Helping people help themselves is important to Keith Alford, a value instilled in him since childhood. That's why he chose to study social work in college, earning master's and doctoral degrees from Ohio State University. "My goal has always been to provide social services that help people improve their conditions, and empower and strengthen themselves," says the School of Social Work professor.
Throughout his career, Alford has focused on family therapy, family preservation services, and culturally specific services within social work practice. He has done extensive research in all these areas, and has become an accomplished author and sought-after speaker at conferences across the country.
In his most recent work, Alford has aimed his insights at researching social workers' attitudes about targeting services to African Americans, and evaluating programs designed to address culturally specific rites of passage. "Social work covers so many areas that we need to pay special attention to diversity in programs, activities, and services to help consumers," he says.
Specifically, Alford notes that social work intervention with children of color must be culturally indigenous in order to be effective. The number of children in substitute care continues to rise every year, with children of color being the most at risk of remaining in this type of care for extended periods. Alford's research finds that African American children have the highest rates of out-of-home placements in such states as New Jersey, Maryland, and Louisiana.
"Family Preservation Services and Special Populations: The Invisible Target," a recent article Alford co-wrote, presents research findings from a national survey that examined attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of family preservation workers regarding special population services. The research showed that many social workers focus on such special populations as children under age 5, or children with HIV/AIDS; however, more attention needs to be placed on the needs of African American children and other children of color as special populations.
Because of the disproportionate number of African American children in out-of-home care and the problems that arise when they are targeted as a special population, Alford has become a strong supporter of culturally specific social services programs. "When these youths enter foster care, it becomes critical that caregivers and other members of the treatment team offer emotional and cultural support," Alford says.
School of Social Work Professor Keith Alford, front, shown here with students (left to right) Tanya Howell '97, G'99, Jason Rafalak '98, G'99, and Heather Lane '98, G'99, focuses his research and teaching on family therapy, family preservation services, and culturally specific services within social work practice.
To address the demands of young African American males, culturally specific rites-of-passage programs have been created. One such initiativethe African American Rites of Passage Program (AA-RITES), which was implemented by the Ohio Office of Child Care and Family Servicesserves as an adjunct and transition to independent living programs. "Through the program, African heritage is learned," Alford says. "This helps them to develop ethnic pride and encourages higher self-esteem, essentially helping them to know who they are, where they came from, and what they should be about."
While most studies of programs like AA-RITES focus on implementation and operation, Alford evaluated the program's effectiveness, basing his research on interviews conducted with AA-RITES participants. Several recurring themes emerged from the interviews, including positive racial identification, and increased commitment to personal and community responsibility. Program developers and facilitators are now using the results to modify and improve their efforts. Alford says the research supports his ultimate goal to inform the social work community about effective culturally specific programs.
"Our growing multicultural society demands that we celebrate diversity and explore cross-cultural commonalities," he says.