“Social workers suck.” That about sums it up.

4 11 2010

The term “social worker” doesn’t arouse warm and fuzzy feelings in most people. The search terms that direct people to this blog are a pretty good indication: “bad social workers,” “social workers suck,” “social workers don’t know anything,” and “what to do about a bad social worker?” are some of my favorites. (Aside from “black guy from Yo Gabba Gabba” and “elderly tracksuits,” but those are really off topic.)

I blame the damn media. (This is where my similarities to Sarah Palin begin and end.)

We get it in news reports. The death of a child at the hands of an abusive caretaker is horrifying, infuriating, and also rare. It rightly causes outrage, and finger-pointing.

Without delving too much into what is no doubt a very complex issue, there is a lot of failure that goes into a child being so horribly abused. Parents, schools, the bureaucratic child welfare system as a whole, and child welfare workers–that includes caseworkers, social workers, and supervisors.

Listening to commentators on the subject (I think we all know that there’s no better way to drive yourself to tear your hair out than to listen to opinions on talk radio) the only people who need to be held accountable are those lazy, disinterested social workers. You know, the ones who take children from good parents, and leave kids to rot in abusive foster homes? Somehow they always get it wrong.

Where does this stereotype come from?

I remember watching ER in college. My roommate was a nursing major, and she couldn’t get enough of it. It almost started growing on me, until the first social worker appeared.

She coldly insisted that a child with a couple of bruises be removed from his loving parents’ home, while the dashing Dr. Carter begged for her to see reason. She explained, still with no emotion, that she “had no choice.”

You see, social workers get caught up in red tape. Interns in public emergency rooms? They just follow their hearts.

Then there are the movies.

I Am Sam? Poor Sean Penn Sam just wanted to win an Oscar raise his daughter with no reliable assistance even though he was ill equipped. Then that evil social worker shows up. And let’s face it, all social workers know that child removals simply don’t count unless they are done at said child’s birthday party. It just wouldn’t be as fun, otherwise. Thank goodness for lawyers! They show us the way back to our humanity.

Cartoons aren’t even exempt. Lilo & Stitch? OK, so Cobra Bubbles is a badass name for a social worker, but he is also rigid and judgmental. Apparently he comes around at the end, but he’s not really a shining example.

There are a lot fewer positive examples of social workers in the media. There are almost none that do anything other than remove children from their homes. My personal favorite was Detective Lacey Tyne Daly on Judging Amy. A flawed character on a flawed series, but she portrayed a social worker who loved children and consistently went above and beyond for them. It was always comforting for me to be able to see that, to remind myself of why I was working to become a social worker.

There aren’t many places I get that now. I was intrigued to see Maryann on season two of True Blood described as a social worker, and honestly, she’s my current favorite. Sure, she’s manipulative, dishonest, supernatural, and she caused a nice small town to erupt into spontaneous orgies.

But who hasn’t?

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21 responses

4 11 2010
mjfrombuffalo

My thoughts:

– Most people don’t realize that “social worker” is not a job title, it’s a profession that requires specialized education and a license. The clerical worker at the local welfare office handing out checks (a la Mare Winningham in St. Elmo’s Fire) *might* have a degree in Social Work, but that’s not a professional “Social Work” job, even if that’s what they call it.

– Child Protective Services workers are not necessarily Social Workers (see profession vs. job title, above). In NYC, a CPS worker only needs a bachelor’s degree, with 12 credits (not necessarily major) in one of the following: social work, psychology, sociology, human services, criminal justice, education (including early childhood), nursing or cultural anthropology.

– Sometimes CPS workers really do have to make stupid decisions they don’t agree with, like in jurisdictions using risk model tools that do not permit the workers to use their judgement (found often in jurisdictions that do not mandate a CPS worker have specific education) and/or in jurisdictions that have recently had a highly-publicized fatality as a result of “CPS not doing its job.” Also, CPS investigator is an entry-level job; these are often the people being paid little, and with the least experience.

So… when I hear someone say “My social worker sucks!” I always ask first: is the social worker really a social worker? and then I take it from there. When I see “social workers” on TV, I roll my eyes and usually end up changing the channel. Although I have found the social worker on Ugly Americans isn’t too bad.

4 11 2010
socialjerk

EXCELLENT points, and I kind of love you for bringing them up. People assume that their CPS worker is a social worker, but this is pretty much never the case (at least around here.) I sometimes…let’s say, disagree strongly, with people who do the job that I do, and I think that a lot of this has to do with our differing backgrounds, and the values systems that come with out educations.

I’ve been interested in checking out Ugly Americans. I think I will have to, lack of cable be damned.

4 11 2010
cb

My own theory is that people don’t like social workers because people don’t come across social workers in the same way that they do doctors, teachers and nurses who have a greater universality and some of the attitudes towards social workers reflect wider attitudes towards people who use social work services.
A bit convoluted perhaps πŸ™‚
I also get the assumption that every time I mention I’m a social worker that it is automatically assumed, not only that I work with children but that I remove children from homes. Sigh.
I haven’t actually seen True Blood yet. I keep meaning to and am even more curious now πŸ™‚

4 11 2010
socialjerk

I think your theory makes sense. People often see social workers under unhappy circumstances.

And True Blood is definitely worth seeing. Bon Temps needs a social worker, bad. Terry, the Vietnam vet with PTSD might be the most pulled together character of all.

5 11 2010
Mike Langlois, LICSW

I’ve been a social worker for over 15 years, and I have never taken a child away. Well, o.k. I did take one a few times. To McDonald’s. And I always put them back where I found them.

My favorite social worker is Joan Collins on the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” (http://www.amazon.com/Star-Trek-Original-Episode-Forever/dp/6300213323)

Her name was Edith Keeler, and she was a loving, kind, beautiful social worker. But Kirk fell in love with her, so of course she had to die. Hmm, the only good social worker is a dead one? I may need to rethink this..

5 11 2010
socialjerk

Thanks for reading, and directing me to that Star Trek episode! I’ve never seen it, I will have to check it out. I get so excited when I see a good social worker on TV, like I can take credit for it.

And I too have taken kids–usually ice skating, a couple of times out for dinner, once to a poetry slam. I fought the urge to remove them forever, though.

5 11 2010
mjfrombuffalo

OMG YOU’VE NEVER SEEN THAT EPISODE? Even non-Trekkers have seen that one, it’s one of those classic “great episodes ever broadcast on TV” episodes. And thanks, Mike, I’d forgotten that one. Although she was one of those namby-pamby “the world can be beautiful!” idealistic social workers that tend to make me barf in real life.

5 11 2010
socialjerk

I’m currently leading a group with “the world can be beautiful” type. She brought electric candles to create a more comforting atmosphere. I would have appreciated a warning on that one. And my Star Trek knowledge is sadly limited, but I will work to correct this immediately!

5 11 2010
mjfrombuffalo

OH – and one “100 Center Street” episode featured NYC’s CPS very realistically, with a mistake being made by an ACS worker and the ramifications (well, the overreaction of the ACS worker to her mistake was a bit overdramatized, but in general it was probably the most realitic portrail of child protection I’d seen).

5 11 2010
JMR

The problem with social work is that the application of it is never evaluated by those with higher degrees to verify that it really works in the real world. No one knew that it was actually worse to remove children than to leave them until an MIT economics professor did a study of the economic benefits. This same result was then duplicated by another group at UMN. Why did social workers do those studies twenty years ago? Because they aren’t true professionals….

5 11 2010
socialjerk

I will definitely agree that we need more evidence based practice. I think there is too much of the “I just know what works” attitude. I am familiar with the study to which you refer. However, as we discussed elsewhere, child welfare (particularly removals) are far from the exclusive arena of social workers. I also think it’s important to look at the foster care system those children were being placed in. Permanency planning is a shockingly low priority, and that seems to have a stong impact on the negative outcomes we see in children who grow up in foster care.
Are you saying that it is always worse to remove a child? I agree that it should be rarer, with permanency being the number one priority. However, some children need to be removed. We had to call child protection (which I do not work for) on one of my cases, because the child just revealed that she was sexually abused in the home, and the mother refuses to remove the abuser. Remaining in that home will absolutely be more damaging than removal.
As for your final statement, I assume that you meant that social workers did not do those studies twenty years ago? Like I said, most people doing removals are not social workers, despite public perception. In addition to that, we definitely need to be more dedicated to research in this profession. However, stating that social workers “aren’t true professionals” is too far of a leap, in my opinion. Thanks for reading and commenting!

8 11 2010
Carolyn

On Thursday evening, while volunteering at the local crisis lines, I had a LOOOOONG conversation with one of the frequent callers. It was a high risk call in that, while she would not say she was suicidal (when asked, she stated she didn’t know) she also would not agree to a plan to ensure her safety (go to a hospital, let us call the police, promise to call us if she started to feel worse) and so we had to have the police go out for a “safety check”. She will probably hate me now (I am such an evil person). Her major statement that evening (and it frequently is) was that she had been in the system since she was two. Now she is totally messed up. She has NO sense of self-worth, is addicted to alcohol, etc. etc. etc. She complained that her biological mother got all the sympathy because she went to a residential school (a particularly hideous practice here in Western Canada, against the aboriginal population). It is true, the system does have its faults and does make mistakes. But we are not all evil, and as a medical social worker, I’ve never even instigated somebody else taking a child away.

8 11 2010
socialjerk

Wow, that sounds really stressful. It’s so hard when you have to be “the bad guy” in a participant’s eyes. Making those calls is so difficult, even though (at least in my experience) they most often do not result in any legal action.

And no, we are not all evil–85%, tops πŸ™‚

11 11 2010
Debra Stang

Boy, do I empathize with this post. I’m a hospice social worker, and as such, I’m required to do a psychosocial evaluation on every client we admit. I can’t count the number of times I’ve showed up at the door only to have family members beg the second they met me, “Please don’t make us put Mom in a nursing home. We take good care of her. Really we do.” It always breaks my heart that the assumption is that I’m there to judge instead of to help. Usually, I can overcome it and build a good relationship with the patient and the family, but some families never do trust me completely. GRRRR

Debra Stang
Alliant Professional Networking Specialist

12 11 2010
socialjerk

That’s really interesting, I hadn’t heard that type of reaction towards people who don’t work with children. It’s already such a hard job, no matter what population you work with. Those preconceived notions make it even more difficult. Good luck! And thanks for reading.

21 06 2012
Gary Kerr

Ive been with a social worker for about six months, She has missed at least 2 appointments without bothering to explain why. She arbitrarily cancels appointments, and insists on being at other appointments that I have made, but fails to show up. Contact has gone from face to face, which became to frustrating and unhelpful to phone calls and finally to emails which she ceased to answer. She has been nothing but a hindered to accessing social resources, and even when she does show for appointments is extremely passive aggressive. sarcastic and again a indifference to any real help for my situation. I’m sure there are good social workers out there it just hasn’t been my experience.

26 06 2012
socialjerk

I’m sorry you’re dealing with that. It’s upsetting to hear because 1) you’re not getting what you need, and 2) I pride myself on following through with what I say I’m going to do, and other social workers who make us all look bad are rather frustrating. Have you asked to speak with a supervisor?

8 08 2012
missy elliot

I’m an MSW and I recall in graduate school being all over the place and scattered with course content. Now, many years later I realize we are jacks of all trades and queens/kings of nothing. No wonder nobody understands what we do (even those that hire us!). I wish I could return my degree in for a different one, say, one that is valued and clearly defined.
And one more thing while I’m here… I am so tired of social workers that don’t provide direct service and then preach about service delivery methods. Workers far removed from direct service give the most UN-empathic advice!

4 03 2013
Emily

I have an open DHS childwelfare case due to domestic violence. My 6month old sons father is no longer a fixture in my life due to this and I am the ONLY parent trying my hardest I even ask for help from my worker and she just blows me off like I’m some piece of garbage… It angers me and upsets me. Aren’t these people supposed to help parents with the return of their children? I suffer from chronic depression an now that is their only ground for not returning my baby to me. He was ripped from my arms at 6weeks and I only get to see him two times a week for two hours! It’s obserd… Any advice on how to get a new worker?

4 03 2013
socialjerk

I’m very sorry for what you’re dealing with. What does your lawyer have to say? What services have they asked you to complete, and what does the judge say?

As for getting a new worker, go to the supervisor, the supervisor’s supervisor, whoever you can get. In my experience, you have to be the squeaky wheel in order to get what you need. Good luck.

2 08 2013
charley

I resent the belittling of the job social workers do. A competent social worker works hard to assist people. We spend many hours searching for resources to assist individuals as our funding continues to decrease and we have to outsource. In every field you find people who are there just to receive a paycheck. Social workers are at the bottom of the pay scale and in most cases put in many more hours than they are paid for. I am in a rural area and I can assure you that I work hard to assist my clients. I go out into seniors homes to try to assist with adaptive/assistive devices to help with their quality of life and to assist them to stay in their home as long as safely possible. You may want to send derogatory comments my way but to the individual that I assist, what I do means the world. Most of the seniors I work with either have no family to assist them or their family do not want to care for their family member. Yes, I am very overwhelmed because so many elders need assistance and we are very limited (funding) as to how many individuals we can assist. Our government needs to focus more on preventative care and allow social workers to do the job they are trained to do. There will always be people who take advantage of the system and fraud will be committed. Please consider the fact that BSW social workers are at the bottom of the pay scale and social workers do not go into the field for the money, Yes many social workers get burned out and do not provide “good service” but consider we are spread very thin and are expected to provide services to individuals while our funding continues to dwindle, jobs are cut, offices are combined and more duties are put on individuals. We get burned out because we can’t complete the work load expected of us in a normal work week. Please remember not to judge until you walk in someone’s shoes. We have to work within guidelines that are passed on to us. If someone has legitimate concerns about services or actions of a social worker, there is always someone of higher authority that can be contacted. Please don’t generalize that all social workers are “bad” or uncaring because of actions of a few. I would also infer that any person in authority would want to know of problematic situations or actions of an employee because it reflects badly on their agency. My own experience is that I try to do the best that I can for my clients. Just when I am on the verge of changing jobs or giving up on social work, I have an elder who tells me what my help has meant to them. I do not do this job for the money. I do this because I fulfill a need and provide a service. I work with the elderly population who need my help and assistance. They are no longer able to go out and work and they need someone to assist them. My job may not be important to you but to the elderly I assist it is everything.

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