By Mark Engebretson
Professor Wendy Haight wants to improve the child welfare system for Indigenous families. So, she enlisted Librarian Scott Marsalis to get started on her research.
Marsalis helped with the creation of a synthesizing review intended to identify and evaluate all relevant research on Haight’s topic.
“Scott was a terrific partner because he knew about search engines that I don’t know about and terms — search terms — that really ferreted out studies that we would not have found without him,” said Haight, a professor in the University of Minnesota School of Social Work.
“Scott gave us Search Engines 101,” added Ph.D. candidate, Cary Waubanascum, one of the project researchers.
Types of synthesizing reviews
Synthesizing reviews include systematic reviews, scoping studies, and meta-analyses. Each of these are research methods where a team formulates a research question, searches, selects, and appraises the literature in order to test and evaluate so researchers, practitioners, and policymakers can make evidence-based decisions.
At the University of Minnesota, these kinds of reviews are now official library services available to all U of M faculty and researchers.
But Marsalis provided so much more than assistance with searches on this particular project. He ended up as co-author — along with Haight, Waubanascum, and David Glesener — on A scoping study of Indigenous child welfare: The long emergency and preparations for the next seven generations, which was published in Children and Youth Services Review.
“For me, it was so intellectually rewarding — and spiritually rewarding,” Marsalis said. “This is one of the reasons I love my job — getting to work with social workers who are changing the world.”
Launching a research program
“This was our first step,” Haight said. “We looked at empirical studies published in peer-reviewed journals to just try to understand what was out there.”
At the start of the process, a research team might be dealing with tens of thousands of articles or “merely” hundreds, Marsalis said.
“We’re helping researchers consider the options and tools to manage that information and to manage the research process,” Marsalis said. “It’s a different level of expertise and by working collaboratively with librarians, the end product is just better.”
For this project, the team ended up examining 37 empirical studies from peer-reviewed journals. But Haight said that the team also looked at some dissertation studies — all to better understand why disparities exist and how they could be remedied.
Existing research lacks key viewpoint
What soon became obvious was that the existing research has not yet captured the viewpoint of Indigenous families.
“The voices of the youth and families involved in child welfare systems was clearly absent,” Waubanascum said. “In the scholarly research we looked at, there were very few studies that addressed those perspectives.”
Haight said that in order to make positive change, researchers and policy makers need to understand the resources that exist within indigenous communities — as well as the Indigenous beliefs and practices pertaining to the development of healthy children. Finally, welfare systems need to develop better ways to respond when Indigenous families are having problems and need help.
“You can’t just parachute in something that has been developed for white middle class people and expect it to have a positive impact on Indigenous people,” she said.
Haight and fellow researchers hope to identify other gaps in existing research and conduct future research with a goal of shaping public policy to improve the child welfare system for all, but in particular for Indigenous families.
And Marsalis likely will continue as a research partner. Haight said that they routinely leverage his expertise, including inviting him to do colloquium for Ph.D. students.
“I invite Scott because the skills needed to conduct research these days are very interdisciplinary,” she said. “We’re not just searching the psychology literature. We’re searching psychology and sociology and anthropology and nursing and medicine and social work. So it is critically helpful to have a professional librarian.”