The purpose of this study was to determine how well social work education programs in the United States are preparing students to provide competent services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals and, in particular, to LGBT youth.
LGBT individuals have been subjected to historical discrimination and oppression in American society, causing attendant challenges to their well-being. LGBT youth in out-of-home care are especially vulnerable to discrimination and stigma based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The social work profession, with its commitment to promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients, plays an important role in addressing the problems faced by LGBT people. Indeed, both the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE, 2008) and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW, 2008) have adopted standards to ensure that social work professionals are trained to provide competent, respectful services to those who are LGBT.
Although there has been considerable discussion among social work educators about the treatment of sexual orientation and, to a lesser extent, gender identity issues in social work education (McPhail, 2008; Morrow, 1996; Van Den Bergh & Crisp, 2004; Vanderwoerd, 2002; Van Soest, 1996), as well as the environment in social work programs for lesbian and gay students (e.g., Martin, 1995; Messinger, 2004; Newman, Bogo, & Daley, 2009; Towns, 2006), few empirical studies of this kind have been conducted. Mackelprang, Ray, and Hernandez-Peck (1996) surveyed deans and directors of all U.S. programs that were accredited as of 1996; emphasis on LGB content was found to lag far behind emphasis on race and ethnicity, and few programs placed a priority on recruiting LGB faculty members or recruiting and retaining LGB students.
Mackelprang and colleagues did not examine gender identity/expression issues, treatment of transgender faculty members and students, or issues pertaining to LGBT youth. The study was initiated by Lambda Legal, a nonprofit national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of LGBT people and those with HIV through impact litigation, education, and public policy work. Since 1973, Lambda Legal has used educational campaigns, policy advocacy, and groundbreaking litigation to set standards for fair and equal treatment of LGBT individuals. In particular, Lambda Legal’s Youth in Out-of-Home Care Project raises awareness and advances reform on behalf of LGBT youth in child welfare, juvenile justice, and homeless settings who are routinely denied basic services and face neglect, discrimination, and abuse because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Recognizing the problems faced by these youth in out-of-home care, Lambda Legal collaborated with the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) to organize a series of listening forums in 2003-2004, which were held in more than a dozen locations around the nation. A clear consensus was voiced at these forums that case workers, social workers, and child welfare administrators lack adequate training to competently serve LGBT and questioning youth in out-of-home care.
Young people reported this situation as well as social work practitioners, who felt that they and their colleagues often did not have the requisite background in sexual orientation and gender identity issues that would enable them to serve these individuals with competence and professionalism (Woronoff, Estrada, & Sommer, 2006). In light of these findings, Lambda Legal initiated a collaboration with CSWE to determine the level of proficiency in preparing social work students to work with LGBT individuals, especially LGBT youth in out-of-home care. The ultimate aim was to more fully equip social work students with the knowledge and skills that would best serve LGBT individuals, especially youth. Adding to the effort to improve preparation of social work students, Lambda Legal and NASW developed a curriculum to train social workers and other providers of services to LGBT youth in out-of-home care (see Elze & McHaelen, 2009).
This study also represents a long-delayed response to concerns voiced by the CSWE Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Expression about the treatment of LGBT issues, students, and faculty members in social work education programs. In their commentary on the second draft of the proposed Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards in 2001, the commission cochairs noted that many students reported a dearth of LGBT-related content in their program’s curriculum, and some faculty members reported a lack of attention to LGBT issues among accreditation site teams. The co-chairs expressed concern about the lack of any systematic attempt by CSWE to determine the extent of these problems and the treatment of LGBT faculty members and students in social work programs (Martin & Hunter, 2001a).
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