Arise and Seize the Day

28 01 2013

I am exhausted.

It’s just been one of those months. Suddenly almost all of my families are working (yay!) so I have I stay late to make sure I see everyone each week (boo!) Everything is due at once, lots of new cases are coming in, caseload maximums are rising, paperwork is multiplying, I’m working lots of hours I don’t get paid for, and I’m getting heartburn just typing this.

Really, I can’t complain. I mean, it’s what I signed on for. And everyone in the field is doing the same thing. So it’s ok. Just the way it is.

Right?

It was recently suggested to me that this isn’t the way it has to be. That maybe we could unite and agitate for change. Bizarre that this didn’t occur to me earlier. I mean, I helped found Students for Social Justice as an undergrad. And I watched Newsies at least 1054 times. That is a conservative estimate.

It’s ridiculous. We make shitty money for our education level, and it is not possible to get work done in the amount of time we are technically supposed to be in the office. Is it just that we’re not talking about it enough?

Note that I said “talking,” not “engaging in martyrdom.” It’s a fine line to draw, but we must make an effort.

Teachers have been talking about too little respect and money and too much work to do in a school day since the dawn of standardized testing time. Yes, they’re still getting a raw deal. But at least they have a union. And they get discounts at random bookstores, which makes me envy them terribly. They’ve done a good job of putting themselves out there as educated people doing an important job that they deserve to be compensated fairly for. We can argue over how much good it’s done, but at least it’s on people’s minds.

Most people don’t even know who should actually be called a social worker.

I think that’s the first step, actually. Title protection. We don’t have it in New York. I know it’s been implemented in Washington and Virginia, with some success. Of course, people can’t legally advertise that they’re an LCSW if they aren’t. But people can refer to themselves or their employees as social workers when they aren’t, and this happens all the time. It’s the first step to respect. Respect is the first step to sweet sweet cash proper compensation.

I’m quite open to suggestions here, as I have no idea how to make progress in this area in terms of law. I do think being open about this, and educating others about the fact there’s nothing wrong with being a caseworker with an Associate’s degree, but that doesn’t make one a social worker, is crucial and something we can all do. Not everyone who works in a social worky field is a social worker. Refer to a doctor as a nurse, and see what you get. People know to be careful about that. It would be pretty cool if they knew that about us as well.

We need to stop acting like self care is the answer. Let me put this in words social workers will understand–it’s kind of victim blaming. It’s not that there’s too much to be done, you just can’t be arsed to take care of yourself! Go to the gym! Oh wait, by the time you get out of work they’re about to close. Well, take a mental health day! But then you won’t get your contacts in, and you put the agency at risk of losing our contract with the city. Why are you so selfish?

Talking a brisk walk and listening to Mumford & Sons only goes so far. It helps you to deal with a shitty, overwhelming situation, before you’re able to change it.

Self care can help postpone burnout, but it doesn’t make it go away. Support from one another would help. When someone in the office says, “Hey, isn’t it kind of fucked that we’re twenty five percent over maximum caseload?” we should talk about ways to fight it in our agencies. We shouldn’t snort and say, “When I started here, we had nine million cases. Literally. More than the population on New York City, I know!”

To really address burnout, though, we need more fundamental changes.

This is where it gets complicated. The work we do and the programs that help us to do it are always the first to go when we realize the country is Texas with a dollar sign in debt. It puts us in survival mode. At my agency, we work incredibly hard to prove that we can do the most with the least. It’s not just because we were all unpopular in junior high and are seeking approval. It’s because we’re in constant competition for city contracts. When we get a new one, we’re momentarily validated. It’s working!

Contracts are the opiate of the social work masses. We don’t have time to fight for change when we’re treading water. Kind of like how we’d love for our clients to agitate for change to the public assistance system, but they don’t have time what with all their appointments for public assistance.

I know we all hate to hear “evidence based,” but like title protection, it’s an important step. We need to be able, in some way, to identify that what we’re doing is helping. Not just that we’re seeing people for a shorter period of time, but that they’re making measurable improvements and not returning for services a month later.

Social services and caring for society’s vulnerable needs to be a bigger priority. It needs to be recognized as something that needs funding. I realize that this statement is far from revolutionary. I realize that I offer nothing in the way of answers, only more questions. But maybe if we start talking about meaningful change that benefits us all, and therefore our clients, rather than exchanging war stories, we can make some of it happen?

I guess it can’t hurt.





All the cool kids are cranky about ethics

21 06 2012

Julea Ward, a counseling (not social work) student in Michigan with an unfortunately misspelled name (I’m annoyed with her, I can be petty) got rather tetchy when asked to see a certain client during her internship. This was no ordinary client, you see. The young man was a…homosexual.

Are we all scandalized? Have your pearls been sufficiently clutched?

Ms. Ward said she couldn’t “affirm homosexuality” because it “goes against the bible.” And why shouldn’t she be able to avoid gay people all her life, including in her work? She’s not going to be a counselor at a Broadway musical or roller derby event, for god’s sake! It’s not as though the gays are three dimensional individuals you might encounter in, say, a high school, where Ms. Ward would like to work.

Now, Michigan has taken it upon themselves to say that anyone studying in a “counseling, social work, or psychology program” doesn’t have to deal with people who engage in behaviors that go against their sincerely held beliefs. Legislators, they know better than us silly helping professionals! It’s similar to how much I enjoy it when a judge tells me how I ought to be engaging a child in counseling.

Are we all done laughing?

Ms. Ward was not studying to be a social worker. But this ridiculous law extends to us. Even though it violates our own code of ethics. That makes it fair game for my righteous anger and sarcasm.

Our code of ethics calls upon us to “obtain education about and seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression with respect to” lots of things, including sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. We also are not to “practice, condone, facilitate, or collaborate with any form of discrimination on the basis of…sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.”

Nothing in that code of ethics says, “unless the religion you choose to follow says not to. Then forget it, run as fast as your legs may carry you, but you can still totes be one of us!” No. We’ve got a profession to uphold. If you simply want to talk nicely to people and help them feel better, then do it on your own time without a title. As social workers, we don’t discriminate.

We’re also not supposed to discriminate based on religion, some clever, outside-the-box thinker always brings up. (I know I’ve been punching you in the face for hours, but you hit me back. That’s bullying!)

Ms. Ward’s beliefs were not being discriminated against. She can hold whatever misguided views she wants to. But she wants to be a professional and attend an accredited institution. Which means she can’t turn and run whenever a gay person walks in the door. What if the person isn’t totally gay, but experimented a little at a Boy Scout Jamboree? I mean, where exactly is the line? What if the person is being held as a slave and isn’t obeying his master, (Ephesians 6:5), would Ms. Ward still be willing to counsel that person? I’m just wondering, because she says she doesn’t go against the bible.

Not to mention that no one is telling a Christian counselor at a public agency or school to “affirm homosexuality.” It doesn’t need affirming, it just is. Ms. Ward was not being asked to sit with this client gabbing about his latest date, saying, “Ah, guy on guy action. Yes. Way to go!” She was supposed to help him in managing his depression. (Which I’m sure this debacle worked wonders for.) Even if his sexual orientation was a part of what he was working through, it doesn’t matter. You don’t say that you won’t deal with someone because a part of who they are just isn’t good enough for you. If a social work intern told me that they wouldn’t work with a Dominican family, or an interracial couple, I would think they were in the wrong profession. Just as I think Ms. Ward is.

I don’t have religious beliefs. But I have values. Violence, particularly against a weaker, defenseless person, goes against my values. Exploiting someone’s addiction goes against my values. Helping a child to decorate her jacket with Justin Bieber paraphernalia goes against my values. However, these are things that I have to work with.

We don’t get to be all that picky in our work. For one thing, the people who truly need our help typically have, you know, problems. Drug addiction, anger management, mental illness…you know, the kind of people Jesus would shun.

I’m being told that’s actually the opposite of what Jesus would do.

Clinical social workers, and other clinicians in private practice, can choose who they’re going to take on and who they won’t. They can have their reasons. They should be in line with our code of ethics, of course, but they have some leeway and control in terms of what populations they specialize in and who they take on. Every social worker, particularly every social work student, I know works for an agency. Ms. Ward, as I mentioned, planned to be a school counselor.

No big deal. Most high schools have at least fifteen different counselors, so someone could pick up the cases that Ms. Ward felt squeamish about. Right?

Oh, no. That’s not how it works. In this field you get what you get, and you do the work on yourself to make sure you can deal with it. I didn’t think I would be able to work with sexually abused children. I wouldn’t go to an agency that serves this specific population exclusively. But I’m part of a team, and this is an issue that comes up all the time. I can’t say, “sorry, I don’t do that. I’m special and I get to choose.” I got my shit together, and I do my job.

We can’t say that we’re only going to work with people who do things our way. Of course we try to help people to change their harmful behaviors. But if you think living openly as the gay person you were born to be is harmful, then you need to do some research. Research that isn’t sponsored by Focus on the Family or the National Organization of Marriage. Research by or supported and accepted by the organizations you supposedly have enough respect for that you want to attend their accredited institutions and be a part of their body of professionals–National Association of Social Workers, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the American Counseling Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, all those guys.

That’s what pisses me off, in addition to the blatant homophobia hidden in religion. Educate me, legitimize my work, but let me do whatever I damn well please, because I have beliefs. No. You can’t have it both ways.

We know our profession, and we know our values. We need to have enough respect for it to stand up for it to those who don’t.





You down with MLK?

16 01 2012

I hope many of my American readers are, like me, enjoying a day off today. It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. day here in the states. Unfortunately, this often gets translated as, “Wait, why is the bank closed?” Day, but still. It’s important, and is worth reflecting on.

We’ve been celebrating MLK Day in the US since 1986. All fifty states celebrated it under the term, “Marting Luther King, Jr. Day” in 2000. Prior to that, some had resisted celebrating or actually calling it that. This was due to costs concerns about communism racism. But we’re all on board now.

When the September 11th attacks first happened, there was talk of it becoming a national holiday, or day of mourning. I  was against it. I could just see it becoming another Memorial Day or Labor Day–who knows why, but we have the day off! Let’s get some Coronas and grill some meat!

This is, of course, the danger with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It’s a day off. Extra time to go to the gym, get the house cleaned, a rare opportunity to go out on a Sunday night. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we should really keep it to Columbus Day. (Because, come on, that one is ridiculous.)

Dr. King reminds us of an extremely important part of our profession–a commitment to social justice. Without this component, social work is incomplete. We see the same problems, day in and day out. Many of which are very complicated, but many of which have fairly clear solutions. Maybe our public schools in the Bronx should be less terrible, in some way! Perhaps “Back to Work” public assistance programs could actually assist people in getting back to work, by helping them find or train for jobs. And of course, we should probably all be ashamed to have so many viable Republican candidates for president who are unable to distinguish between “welfare recipient” and “black person.”

Maybe, there’s something, even just a little something, that we can do about that.

We very often get so overwhelmed by the putting-out-fires aspect of our day to day work. Yes, I want to work for housing and school reform, but I need to accompany a client to her public housing interview, and then go to a school meeting for my chronically truant teen. I’m not going to start making cheesy working mom jokes about “needing to clone myself” (seriously, ladies, we’re all better than that) but it’s not easy. I know I made a lot more time for marching, rallies, petitions, and organizing when I was in college. I had less outside responsibility, and was significantly less jaded and worn down by life.

We can’t let that happen. It just isn’t right, and therefore, really isn’t an option. It’s not what Dr. King, or everyone’s social work hero, Jane Addams (who also got shit for her commitment to pacifism), would have done. Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service  seems to be one good way of addressing this. But, like Christmas, we need to remember to keep this with us all through the year. However tired and overwhelmed we are, Dr. King almost definitely had more on his mind and on his plate. This is the legacy we need to try to live up to. Not just doing good, but working for change.

I’m always asking for more, aren’t I? Don’t worry, I often fall short of my own expectations.

One of the things that I’ve learned in recent years, particularly since my parents’ trip to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, is that Dr. King was essentially knew that he was going to be assassinated. He knew that people were stalking him and he received death threats regularly. He knew what was coming, and he wasn’t happy about it. He was a religious man, and he believed in what he was doing and that he was called to do it, but he was still afraid.

“Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.”

This is what I’m always trying to remind myself of. Dr. King was a great, gifted man, but he was a man. A human. He forced himself to go above and beyond, even though he was tired, he was in danger, and had a wife and children to think about.

So perhaps I can bring myself to complain a bit less when that rally I know I should attend is right after work. It’s literally the least I can do.