schools and resources centers. She shadowed in-home crisis intervention visits. She visited domestic violence and homeless shelters, food and clothing pantries. She also interviewed 60 human services practitioners as well as 40 to 50 informal interviews.

“I found that every one family was, on average, working with eight to 10 agencies. For every single agency, they had to go through a similar intake, reporting and documentation process. And for families, especially families with trauma, retelling that story over and over and over can be very frustrating,” Moore said. “Those perceptions of frustration aren't always interpreted positively by different human services practitioners. The goal is to help families, but there's also a lot of cynicism.”

Moore’s work focuses on the motivations, strengths and gaps of inter-agency processes of collaborating around the needs of families.

“Some of the barriers are just really bureaucratic in scope. Most of these systems are overloaded and experience high staff turnover and therefore are understaffed and under-resourced in rural areas. There are also long waiting lists and other resource gaps,” she said. “You can only imagine the frustration, challenges, difficulties and disempowerment for families in crisis.”

Moore proposes improving the process of interagency collaboration including partnering with the families—seeing them as the people who have the most information and the most decision-making power about their own lives.

“How can you turn off your caring at 5 p.m.? There are a lot of constraints that are built into those systems that keep us from connecting and building relationships with more emotional depth in ways that could potentially make a bigger difference,” she said.

Training to include families as partners in the process and reducing stress-inducing duplicative reporting or documentation is key to positive systemic change, Moore said.

Time management can also be a challenge. A 30-minute visit is doubled with time to document or report what happened, making managing high caseloads difficult, and rural areas present more of a challenge.

“In a rural areas and counties that are in mountainous areas, it can take hours to get to a family's home,” Moore said.The travel time alone could limit the number of families that you can reasonably see in a day or a week. And, if all of them are in crisis, what are you going to do?”

An Ethics of Care Approach

Another way to improve the child welfare system is embracing a culture of caring and re-centering human services, social work and child welfare on an ethics of care rather than an ethics of justice, which is grounded in bureaucracy and organizational structures, Moore said.

“Ethics of care is really grounded in caring relationships, emotional connection, being part of a community, collaborating, having systems of open communication, building trust, as well as social justice and advocacy. Ethics of justice simply refers to how bureaucracy is intended to ensure standardization and an average amount of time per case,” Moore said.

An ethics of care approach recognizes that some families simply need more time, connection and crisis support than other families depending upon the individual issues they face, Moore said.

“We're all a part of communities and all of us need help from time to time. These resources are not just targeting the poorest families or the most dysfunctional families or the ones with the most criminal behaviors. These are human problems,” Moore said. “It's really important that we all come together as a community to support each other to find the best solutions in ways that build trust.”