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Cultural competence in child welfare: What it is? How do we achieve it? What happens without it?

Anna R. McPhatter

The study and description of culture is massive. Most pertinent to this discussion is Green’s (1982: 6-7) description of culture as "those elements of a people’s history, tradition, values, and social organization that become implicitly or explicitly meaningful to the participants … in cross-cultural encounters." Culture, then, connotes worldview, behavioral styles and inclinations, and thinking patterns that present and can be anticipated in interpersonal interactions across social boundaries. It is precisely the different ways in which culture becomes manifest that are pivotal in this discussion. It is one’s culture that distinguishes and brings meaning to social events, necessitating knowledge of readily observable distinctions as well as less discernible nuances between and among groups.

As used in this context, competence refers to an ability or a capacity equal to the requirement, that is, responding effectively to the purpose or goal. Further, Green (1995: 52) asserts that the competent practitioner is able to conduct her or his "professional work in a way that is congruent with the behavior and expectations that members of a distinctive culture recognizes as appropriate among themselves." Dana et al.(1992: 221) likewise describe cultural competence as "an ability to provide services that are perceived as legitimate for problems experienced by culturally diverse persons." Cultural competence denotes the ability to transform knowledge and cultural awareness into health and/ or psychosocial interventions that support and sustain healthy client-system functioning within the appropriate cultural context. This definition compels one to ask, "What purpose is served by providing services in any other context?" Unfortunately, much of what occurs in child welfare practice falls far short of meeting the foregoing criteria.

One of the most crucial skills for a culturally competent practitioner is the ability to engage a culturally different client’s reality in an accepting, genuine, non-offensive manner. Practitioners who give equal value to others’ worldview are more able to engage clients in ways that put them at ease quickly and successfully. People of color are adept at reading the slightest nuance or cue that carries even the most carefully concealed message of disapproval, discomfort, or non-acceptance because of one’s race, culture, or ethnicity. A description of a worker as "she’s alright" by a client of color in reference to a cross-cultural interaction is usually a response to an accurate reading of the worker’s skill at entering a dissimilar cultural milieu. Acquiring such a fundamentally important skill can only take place through consistent practice motivated by an authentic goal to be real with others.

Prevailing practice principles are clear about the importance of developing rapport and trust with clients. Cultural differences, by their very existence, complicate the bridging of what often appear as gulfs. An inferior knowledge base, coupled with a skewed view of our multicultural reality, doom the best efforts to connect with clients in productive work. In clinical practice, for example, it is futile to expect people of color, given their contravening history with the Caucasian world, to immediately trust the intentions of Caucasian workers or to honestly disclose deeply personal and threatening information about themselves or their families. Closing this cultural gap is the professional responsibility of the culturally competent practitioner.


Dana, R. H., Behn, J. D. , & Gonwa, T. (1992) A checklist for the examination competence in social service agencies. Research on Social Work Practice, 2 220-233.

Green, J. W. (1982) Cultural awareness in human services. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall

Green, J. W. (1995). Cultural awareness in human services: A multi-ethnic approach. Boston: Allyn and Bacon

Anna R. McPhatter (1997). Cultural competence in child welfare: What it is? How do we achieve it? What happens without it? Child Welfare. Volume LXXVI, No 1 pp. 255-278.

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