A Social Worker Focuses on the Youngest Children to Make a Difference in Their Lives

Brenda Jones Harden shares her journey from working in New York City's child welfare system to becoming a researcher and professor of social work.

Caroline Harting
March 16, 2023

As of last year, there were more than 391,000 youth in the foster care system in the United States. Many of these children have faced significant trauma and have serious mental health issues. Brenda Jones Harden, the Ruth Harris Ottman, Class of '45, Professor of Child and Family Welfare at the School of Social Work, understands the importance of reaching these children before they are placed in foster care. Back in the late 1970s at the start of the cocaine epidemic, Harden began her career as a social worker in the New York City child welfare system. She witnessed the struggles that these families faced, but also the strength in these communities.

Her early experience as a social worker informs her work today as a professor, researcher, and president of the board of Zero to Three, an organization with a mission to ensure that babies and toddlers have a strong start in life. Working with the youngest children is not only a critical time to provide support to young families, but it is also a joy for Harden. “What could be more fun than working with families who have babies,” she said. “You can always help them find joy in their parenting of these young human beings, despite all the challenges they may face.”

Columbia News caught up with Professor Harden to find out what she likes best about her job, New York City, and teaching at the Columbia School of Social Work.

Why did you decide to work with children in the foster care and child welfare systems?

My interest in the child welfare system started when I was a Master’s of Social Work (MSW) student at New York University in their child welfare program. I knew I wanted to work with the most vulnerable children, and my perception was that those in the child welfare system represented the most vulnerable. All the risk factors we were learning about in class—drug and alcohol use, depression and other mental health disorders, family conflict and violence, homelessness, racism, poverty, community violence—I observed in the families on my caseload. It was fascinating from an intellectual perspective, but it also honed my skills as a clinician. I was doing home visits long before home visitation became part of the national human service landscape. Frankly, I think being in child welfare service delivery is an excellent setting in which to learn what being a social worker really is.

Further, if you engage in sufficient self-reflection (which obviously all social workers and mental health providers should do), you know that you are drawn to this kind of work for a reason. I was the oldest child of adolescent parents, but I was fortunate enough to be born into a large extended family with grandparents and great-grandparents on both sides who supported my parents in their rocky journeys as young parents. I felt I was one of the lucky ones, and I wanted to ensure that I gave some of what I had received back to children who had experiences that were similar to, and often worse than, mine.

How did your field placement work at Special Services for Children in New York City motivate you to remain committed to children in the child welfare system?

As a young college graduate, I knew I wanted to be a social worker. I went directly to a MSW program and was placed in New York City’s child welfare agency, formerly known as Special Services for Children (SSC), from 1978 to 1980. It was at the beginning of the cocaine epidemic and the very beginning of child welfare policy that focused on keeping children out of foster care. My first-year field placement was in the prevention unit, and my second year was spent in the foster care unit. Talk about trial by fire! I was working with families in Harlem, the South Bronx, the Lower East Side, as well as Brownsville, Bedford Stuyvesant, and East New York in Brooklyn. Imagine knowing absolutely nothing and being responsible for the outcomes of very complex child welfare cases.

I learned how to be a good clinician with very vulnerable children and families, thanks to the wonderful supervisors I had at SSC. I learned not to feel fearful in neighborhoods that displayed the vestiges of poverty, as I grew to appreciate the strengths of the communities in which I worked. I also learned a valuable lesson that has sustained me throughout my career: that you cannot change people’s lives and social policy overnight and that you have to be in it for the “long-game.”

Although I probably learned more about being a good child clinician by working with children in the foster care system than with any other population, this experience convinced me that I wanted to devote my work to preventing children’s entry into this system. A state can never be a parent, and the children’s desire to have parents who stayed with them throughout their childhoods and beyond kindled my desire to immerse myself in prevention programming.

I had cases in which parents with substance use problems kept their children while they were addressing their own needs through substance use and other treatments; parents with large numbers of children received the large number of supports they needed to prevent child neglect; parents with developmental disabilities learned the most basic parenting skills (e.g., feeding and clothing their children); and parents with children with illnesses and disabilities gained the special skills they needed to parent their unique children. Throughout my work with them, the parents were given the validation that they were the most important part of their children’s lives. These are the kinds of families that I still respect, value, and prefer to work with and on behalf of as a scientist/practitioner, even after all these years.

What is your favorite part of your work?

I am grateful to have found work that invigorates my mind and my soul. All of my research is designed to inform policy and practice, so I have an opportunity to work on all sides of the issues that are important to me. My descriptive research helps me to learn about specific populations for which I want to develop interventions. For example, I am now very interested in the neonatal period, because it represents a very challenging parenting phase. The rates of child maltreatment and fatality from child maltreatment are highest during this period. I am engaging in studies that help me understand the needs of children at this point in development and what supports help parents be the best they can be for their children in these early months. My goal is to develop an intensive intervention that addresses the most challenged families during this vulnerable period and to integrate it into primary and secondary prevention programs (e.g., home visiting, Early Head Start) to avoid stigma and increase their motivation to participate.

What are you working on now?

My biggest project is a national, NIH-funded study with an overarching research question on the impact of early adversity on children’s brain and behavioral outcomes (i.e., Healthy Brain and Child Development Study—HBCD). The goal is to collect data longitudinally (over the first 10 years of life beginning in pregnancy) from 7,500 children and their families. We are collecting a wide range of data, including physiologic, brain, and developmental functioning, as well as family and contextual processes, such as parental substance use. For this project, I serve as the leader of recruitment and retention for the national consortium and our site. The other role of which I am proud is engaging researchers in the consortium to understand the role of the child welfare system in these children’s and families’ lives, and being able to empirically document their experiences with this service delivery system.

I also have a few smaller projects that are examining the impact of early adversity (e.g., trauma) in a much narrower way with much smaller samples and are evaluating early childhood programs to promote positive outcomes for children who are reared in challenging contexts. Because I have been working on these issues for so many years, I am very involved in national advisory boards and technical workgroups that focus on prevention programming, early childhood systems, and child welfare issues.

You joined the faculty at the School of Social Work this past fall. Why did you choose to come to Columbia?

When I was offered the position, I thought what a great way to round out my career by making a contribution to children and families in the place where I started as a social worker. I learned so much in NYC, not only in undergraduate school and the graduate social work program, but also in my first experiences as a young social worker. The children and families with whom I worked taught me humility, gave me a thirst for career-long learning, and helped me find my niche as a professional. I always admired CSSW for the giants in child and family policy who were here whom I read and the women of African American descent who had found their way here. I want to “stand on their shoulders” and offer the school, New York children and families, and the larger social work practice and policy community, some of what I have had the privilege to learn and experience here and at the other service and academic settings that have shaped my career.