by Deona Hooper, MSW
Social Workers go where no other profession goes, and our primary job is to give hope to the hopeless. What happen’s when the hope of a Social Worker is gone? Social Workers don’t usually receive press unless a child dies or some sort of malfeasance occurs. This is not the media’s fault. It’s the social worker’s responsibility to advocate and create opportunities to influence discussions occurring in the media. When an opportunity arises for a social worker to use that platform to educate and inform, it often results in a missed opportunity. Instead, the megaphone is used to shame the client for being poor, uneducated, homeless, and/or drug addicted.
In February 2013, Vice.com, an online magazine, printed an interview with a young social worker entitled, “Social Work in the Tenderloin Will Kill Something Inside of You”. This article stirred a lot of reaction from the social work community. The magazine had to redact items and pictures from the original article which could have been a breach of confidentiality. However, I read the article in its redacted form. The social worker described clients as having poor hygiene, not wanting to work, and drug addicted while relying on government assistance. Here is an excerpt:
Twenty messages from the same two or three clients who either scream their financial requests over and over, simply sit there and breathe, or tell you that witches are under their beds waiting for the next blood sacrifice. Paranoid clients like to fixate on witches, Satan, etc. Anyway, we get ready to open and hand out checks to the clients who are either on daily budgets, or who make random check requests. The budgeted clients are the most low-functioning, as they can be restricted to as little as $7 per day in order to curb their harm reduction. They’ll go and spend that $7 on whatever piece of crack they can find, and then two hours later they’re back, begging for more money. Clients will find some really brilliant ways to beg.
Has anyone seen Les Miserables? The scene described above is just a modern day retelling except, today, government assistance provides enough of a morsel to keep poor people under control. In Les Miserables, poverty and disease drove people to rob the rich in order to have a decent meal or a comfortable place to lay their head. Poverty and starvation was the driving force behind the French Revolution. As a cautionary tale to all our government officials that want to cut needed social safety programs, education, and preventive services, you might want to go rent Dark Knight Rises. It too is a modern day retelling of the French Revolution.
As for the burnt out social worker who did the above interview, I understand feeling burnout and frustrated with clients. However, my client frustration was exacerbated by the poor work conditions and poor supervision that is often encountered while working in a social service agency. This agencies are poorly structured, lack checks and balances, and accountability with a joke of a grievance process for both the client and employee. If you got a complaint, there is no one to complain too. They do not require accreditation standards like hospitals, schools, and law enforcement agencies. Yet, social workers are given statutory authority to make decisions that can affect a child’s life for the rest of their life. If a child dies, the social worker often gets the blame, but the Agency should vicariously be held liable. The job is set up for the social worker to fail from lack of resources, support, failure to institute minimum standards and training, and lack of nationwide paperless system.
Ninety percent of my time in Child Protective Services was spent doing paper, and I had 10% left to handle a caseload of at least 15 families. Holy crap is the only writable term I can think of to express when each family had 3 to 5 kids often not in the same house hold or the same school. Can you imagine trying to see all these kids and people twice a month for medium to low risk and once a week for high risk. It is impossible to do your job and being effective is not even a possibility. Your are basically providing triage care which creates recidivism. There were many days I cried after work, so I opted for the anti-depressant to help numb the pain. Many in high stress jobs fall prey to alcohol because it’s a legal drug. Almost all of my co-workers had therapists and were on some type of anti-depressant. I learned a long time ago not to blame my client because one day I could be the client. I am not saying that you need to be poor or experience oppression to serve others. However, if you lack the understanding of oppression and the ability to have compassion, social work is not the right job for you. For those social workers who do have the requisite skill set, many can attest to the horrible work conditions that is endured while trying to give hope to the hopeless.
Many social workers live in fear of losing their jobs on a daily basis because one mistake could cost your career or someone’s life. Once an administrator or supervisor status is achieved, there is very little turn over. They no longer deal directly with the clients, and they know that it doesn’t many how bad they screw up, the Agency and/or governmental immunity will protect them or let them retire. It doesn’t matter how many laws were broken or how many children were endangered, the Agency will protect them. Many direct practice social workers in the public sector are not supported by the National Association of Social Workers either because they may not have a social work degree or a clinical license. The National Association of Social Workers is pushing to prevent any social worker, with a social work degree or not, who don’t have a clinical license from using the social work title. I completely disagree with this strategy also because a clinical license is not needed if you are not diagnosing or providing treatment. Public sector social workers have nowhere to turn to for support which is why so many leave the profession or turn into the burnt out social worker.
Someone has to advocate for system changes, and someone has to hold membership associations accountable to their mission. I believe NASW has experienced mission creep by primarily advocating for clinical licensing laws. Many students are entering the profession to be clinical therapist, and they have no desire to work with the poor or disenfranchised. They enter the clinical social worker track because it’s easier than getting the required doctorate to be a psychologist. This mission creep is causing clients and the profession to suffer. There has to be a way to support those who work in traditional social work roles for the betterment of the communities they serve.
I understand that the views I have expressed here may not be accepted well by social work leadership. Macro and public sector social workers are the minority in management and policy making positions despite being the majority in numbers. These positions are routinely held by clinical social workers or Phd’s who have only been in academia or providing individual/family counseling services. Many Social Work change agents are undervalued and often overlooked because most can’t afford to spend over 100,000 dollars to work in a 35,000 dollar a year entry level job at a public agency. Unless, you got the hook-up where privilege open doors and money is not a worry, than I guess the sky is the limit. Those who can afford to stay in school and get the necessary credentials for a policy making position often don’t understand the changes that need to be made.
We also conducted a live twitter chat on this topic with the social work twitter community using the hashtag #SWunited. To view the tweet archive, go to this link: http://storify.com/SWUnited/social-work-in-the-tenderloin
Some may have strong opinions about my views on the profession. However, strong opinions are sometimes needed to start the conversation, and I am ready to have the conversation if you are. If anyone has any thoughts on this article, I would love to hear them. There were several rebuttal articles and lots of tweets in response to Vice’s Tenderloin story. I will attach them all for you to read in order to come to your own conclusion.
Photo Credit: http://blogs.longwood.edu/socialmedia3/