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Federal Grant Is Pushing Social Work Students Into Systems That Police Families

The Title IV-E program uses social work students’ economic precarity to nudge them into the family policing workforce.

The family policing system often incarcerates parents who are trying to care for their children amid conditions of domestic violence or poverty.

Social workers have long navigated a complex relation to systems of policing, including collusion with systems that surveil patients’ behavior and medication usage, agencies that report immigrants’ and refugee’s sensitive data to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, police “co-responder” crisis response teams and work in the “family policing” or child welfare system. In recent years, as increasing numbers of people have become critical of mass incarceration and systems of policing in the U.S., there has been a growing movement within the social work field to resist complicity with carceral systems that fuel mass incarceration.

But one of the insidious barriers to this effort is the economic precariousness faced by many social work students — a condition that the U.S. government exploits when it offers Title IV-E federal grant funding that is only available to social work students who agree to work within the family policing system. More commonly known as the “child welfare” system, the family policing system — which often incarcerates parents who are trying hard to care for their children amid conditions of domestic violence or poverty — centrally relies on social workers to surveil families and act in ways that directly conflict with social work’s professed values and ethics, which center self-determination and social justice.

The coercive nature of Title IV-E grant funding for social work — and the ways in which it threatens abolitionist organizing within the social work field — became stunningly clear in December 2022, when Alan Dettlaff, a social work professor and advocate for the abolition of family policing announced that he had been removed as the dean of the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work.

Dettlaff’s announcement reignited discussions regarding the profession’s role in state repression and the harm of collaborating with law enforcement. These debates became prominent in the summer of 2020, due to popular calls for social workers to become first responders to behavioral health crises in the aftermath of the uprising against police violence, and due to National Association of Social Workers CEO Angelo McClain publicly praising social work collaborations with police. A tenured professor’s removal as dean has concerning implications within this context — and in a social and political environment where faculty and graduate students must organize and strike for basic job security protections.

The modern social work profession includes both the origins of organized labor and the successful movement to pass state and federal child labor laws, and the creation and expansion of the juvenile legal system and other policies centered on controlling children. The latter is a direct influence of the attitudes of Jane Addams and other Hull House reformers, who were active in the eugenics movement and whose racism was publicly criticized by Ida B. Wells.

Social work has never resolved this tension between its demands for social justice and its historic inability to follow through, which can be seen in the profession’s continued role in the child welfare system, and the expectation that a social worker must obtain multiple degrees while being paid low wages.

Enter the Title IV-E program. The Title IV-E program, created in 1980 as an amendment to the Social Security Act, provides federal grants to social work training programs for the purpose of training the family policing workforce. Under Title IV-E, social work students receive significant financial assistance for BSW and MSW degrees if they specialize in child welfare training and coursework, and work for child welfare agencies for a specific amount of time after graduation. If graduates do not meet the post-education workplace commitment, they can be required to pay back the financial assistance.

Decades of austerity in higher education and social services has created an ethical dilemma within social work programs where students are faced with either a high debt burden, or a financial assistance program meant to compel social service workers to participate in an unjust system, with great moral injury. Moreover, the pressure to maintain Title IV-E grants can have a chilling effect on academic freedom.

“The faculty who operates the IV-E program in my college felt that my position as an abolitionist toward the family policing system and my work through the upEND movement were potentially jeopardizing their receipt of grant funds. There was no evidence to support that but they felt that their grant money could perhaps be threatened at some point,” Dettlaff told Truthout. “Enrollment in our IV-E program has dropped pretty significantly over the past four years. However, enrollment in our college has gone up substantially over the years. So, it’s really specifically just enrollment in this program that dropped. But both of those things — concerns over losing grant money, and a decline in enrollment in the child welfare training program — are parts of the reasons why I was removed as dean.” Dettlaff shared more about his abolitionist views and policy decisions leading to his removal as dean in this January webinar hosted by the University of Michigan’s social work program.

When contacted by Truthout for its response to Dettlaff’s assertion that his removal was a result of his abolitionist work and concerns about the loss of grant money, a representative from the University of Houston stated: “There is outstanding work going on in the Graduate College of Social Work and the university recognizes the high regard that the college holds in the social work community. The university did not believe that Alan Dettlaff was the best individual to continue to move the college forward as dean. We are actively considering several options for an Interim Dean of GCSW but also know that the college continues to progress under the leadership of Associate Deans Sarah Narendorf, Suzanne Pritzker and Samira Ali.”

Dettlaff, a former child welfare worker, received his MSW degree through a Title IV-E program, and compared the program to “indentured servitude” due to the program’s requirement that people commit to work within a child welfare agency for a specific amount of time post-graduation, or face a payback requirement. “Title IV-E programs are a means to an education for people who can’t otherwise afford an education, but come with a cost of having to commit oneself to a period of servitude for that agency.”

Fears over declining enrollment in these training programs are happening at a time when there is greater public scrutiny over the child welfare system nationwide. ProPublica published a series on issues with this system, critics are given space on CBS “Sunday Morning,” and high-profile cases from New York City and Chicago demonstrate that child welfare agencies are deeply unaccountable agencies that repeatedly fail in their most basic of duties: keeping children safe and cared for. It should not be a surprise that this deters prospective social workers.

Much of this pushback against the family policing system would not be possible without the organizing and advocacy of directly impacted parent advocates. Joyce McMillan, the founder and executive director of JMACforFamilies, has taken her own horrifying experiences with New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) — which included losing custody of her daughter due to a positive drug test and then a subsequent fight to regain custodyall the way to the United Nations to demand basic protections for parents, such as informing parents of their rights during child welfare investigations.

In an interview with Truthout, McMillan described cooperating with ACS as “the biggest mistake of my life.” McMillan’s organization has championed a “mandated supporting” framework for service providers and universities that emphasizes providing support for families in need, rather than reporting them for lacking resources. According to McMillan, a better model for training programs and family support “would mean, holistically, making sure the family has the things they need. So the family can be together happy, healthy and thrive.” Think advocacy for safe, stable housing, connections to nutrition resources, and free and accessible laundry services, instead of reports to a child welfare agency.

So, what should social work programs do instead of relying on Title IV-E funded programs? Dettlaff mentioned the need for significantly more support for higher education, so that social work training is more accessible for students. For example, stipend programs for children and family support training should not require a set employment post-graduation, and should expand to all aspects of supporting children and families — not training a family policing workforce.

In the aftermath of Dettlaff’s demotion, the group Students Organizing for Abolition (SOFA) circulated a petition demanding that the University of Houston interim provost appoint a social worker as the social work interim dean. Previous organizing led to a meeting with the interim provost attended by more than 100 students. SOFA announced on social media that the candidate for the interim dean position, Jonathan Schwartz, is not a social worker and oversees numerous law enforcement training and collaboration programs in his current position at UH.

When contacted by Truthout regarding their organizing efforts and concerns about the candidate for interim dean, representatives of SOFA said: “We have received support from staff and faculty. We have seen movement from the institution in response to our organizing, as we were able to secure representation in the selection of the future dean, interview the interim candidate and prevent his selection. It is however an uphill battle and we continue to be excluded by the institution, despite hundreds of student voices repeatedly requesting transparency.”

University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work students, faculty and staff received an email February 10 from University of Houston Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost Diane Chase stating that Jonathan Schwartz had withdrawn from consideration for the Interim Dean position.

Just like municipal budgets, education budgets are moral documents, and the need to dramatically change the funding model and pedagogy in social work education could not be more urgent. As Joyce McMillan remarks, “What is it that we need to do in our individual roles and as a society to stop the bleeding of Black and Brown and poor communities by these agencies and people who claim to help and leave destruction beyond?”

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