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When the Hope of a Social Worker is Gone

Social Workers go where no other profession goes, and our primary job is to give hope to the hopeless. What happens 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, but 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. However, when an opportunity arises for a social worker to use a media platform to educate and inform, it often results in a missed opportunity. Instead, the megaphone is used to blame each other or shame the client for being poor, uneducated, homeless, and/or drug addicted.

In February 2013,, 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 by the social worker who was the source for the article. 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 rethink instituting austerity measures.

TiredAs for the burnt out social worker who did the above interview, I understand feeling burnout and being 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. These agencies are poorly structured, lack checks and balances, and accountability with a poor grievance process for both the client and employee. If you have 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 work, 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 the increase in my caseload when each family had 3 to 5 kids often not in the same household or the same school.  Can you imagine trying to see all the kids and parents twice a month for medium to low risk and once a week for high risk? It is impossible to do your job correctly and being effective is not even a possibility under the poor work conditions and impossible standards. You 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 me survive each work day.

Almost all of my co-workers were women who had therapists themselves, on some type of anti-depressant, and self-reported chronic health issues in which I believe were stress related. After dealing with the stress of work, many had their own families to take care of after leaving work. I learned a long time ago not to blame my client because one day I could be in their shoes. 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 and/or someone’s life. Once an administrator or supervisor status is achieved, there is very little turn over from supervisory positions. They no longer deal directly with the clients, and they are often protected by governmental immunity even if their supervision result in malfeasance.

In the United States, 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 does not have a clinical license from using the social work title. I completely disagree with this strategy because a clinical license should not be required for entry level positions that are not providing treatment. Many public sector social workers feel isolated and unsupported which is why so many leave the profession or turn into the burnt out social worker. Most Child Welfare social workers do not even know what the Child Welfare League of America does or who they serve. If not for the States who have unions, human services may not have any organizations advocating for their betterment.

Someone has to advocate for system changes, and someone has to hold membership associations accountable to their mission of uplifting and supporting social workers. If social workers are not meeting desired educational standards, what are we doing to identify the barriers and challenges preventing those standards from being met?

I understand the views I have expressed may not be accepted by main stream social work professionals. However, macro and public sector social workers are the minority in management and policy making positions despite being the majority of those in traditional social work roles.  Policy making 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 obtain a social work graduate degree to work in a $35,000 to 45,000 dollar a year entry level job at a public agency. Unless you are privileged and money is not a concern, a social work advance degree is less accessible. By accepting  students primarily from privileged backgrounds, the social work landscape has moved away from social justice issues and traditional social work roles to an increasingly conservative ideology that ignores the challenges and barriers placed on vulnerable populations created by legislative and administrative policies.

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:

Some may have strong opinions about my assessment on the current state of the profession.  However, strong opinions are sometimes needed in order 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.

Also View:
Social Work in the Tenderloin Will Kill Something Inside of You
Social Work in the Tenderloin is Not Hopeless

Written by Deona Hooper, MSW


Deona Hooper, MSW is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Social Work Helper, and she has experience in nonprofit communications, tech development and social media consulting. Deona has a Masters in Social Work with a concentration in Management and Community Practice as well as a Certificate in Nonprofit Management both from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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You Ladies Rock! My passion in life is to talk about the occupational hazards of the helping profession and to provide supports and programs for people who are experiencing Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma.

I talk about it almost everyday at work – in an effort to normalize it and make others feel comfortable to discuss it as well. It’s working. No fear. No Shame. I hope others reading this will start to talk about it with colleagues as well.


I have a feeling that Social Workers are born with extra big hearts – it’s why we got into the field. It also sets us up for putting our needs aside to take care of others and this is where organizations take advantage. In the end it isn’t good for anyone. A couple of months ago I said “no” to a request to take on another program. It was sooooo hard to say no, but I explained myself from a Compassion Fatigue awareness point of view and my manager completely understood. I know that she is not the norm, but it felt really good to stand up for my health (and the health of my current clients).

I hope the more we talk about it and the more we bring it up at work, that we will be more supported and less likely to leave the job or go on medical disability to get away from the stress.

Good for you making yourself and your family a priority!:)

Exactly, it’s scary that is can be misdiagnosed as Depression or Anxiety and treated that way. It’s so much easier to prevent it from the beginning that to recover – it took me a long time to get from near burnout to staying healthy as a Social Worker in Addictions and Mental Health, would have been much easier if my BSW program had told me about it.

I completely agree about joint efforts. We as Social Workers need to keep the discussion going and organizations need to recognize the impact and incorporate some of the protective factors (flexible scheduling, clinical supervision, professional development, education on vicarious trauma, etc.).

I’m so happy to hear that your school discussed CF. Where did you go, if you don’t mind me asking?

I agree with the idea that there is stigma about burnout among social workers. I think schools of social work are starting to address compassion fatigue, at least my program did. However there seems to be some tabo within the profession about admitting to experiencing it. There are some who if you tell them about feeling burned out will tell you to change careers or will make you feel like you are not competent at your job because you are experiencing fatigue.

I don’t see agencies all that concerned with preventing burnout or assisting those experiencing it. I feel strongly that it needs to be a duel effort on the employer and employees part. Yes we need to be responsible for ourselves but the agencies need to acknowledge and take responsibility for the role they play in placing unreasonable demands on their workforce. I understand there are budget constraints but there are low cost ways for them to create a more supportive environment.

Yes, it does….sometimes you don’t know that it is happening it happens. We need more education in this area.

I think that The Think Tank should have a campaign around this issue. That is something where are lot of SW would sign on for.

TMart, you hit on it the head. I was going to add the Anonymous SW to the also view, but I see that you have been making some changes. Yes, I didn’t even go into the horrors of how parents are being affected. Thank you for addressing that.

I understand how frustrating it can be. On a state or county level, SW are responsible for the lives of children, while trying to build a case against their parents for termination. When I held that position, I was amazed how easy it was to terminate parental rights. My first case was devastating. A mother I barely knew, despite her drug addiction, would never set eyes on her infant again. That’s a chilling feeling. I am not advocating for abusive and neglectful parents, but I also believe that the expectations of the court system ensures the failure of natural parents. Addiction is a disease that a person faces every single day of their lives. It is unrealistic to expect an addict to get clean in 6 to 12 months before their rights are permanently severed.

Getting back on track; the responsibility of another’s life left on your shoulders is an honorable job. However, when you have thirty to sixty lives resting on your shoulders, its inevitable that you will buckle under the pressure. Social workers suffer depression, anxiety, and are often struggling to make it home on time to their families. At the end of the day, you ask yourself, is it really worth my sanity? Is it really worth neglecting my own children, to protect another’s? I may upset some social workers when I say this, but he** no. I whole heartily care for abused and neglected children, but there has to be a limit to the madness. Social workers are often paid just below the poverty line and are expected to drive their own cars (depending on which state you work in) and the reimbursement for mileage is pitiful and fails to match the cost of miles on your car, or the gas that you use to conduct home visits. It may seem like I’m complaining, and I am, but for good reason. The government claims to care about the lives of children and yet, they refuse to provide the resources for social workers to effectively carry out their duties.

My previous perception of the foster care system was that there were different levels of child protection. You have the state and county SW, and then you had the FFA social workers, and then there are the hospital social workers (who make a good wage). I had always wanted to work at an FFA, where there were lower case loads and the opportunity to be apart of a smaller team. Well, I got my wish, and found that the smaller private agencies were just as ruthless as the government agencies. Politics is constantly circulating throughout the office, and the sinister tactics in which to gain more power. (sigh) When I first accepted this job, they advertised stability and flexibility, but in the end, I found that FFAs have high turn over, a fact that I wasn’t privy to before accepting the position. The point of my long-windedness (I don’t think this is a word but it will do), is the fact that social workers are ready and willing to go the extra mile, but those that hire us and responsible for advocating for us are not willing to reciprocate. There is no support for many social workers, and it should be addressed on a larger scale.

Great article and I agree with much of what you wrote. I feel like agencies and the NASW get a pass when it comes to dealing with issues that lead to burn out.

Burn out doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There are factors that cause it and our employers should be and could be doing more to help. Furthermore, the NASW should be doing more to improve work conditions for social workers.

Instead I find that it is the individual worker who is often left to deal with the stress alone with little to no support from the agency. There are steps an employer can take that would cost nothing (or next to nothing) that would help providers cope. For example something as simple as having a support group for staff could go along way.

The NASW should be advocating on behalf of public sector social workers by focusing on case loads and paperwork redundancies. Outside of licensing it appears they have no interest in what is happening inside the workplace.