Recently, I attended a training that was comprised of mental health clinicians because the speaker’s topic of filial play was of great interest to me . The trainer engaged the class around the importance of meeting the client where they were in that moment. Calling on his own experience, he recounted an experience with a client that required much understanding and engagement. He talked about how he had to adjust his schedule to meet with the family at 6pm so that the patriarch of the family could participate as he understood that his buy-in was necessary for the successful goal attainment. Someone asked a question about the family’s social worker accompanying him. The speaker actually laughed. He said, “Social workers go home at 5pm no matter what”.
Of course, never one to remain silent, I raised my hand. “You understand that social workers respond to crisis at all hours of the night and do not actually get to go home at 5pm?”
He explained that he was only used to dealing with the administrative portions of the agency, but that his experience in the state where he practiced was that the administrative offices closed on time, no matter what was pending. Refusing to make a scene, I remained quiet but very disturbed by this blatant assumption that social workers were like bankers instead of caring professionals, who often went above and beyond every day to ensure that safety, permanency and well being was achieved.
Shaking my head as I exited, I convinced myself that misinformed, the speaker did not truly understand the levels and layers of the child welfare system.
A few weeks later, while waiting on an elevator in a large hospital I overheard a medical professional tell her friend to hurry up and call DHR before 4:00 if she expected a social worker to show up.
Neither of these back to back incidents occurred in the county or even the state in which I worked. However, I have known and worked with social workers all over the U.S. and could not believe that the social work profession continued to get so little respect.
I would expect the public to have mixed messages about the work of Child Welfare. In the media: movies, television even literature, the social worker is often depicted as a grossly overworked paper pusher who has lost their sense of empathy and compassion, gaining instead a jaded ennui for their clients.
When a child is hurt or worse, the media is quick to vilify child welfare, even if the family had not been brought to their attention.
“They should have known”.
And if there was a social worker involved with the family and a child is hurt, the vilification becomes outrage. Calls ring out for their dismissal and even their arrest. The same standard is not applied to other helping professions whose leadership understands that families hide abuse, fear and shame compels them to tuck the truth deep in the darkness away from the light of discovery.
What is almost never written about are the thousands of children across the nation whose lives are made better by the tireless work of social workers.
- Over 100,000 children are adopted in the US each year when they cannot safely return to their biological home. Those adoptions are arranged and facilitated by child welfare social workers.
- Currently over 400,000 children in the US in foster care due to some type of abuse and neglect or abandonment. Social workers facilitate the permanency outcome for each of those children.
- Over 683,000 children in the US in 2015 were abused and/or neglected. Social workers investigate each report to protect those children from further abuse.
The stereotype that child welfare social workers are burned out uncaring state workers just in it for the money is totally inaccurate. I wont deny that their caseloads continue to be too high when you consider the complex nature of working with families that sometimes have buried generations of abuse. And the long hours, emotional impact and low compensation can lead to high turnover. (See future blog on the broken system.) But they dont enter the profession broken and tired. They come to Social Work with a mission to help families!
Weekly Challenge: before you dismiss the important work going on across the US by these dedicated professionals, look at the big picture. So many fixate on one incident that was blamed on social worker error to form their bias against the entire profession. In my 31 years in social work I have seen a number of social workers who have had a child in their caseload die at the hands of abusive parents. What I can share with you is this: nothing the public can throw at them in the form of blame even comes close to what they pile on themselves. I hear the questions.
What did I miss?
Why didnt they tell me?
Why did they lie to me about him being out of the house?
What else could I have done?
I have seen the anger, depression and self-blame on the faces of good workers, who saw the family regularly, talked with the children alone and even did home inspections. With all of their efforts, serious abuse still occurred.
Dont get me wrong. One tragedy is one tragedy too many. There is absolutely no way to NOT experience outrage and extreme sadness over a child’s injury or death. But focus that outrage on the perpetrator And the broken system. And appreciate those on the front line of child protection who go to work every day with a mission to improve the safety and well being of children and families.