Blame it on the s-s-s-s-s-social work

24 05 2013

People come to us when they’re having a hard time. Things are not going well. Sometimes, things get worse before they get better. Sometimes, things get worse and it ends there. That’s when the lose-lose blame game comes into play.

Whenever I’m upset about a family having a new case called in, or being stuck in the same old patterns, I get told that it’s not my fault. The people around me become the Robin Williams to my Matt Damon. It wasn’t good Will Hunting’s fault his foster parents were abusive. (Side note: my aunt once referred to that movie as “Searching for Niceness.”) And apparently it’s not my fault when things go wrong for my family, or when they just don’t go quite right. But when there is change, I’m encouraged to pat myself on the back. Take some credit for the work that you do!

You might see why I’m a little conflicted.

I currently work with a family that I anticipated would be very challenging. In other words, I thought they would be a total nightmare and make me cry. The mother and teenage daughter were refusing to speak to or look at one another, saying things like, “she should be less of a stupid bitch” when asked about what they wanted for their family. Six months later, they’re not quite listing the reasons they love one another while working on a family decoupage project, but they can be in the same room and talk directly to one another. They spend time together, and the mom has even been encouraging of her daughter’s interests.

My supervisor compliments me on my work with this family, and the progress they’ve made. I take zero credit. I don’t know what happened, they did it.

I have another family that came in for educational neglect. The teenage boy is not going to school, in order to pursue a long term, loving, relationship with his couch. We’ve tried lots of thing. Parenting counseling, depression assessments, motivating factors and barriers to success have been identified and identified again. Three months later, he’s not going to school. His sisters are, but he’s not.

That, I take 100% blame for. At least in my mind. It’s clearly all my fault. No matter how much I say, “it takes time, these things don’t change over night,” or how often my supervisor reminds me that going to the apartment in the morning and dragging him out by the ear isn’t an option. I know he has agency in his life, and his parents need to take some responsibility. I know it, but I don’t feel it.

Our old director, who has been mercifully replaced, didn’t really go for the “it’s not your fault” mantra. It was my fault, and she could tell me why. On more than one occasion, she told us that resistance was a myth. We can’t say that clients don’t come in, or won’t engage. It’s something we’re doing. We need to take a different approach. Essentially, with the right tactic, any family will engage with any worker.

I can’t help but think that this is at odds with the value of self determination. When someone tells me, absolutely not, I do not want services, I don’t know why I was referred, get out of my apartment before I release the dogs, I think of what old Director Evil said. Of course some people need a different approach. We absolutely need to think about how we’re presenting our work, ourselves, and what we can do. But some people don’t want to work with us. Acting like we can cast a spell to make them welcome us is ridiculous and a little insulting. “Oh, you think you don’t want to work with me. But now I’m validating your feelings, and I’ve brought you a coupon for diapers! There we go. I know best.”

Taking all the blame doesn’t do our participants any good. It’s enabling and patronizing at the same time. Denying any responsibility also doesn’t quite work. We need to critique what we’ve done, and consider if we might have gone wrong.

All or nothing is inaccurate. I know I affect my clients. I know they have self determination and control over their lives and actions. I’m not magic, like some of them think, and I’m not totally ineffective, like some ACS workers think. We need to remind ourselves it’s not our fault when things go wrong, if it’s not our fault. We need to be able to learn from those experiences too.

And we need to figure out a balance that doesn’t lead to quitting within five years. I’m still working on that one.

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4 responses

24 05 2013
G

If you won’t take any credit for the good things, you can’t take all the blame for the bad things either. I suspect that reality is somewhere in the middle. There will always be cases where the client refuses to be helped, refuses to make changes, refuses to consider the possibility that you might have some good ideas. There will also always be cases where the client truly learns something from you and is able to make a significant change for the better.

As a foster parent, obviously most of my contact with social workers is with those who work for ACS. But, even within that limited scope, I don’t know how you don’t all burn out in months, much less years.

28 05 2013
JustAnotherCaseWorker

I have a really stupid joke about social work that I like to use when I’m having one of those moments:

How many social workers does it take to change a lightbulb?
Only one, but the lightbulb has to really want to change.

I think you’re right; it’s some middle ground for most clients. Having said that, there are some clients, that we can do everything right with, and they still won’t succeed the way we want them to. And there are some clients who have had pretty much every barrier put in their way, and they still end up succeeding.

I figure it’s kind of like being a midwife. The baby is going to get born regardless, but we can help ease the process.

31 05 2013
Social Work Shenanigans

I always have to give myself a pep talk when I start blaming myself when people don’t change. Looked for validation quite a bit when I first started, but getting better at it now (sort of).

16 08 2013
Myths

Here is a European Social Worker who stumbled upon your Blog. I enjoy every moment I spent here!

Be proud of who you are.

On a side note:

This entry reminded me of a interesting study by a Portuguese colleague, Liliana Sousa, which is titled:
“When Multi-problem Poor Individuals’ Myths Meet Social Services Myths”

She finds that if things go well both the client and the social worker tend praise the social worker for the success. However when things go wrong, each one tends to blame the other.

Puzzles me to this day, how deeply myths are rooted in our social service day-routine.

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