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2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 4, No. 1
February 1999

Culturally Competent Practice: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?

Although there is a great deal of diversity in the ethnic and racial makeup of the state's 100 departments of social services, North Carolina's child welfare system generally reflects the makeup of the state, where minorities account for 24.7 percent of the population (NCDSS, 1998; U.S. Census Bureau, 1998). This is not the case, however, for the children in the foster care system: approximately 47 percent of the children in foster care in North Carolina are minorities (NCDSS, 1997).

These numbers confirm what many of you already know: more and more, child welfare practitioners are working with families and children from backgrounds different from their own. The practice implications of this fact are tremendous.

If we fail to acknowledge the influence of culture on the work we do, we limit our ability to interact with and help families and children. Even worse, culturally incompetent practice can actually hurt clients (Harper & Lantz, 1989).

The importance of culturally competent practice is underscored by 1993 data that found that, on the whole, African American children are more likely than other children to enter out-of-home care, and to remain in care longer. They are also less likely than other children to secure permanence through adoption (Williams, 1997).

Although this situation is likely the result of a variety of factors, culturally competent practice should increase our chances of improving outcomes for everyone we serve.

What is Cultural Competence?

Cultural competence is the capacity to work effectively with people from a variety of ethnic, cultural, political, economic, and religious backgrounds. It is being aware and respectful of the values, beliefs, traditions, customs, and parenting styles of those we serve, while understanding that there is often as wide a range of differences within groups (e.g., Native Americans) as between them. It is being aware of how our own culture influences how we view others.

This is not just about "racial" differences. A white American social worker has as much need of cultural competency when working with a family of Ukrainian immigrants as she does when working with an African American family, perhaps more so. (For more on race, see "Is Race a Myth?").

Cultural competency is about developing skills. This includes improving your ability to control or change your own false beliefs, assumptions, and stereotypes; to think flexibly; to find sources of information about those who are different from you; and to recognize that your own thinking is not the only way.

Why is it Important?

A study published several years ago found that clients who perceive themselves as racial minorities expected to be negatively evaluated by the public systems that serve them. They expected to be looked down upon and discriminated against, to have their background and culture misunderstood (Williams, 1997).

When we overlook culture or when we do not understand what is normal in the context of the culture, we can make harmful decisions. We limit our ability to engage families and communities and build on their strengths (Williams, 1997).

Cultural competence allows social workers to feel comfortable and be effective in their interactions with families whose cultures are different from their own. It enables families to feel good about their interactions with their social worker, and it allows the two parties to accomplish their goals (Brislin, Cushner, Cherrie, & Young, 1986).

If you are white or of Anglo-European descent, you are part of the dominant U.S. culture. You are part of a group whose culture, customs, and habits have shaped society more than any other (Lynch, 1992). Consciously or unconsciously, you may feel that the "white way" is the right way. It is important to examine this sort of thinking when working with people of other cultures, as it can alienate your clients and decrease positive outcomes.

It does not help a client when a social worker views his or her own worldview as correct and the client's view as problematic or pathological. Helping the client "give up" those aspects of cultural heritage that cause anxiety in the worker can hurt the client (Harper & Lantz, 1996).

Becoming More Culturally Competent

Cultural competence requires an open mind and heart and the willingness to accept the views of others. It may mean setting aside your own beliefs in order to better serve others. Generally, we need to lower our defenses, take risks, and practice behaviors that may be uncomfortable or unfamiliar. Remember that all people are alike in some ways and different in others. Everyone needs to eat, have clothes and shelter, to learn, to grow, and to experience meaning and purpose in their lives (Harper & Lantz, 1996).

Self-Awareness. The first step toward being more culturally competent is self-awareness. To understand and appreciate the culture of others, we must first understand and appreciate our own culture. You might ask yourself, where do I come from? When did my ancestors migrate to this country? Why? Where did they first settle? What values do I have, and what culture or cultures do they come from?

Educate Yourself. There are several ways to learn about other cultures. First, find someone--a friend, neighbor, or colleague--who can serve as your "guide" to the culture. You can also study a culture by reading history, geography, poetry, biography, and fiction. In addition to reading or using a guide, you can participate in the daily routine of the culture you wish to learn about by celebrating their holidays, working on community projects, and attending worship. Finally, you can learn the language (Lynch, 1992).


Brislin, R., Cushner, K., Cherrie, C. & Young, M. (1986). Intercultural interactions: A practical guide. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.

Cross, T. (1995). Cultural issues and responses: Defining cultural competence in child mental health. Contemporary Group Care Practice Research and Evaluation, 5, 4-6.

Cross, T., Dennis, K., Isaacs, M., & Bazron, B. (1989). Toward a culturally competent system of care (monograph). National Technical Assistance Center for Children's Mental Health (Online), <>. (Web address no longer functional.)

Harper, K. & Lantz, J. (1996). Cross-cultural practice: Social work with diverse populations. Chicago: Lyceum Books, Inc.

Jackson, H. & Wesmoreland, G. (1992). Therapeutic issues for black children in foster care. In L.A. Bargas and J. D. Koss-Chionino, (Eds.), Working with Culture: Psychotherapeutic Interventions with Ethnic Minority Children and Adolescents. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishing, 43-62.

Lynch, E. (1992). From culture shock to cultural learning. In E. W. Lynch and M. J. Hanson (Eds.), Developing Cross-Cultural Competence: A Guide for Working with Young Children and Their Families. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co., 35-62.

N.C. Division of Social Services (1997). Child placement information and tracking system report, 12-31-97.

N.C. Division of Social Services (1998). Telephone survey of 100 County Depts. of Social Services. Raleigh, North Carolina: Author.

Orlandi, M. A. (Ed.), (1995). Cultural competence for evaluators: A guide for alcohol and other drug abuse prevention practioners working with ethnic/racial communities. Rockville, Maryland: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Pinderhughes, E. (1997). Developing diversity competence in child welfare and permanency planning. Journal of Multicultural Social Work, 5(1/2), 19-38.

Williams, C. (1997). Personal reflections on permanency planning and cultural competency. Journal of Multicultual Social Work, 5(1/2), 9-18.

U.S. Census Bureau: The official statistics. (1998). States ranked by population in 1997. <> (Sept. 4, 1998). (Web address no longer functional.)

1999 Jordan Institute for Families