The problem of cultural diversity and norms is one that a social worker often faces during their practice. There were several prominent issues related to cultural norms and behaviors during my work in foster care. An issue I would like to discuss concerns foster care of children with a non-American and non-European background, who often display behaviors profoundly different from those we expect to see in American children. As Reamer (2006) correctly points out in his review of ethical standards for social workers, cultural awareness is fundamental if one aims to remain competitive in service delivery and understand social diversity. In this case, the difference between cultural norms resulted in a misunderstanding that could later result in indirect damage to the child.
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One of the foster care workers was actively communicating with a child temporarily placed under foster care due to her biological mother’s inability to care for the child (severe illness). The social worker emphasized the child’s shyness and modesty, as well as little involvement in conversations and active communication both with foster parents and other children. The social worker’s assumed that the child needed to visit a psychologist due to potential social anxiety. Although the psychologist’s tests indicated no presence of social anxiety, the social worker continued to use strategies targeting social anxiety in children, thus significantly changing their previous approach to the child.
The ethical dilemma here was detected later when the social worker was able to contact the child’s mother, who insisted that such behavior was not a sign of anxiety but rather of respect and proper upbringing. Reserved and quiet children were not perceived negatively in her culture due to different religious and societal values that formed the way of upbringing in the mother’s native country. Thus, the social worker’s approach toward the child’s behavior was based on the American perception of “acceptable” behavior that includes assertiveness and openness in communication.
To deal with such problems, not only cultural awareness is necessary but also a specific ethical framework. The utilitarian principle could be used as it emphasizes that the action is considered ethical when it provides maximum utility for every person it can affect. In this case, the utility was happiness and satisfaction, and the social worker’s duty was to ensure that their actions towards the child maximized this utility.
However, their judgment of the child’s behavior without the attention to cultural values undermined the utility of their efforts and resulted in a misunderstanding and nearly a conflict between the two. Jaramillo, Rendón, Muñoz, Weis, and Trommsdorff (2017) also emphasize the importance of self-regulation in children with different cultural backgrounds, pointing out that “in Asian cultures, the regulation of behavior, emotions, and cognition is generally subordinated to the preservation of social harmony” (p. 3).
The social worker’s approach based on cultural values of the society they live in resulted in a less effective provision of services, thus raising the question of whether the mere concept of “social norms” should be reconsidered not only in foster care but social work in general. The utilitarian principle suggested here addresses the dilemma by being focused on providing utility (= happiness, satisfaction) to both parts of the issue (the child and the worker).
The worker, however, assumed that their interventions could not provide utility but were necessary for the context of the American perception of upbringing (i.e., the worker assumed that “changing” the child’s behavior is beneficial without asking themselves why it should be). The recommended solution is thus to develop cultural awareness among social workers and emphasize the importance of ethical reflection and critical approach toward the concept of “a norm.”
Jaramillo, J. M., Rendón, M. I., Muñoz, L., Weis, M., & Trommsdorff, G. (2017). Children’s self-regulation in cultural contexts: The role of parental socialization theories, goals, and practices. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(923), 1-9.
Reamer, F. G. (2006). Ethical standards in social work: A review of the NASW code of ethics (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers.