The International Face of Child Welfare in the College of Social Work

Child welfare is something we often take for granted here in the United States. At times it’s easy to forget that we have an entire branch of legal agencies dedicated solely to the care and protection of our country’s impoverished and at risk youth. However this is not the case the world over, and with the University of Utah’s recent expansion with its Asia campus, the College of Social Work is looking to aid Korea in restructuring their child welfare system.

The effort to work with existing Korean child welfare agencies to restructure their current system initially came about as part of the College of Social Work looking to establish a practical form of hands on study for their students on the Asia campus.

Patrick Panos, Director of the Bachelor of Social Work Program, along with Norma Harris, Director of the Social Research Institute, arranged for a trip to Korea in July 2014 to begin establishing a partnership which would allow university students to gain practical experience within the Korean child welfare system, and to help bring that experience back to Utah.

“We’re now players at the table. We’re directly participating with the agencies over there, “ Panos said. “What we learn in Asia we will incorporate into our classes here. So all students across our program will be affected. One of the things all social workers are interested in is how things change within different communities. We’re very sensitive to community identity, ethnicity, and different things like that, so we need a flexibility of thinking as we go in and face different problems. So as we learn from this experience, we will change our curriculum to reflect that.”

During their visit in July, Harris and Panos met with three different child welfare agencies in Korea, ranging from those that specialized in transitional care for those leaving the foster system, to the primary child welfare agency that operated out of Seoul, South Korea. Not only does the College of Social Work hope to establish a relationship for future student interaction, but also to bring some of their own expertise to Korea which is currently in the midst of restructuring its own child welfare system.

“Their child welfare system is quite young when you compare their system to the United States,” Harris said. “For example, they have had institutional care for a number of years, but they’ve only just begun using the foster care system for the past 10 years.”

According to Harris, the main difference between the child welfare systems in the United States and Korea is that, at the time when they decided restructuring was necessary, at least 50% of the children in the Korean child welfare system were in institutions rather than foster care. Comparatively, the U.S. no longer even places children in institutions with the exception of those undergoing medical or psychological treatment. Instead the U.S. places the majority of children in foster care, while seeking a permanent placement for them.

Additionally, Harris noticed, that it seemed a large number of children placed in foster care in Korea, were staying in foster care for an extended period of time without permanent placement being sought.

“In the U.S. we provide for the permanent placement of children,” Harris said. “Initially if child welfare systems have to remove a child from a home for safety reasons, the intent is that it always be short-term and that child welfare agencies work with the family and the children for an early reunification.”

If after an extended period the children are unable to be reunited with the family from which they were removed, Harris explained that child welfare systems then make an effort to find alternate, permanent placement for them, often through adoption.

The original plan Korea had with their development of child welfare in the early 2000’s was that of formalized institutions for children removed from their homes.  While a foster program has since been adopted within the last few years, it is still a somewhat foreign concept in the country. This is something that Harris and Panos have taken into consideration, as they consider how to tailor the social work programs for the Asia campus.

“When we teach child welfare in Korea we must know about the Korean culture, about their cultural values regarding child rearing, and about what they consider to be maltreatment,” Harris said. “So I think this is a great opportunity for us to learn and be respectful and culturally responsive to other countries. We certainly don’t have all the correct answers here in the U.S., and I’m sure that there are programs and practices that we can benefit from in every country. I expect that we will learn things from them that could be advantageous to us.”

The idea of a cross-cultural exchange of knowledge is something that both Panos and Harris believe will provide a lasting benefit to students both on the home campus as well as the Asia campus of the University of Utah. The idea of being an insular place of learning is no longer practical, and as the world continues to become more and more connected, opportunities like what the College of Social Work is doing in Korea can mean the difference between student success or failure.

“The world is interconnected and our students know that. So they want to be able to navigate this new world internationally, and feel comfortable with it, understand it, and be successful in it,” Panos said. “Unless you are willing to give them those experiences, and provide them the background and training to be comfortable in that, they’re not going to be as successful.”

Moving forward, the College of Social Work hopes to keep their relationship with Korean child welfare systems strong through consistent visits every semester as well as creating a stronger bond with faculty in residence at the Asia campus.

“This is a real opportunity,” Panos said. “A lot of universities talk about their desire to be global players, but it’s actually very hard to do something like this, and few universities actually have the resources, institutional knowledge, and high level ability to accomplish this type of a project. So it’s especially exciting to have this here at the University of Utah.”

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