Social workers in the media

First – in the interest of transparency – let me disclose that I am, in fact, a social worker. And let me say that I love what I do. I feel very strongly about my work and although I know there are times when I – or the system – could certainly do better, by and large it truly falls under the category of “right livelihood”. I don’t do it because every so often someone tells me I made a significant difference in their life and I don’t do it because I’m making money hand over fist (believe me – it’s not that). I do it because it’s a chance to help children/teens/families do things better, be healthier and braver and more whole beings. I do it because every child deserves a chance to have a family that works for them. Now, that doesn’t mean they just always get what they want (just ask LG), it means that they get what they need. Sometimes what they need is to have boundaries on what they want. I also have a strong back ground in developmental and neuropsych – which dovetail nicely with social work.

 

What drives me nuts is when someone new asks what you do and the following reaction when you tell them. I used to hesitate and like many of my colleagues (we work in mental health, not protection – more on that later) I’d say I was a therapist, a children’s counsellor, etc because I knew – I just knew based on years of experience – that you say social worker and you get a reaction. The reactions vary. Anything from “oh, that must be such hard work, I could never do what you do”, to a gasp or just changing the subject and gracefully  – or not – extracting yourself.  Occasionally you hear a story about how social work destroyed or saved someone’s child/family whatever. By the midway point people start asking questions about parenting – if they’re still talking to me – or arguing the facts of a case that should have gone a different way. Contrary to what people assume, I don’t mind when people ask me for work advice outside of work. Although I feel strongly about balance and not dragging work home with you, it’s not like I check everything I’ve learned at the door and come home without those skills etc. And I love my job so two parents discussing parenting which happen to be aspects of my work outside of the office – especially when it’s someone asking for help to do it better – feels really positive. 

When someone asks me about – or tells me about – a case they’re sure went wrong I’m in a more awkward situation. I live in a small town – a very small town – and sometimes it’s hard to extract what I know a social worker and what I know as a mum. However, I can tell you that without exception, the probability of you “knowing” why a decision was made the way it was – even if you are related to the folks involved – is just about nil. There are rare exceptions to this but they’re rare. Those are the awkward moments because I find myself not always agreeing with “the system” but given the general view of the child welfare system being “bad” I’m reluctant to engage in a casual critique of it. An academic critique – absolutely – but the last thing I want to do is undermine the work the protection workers are doing so I struggle to find the best way to balance that.

The reality is that contrary to popular opinion or media images, few protection workers want to apprehend children, arrest parents or otherwise disrupt families. Most went into the work to help children and families and get beat down by the system BUT the desire to help families usually doesn’t change. Social workers tend to internalize those stresses rather than take them out on families (yes, this is a generalization and yes, I can think of exceptions too but by and large research supports that generalization).  This – IMO – is where the media imaging does a huge disservice to social workers. The image you see of social workers is generally like the one I saw last night. (Brief aside: I’m on medical leave, have just had fairly major surgery and have to be low energy output for a while. J has been bringing home DVDs of shows he think I would like to entertain the couch bound me. I love to read but my book a day habit is getting expensive and I’m only just now getting clear headed enough to enjoy heavier reading. Junky tv was about all my brain could do for a couple of days). That taken care of let me start my hypothesis in the next paragraph.

 

There is a general stereotype of “the Social Worker” in the media. An older woman in an inelegant suit – if there’s a pair you can count on one visible minority – who comes to the door, pinchy faced and does her thing. I have never seen one that even hinted at a proper investigation being done. Now, I know this is “just  TV” and I certainly don’t expect that you would see the whole investigation but when one clearly hasn’t been done… well, more on that in a moment.

In the case last night they first came to the door “there’s been a report” talk to the parents after a report of “child abuse” (I have never seen a social worker start off that way – hello, we’d never get in the door)- based on a store video camera that saw a mum slap her step daughter. They mention that but don’t mention how horrified mum was (it was visible) and how she apologized and said “we really need some help”. They don’t talk about the fact that the mum called the counsellor (probably an LCSW – ha!) to ask for help and so on. They really do come across as the stuff of nightmares – these frost-beings come to take our kids or other loved ones away. They don’t care about what’s working in our family, they don’t care about all of the strengths in the family – one mistake and WHOOSH! They’ve taken our kids – or threatened it – or arrested us. In this case, the next report was the child’s – she self harmed with the intent to sabotage the step mum who was arrested – again, based on the child’s report but no investigation (that was VERY apparent). And other professionals – in this case the family therapist – collude with that. And because so much of what we know as a society is informed by what we see on tv… that’s what people think social workers do. Now, I think many professions are ill represented by the media so this isn’t a whinge about that per se. What the problem is that this representation makes it difficult for us to work with families, to make a case for appropriate legislation or funding for beds. When someone shows up at their door, those are the images – that and the families who go to the media to complain about how they’ve been treat by Child Protection (and yet never sign a release to the let the office rebut the complaint…. that’s what I usually point out when people bring those things to my attention). So, we start off having to make up for all of that – which isn’t good for anyone. It’s no skin off my back – I’m there to do my job regardless but it’s harder for the parents and the kids and that’s not ok. The other thing it does is impact the funding our system gets. Social workers in protective services (I’m not one of them) are the most under paid group of professionals but they’re a bit of the “dirty secret” of the “helping professions” really. They don’t have adequate resources to do their jobs well and it ends up getting distilled down to investigate and refer on or investigate or court. That’s overly simplistic but it ties into the next concern I have which also ties into the media representations and the impact that has on funding – the high rate of burn out. I could go on but I’m not going to because it’s exhausting and makes me really sad. I have had to cancel a subscription to a magazine because for a long stretch the editorial and the letters to the editor focused so heavily on “the unfair power of CPS to break up families”. Now I happen to know the laws in the State where the alleged offenses were to have taken place and I know that what was written in the editorial and what the laws say don’t add up. I also have to say that what was written in the editorial (to sum it up: children are the possessions of their parents) made me sick and there was no way I could continue to give them my money. But I digress – again!

So, this is a big long post to say – when you ask me what I do, I will tell you I’m a social worker, I won’t obfuscate or find some other way to articulate what it is I do. I’ll converse over what I can converse and try to evade what I can’t. It’s not about proving anything or even taking a stand for the profession. It’s about making sure that we’re all working to protect children – that when you see something that should be reported, you’ll do it without the assumption that the kids will be automatically removed or the parents arrested. I hope that the more I do that – and the more other social workers do – will mean that we will slowly start to combat that image of social workers that I find I see over and over in the media.