A University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO) professor is helping social and law enforcement professionals in upstate New York bridge the gap between modern society and the growing number of nearby Amish and Old Order Mennonite, or “Plain” communities.
Jeanette Harder, Ph.D., a professor within the Grace Abbott School of Social Work at UNO, recently returned from training about 80 social workers and law enforcement officials on how to build culturally-sensitive relationships with Plain communities.
Harder said these populations are rapidly rising in areas like upstate New York where scenic farmland is abundant and affordable. That growth comes with challenges as interactions increase with surrounding modern communities.
Harder is co-founder of Dove’s Nest, a nonprofit organization committed to educating faith communities on preventing child abuse and neglect. Over the past five years, she has regularly made visits to communities across New York to train local professionals on how to work effectively with Plain communities.
“If you go in with a clipboard and just think you’re going to be able to walk in and start asking questions, it’s not going to work.”
- Jeanette Harder, Ph.D.
The social fabric in most Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities is very strong. In most families, children are cared for and cherished. When this isn’t the case, social workers and law enforcement will attempt to step in if they are alerted to the situation. “People in Plain communities are a very difficult group to be able to engage,” Harder said. “If you go in with a clipboard and just think you’re going to be able to walk in and start asking questions, it’s not going to work.”
Plain communities deal with many of the same issues facing modern society, but also bring their own unique challenges including low levels of education, rejection of modern services and unique community dynamics.
Children are educated to an eighth-grade level but are not taught science, sexual education or critical thinking. Plain community members will engage in medical services for trauma or long-term chronic illnesses such as diabetes or cancer, but are not likely to engage in preventive care, vaccinations or dental care. Church leaders act as a filter between the community and external parties, which can serve as a barrier to mandatory reporting of child abuse.
“Professionals are going to need to build a relationship and provide resources to the church leaders, who may, in turn, adapt and teach it to their people,” Harder said. “It’s just not going to happen that they’re going to accept services and that’s really hard for professionals to accept.”
This was Harder’s eighth time providing training to professionals in upstate New York, and there is no doubt she will return. Her future work in the area will include social work research into best practices for Amish and Old Order Mennonites who provide foster care to youth from outside their communities, and into provision of mental health services for this population.
Jeanette Harder, Ph.D., recently co-authored a piece featured in Psychology Today that provides additional insight into the culture and social cues found in Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities. She has also co-authored a book entitled For the Sake of a Child: Love, Safety, and Abuse in Plain Communities. The book will be published in summer 2019 with Plain communities being the intended audience.
About the University of Nebraska at Omaha
Located in one of America’s best cities to live, work and learn, the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) is Nebraska’s premier metropolitan university. With more than 15,000 students enrolled in 200-plus programs of study, UNO is recognized nationally for its online education, graduate education, military friendliness and community engagement efforts. Founded in 1908, UNO has served learners of all backgrounds for more than 100 years and is dedicated to another century of excellence both in the classroom and in the community.