One does not have to be a serious student of history to know there was a time when people knew that the Earth was flat and the center of the universe. Some even believed that the Chicago Cubs would never win a World Series.
Today, we know better. In February 1966, after 10 years as Executive Director of the Woodbourne Children’s Center in Baltimore, a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed adolescents, I resigned and entered the bureaucratic world of the Children’s Bureau, at that time a part of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW).
Today, long retired from HEW and in my tenth decade of life, I find myself looking back at my time as Executive Director, and mulling over some of my positive accomplishments (e.g., racial integration of staff and population); some things I probably should have done differently; and some I probably should not have done at all.
Unless the field of social work has changed significantly in the past 50-plus years, there are probably a number of my former colleagues who are now analyzing these words in an effort to determine why a 96-year-old man would:
1. assume that he had anything of value to impart to his youthful colleagues and
2. invest the time and effort to do so
As I get older, I increasingly believe that age deserves respect, I seek the reader’s indulgence – just for a moment – to veer into what may appear to be unrelated territory, but which I feel would be helpful in proving a point – or at least drawing a parallel. I promise you: At the end, all loose ends will be tied together.
The unrelated territory to which I refer relates to supermarkets – more specifically, the publications found in supermarkets. Anyone who has been to one recently must be aware of the number of publications arrayed at the checkout counters. The best known (most notorious?) of these is probably the National Enquirer. Each week, these publications carry a trove of stories that follow a predictable pattern. There is usually a report of an unidentified flying object spotted over New Jersey (or was it West Virginia?) and a story about a child who was reared by animals. In addition, each issue usually features a diet.
One week the diet may simply be called that – The Diet. The following week, however, there may be an Improved Diet, followed a week later by a Superlative Diet, and eventually by the Ultimate Diet. This proliferation of eating recommendations begs the question: If this week’s diet is inferior to those to be published in the ensuing four, five, 10 (pick a number) weeks, what does that say about the current diet? A diet that can be improved week after week can’t have been very good to begin with.
What has all this got to do with the residential treatment of children?
During my tenure at the Woodbourne Children’s Center, I participated in a number of conferences that produced some very firm recommendations. Some of these were commonsense; others required a leap of faith, possibly an “aha!” moment. I recall one recommendation made by the psychiatric consultant at my own agency. He suggested that at each meal, the cook prepare 30 percent more food than the children would consume. At the time, we did not have a name for this therapeutic approach, but in retrospect “saturation therapy” would probably be appropriate.
I seldom ignored a recommendation by our consultant, but I did not implement this particular one, primarily because I abhor seeing food wasted. I understood the rationale behind the consultant’s thinking – that children who have been deprived in so many areas of their lives for so long a time have greater needs than does the average child – but “saturation therapy” did not seem the way to go. Maybe the efficacy, or lack of efficacy, of this form of treatment will become evident in years to come. If saturation therapy is currently an accepted form of treatment, I plead ignorance because of my 50-year absence from the field, and I beg your indulgence.
What point am I trying to make?
I can best answer this question with another question. How many social workers have left conferences imbued with the feeling that they now really know the truth, only to learn in subsequent sessions that new truths had emerged?
There are things we don’t know and things we don’t know that we don’t know. What are some of the things we can agree on? No one would dispute a child’s need for food, clothing, and shelter. Children need time to work and time to play. They need a set of rules that are understandable and equally enforced. But will a residential center that provides each child a monetary allowance twice as large as that of another center have more successful outcomes? I don’t think this has been demonstrated.
I mean no disrespect when I compare the efforts of professional social workers, particularly in the area of residential treatment, with those of tabloid sensationalists. I am not suggesting that social workers did not know anything when I was in the trenches 50 years ago or that they have learned nothing since that time. I only caution that we cannot know everything. I am certain there are some aspects of residential treatment that are as true today as they were 50 years ago. But “some” does not mean “all.” My plea is simply that we never become overwhelmed by our own perceived brilliance.
The take-home message:
We can’t not do anything until we’re absolutely certain of everything. But, a little modesty never hurt anyone. After a lifespan of 96 years and an almost half-century out of the field of social work, I plead for some humility in the self-assessment of our knowledge. In brief, we may not know as much as we think we do.
How to Support Foster Children
When you choose to become a foster carer the rewards can be great. Supporting a child through a difficult period in their life, watching them grow and develop into a well-rounded individual; it’s understandable why so many choose to pursue this worthwhile vocation.
However, as with any profession, it does come with some downsides. Primarily helping some children to cope with the trauma and stress that being in foster care can evoke.
So, how can you best support a foster child in a meaningful way? One that will be beneficial to the both of you.
Feeling like the most overlooked member of society can have a damaging and long-lasting effect on foster children. Meaning that the simple act of offering them an ear to vent their worries, experiences or anything at all can be extremely positive. It establishes you as a point of reason in their life.
You can’t always solve the issues that are brought up during these moments. Nor should you try, but it is worthwhile simply being there to hear. Because, at the end of the day, your foster children deserve to be listened to.
Birthdays. Christmas. Halloween. Important events can often go overlooked as a foster child. So, taking the chance as a foster parent to celebrate these milestones – no matter how little or big – can be the change that a child needs. Simple things such as helping put up a Christmas tree could be a moment they will remember for a long time to come.
And at the end of the day events like Halloween and Birthdays are fun – something every child needs a little more of in their lives.
Your support is vital, but often the support of peers can also be invaluable for the wellbeing of those children in foster care. Setting up playdates – even for older children – can be a great way to help them interact and enjoy time with children their own age.
Older children or teens may be unreceptive to you making playdates for them. But, arranging ‘coincidences’ of kids their age coming over can always be an alternative solution. What they don’t know…
This can also be beneficial for any of your own children that may also be in the house. A disgruntled foster child can be a distressing presence in the home, so balancing this out with a familiar friend and playmate is often needed to offset this. All of the children in your home can benefit from socialising with others both in and outside your own home at times,
Sometimes life can get a little too much when you are forced to come and go through a number of foster homes, which is a reality for many foster children. A day out – not even an expensive day out or holiday – can be a bright spot in an otherwise overcast moment in their lives. The zoo, beach, museum and even the park can be an adventure.
It’s not always clear what a child is going through, nor will they always express their emotions in healthy ways. Removing them from the environment which creates these feelings can be a relief in many cases.
Help with School
On average, foster children tend to do worse academically and behaviour wise in school than other children. The reasons are often self-explanatory, but it is something which you can positively influence whilst they are under your care.
Helping with homework, actively engaging with teachers over what you can do further to help and encouraging after-school activities are some ways to do this. Goals should be set, but ensure they are realistic and rewarded when surpassed.
Overall, being a foster parent is a big task but one that can bring so much enrichment to a child’s life. As a solid figure in their life, you can help ensure the rest of their life is more positive than the start. Supporting a foster child can be a challenge, but that makes it all the more rewarding when you see a positive effect on the life of a child.
Systems Perspective and the Myth of the Self-Made Man
As a social worker, we spend a good deal of time looking at systems, and systems work means we can’t only focus on what’s “wrong” with the individual in our office. Our focus can’t simply be what can this person do to move toward more emotional happiness? We need to always be considering how living in the world and engaging in relationships with other systems and other people play a large role in what this client does, how they think, and how they feel.
My job isn’t to just locate the unhelpful belief my client has about their self-esteem or retrain how they respond to a negative thought. When doing systemic work—even with just one person—I need to look at how race, ethnicity, age, sexuality, and gender play a role in my client’s life. I need to look at how that client’s family system, school system, government system, community systems, and more played a role in shaping my client.
As basic as this is, it’s important to note that It’s a fairly un-American way of going about things.
The Big Lie of Individualism
We’re taught that we should hold up the self-made man. We celebrate that guy to no end in movies, plays, songs, and stories. It’s our enduring myth.
We, social workers, see the monstrosity in that idea—pleasant and attractive though it is. We know that human beings can only grow and thrive within relationships, not apart from them. We know that nothing is self-made. We know that we are working from day one of life to attach to others.
We need to push back on the “self-made man” myth because it’s racist. It’s sexist. It’s heteronormative.
And it’s killing us.
And since I work mostly with men I want to be very direct because it’s literally killing us as the suicide rate for men is incredibly high: five times greater than for women. And we apply words like “strong” and “hard” when we’re describing masculinity? Something is missing. The weaker sex, the special snowflakes, are the ones who are supposed to need help. Not us.
Social workers disagree about many things and we have lots of ways we think are the best way to help any given client, but one thing we can all agree on when it comes to healing is that the relationship does a great deal of the work. It can begin to heal trauma, mental illness, and the “worried well.” It’s the way in, it’s the way through, and it’s the way out of suffering. It’s not the only thing, but it’s part of everything. Death is in the separateness, the lack of relationship.
And name your –ism because that’s about separateness too. We can’t fully heal a white person without moving through white supremacy together and we can’t help men without addressing the patriarchy. We may not call it out or by these names, but to connect with someone in their suffering is to refuse white supremacy and masculinity.
We need to keep doing what we’re doing, but we need to go further. We’re healing the people without healing the system and we can only thrive so much within a sick system.
Moving Ourselves Toward an Ego Dystonic State With the World
In a mental health session, our work is often to connect our client with other people. Often this happens through the therapeutic relationship with us first, but ultimately, it’s done so they can connect with the other people in their life. Doing this on an individual level is important, and as difficult as it is (and it is difficult), it’s really the bare bones of our work. Because what we’re doing, if we stop there, is helping people build up coping strategies to survive in a broken system.
So we have to stop and ask ourselves if in our work we are challenging the system that our clients live in and, not for nothing, that we’re living in too. Now, this can be a controversial stance for some people. It sounds “agenda-driven” and done unskillfully it is just that. But for those who feel they are thriving in this patriarchal, white supremacist world, do we have any choice, ethically, but to aid them in shifting their lens?
For too many of us, we have come to see this world as ego syntonic and we need to push toward discomfort in ourselves to see the world as it is. And that will move us toward change.
A Child Welfare Example
Let me take my work in child welfare as an example. Most of the parents I’ve worked with over the years are well-meaning and loving people. Many of them are involved in child welfare because they had hit their children in order to discipline them. Many of them feel this is ok. Many of the child welfare workers think it’s ok to physically discipline a child. We even have different words so we separate “abuse” from “physical discipline” and we jump through hoops to try to define “excessive corporal punishment” as separate from “physical discipline”. Many parents have no hesitation telling me that when their child gets out of line they need a slap, a spanking, a something that lets them understand limits, but that this is discipline and not abuse.
And in the course of this conversation, I usually hear the inevitable, “It happened to me and I turned out ok.”
And right there is the thing that I’m talking about with these systems. You “turned out” in such a way that you think it’s ok to hit a child, your child. And this is the proof that you didn’t turn out as “ok” as you think. You grew up with something violent being normalized.
But that’s our society. That’s the society that collectively calls sexual assault “locker room talk” and elects a president. That’s the society where powerful, talented men are allowed to produce and direct movies for years without consequence for their sexually abusive behavior.
Systems work is helping people see that things they take for granted could be wrong. Knowing
- That there are not simply two genders.
- That race is not encoded in our DNA.
- That women are not genetically more nurturing.
- That there are no such things as boy and girl toys.
Knowing all that means we have to fundamentally shift our way of thinking, our way of feeling, our way of living—day to day—in this world. And we may need to fundamentally, though not radically, change the way we approach therapy.
Merging the Therapist and the Advocate
Great things can come from our work with individuals, couples, and families. We can support people in relieving a lot of pain and finding healthier ways to interact. We move people through trauma, out of depression and anxiety, and to better navigate relationships. We help people live within our broken world—which is no small feat. Part of our happiness can only come by becoming more open to uncertainty which is all we really can be certain about.
But can we do more or does our job end there?
I believe we can. Not by “pushing an agenda” or preaching, but by becoming grounded in a strong analysis of the patriarchy, in racism, and in anti-oppressive work. With this analysis, we understand ourselves differently and we understand others in a new way. We see more easily how reactive our clients can be while not realizing they’re being reactive. We are so skilled at reaching for feelings or for picking out the latent content. We see through all of the mental healthy stuff, and we bring it into our work. But, we can see through the racism, the gender norms, the patriarchy, the homophobia and bring that into the work as well? The stronger we are in our own analysis the more able we are to help clients see when they’re reacting to a system instead of their own desires or someone else’s needs.
Most of us just aren’t so good at doing it yet. So many of us separate this work: “I’m a therapist in the office, and I’m an activist when I’m outside.”
That’s great. It is. But we need to find a way to merge the two. To make them inseparable.
Can we repair an airplane while we’re flying it? Can we change our systems while living in them?
Well, first off, we have no choice. We can’t step outside of it because it’s the air we breathe.
With everyone we meet, whether client, friend, lover, or family we need to be grounded in our awareness. We need to support the people we care about, our clients or otherwise, and do all the great engagement and interventions we learned in social work school and beyond—but we have to have an eye on the system. The system they’re in. The one we’re in. The whole shebang.
We need to not preach. We need not be so agenda driven that we miss the humanity of the client or clients sitting in our offices and their suffering. Our need to end the patriarchy cannot be at an individual client’s expense, of course!
But in session and out, we need to be on the lookout for moments to open our own and others’ eyes to the sickness that we are living in. The sickness that lies and says this is the only way to be.
A Student Perspective: Social Work and First Responders
It may be rare for a social work student to reflect on an assignment as something inspirational rather than a stressful experience with a deadline, but at the end of 3rd year of my social work degree, one assignment was a challenge filled with hope. The assignment allowed me to contribute to a program that will give insight to other helping professionals about the mental health of first responders: police, firefighters, paramedics and others who respond to emergencies on the frontline.
The University of Newcastle has a particularly effective way of integrating workplace experience based learning with academic learning throughout the degree. The program options offered in third year which allow students to develop a program for a real agency was the most useful for me. To know your work might form a foundation for a real program in the community was a great honour and challenge to work on.
In the beginning, I was unsure of what to expect from the program development project. I was apprehensive about working with a professional capacity with a real agency, but I was excited also to learn more and try something new. There were diverse programs offered- from gardening programs to developing group projects designed for children and developing a program for professionals working with first responders.
The university gave us a chance to preference our interests and I was fortunate enough, with some other amazing women to be selected for the first responders team. The aim of our project was to put together a draft training package for helping professionals to enhance understanding of first responder mental health.
This topic drew my interest as it was beyond my scope of knowledge and I have a keen interest in mental health, so it was intriguing to me on both a personal and professional level. On starting, I very quickly became aware that I had actually put very little thought into the work first responders do in our communities to keep us all safer.
I learned just how complex the actual work of first responders can be, I learned the challenges that first responders face as a consequence of their work, the most traumatic of which is often invisible to the communities that they protect. I learned how repetitive exposure to trauma can complicate all aspects of first responder’s lives if they don’t or can’t seek or obtain support. I learned how much awareness is lacking within the multiple levels of the community, which is needed to enact change for first responders and their families.
Also, I learned the difficulties that can be faced by first responders and their families when attempting to access help. Whilst organisational supports are in place for some of the services, the stigma, shame and potential for the loss of their profession is very real. I heard stories about those medically discharged dealing with the grief and loss of their profession and identity.
My part in the group was to examine the supports already in place for first responders. I was concerned at the limited avenues for assistance and the extent of the difficulties for first responders to seek help. Besides limited services, stigma and organisational culture are barriers to effective help seeking. I found attempting to identify potential services to be frustrating, especially when looking for options within communities rather than those which are employer organisation based. My mind quickly went to how this frustration might feel for someone who was attempting the same whilst being unwell.
Gaining insight and recognition into the role first responders play, the impacts on their mental health, their relationships and all aspects of their lives and the flow on effect to their wider social ecology, I realised just how large the scale of first responder post-traumatic stress and other mental health consequences have on our community overall.
The hardest part of this learning experience was seeing the end of the project. The topic is so significant, it is hard to not to explore the topic further. To me, this feels like a core social work and social justice issue, yet one which is invisible much of the time. My learning from this project has given me a totally new perspective. I have a renewed respect and a much deeper understanding of the issues faced by police, firefighters, paramedics and all others who work on the frontline in emergencies.
I know I’ve only scratched the surface of the knowledge it takes to work with first responders and enact positive change in their lives. I hope more research is completed and potentially more opportunities for training and professional development come up for social workers, whether it be integrated into core teaching within university programs or externally in workplaces.
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