The conundrum of a social worker
This is a post about the profession of social work. I would like to share some of the characteristics of this work with you, as it often seems to me that the public is happy that others do the work, but have little idea of what that work is.
In some form or another I have been a social worker all of my life and will be until my retirement, and most likely, beyond. The job is as interesting and varied as the human species itself and I have enjoyed my career, for the most part. I like people. I think people are basically good and intend to be good. If they are not at some point in their lives, then my belief is that barriers of some kind prevent them from it. They suffer.
Most social workers are also tolerant for differences in human behaviour and do not judge people who act or look differently. I believe that people can become very confused and screwed up by their life experiences, so much that they might have lost their way, or choose a different pathway than most of us, just to cope.
The first paradigm of a social worker is to be helpful and make our client’s interest the number one goal for our work with people. That is not very difficult for a social worker because we seem to have an innate need to look after others and neglect our own interests, putting our lives in the service of others. Most of us are women: enough said. (Maybe I should qualify: women are still most prevalent in the caring professions and service industries).
The second paradigm is to identify who your client is. The last decade or so I have been in child protection where that question seems at times trickier than in other social work settings with voluntary clients. Burnout and illness rates are high in this profession. Many do not reach their retirement in this job and switch careers, or might become ill and stop working. Others become inspired and move on to a different level, get another degree and become management, or a clinical therapist. I say: good for them.
Some of those questions to identify our client might be: Would the teen who is terrorizing his family with his outrageously risky behaviours be my client, or his parents who are going berserk from anxiety and worry? Is the abandoned child alone at home at a very young age my client, or the parent who has a serious gambling addiction and spends many hours and all of her family income at the casino? What do you think?
Of course every social worker in this field hopes and likes to see parents recover from what holds them back from being at least most of the time a good-enough parent. But what if that does not happen very quickly, or not at all?
How long is needed for recovery of an addiction? What time frame would you give a parent to recognize and accept that they even are addicted? How long do children wait for their parent to address the problem? What is the limit of abuse for a child before her own development is compromised?
Should a child be exposed to neglect and abuse and stay with the parent until the problems are decreasing? Should a child be removed from that abusive parent? Or, rather than risking a break in a child’s relationship with that parent, better to leave the child exposed to some level of harm? Should parents who have sexually abused their child, be reunited with their family and if yes, under what conditions?
What if the family doesn’t recognize abuse and neglect because they have a mental illness, or are so used to this type of family dynamics that it seems normal to them?
Do you need to remove children against their wishes? At what age does a teen get the final say to stay or to leave an abusive home situation? At what age do they not need a social worker to decide for them any more?
What if parents are denying the domestic violence? Does it even harm a child if they witness their parents yelling and ending up in physical fights? Would the children not get used to violence if they are not harmed themselves? Is the child my client if the parent does not recognize problems, or do I still try to maintain the focus on the parent if he/she does not address the issues?
You see, many questions that are hard to answer come up on the job. ‘It all depends’, is a good answer. Every situation is unique. Social workers have a lot of discretion to assess the situation and judge risk to the children in a family. Some tools are used that help in assessing risk as objectively as possible with forms that ask for information input and then spits out a risk rating. Can a form even assess risk for harm?
In the U.S. an additional set of questions would need to be asked that involve guns. Is the gun locked up and inaccessible to children? How many guns are in the house? Does the parent keep a gun in his bedside table, freely accessible? Does this parent drink regularly?
Lately I have noticed in the news that young people in the U.S. go occasionally on a rampage with a gun–theirs or their parents’. Where does this anger come from? Where does this wish to use guns on others come from? I guess it would be telling if the first person they shot is their mom or dad.
In a previous job as addiction counsellor in a therapeutic clinic I knew a young adult who, under the influence of heroin, had killed his grandmother, as she refused to give him more money. His mates on the same floor in the treatment centre reported that this young man had terrible nightmares each night during the whole nine months through his recovery time in the treatment centre.
This young man came from a normal enough home. The only possible cause we could pinpoint in his history as a potential issue was that in his two-parent family all through his childhood his parents tried to anticipate his every need and gave him whatever he wanted. In the end, this young man had developed little resistance to adversity, so-called resiliency, when he hit adolescence, and he was ‘easily led’ and in this case, led astray by more ‘interesting’ friends. His background situation was replicated in quite a number of other middle-class residents, contradicting the myth that only abused children become addicts later in life.
You see, I don’t have many answers myself after having been on the job for a while: forty-odd years. Each case is still a struggle even for an experienced social worker, as each family and each person is unique.
The intent of this post is to make others think about how we raise our children and what we would do if child protection came knocking on our door. Maybe your grandchild was abused, or neglected. Or maybe you are asked to step up to care for a nephew or niece. Possibly your stepson is in trouble and your spouse asks you to take him on full time, because his mother is not adequately parent him half the time. Maybe your best friend’s grandchild is in need of a home, or maybe you got ill, or divorced, or can no longer care for your child with special needs.
It takes a community to raise a child: so true! My point is that we as extended families, neighbours, friends of parents with children, teachers, soccer coaches and sport instructors of children, we all need to intervene and speak with the parent before it comes to the point that child protection social workers are needed. By that time generally a child is already harmed and her or his life made more difficult in the future. It takes a community: you are part of that community.