technology is always challenging. Although the use of technology by social workers is not a new phenomenon, it is controversial. For a discipline traditionally tied to face-to-face interaction, many concerns about moving to technology-based practices have been raised. This paper will examine how social work informatics can be applied to child protection in Alaska and suggest a research project to examine its utility, particularly as it relates to the phenomenon of depersonalization. It can be hypothesized that the increasing use of informatics though useful drives a wedge between the social worker and the recipient.
Advocates for the use of technology identify increased opportunity and access to social work services, lower costs, and improved coordination of services, and privacy for stigmatized individuals as benefits of the tools (Chenoweth & Stehlik, 2002). Critics, on the other hand, point to the technological difficulties that impede interaction. They cite inequalities in access to resources, confidentiality concerns, and depersonalization (Stofle & Harrington, 2002). Believing technology distances workers from those whom they want to service, Ashery (2001) noted that social workers have thought of themselves as "people-persons" and have traditionally rejected technological interventions. Choi and colleagues (2002) found that although anxious about using computers, social worker anxiety varied by area of practice, availability of equipment, amount of use, and participation in training. They concluded that anxiety can be lowered through education and exposure (Choi et al.). A technological revolution is occurring, and it has become impossible to ignore the impact of new developments on the expectations of consumers, efficiencies, and the potential benefits of these tools (Meier, 2000).
The National Association of Social Work (NASW) recently joined with the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) in an initiative that recognizes the invaluable role of technology in social work practice and education (Stoesen, 2004). ASWB (2002) raised numerous questions related to this emerging practice "setting," including defining the location of services on the Internet and licensing jurisdiction for professionals. Collaboration of these two national organizations and agreement to focus on recognizing this as an area of practice is an important step in ensuring that legal, ethical, and practice issues are addressed to protect clients and workers. The increased presence of technology in all aspects of social work practice and education has been slow to develop but is now officially recognized. With this recognition comes a responsibility to ensure that these practices are used ethically, and that social workers everywhere have the skills necessary to manage the tools and to protect clients from misuse. Successfully combining the science and experience of a professional practice and the knowledge and skills of information technology (IT), the profession does not need to look far to find other disciplines that have similar initiatives.
Informatics is a science that manages and processes data, transforming it into information to be put into a knowledge base to guide decisions (Young, 2000). The components of informatics are data, information, and knowledge. Each has a specific definition. Data are defined as variables that can be objectively described, information is data that are structured into some form, and knowledge is the interpretation of information within a logical framework that permits decision making (Young). Young noted that informatics requires information to be accurate, free of error, and meaningful. It must be shared with the right person, at the right time, in the right place, and in the right amount. The goal is to inform decision makers and expand knowledge in an effort to deliver efficient, well-managed services in Alaska.
The term "social work informatics" has not been defined, although it has been used in the literature. In a February 2012 search of four databases -- Social Work Abstracts, CINAL, PsycINFO, and Medline -- using the key words "social work informatics," no definition was found. The term was used in a 1988 study discussing informatics in schools of social work in Holland (Visser, 1988); however, a definition was not provided. Later, in the Netherlands, Grebel and Steyaert (1995) used a similar concept, social informatics, and related it to social work education. They defined it as "the ability to gather and interpret data efficiently and effectively into functional information for professionals acting in social work settings, effectively making use of IT applications" (p. 162). Social informatics advocated the infusion of IT into existing curriculums rather than the creation of specific IT coursework (Roosenboom, 1993).
The challenges for trained social work informaticians are evident in the literature of both informatics and social work. One particularly challenging area regarding caution is the use of the Internet for counseling. The concluding remarks of their official position paper on Internet therapy state: So much human suffering has been caused by disconnection between individuals, between thought and feeling, between body and mind -- and e-therapy offers yet another form. Clients seek our services in order to improve the quality of their lives, the quality of their relationships. Alienation from others and the self will not be healed through a virtual connection in cyberspace, a "connection" that is fraught with risks and hazards for both clients and clinicians (CSWF, 2001). One of the central clinical issues for social work practice involves the ability to assess visual nonverbal behavior. Social workers are trained to observe clients' nonverbal clues as they interact, using these behaviors as an important component in overall assessment. The lack of face-to-face interaction impedes a social worker's ability to obtain a full picture, limiting an important tool for assessment (Coleman, 2000). Another challenge is the issue of identity and deception in so-called virtual communities (Meier, 2000). Web-based tools allow for the formation of social entities consisting of people who are brought together because of a common factor such as a medical condition (that is, support groups for diabetic patients) or functional limitation (Meier). These virtual communities increasingly make use of standard information tools to support collaborative activities and communication between clients and social workers (Vernberg & Schuh, 2002). Identity plays a key role (Meier). In traditional settings, knowing the identity of those with whom one communicates is essential for understanding and evaluating an interaction (SavilleTroike, 1982). However, in Web-based communities, identity is ambiguous. Many of the basic cues about personality and social roles we have come to expect in the "real" world are not available via the Web (Donath, 1998). This becomes a challenge for professionals who participate in such communities, and a point of criticism of the use of technology.
The proposed study will be carried out by submitting questionnaires to a significantly significant number of child protection social workers regarding 10 characteristics of the patient-social work relationship across Alaska over a period of one year. The study will encompass a spectrum of child protection cases and seek to investigate how these social workers apply informatics and how it impacts their practice. At initial contact a semi-structured interview over the phone and two self rating questionnaires will be administered. The interview was used to ascertain demographic details and a brief medical, psychiatric and social history of the social worker's case. Data will be analyzed by the Mann Whitney U test and the chi square test as appropriate. The Confidence interval analysis microcomputer program. This study seems feasibility assuming that sufficient social workers are contacting to guarantee significance.
Ashery, R.S. (2001). The utilization of technology in graduate schools of social work. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 18(1/2), 5 -- 18.
Association of Social Work Boards. (2002). Model Social Work Practice Act. Retrieved February 24, 2005, from http://www.aswb.org
Chenoweth, L., & Stehlik, D. (2002). Using technology in rural practice -- Local area coordination in rural Australia. Rural Social Work, 7(1), 14 -- 21.
Choi, G., Ligon, J., & Ward, J. (2002). Computer anxiety and social workers: Differences by access, use, and training. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 19(1), 1 -- 12.…