When Good Social Workers Go Bad

18 10 2010

I’ve wanted to be a social worker since I was 15. I was always interested in the child welfare system. This led to some delightful books as Christmas gifts–about the damage the NYC foster care system does, families struggling to survive welfare reform, the cycle of poverty. All sorts of fun fare.

I learned a lot from this early reading material. The main thing I learned was the kind of social worker I did not want to be.

There were so many examples of bad social workers. Workers bogged down by bureaucracy, cynical about their clients, working for the weekend. Social workers just trying to close cases because their caseload was too large, whether it was in the client’s best interest or not.

I always planned to be the good social worker. I wanted to be available to my clients, to care deeply about them, and not to close a case until everyone was absolutely ready. I wanted to rise above the bureaucracy, and the system, so my families would know that I was genuine and that they could call on me for anything. I wanted to change people’s lives by going above and beyond.

Seriously…how cute is that?

When I get down about my job (I know you’d never guess, but it does happen) my friends and family tell me that I’m helping people. Sometimes I get a little sarcastic and dramatic (again, hard to believe, but I swear it’s true) and say that we don’t really help anyone.

Realistically, I know that’s not accurate. I don’t know that I’ve pulled anyone off the edge of a proverbial cliff single-handedly, but there are families that have gotten better in their time here.

But then there are those that have gotten worse. Those are the ones who make me feel like the worker I never wanted to be.

I have a teenage girl who recently entered a diagnostic reception center, and is being referred to a residential treatment center.

This kid drives me nuts.

I have infinite sympathy and patience for kids, I really do. Most kids I work with have been through so much trauma that it’s easy to understand their acting out behaviors. Yes, they’re obnoxious, they’re skeptical, they skip school, do drugs, and fight. But in the context of their life experience, the fact that they’re still alive and functioning is all you can ask for.

This particular teen girl has an absentee father. Not ideal, I’ll admit. But her behavior is ten times worse than children I know who were born to drug addicts, abandoned repeatedly, or brought up in foster care.

You don’t want to get so jaded by the horrible things that you see that you lose sympathy for mundane horrible things, like deadbeat dads. Because that is a perfectly valid, horrible thing to deal with.

But it’s hard to help. There are those times that I find myself thinking, “Dad’s not around? Boo-frickin-hoo. Get your ass to school and stop doing drugs.”

This particular case is one that got eaten up by the system. This girl was sent to family court, ran away, got placed in foster care, ran away, got sent to a DRC, AWOLed repeatedly, and ran around staying with friends until her mother was able to get a warrant.

All of these different people and agencies involved meant that no one thought they were responsible for the case. Mom had an impossible time figuring out who to go to.

I include myself in that as well. I found myself wanting to close the case as soon as possible, having little sympathy or patience for this family, and wishing someone else would come to take responsibility. There was information I couldn’t get, there were times that I couldn’t find this child.

I closed that case this past week. The child is finally getting the help that she needs, and I know it’s for the best. As difficult and frustrating as this case has been for me, I know I’ll keep worrying about this girl for years. It already kept me up plenty of nights, wondering where she was and what she was doing. And it still rips my heart out to think that there was more that I could have done. To think that maybe I didn’t do my best.

I re-read those books sometimes. Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care, by Nina Bernstein, and Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc are my two favorites. They remind me of why I went into this field, how I want to practice, and what dick moves symptoms of burnout I’d like to avoid.

It’s hard to be a good social worker all the time, and it’s hard not to beat yourself up when you fall short. But in an effort to not become complacent, I guess this is a situation where feeling bad is a good thing.




13 responses

18 10 2010

It happens. There are some kids (and adults) who can only be reached by a certain something or someone, and sometimes you’re not it, no matter how many things you try and how much unlimited patience you try to show. You’re not evil.

18 10 2010

That’s a really good way to look at it. Thanks for the reminder about my lack of evilness 🙂

19 10 2010

Poignant blog. As I start my next sw position in independent living I know there will be a lot of frustration about “the system” having done the young adults injustices over the years and hope I can reach the reachable or identify someone who can.

19 10 2010

I think knowing your limits is one of the hardest parts of the job–what you can reasonably expect to accomplish, and when you’re just hoping for a miracle. Good luck in your new position! Thanks for reading.

20 10 2010

I have these feelings and thoughts fairly regularly to be honest. I have to force myself to remember why I am doing what I am doing. I try to separate the ‘things I can change’ from the ‘things I can’t change’ and only take responsibility for the former. Easier said than done, I know.
‘Things going wrong’ are the hardest things to deal with or letting things go but sometimes there is nothing else that can be done. That isn’t the same as giving up hope – it’s just the reality of some of the circumstances that emerge.
Often I talk it through with my manager and colleagues and will equally advise colleagues of the same thing myself when they have similar issues.

20 10 2010

Talking about it is so crucial. I was nervous to write about it because I didn’t want people to think I didn’t care about certain clients, or anything like that. But, of course, lots of people feel the same way. Thanks!

21 10 2010

I do resourcing, so for me it’s having to tell a family “no, I wasn’t able to get funding” for this equipment or that drug. Some of these things cost the earth, but some things are just not going to happen. There’s a reason my costume this year (as it was last year) is of a fairly godmother!

22 10 2010

Sometimes families come to me when they’re facing eviction, and for whatever reason have waited until the absolute last minute, when there really isn’t anything to be done. It’s so hard to tell them that the shelter is the best option.

Also, LOVE the costume idea!

23 10 2010

Join the club! I had gone through the same, feeling that I could have done more, or that I could have documented better, or that I could have been more sympathetic… You name it. Yet the one thing that can stress me more than anything is being threatened with a lawsuit. I’ve worked too hard and would hate to compromise my career and my license by nonsense/crazy clients/families.

Great post!!


11 11 2010

I totally struggle with these issues too. I work with young children, their families, and their child care providers. Often people want me to ‘fix the child’ without really wanting to make any changes to how they approach the child. When I offer referrals to family counseling, evaluation services, support programs I sometimes get gratitude and hope that they are truly interested. Lately, however, I’m feeling like a crap social jerker. How much of a difference am I truly making? You are not alone in these feelings.

On balance (cause I’m a social worker and it’s required by law that we be peppy and up-beat for a minimum of 7.5 hours a day), I will say that I have had a number of people tell me that just talking with me helps or that I am a “blessing”. While I don’t subscribe to the notion that I’m “heaven sent” (though I am heavenly scented), it’s their way of telling me I am making a difference. Even though the message may not be delivered in a way I’d like (a 20 pound chocolate basket delivered to me in a limo that will drive me home while massaging my feet, score!) the meaning is there.

When you work with teenagers who speak a whole different lingo, I imagine you might even have to dig deeper for the meaning. But it’s there. You’re there every day for your kids and that alone is important. Keep being there and keep writing because your blogs help me feel like I’m not alone.


11 11 2010

Thank you so much for this great, thoughtful comment! It is definitely nice to hear when someone says that you’ve been helpful, or when they call you first when something big happens. But then there are those other days, when it seems like you’re just babysitting cases or waiting for something to happen. My favorite part about writing this blog is discovering how many other people feel the same way.

If that limo comes through, let me know.

13 11 2010
David Welch

Hi, I am not a SW, I have been a client of SW’s for many years. I have been through my own hell and the hell that the social workers brought to me. I have been diagnosed with Complex PTSD, most SWs call it BPD which is inaccurate. I have struggle with this diagnosis and the lack of training with SWs with trauma. Trauma is the main problem with these types of diagnosis and with the transference of trauma onto the Sws things reverberate and get worse. The stigma of having a mental disorder coupled with the difficulties SWs experience personally doing their job creates a spiraling of emotions hampering effective Social Work. I do not believe most SWs know how to dispel the stress and trauma that comes with their work. Each SW is left to old school methods to deal with these issues. What is needed is a Phase 2 treatment model for the client and the SWs experiencing emotions which affect outcomes or hampers a good or speedy outcome. For some reason the SW field has not seen itself as needing to improve or embrace alternative therapies. Or that being handcuffed by insurance companies is ok if ultimately the client suffers more. The boo hoo statements are particularly dusturbing.

15 11 2010

Thank you so much for this thoughtful comment. It is so helpful to hear from someone on the other side of these issues.

I am sorry to hear about all of the troubles you have experienced with social workers. I hope that you have found some professionals (in whatever field) to connect with, that have been able to offer you the help that you have been seeking.

I completed social work school fairly recently, and found that courses in vicarious or secondary traumatization were starting to be offered, so I am hopeful that the problems to which you are referring will soon improve. But I do think that you are right. Transference is a major problem, especially when dealing with trauma, and though it was certainly discussed in social work school, the conclusion (in my experience) tended to be, “Get yourself into therapy, and find your own ways to cope.” We definitely need a more concrete model, and better training in this area.

I don’t personally deal with insurance companies, because our services are funded by the city. However, I do deal with insurance issues, particularly when referring clients for psychiatric services. It can certainly be a nightmare and greatly impedes services. My school was very social justice and community organizing-oriented, so the issue was discussed a great deal, but the system as a whole is so large that it’s difficult to tackle.

Good luck in the future, and thanks for reading and commenting.

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