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2002 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 7, No. 3
June 2002

Agency Strives to Adapt to Dramatic Increase in Latino Clients: An Interview with Union County DSS

In the 1990s Union County DSS made a concerted effort to improve its services to Latinos. Part of this decision stemmed from the agency’s desire to fulfill its mission to serve people in need. Part of it was driven by demographics: Union County saw its Latino population increase from around 750 in 1990 to 7,637 in 2000, an increase of more than 1,000%.

When they heard about what Union DSS was doing, other agencies expressed a desire to learn the “secrets” of their success. Union County responded by delivering workshops about serving Hispanics. In addition, agency employees were featured in the video, The Latino Perspective. As part of our ongoing effort to spotlight innovative and successful practice in child welfare, Practice Notes interviewed Union County DSS’s Ed Moss, Tommy Lopez, Gilberto Colón, and Rodney Little.

CSPN: When did you realize you needed to improve your agency’s ability to serve Latino families?

Moss: I’m over the public assistance program. It became obvious to me that as Latinos began to come in for Medicaid and food stamps, we were just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg.

CSPN: How did you expand your services to Latinos?

Moss: One of our bilingual, bicultural staff members told me early on, “Ed, once the word gets out in the community, once the families understand there’s somebody here who genuinely cares about them, they’re going to come in for these services.” And we have seen that.

We’ve been blessed here with a lot of acceptance in the community. I think DSS has played a driving force, but the health department has played an important role in this too, and they’re right next door to us. That has helped us tremendously with the families that sometimes don’t have transportation.

CSPN: Are you working more with other agencies that serve Latinos?

Colón: We’re in the process of establishing a position in the community called the Hispanic Outreach Specialist, which will serve as a liaison between English-speaking foster families and the Hispanic community.

Lopez: That position is a joint venture between the United Way, Red Cross, and a whole bunch of community agencies, including the Catholic archdiocese.

Little: Our director, Roy Young, is heading up the task force establishing that position, which I think is remarkable. Often directors delegate involvement in efforts like this, but our director is taking a hands-on approach by being a chairperson of this task force. I think it is important that efforts to reach out to the Latino community come from all levels. If it only comes from the bottom up, where the service delivery occurs, there’s never going to be any dramatic policy or procedural changes.

CSPN: Are there other factors you think were essential to your success in this area?

Moss: I don’t think we’d have been so successful if not for folks we were able to recruit and get to come to Union County, people who were bilingual (who speak both English and Spanish) and bicultural (who are themselves Latino).

CSPN: How did you do that?

Moss: I can remember back in the mid-90s when we first began to be aware of the need for more bilingual and Latino workers on our staff. I asked state personnel whether, when we send out recruiting announcements, we can require folks to be bilingual. They said you can’t limit the person to be bilingual, but you can put on there that you desire that trait. That’s what we began doing and, slowly but surely, things fell into place.

Lopez: I came to Union County DSS in 1995 from another county where I had been a Work First worker and then a family foster care worker. Then I heard about the job and I came. I’ve loved it here ever since.

Moss: We were not able, over the decade, to recruit a lot of bicultural staff, although we tried. We had bilingual staff, but had very, very few bicultural. But we do have some staff with a bicultural perspective—for example, in addition to Tommy and Roberto we have a brother and sister team right now, originally from Guatemala, and a few others.

Little: Particularly in CPS, there’s a real difference between having that interpreter who communicates from one language to another and having someone like Tommy who’s done CPS investigations himself. Because if you are a social worker and you have that background, it is a very different style of communicating and listening. You lose so much when you don’t have staff who are bicultural and can do investigations.

CSPN: What were other barriers you encountered?

Lopez: One of the barriers that still exists is fear. People are afraid: “Oh, you speak Spanish, you’re different.” Yet it’s no different. You don’t provide services any differently. You just take into consideration the need, the culture.

Moss: Another barrier not just in North Carolina but nationally when working with first generation Latinos—in a lot of these countries of origin they do not have human service programs. So we’re going to have to somehow educate families about the importance and the need for them to major in human services subjects when they go to college, when they go to school. We need to build a larger base of bicultural social workers who can provide these services—there’s not enough of these folks out there right now. It’s a critical shortage, you’ve actually got to go out and search for them. We need more people who say, “I want to be a Latino social worker.”

Lopez: The other side of that is that we’ve got to have our institutions of higher education committed to providing a culturally-competent training program, a culturally competent degree outside of traditional educational hours to enable Latinos and others to go to school and provide for their families at the same time.

CSPN: Is prejudice among agency staff something you have had to deal with?

Moss: I think in the beginning we recognized that within our own agency we had barriers to delivering effective services. These families, when they came into our reception area, for example, had to wait for someone to see them who could speak their languages. So yes, there were definite things that we identified. So first of all we educated our own staff and we got the word out that of course civil rights apply to anyone who comes in, whether or not they speak English.

Colón: Once they work with Latinos, English-speaking social workers realize they have the same problems that I have, essentially, as a human being.

Little: I believe it doesn’t matter what culture we are from, we were all created equal. If we lose that perspective and we start to isolate people because the way they look, the way they speak, the color of their skin, or the color of their eyes, we’ve forgotten what social work is, and we need to get back to that.