Confession time: I’m a comic book geek. Who doesn’t love a good hero story? My favorite is, of course, Batman. (I was there before Christian Bale, just so we’re clear.) A traumatized child grows up and uses his phobia to rectify his past? What social worker wouldn’t love that?
The truth is, we all want to be heroes. No one goes into a helping profession hoping that it will be a futile, uphill battle. You know it probably will be, but you hope that you’ll have those superhero moments.
“A child care subsidy? I believe I’ve got that right here!” “Domestic violence? Unhand that lady! To the shelter!”
This is particularly acute in social work school. During your internship, you want someone you can save. Just someone who will be able to look back at your time together and say, hey, this social worker helped me. Life is better now.
Sometimes it happens. Some people notice. But often, progress is so gradual, and not at all what clients expect, that they aren’t able to look back and see these things.
And then there are the heroes along the way.
These people are what I call “swoop and savers.” They haven’t been present for the life of the case. They get called in, very late in the game, and things are abundantly clear to them. These people know just what the clients need, and it is oh-so-simple to deliver it.
I have a teenage client who has spent her summer in a psychiatric hospital. Psychiatrists are intimidating as it is. They have medical degrees, they wear white coats, and they have access to all those drugs.
One psychiatrist in particular decided he had my client figured out. The real problem stems not from her mental illness, but from the tense relationship with her mother. Why hasn’t the mother been more involved in counseling?
Well…I…we did, at first, but…I stuttered for a while on the phone, embarrassed at my ineptitude, until I agreed to come in for a family session.
After about ten minutes, the girl and her mother were yelling over each other, while the girl punched a wall and threw anything in the room that wasn’t nailed down. I tried to reason with her while Dr. Saves-a-lot called for help.
That’s why we hadn’t been doing this.
We had done family sessions. For months, when the case first opened. But sometimes there’s a lot to be done before those can be productive. After a year with this family, I knew that. In knowing this family for a week, this psychiatrist assumed he knew better than the social worker. (Note: anti-MSW bias will come back to bite you.)
I’ve gotten lots of questions from other helping professionals, similar to the ones I got from this psychiatrist. “Why hasn’t this child been evaluated?” “Why hasn’t this family been reunited?” “Why didn’t you help this family to find new housing?” “Don’t you know ANYTHING?”
We all want other people in similar fields to know that we’re competent, that we’re doing our jobs, and that we’re doing the best we can. We also all want to be that one person who can change this client’s life.
We each know how hard it is to do that. But why is it so hard to remember that when we’re looking at someone else’s work, and trying to fly to the rescue?