Real Case Studies in Social Work Education
The central elements of the Real Cases Project curriculum integration effort are three case studies, drawn from the ChildStat Initiative—an innovative, agency-wide case review process of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services. As documented in Brenda McGowan’s introduction to the case studies and their development, we went through a rigorous selection process to insure that the cases would be diverse, engaging, and useful in meeting the objectives of the Real Cases Project. The overview of the case studies, by Tatyana Gimein, (Co-Chair of the Project before her retirement from ACS), highlights key elements of each case study, and the profound challenges facing the families, staff and communities involved.
The decision to use real case studies in a curriculum integration effort was adopted after an extensive assessment phase. In 2004, the Planning Committee initially began the case selection process, focusing on cases drawn from the ACS Accountability Review Process. An expert panel convened by the Committee narrowed the selection to one case. After recruitment and preliminary work by faculty on individual teaching guides, this case became unavailable. The ChildStat approach was then proposed and access to cases was granted, resulting in the selection of the three cases in this document. Faculty authors adopted these three cases as framing elements in their teaching guides. The three case studies collectively raise critical issues in public child welfare practice today, show a diverse range of practices, family issues, and populations, as well as showcase the ChildStat Initiative.
The Real Cases Project is part of the social work tradition of case study education. During our profession’s history, social work educators have used case studies in the classroom to teach particular course content (Richmond, 1897; Towle, 1954), drawing vignettes from students’ work in the field (Reynolds, 1965; Wolfer & Gray, 2007), published case studies and cases from their own practice (Cohen, 1995). The case study approach appears to be experiencing resurgence, as indicated by the number of published books of cases and suggestions for their use in the classroom (Fauri, Wernet & Netting, 2007; Haulotte & Kretzschmar, 2001; Hull & Mokuau, 1994; LeCroy, 1999; Rivas & Hull, 2000; Stromm-Gottfried, 1998; Wolfer & Scales, 2006). Even with its widespread use, the efficacy of the case study approach for learning specific content or integrating multiple content areas has not been extensively tested and remains a fruitful area for inquiry.
Case studies are especially useful for training professionals in disciplines as social work, where critical thinking and problem solving skills are necessities (Ross & Wright, 2001). Case studies are often utilized in professional social work education in order to provide students with a real life example on which to practice their skills of critical analysis and assessment. In addition to practicing a particular skill set, case studies also allow faculty to assist students in their application of theory into practice. In addition, when used properly, case studies can provide students an opportunity to accept responsibility for their own learning (Armisted, 1984).
This Project contributes to the growing literature on using child welfare case studies in social work education (Brown, 2002; Johnson & Grant, 2005). We advance this effort, especially considering that the cases are drawn from a public child welfare agency and are accompanied by teaching guides that demonstrate how the cases can be used successfully in different courses across the curriculum. The Real Cases Project does not suggest that the cases supplant the content of a particular course. Rather, the cases can be used to illuminate and expand course content. While students may become familiar with the cases in more than one class, the teaching guides will insure that the use of the cases is not redundant, and is appropriate to each course in the curriculum. Thus, both the individual courses and the understanding of child welfare as a part of social work are enriched.