This story was lifted from the 2020-2021 Social Work Newsletter and was authored by MSW student Pamela Love.
This year the BYU School of Social Work will establish a new scholarship named after Jini Roby, who retired in 2019 after serving as a beloved professor and colleague for 20 years. “She left an incredible legacy,” writes Charlene Clark.
Dr. Gene Gibbons, founder of the School of Social Work, tells of watching Jini grow through the BSW and MFT/MSW programs here at BYU. After beginning her practice as a social worker, Dr. Gibbons recounts that Jini came to him one day and said, “Would you write a letter for me to go to law school?” And, he said, “Well, you know I would.” Then, after her first year of law school, the Dean of the law school called Dr. Gibbons and said, “If you have any more Jini Robys, would you please send them my way?” Later, when BYU had an opening for a new faculty member, Dr. Gibbons recommended Jini. He told the hiring committee, “I’m telling you, she’ll put us on the map. She will make BYU known.” He went on to commend her competency and kindness: “She has been a shining star. She as helped all these third world countries protect their children. She had a following [here in the School of Social Work]. Anyone who new Jini wanted to be a part of her project and be around her. She just had such a magnificent influence.”
Indeed, after earning her Marriage and Family Therapy/Master of Social Work at BYU, Jini Roby shared that she felt inspired to attend law school and begin her work as an international expert in family policy and law. After being on the BYU faculty for a year, in 1999, Jini was asked to help the Marshall Islands with their adoption laws “because of the difficulties they had with children being spirited away without any processes or procedures…They had no law, and because adoption was an entirely different process, there was no termination of parental rights…Adoptions typically occurred between kin, but when American families started adopting these children, the cultural understanding wasn’t there that this was terminating their parental rights; and they would probably never see their children again.”
“The country was very alarmed,” Jini said, “There was a lot of money being exchanged under the table—buying and selling children. So, I was involved in helping to establish [adoption] laws. After that, I started going to other countries to look at their adoption situations, and my vision was opened up to the rest of the child welfare spectrum…A lot of it was related to poverty, neglect, and the lack of resources.”
Jini shared a poignant lesson she learned at the very beginning of her work in international family law that guided her from then on. She had this life-changing conversation with the people of the Marshall Islands as she began to explain how Western adoption works with them:
“What do you mean by termination of parental rights? It sounds like they are being cut off,” they said.
Jini told them, “That’s what it means. That’s what it means legally, it means parents who gave birth are no longer the parents.”
“How is that possible?” they asked, “Who has authority to say that?”
“A judge does,” Jini replied.
“A man can override what God has done? We don’t get it. Why is that?” they asked in response.
“Oh my goodness,” she said, “Yes, that’s something to think about. You know, you’re helping me to understand these problems that you’ve been having.”
“Why do the Western people have to make up these lies?” they asked. “How is that good for the children? In our society, if a child needs to be raised by another family because their original family can’t provide for them, then we find another family, but we never cut off the original family. The child has both families. Are you sure you understand this? Because it seems to cruel, too unwise.”
Jini admitted, “That was a huge lesson for me in cultural sensitivity and cultural humility. It was such a strong lesson. I will never, ever just march into a country and assume that my perspectives, though I am highly educated, are necessarily correct. It has to be a humble partnership on my part.”
Shortly after this incident, Professor Roby remembers visiting the hut of a small village in Mozambique on a cold and rainy day where a mother who had AIDS was huddled on the wet floor surrounded by her children. The translator told Jini, referring to the mother, “She has been sent home to die. She has not been able to talk about what to do with her children when she dies. She has been blamed for her condition even though her husband had brought HIV into the relationship. He has already died, and her husband’s family has blamed her for his death. By law and tradition, the children will go to his family. She does not want this to happen.” Jini then realized that this mother “had not been counseled. She did not know what her options were. She had nobody to talk to.”
In remembering this mother’s sad story, Jini said, “That just tore me to the core. I thought, ‘There needs to be counseling There needs to be ways that mothers can be empowered to make these decisions.’” Although unable to help the mother in Mozambique before her dearth, a year later, Jini took a group of law and social work students to Uganda to write 450 wills for mothers who were dying of AIDS. “The law students wrote the wills and the social work students helped with the memory books,” she said. Incidentally, Dr. Cole Hooley led the memory book project among the social work students. Jini also shared stories of her work with Dr. Stacey Shaw. She truly loved her students, some of whom became her cherished faculty colleagues.
In reminiscing about these experiences, Jini said, “I learned. My heart was pierced, and I was humbled; but I was lucky enough that when I was at BYU that I could then do something about what I learned—not to solve the whole problem, but to do something—and to have the students experience what it’s like to be part of healing, just a little hand of support, a little demonstration of kindness.”
Professor Roby also told of the love she felt from her grandmother as a child in Korea. She said, “I grew up in abject poverty, yet I was rich. I tend to disagree with a lot of the conceptualization of what’s best for children. The first right that a child has is to be raised by their family, including their extended family. To me, the richest type of privilege is to be loved and to be empowered to believe in yourself, which I was.”
Jini went on to say, “What I love about social work is that you have the opportunity to learn and to suffer with people who suffer in a way that maybe you can bring some relief, some comfort. To me, it’s such a privilege. This is not about me, or if it is about me, it’s about what I’m going to learn and how I’m going to grow to help more…This is why I am so honored that there will be scholarship in my name because I so believe in the education process. It’s not just empowering for the individual, but it’s going to have a rippling effect for the people they will impact.”
This story was taken from the 2020-2021 Social Work Newsletter, which can be found and read in full at https://socialwork.byu.edu/newsletters .