Social Workers Outline Help for Black Families, Ex-Inmates at Congressional Black Caucus Event

“We seem to think black men don’t want to talk about these issues, but we found that given a safe environment, they were excited to share and grow.”

NASW members and staff presented at a September Congressional Black Caucus Foundation event in Washington, exchanging ideas on improving relationships and marriages in the African-American community and ensuring that former prison inmates get jobs and adequate mental health care.

Social worker and Howard University professor Tricia Bent-Goodley spoke about social welfare policies and African American-families at a Sept. 23 panel sponsored by Rep. Edolphus “Ed” Towns, D-N.Y., chair of the Congressional Social Work Caucus. The panel was titled, “Who Moved My Broom: Family Formation in the African American Community.”

Bent-Goodley said her research has found that a good way to bolster healthy marriages and relationships is to lead by example.

“One of the things we found is that we don’t celebrate the good things in our communities,” she said.

Bent-Goodley discussed “In Circle,” a healthy relationship curriculum for African-American couples that she developed in 2008 with funding from the National Center on Fathering. She was able to adapt the curriculum for African-American women through funding from the New York Community Trust’s Lois and Samuel Silberman Grant Program, and a curriculum specifically for African-American men through additional funding from the National Center on Fathering.

In Circle’s sessions, held at a local church, sought to enhance the black community’s knowledge of healthy relationships, reduce participants’ risks of domestic violence and increase awareness of HIV risk factors.

Bent-Goodley said she was surprised by the number of people of all ages who participated in the program and she wanted to dispel the stereotype that men don’t want to talk about relationships.

“We seem to think black men don’t want to talk about these issues, but we found that given a safe environment, they were excited to share and grow,” she said. “Folks who were in long-term relationships mentored others and created a community among themselves.”

She discussed the importance of social work being an active contributor to discussions on marriage and healthy relationship education.

Towns said he assembled the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation symposium because creating, forming and maintaining healthy families is vital to the future of the black community, which is plagued by higher rates of poverty and unemployment.

For instance, black men who marry are likely to earn more money than their single counterparts and enjoy better mental health, according to panel moderator Ronald B. Mincy Sr., a professor of social policy and social work practice at Columbia University.

However, only 42 percent of African-American women are married by age 35, Mincy said. And 70 percent of African-American households are led by a single parent.

Meanwhile, Melvin Wilson, a manager in NASW’s Center for Workforce Studies and an expert on justice issues, and Jeremiah Griffin, development and programs director at Family Health and Education Institute Inc. in the Washington metro area, spoke Sept. 24 on a panel that examined incarceration’s economic effect on black families and communities. That panel was sponsored and moderated by Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill.

Wilson said he is concerned that some states deny prison inmates the right to get certain jobs or housing, to vote, or even to access mental health services through Medicaid. Some states revoke Medicaid mental health services for ex-inmates, requiring them to go through the lengthy process of reapplying after they are released.

A disproportionate number of prison inmates experience mental illness and need treatment when they return from prison, Wilson said.

During the panel discussion, Wilson said the Department of Health and Human Services should require states to maintain Medicaid mental health services for inmates, or suspend the benefit only while the person is jailed.

Griffin said Family Health and Education Institute programs have a stellar success rate. The institute has served about 1,000 men and women in the past year and 70 percent were ex-offenders, he said. Of the 1,000 people who have completed the program, 87 percent of male participants and 98 percent of female participants have found employment, Griffin said.

“If we fail to get healthy marriages in the African-American community,” Mincy said, “then we can’t get other things done.”

Get more information from NASW's Center for Workforce Studies.