Connecticut Supreme Court Justices discuss Implicit Biases

Keynote speakers Connecticut Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Robinson and Justice Maria Araujo Kahn were on hand April 2 as Eastern’s Social Work Program celebrated its 20th anniversary, and hosted its First Forensic Social Work Conference (see conference details below). A packed house in the Betty R. Tipton Room heard Robinson and Kahn address the subtlety of racism in our society.

Eastern President Elsa Núñez opened the conference and congratulated students and faculty in the Social Work Department for their dedication to social justice. “In the 20 years since our program was founded, more than 600 students have graduated from Eastern and gone on to support families and communities as social workers in state agencies, healthcare organizations, school systems, child welfare and family service agencies, mental health programs, hospitals, community agencies and domestic violence programs,” said Núñez. “Others have been admitted to Master of Social Work programs at prestigious programs across the country.”

To better deal with the issue of racism, Robinson and Kahn said people need to “Turn Off the Auto-Pilot,” referring to a program the two justices present to audiences that focuses on the challenges that arise when people are from different cultures, not proficient in English or have a disability.

Implicit biases are the culprit, said Robinson and Kahn. All people unwittingly hold implicit biases; i.e. stereotypical beliefs and attitudes about social groups — men and women, white and black, old and young, majority and minority, fat and thin, liberal and conservative and more. These beliefs and attitudes can affect one’s perception, behavior and judgement about people in those groups.

“Implicit biases—the auto pilots—leave people blinded by their own prejudices. People don’t even realize what they are saying,” said Robinson. “The auto-pilot leaves them culturally incompetent, and they make decisions that negatively impact the decision-making of hiring staff, assigning work and giving promotions. We need to get off autopilot. We need to grow our awareness of the nuances of cultural issues, language barriers and disabilities generally.”

The justices’s presentation mixed compelling pictures, cartoons and humorous, entertaining videos in capturing the attention of students, faculty, staff and area residents. In drawing attention to the issue of implicit biases, they also offered a set of skills and resources for people to use when interacting with individuals in an increasingly diverse community. “Implicit biases,” says Kahn, “are a person’s gut justice, an autopilot that compels one to look for shortcuts throughout the day in one’s interactions.” She cited numerous implicit association studies and television commercials, showing how preconceived stereotypes interfere with how someone assesses people who do not look like them. “Example: When people see a Black person and say ‘I don’t see color,’ Oh yes you do! You take information about Black people already in your head, which rejects notions of you opening your mind more to being a more transparent human being.”

To support her research, Kahn revealed an overwhelming list of double standards resulting from hidden biases that stereotype women on a daily basis in almost every social or professional environment, including her own place of work. “These micro-aggressions, these unintended slights, these cultural shortcomings, have a powerful impact on our daily interactions.”

The conference featured a number of social work scholars who conducted breakout sessions on issues social workers address in their daily profession. Isabel Logan, assistant professor of social work at Eastern and conference organizer, addressed how “Bilingual Professionals Encounter Microaggressions in the Court System.”

In describing the goals of the conference, Logan explained, “The purpose of this Forensic Social Work Conference was to increase student awareness of the different ways in which social workers can interact in the legal system. Many times, social work education does not focus on how to navigate adversarial settings. I believe it is important for our students to know that, as social workers, they will sometimes interact with the court system  in civil, family, criminal or juvenile matters.  Their work is not only influenced by laws, but in learning and using the most recent research and evidence-based practices, they will also influence court outcomes.”

Other presenters included Steven Hoffler, assistant professor of social work at Southern Connecticut State University, who focused on “Implementing Restorative Justice Practices in the Juvenile Justice System.”

Kim McKeon, a social worker specializing in psychiatric defense with the Connecticut Division of Public Defender Services, examined “Mental Health and the Criminal Justice System.”

William Rivera, director of multicultural affairs and immigration ractice at the Connecticut Department of Children and Families led a workshop on “Connecticut Child Welfare System Challenges to Working with Immigrant Children & Families.”

Katie Hefferan Farrell, Christine Rapillo and Elleen Knight of the Connecticut Division of Public Defender Services, discussed “Forensic Social Work (Criminal Defense): Addressing Strengths and Challenges” in their panel discussion.

Elizabeth Allen, a social worker who collaborates with writers Kathleen Wyatt and Alicia Alamo, looked at “Justice-involved Women Desistance.” Robert Madden, professor in the Department of Social Work and Equitable Community Practice at the University of Saint Joseph, conducted the closing session on “Therapeutic Jurisprudence.”

Left to right, Social Work Professor and Department Chair Eunice Matthews; Isabel Logan, assistant professor of social work at Eastern and conference organizer; Connecticut Supreme
Court Chief Justice Richard Robinson; Connecticut Supreme Justice Maria Araujo Kahn; and Joanne Leon, assistant professor of social work and chair of the department at CCSU.

Social Work major Mabel Taveras ’20 described her own participation in the conference: “I participated in the panel discussion on Forensic Social Work (Criminal Defense). The panelists answered important questions about forensic social work. They left me and other students with valuable information that we are going to use in our career and personal lives.”

Social Work Major Francelis Gonzalez Perez ’20 described what she learned during the keynote address “Chief Justice Robinson and Justice Maria Khan left a huge impact on all the social work students who attended the first Forensic Social Work conference,” she said.  “One of the biases that stood out to me was the ‘prove-it-again’ bias. Women in the professional workforce must constantly prove themselves or do twice the work to get recognized. I also had the honor of attending Dr. Logan’s workshop of Bilingual Professional who Encounter Micro-Aggression in the Court System; it was one of the best workshops I have ever attended. I learned about the different tools bilingual professionals use to cope when they are constantly pulled from their work to do something outside their job requirements.”

Connecticut Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Robinson; Eastern President Elsa Núñez; and Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Maria Araujo Kahn

Robinson and Kahn offered an entertaining and insightful examination of “implicit biases’—stereotypes of other people’s race, gender, age and personal identity that influence how we perceive people from backgrounds different from our own. Two of Connecticut’s top legal minds said, “If we turn off the auto pilot, future discussions and encounters can be made simple. We can become more knowledgeable and even friendly with each other.”

Written by Dwight Bachman