USJ Faculty’s Research Argues for a Human Rights Approach to Social Work 

Gina Rosich MSW, Ph.D. (left), and Elba Caraballo, M.A., MSW, Ph.D. (right)

University of Saint Joseph department of Social Work and Equitable Community Practice faculty Gina Rosich MSW, Ph.D., and Elba Caraballo, M.A., MSW, Ph.D., recently published an article entitled “Perceptions of a human rights lens in relation to the training of social work field educators.” The article was published in the November 2022 issue of the Journal of Human Rights. 

“Social work historically began with a charity-based approach,” Assistant Professor Rosich said. “It was rooted in principles that were faith-based. There was a component of charity, but as a profession the social work field evolved along with those who viewed the work through a social justice lens.”  

A human rights approach, Assistant Professor Rosich explained, has emerged as the profession continues to evolve. By viewing individuals and communities as rights holders, the problems aren’t solely about social justice and meeting needs, but rather that people’s basic rights have been violated. This changes the emphasis of social work to a societal obligation to provide these basic rights. Further, “in social work, we have a principle of self-determination, and a human rights lens says people should be more involved in the decision-making process around the help they are receiving.”  

Assistant Professor Rosich gave an example from her previous experience as director of a homeless shelter for older adults in NYC. “Clients entering the shelter had to sign a paper that they’d follow the rules. This was a city regulation. In a needs-based approach, the emphasis was on signing the paper in order to ensure compliance when being issued a bed. With a human rights approach, we would issue a new client the rules and explain that they were signing that they’d received them. We would then ask them to review these rules and come back the next day to discuss them with their social worker and ask any questions or concerns they might have. If they did not feel they could honor the rules, we would talk about other options for shelter.” The difference, she explained, is that the clients were involved in the consent process from the beginning. Then, if a person did not agree to follow the rules, they had a choice not to stay at that specific shelter, but they still had a human right to a roof over their head. 

“At USJ we plan to share with our social work preceptors the goal to train them all in the human rights approach. We’re developing a training so they can better help students learn how to deliver social services through that lens, and assessment tools to help determine that students are doing so.” 

Assistant Professor Rosich said within the field there is still work to be done because it is a fundamental power shift to view people through a different lens. “There’s a power dynamic in social work, and it can be difficult letting go of that power dynamic. It takes work to recognize the difference between social change and social control as the distinction can be as subtle as the difference between handing people rules and regulations and actively engaging with them around rules and regulations.” 

The students who seem the most enthusiastic, according to Assistant Professor Rosich, are especially those from marginalized communities who understand the idea of owning and taking that power. “Black, indigenous, and people of color entering the social work community intimately understand the impact of racism, for example, and can feel the difference when the work centers around equity. Racism is a violation of human rights.” 

 Learn more about USJ’s department of Social Work and Equitable Community Practice here.