The Institute’s Jenny Afkinich, PhD, Honored with Doctoral Dissertation Award
The Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) has awarded Dr. Jenny Afkinich with the 2021 Outstanding Social Work Doctoral Dissertation Award for her work on disproportionate representation of racial minority youth at all levels of the juvenile justice system. Each year SSWR provides formal recognition of significant contributions to social work-relevant research. The highly competitive Outstanding Social Work Doctoral Dissertation Award recognizes dissertations exemplifying high standards in social work research and scholarship. The award encourages the design and conduct of quality research by doctoral-level social workers, recognizes the authors of such studies, and provides authors with a professional conference venue to present findings from their study.
Titled Social Workers and Disproportionate Minority Contact: A Mixed Methods Study, Afkinich’s research focused on disproportionate minority contact (DMC): the disproportionate representation of racial minority youth at all levels of the juvenile justice system. She found DMC evident in rates of initial arrests, referrals to court, delinquency findings/ adjudications, out-of-home placements, and transfers to adult criminal court. Race remained a significant predictor of legal outcomes for youth even when factors such as prior legal history and current charge severity are considered despite White and minority youth reporting similar levels of offending. Her mixed methods study examined the relationship between community social workers employed by the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice (SC DJJ) in the agency’s county offices and DMC.
Afkinich used administrative data from SC DJJ to determine the extent of DMC in the state, to compare legal outcomes (i.e., receiving confinement dispositions and being waived to adult court) for youth in counties with community social workers to youth in counties that do not employ community social workers, and to compare the legal outcomes for youth in counties with community social workers over time. Her results indicate that DMC continues to exist in South Carolina when measured via relative rate indices. Overall, there was little evidence that employing community social workers is sufficient to reduce DMC at the disposition or waiver stage.
Through qualitative interviews with nine of the 11 community social workers, Afkinich identified and studied the mechanisms, barriers, and facilitators for reducing DMC. Her findings suggest multiple nuanced ways that the social workers can play a role in reducing DMC. The social workers identified two stages in the juvenile justice process in which they can and have had an impact on increasing equity: (1) out-of-home placement decisions for youth on probation or parole and (2) determining probation requirements. The social workers described a need for hiring additional social workers. They also believe they could train police officers and school officials about alternatives to making a referral to SC DJJ to reduce inequitable decisions at the front-end of the juvenile justice system. Implications for Afkinich’s work include an expanded role for community social workers and new ways to examine DMC quantitatively.
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