The Social Networker

Social Media, Sexual Harassment, and the Workplace

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on November 8, 2017 · 1 comment

If you use social media at all, you’ve seen the rise in hashtag campaigns like “#metoo” that purport to spread awareness of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and rape. This type of “hashtag activism” has become increasingly common in recent years. Notable among such online awareness drives was the “#BringBackOurGirls” hashtag, which even First Lady Michelle Obama took part in. Do these hashtag campaigns, however, truly effect change? In the case of awareness of sexual harassment and hostile work environments, it can be argued that spreading the word is, in and of itself, a desirable goal. Whether working with clients or dealing with one’s coworkers, every social worker should be aware of the dangers of — and signs indicating — sexual harassment.

Emily Havens, writing in The Spectrum, explains that hashtag campaigns about sexual harassment, in particular, represent an opportunity for victims “to candidly share their experiences with sexual harassment via social media in hopes to bring attention to the issue and it’s reach, which goes far beyond what Harvey Weinstein allegedly inflicted on handfuls of women in Hollywood. For others, the social media trend has stirred up conversation and debate over workplace sexual harassment: what it is, how it can be prevented, and what education tactics are working.”

Havens cites a definition of harassment that centers on the idea of “unwelcome conduct.” It can, she explains, include everything from explicit sexual advances and requests for sexual favors to suggestive jokes and even unwelcome verbal statements. These range, Havens says, from slurs and name-calling to threats, offensive jokes, intimidation, and even ridicule and mockery… to say nothing of exposing individuals to suggestive imagery. Even interference with work performance is considered harassment.

“1 in 4 American women report being harassed in the workplace, according to the EEOC, and many are reluctant to report it,” Havens goes on. “More than half of the reports filed by female workers alleged harassment by a supervisor. However, the harasser or the victim can be either a man or a woman. The victim and harasser can be the same sex.”

Combating sexual harassment in the workplace hinges on increased education. The more aware each of us becomes of the behaviors that can be interpreted as harassing, the better able we will be to monitor and root out this conduct. Very few of us want to inflict harassment on our coworkers, after all… but often, we fall into patterns of behavior that we simply do not stop to check and prevent.

What are your experiences with sexual harassment in the workplace and with clients? Have you ever felt sexually harassed? Have you realized that you were engaging in behavior that might be seen as harassing? Please share your thoughts and experiences with us here.

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Is Discrimination a Social Work Issue?

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on November 3, 2017 · 0 comments

Civil rights issues have once again been at the forefront of a national debate in the United States, following a summer in which high-profile protests (such as those in the NFL) brought attention to the matter. Given how integral social workers have been to social and cultural progress in the United States, it seems only natural to ask if racial discrimination is not, in fact, a social work issue. Is this a matter in which the profession can make social change? Eric Anthony Grollman, writing for SWHelper, tackled that very issue this summer.

“Researchers have found that victims of discrimination often have heightened physiological responses, including elevated blood pressure and heart rate,” explains Grollman. “In addition, ongoing struggles to cope with discrimination lead to lower self-esteem or a reduced sense of personal efficacy. Victims may turn to unhealthy means of coping such as drug and alcohol abuse, and they may stop regularly taking medications or keeping medical appointments. Further, because discrimination is not experienced evenly across the population, researchers find that it contributes to the persistence of disparities in mental and physical health along societal fault lines of race, gender, sexual orientation, or even physical statuses such weight or appearance.”

While banning discrimination through legislation is the obvious solution, Grollman explains that this is not enough. “People who work at organizations with an equal employment opportunity office and formal training about diversity are more likely to file discrimination claims when necessary. Knowledge and organizational resources empower people to seek remedies,” he writes. “Moreover, because Americans today tend to view discrimination as a thing of the past, victims often face social skepticism and self-doubt. The extra mental labor involved in replaying personal experiences and deciding what, if anything, to do can exacerbate stress and health problems. All Americans who care about the ongoing fight against social discrimination must work to raise awareness that serious problems persist and must be aggressively countered both in law and daily practice.”

This would seem to make the case, decisively, that battling discrimination most definitely is a social work issue. Preparing yourself to cope with, and address discrimination and social injustice can make you a more effective social worker. Not only will you be able to more effectively address the issues you encounter, but you’ll also be able to achieve rapport with your clients more readily.

Do you agree? Have you encountered racial discrimination, or the negative effects on behavior and life choices of clients who have suffered discrimination? How did you contend with it if you did? We’d love to hear what you think about this.

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Was This New York Social Worker the Victim of a Hate Crime?

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on October 31, 2017 · 0 comments

It’s a disturbing reality of being a social worker today: You may encounter a client who becomes violent. Worse, you may become the target of a client who has specifically chosen to use violence against you. When things don’t go your way, especially in the emotionally charged issues that surround social work scenarios, it’s not uncommon to search for someone to blame. Many clients latch on to the idea that the social worker is somehow the source of that client’s problems. A few among them — mercifully rare, but a few nonetheless — lash out in an attempt to get what they see as justice… or payback.

It therefore seems only naturally to wonder, when a social worker is assaulted, if that assault was undertaken because of the social worker’s profession. Such was the case recently in New York City when a social worker was punched in the face by a man yelling anti-gay slurs. The incident happened in Brooklyn and the social worker had to have surgery for a broken jaw.

“The 27-year-old outreach worker for the city’s Department of Social Services was undergoing surgery Monday for a fractured jaw suffered in a weekend attack that police are investigating as a possible hate crime,” NBC New York reported in late August of this year. “The victim was ordering food with three of his friends at Crown Fried Chicken near Franklin and Fulton avenues when they were approached by a group of people in Bedford-Stuyvesant around 4 a.m. Saturday, police have said. The group began making anti-gay comments to the victim and his friends and when the victim tried to de-escalate the situation, he was punched in the face, according to police.”

It seems likely that the man who attacked the social worker had no way to know the man was, in fact, an employee of the Department of Social Services. It’s much more likely that the social worker was targeted for his perceived sexual orientation. That would make this a hate crime, but not a crime deliberately attacking social work as such. Interestingly, it’s obvious that the victim was attempting to use the skills he no doubt acquired in his profession to deescalate the confrontation that led to his injury. You can’t always defuse a violent client and this interaction was no different.

Have you ever felt targeted because of your profession? Have you been threatened on the job? Does your profession ever give you pause with regard to your personal safety overall… and how do you cope with that if it does? Please let us know how you handle this thorny issue.

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Social Work and… White Nationalism?

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on October 20, 2017 · 1 comment

Could a social worker’s intervention help one of the most prominent white supremacists active in popular culture today? That is the question asked in Social Work Helper recently, in an article that profiles infamous white supremacist Christopher Cantwell. Cantwell became widely known following the protests in Charlottesville, Virginia this summer.

Elspeth Slayter, writing for SWHelper, explains that Mr. Cantwell “appears to be but one of a number people across the United States who hold racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist, ableist, and ethnocentric views, if data from the Southern Poverty Law Center are correct. At present, Mr. Cantwell appears to be facing at least four arrest warrants related to his participation in the “Unite the Right” rally on August 12, 2017.  On Sunday, Mr. Cantwell addressed his “Radical Agenda” blog followers, suggesting that soon he would likely be in jail, pending a trial.  As a criminal defendant, Mr. Cantwell has the distinct possibility of interacting with a legal social worker either as part of his defense team or as a jail inmate.”

“If convicted,” Slayter continues, “Mr. Cantwell might come into contact with a prison-based social worker as well.  Given the potential for this scenario to become a reality, I thought it would be helpful to reflect on what Christopher Cantwell’s case has to remind us about approaching social work practice post-Charlottesville.”

The fascinating piece goes on to expound on the virtues of “empathic neutrality.” She explains that that this is a stance that seeks to understand a client without making a moral judgment of that client. This helps create rapport between the social worker and the client (which is critically important to making progress), but it requires that the social worker keep his or her own personal and moral biases and convictions in check.

This is good advice that touches on what has become a hot-button issue in today’s culture. It’s not unthinkable that a social worker could encounter an individual with racist views. White supremacy has seen something of a resurgence of late — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say more people are talking about white supremacy — and thus social workers would do well to brace themselves for dealing with these matters.

Could you maintain empathic neutrality when dealing with a client whose views were repugnant to you? Have you already found yourself in a position where this was necessary? Please share your stories of such challenges with us. How did you overcome your personal feelings and convictions to achieve rapport with a difficult client?

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Due Diligence and the Razor-Thin Margin For Social Work Error

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on October 17, 2017 · 0 comments

Are social workers liable for crimes committed by the adults with whom those case workers place children? That’s the precedent at issue in a lawsuit filed against Denver Human Services by a now grown individual who was sexually abused by his own father.

The Associated Press reports that a federal appeals court “has found that a Denver city social worker can be used for violating the constitutional rights of a boy after she recommended that he be placed in his father’s custody despite knowing that the father was a convicted sex offender. The boy was physically and sexually abused by his father.”

The decision in the Tenth US Circuit Court of Appeals, which was handed down in late August of this year, was essentially a repudiation of case worker Kelcey Patton. Patton’s lawyers argued that she was protected by governmental immunity because she works for the city. The boy in question is now an adult. The Appeals Court decision clears the way for the victim to seek damages from the city in question an from Kelcey Patton personally.

Patton, who was an employee of Denver Human Services, claimed in 2015 that she was forced to place the child and then lie about it. The victim was 12 years old at the time and is now 20. There’s some debate as to whether Kelcey thought the father’s sexual abuse conviction was for a consensual relationship with a 17-year-old girl, further complicating the matter. “Case documents,” reported the Denver Channel in 2015, “also show a parental risk assessment, which was ordered by the judge, was not done. There is also no evidence of a third-party safety assessment, or a DHS safety plan. And Patton admitted in her deposition that after placement, she did not visit the family as often as required.”

The case emphasizes the razor-thin margin for error against which the average social worker must operate. When most people have a “bad day” at work, the consequences are not life and death. If a social worker makes a mistake — or even makes a judgment call on the basis of incomplete information — he or she could end up facing civil or even criminal penalties. Were all the procedures followed to the letter? If not, those mistakes will be analyzed and re-analyzed in court after the fact. Every social worker must perform every day to a letter-perfect standard of conduct… or risk facing penalties. Those penalties are not just for his or her own mistakes, but for the mistakes or criminal acts of all other individuals involved.

Have you felt the pressure of this miniscule margin for error? Do you ever feel that you, as a social worker, are being held to an unrealistic standard of perfection in your professional conduct? Or is that standard the only one that makes sense, given the high stakes of what social workers do? Please share your thoughts with us.

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Coping with the Stress of Social Work

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on October 6, 2017 · 0 comments

It’s no secret that social work is stressful. We’ve talked about that very issue on these pages before. The emotional investment so much of our work entails, coupled with lack of resources, understaffing, high turnover, and the often emotionally turbulent situations we must sometimes navigate, make social work one of the most demanding of professions. A recent study in the United Kingdom has attempted to quantify this stress.

Ruth Hardy, writing in the UK’s Community Care, confirms that stress is a serious problem in social work as a field. “Research from Community Care and Unison found that, in a single day in 2016, more than 50% of social workers felt ‘over the limit’ with the number of cases they had been given,” she reports. “And according to the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) 2016 Labour Force Survey, the occupations that reported the highest rates of total cases of work-related stress (over a three-year average) were ‘welfare professionals’, followed by nurses and teachers.

The article in Community Care approaches the issue as a managerial one. “As a team manager, it’s vital to keep thinking about both what you as an individual manager do to promote the positive mental health and wellbeing of staff and also what the wider organisation does,” Hardy writes. “Stressed social workers can easily lead to a stressed manager — being able to reflect on what you are able to change or influence yourself and what you need to refer upwards can help you avoid this.”

Stress is worst, Hardy explains, when staff feel unsupported, when there are excessive demands on their time (such as unreasonable caseloads), when staff are pressured to complete work (or rushed to do so), and when mistakes are penalized. She describes a healthy organizational culture as one in which mistakes are understood and taken in stride, while staff are encouraged, enabled, and empowered to deal with the often complex issues they face.

Hardy goes on to underscore the issue of “workplace bullying,” which she describes as “one of the greatest sources of stress employees can endure.” This is an issue many organizations are slow to recognize and deal with, she says, making diagnosis and action on this topic one of increasing importance.

Where do you face the most stress on the job? What changes would make you feel less stressed out? And have you ever experienced “workplace bullying?” What form did this take, and what stress did it cause you? Please share your experiences with us, including any coping strategies you have employed.

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If you have spent any time reading these pages, you know that violence is an issue that plagues social workers. Too often, clients blame social workers for problems beyond their control. It is easy to scapegoat a member of the profession when a custody hearing or some other family issue doesn’t go well for the client. There are those who, frustrated and angry, lash out at the very people trying to help them. But in at least one high profile case of violence against a social worker, it seems the victim was selected at random and not because of any connection to social work.

The story is a strange one. Last year, Marc Santora reported on a series of seemingly random slashings in New York city. The story appeared in the New York Times. Santora described no less than a dozen victims attacked by strangers wielding knives or razors. The crime appeared to have no motive at all. A year and a half later, however, at  least one man has been brought to justice for these inexplicable crimes.

A Manhattan man who slashed two pedestrians was sentenced Monday to 14 years in prison after one of his victims accused him of showing ‘nauseating shamelessness,’” reports Shayna Jacobs in the New York Daily News. “Francis Salud, 29, previously copped to two counts of assault, including a Jan. 16, 2016, attack that was life-changing for social worker Anthony Smith, who was cut along his face and throat and suffered extensive nerve damage.”

Jacobs writes that Smith, who was 30 years old when he was attacked, “was left bleeding on the street with blood pouring from his face and neck.” He might easily have died. At trial, Salud offered a perfunctory, emotionless “apology.” He faces trial in yet another knife attack from 2015. He is an illegal immigrant from the Philippines and will be deported after he is released from prison.

Whatever mental illness drives a slasher like Salud, it is cold comfort to Anthony Smith that this brutal attack was not motivated by any sort of animus to social workers. Yet it easily could have been the case. Social workers have been on the receiving end of multiple violent attacks. The authorities must do more to protect social workers on the job and, where necessary, laws must change — or legislation must be enacted — that provides necessary safeguards for those engaged in social work. Francis Salud’s reasons for slashing Anthony Smith are murky at best, but there are other attacks each year that definitely occur because someone wants revenge on the closest or only target they can find. That target, too often, is a social worker.

What safeguards would you enact? Do you believe  current protections, if any, are sufficient to keep you safe on the job? What horror stories and threats can you share… and what would you do differently, looking back? We are eager to hear your stories.

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Social Work In Our Schools

by Bob Poole on September 28, 2017 · 0 comments

 

We don’t typically think of social workers operating within our schools. What is a school “guidance counselor,” however, if not a social worker operating exclusively with students? When social workers ply their trade within a school environment, they can make a real difference. A recent analysis of social work done at Merrillville High in Indiana provided some interesting insights in that regard.

Carole Carson, reporting for the Chicago Tribune, says that “romantic entanglements” were the single most common issue for which Merrillville High students came to school social workers. “Students met with high school social workers more than 1,000 times to discuss their romantic relationships, according to data presented to the school board recently,” Carson writes. “Many of those students made multiple visits, said Danny Lackey, director of Diversity and Student Support. In all, 886 individual high school students met with a social worker for a variety of other reasons including depression, anxiety, grief, social bullying, and self-esteem issues. Lackey presented the report to the school board that broke down data for each of the district’s schools. He estimated 24 percent of students in the district met with a social worker last year.”

Carson underscores that cash-strapped school districts have been forced to lay off social workers, but Merrillville is noteworthy because it has added to its social work staff. “The social worker visits also help school administrators target growing issues,” she points out. “For instance, the number of students referred for defiance or disruption in the classroom tripled at Fieler Elementary last year. The number of students involved in peer conflicts doubled at the school. Students who reported physical abuse also increased.”

Given that our schools’ students are more troubled with each passing year, they require more intervention, not less. It’s refreshing to see a school like Merrillville correctly deducing that prevention and early application of social work to a problem can head it off or mitigate it. But it’s still concerning to see how many schools have been forced to cut social work staff… and the shortage of qualified social workers, coupled with high churn among the profession, doesn’t bode well.

Where do you believe social workers are best able to assist our young people? Do you have a success story to share? What are the biggest challenges facing social workers operating in our schools? What resources need to be brought to bear to better address the problems our kids face? Please share your thoughts with us.

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Rogue Social Worker Scams $160,000

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on September 21, 2017 · 0 comments

Social workers have a great deal of power. They constantly battle public misperceptions about what they do, in part for this reason. The overwhelming majority of social workers are good people devoted to their jobs. But this fact, and the fact that the public tends to paint all social workers with the same broad brush in those rare cases in which misconduct occurs, make it that much more important that we highlight those rare abuses that do occur.

This was the case recently in the matter of Anthony Handal and Sandra Mora. David Harris, reporting for the Orlando Sentinel, writes that the 58-year-old social worker and his fiancée, a case manager, were arrested after authorities say they scammed Medicaid out of nearly $160,000. The pair allegedly colluded to bill Medicate between September 2015 and March for services they never provided, according to investigators from the Florida Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit.

“Investigators say Handal and Mora worked for MTS Health Services… Handal was a licensed clinical social worker and Mora was a case manager, documents state. ‘In most cases, Mora initiated contact with these children and families in need of services and collected their Medicaid information,’ investigators wrote in an arrest affidavit. ‘After gathering the required data, Handal and Mora would create false documentation to support the fraudulent billing later submitted to MTS and then the Medicaid Program.’”

Taken together, the two billed Medicate for almost 900 hours of services versus 100 hours of actual pediatric therapy for one client. They asked the child’s mother to “go along with” the false billing and were recorded doing so. At the time of the report, the two were in jail awaiting trial.

Our first reaction might be to wonder if there should have been a greater controlling authority over the billing. If two people can collude in this manner because they are personally involved, are greater checks and balances required for the billing system? What we should keep in mind, however, is that the system worked: These two were caught. Any collusion to commit Medicaid fraud requires the cooperation of multiple individuals. Normally, all that stops frauds like this from being caught is a single phone call or a single billing audit.

Given how many thousands on thousands of hours of bills are made by social workers throughout the country, the fact that a case like this exists is not a surprise. What we should take from it, however, is that fraud of this type is rare enough that it makes national news when it occurs. That speaks volumes about the nature of social work’s dedicated professionals… and the standards  to which our industry holds its personnel.

Have you seen opportunities for greater checks and balances in your work? Do you feel these are warranted or unnecessary? Please share your thoughts with us here.

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Addicted Parents and Child Welfare

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on September 18, 2017 · 0 comments

One of the most serious issues where the mounting opioid addiction crisis in the United States is concerned is the increased stress it puts on child welfare services. Social workers must already contend with problems of addiction in helping clients suffering from this problem. But those same clients often, because of their drug dependencies, cannot properly care for children, who then end up requiring social services. The “safety net” of support is thus stretched farther and farther to a breaking point that is compounded by a chronic shortage of social workers. Pressures within the field also lead to staff “churn” that deepens the problem and turns the whole affair into a vicious cycle.

It’s a problem everywhere and media are citing specific examples on an alarmingly regular basis. Chris Mueller and Keegan Kyle, writing in the Post-Crescent, report, “The number of children separated from their parents by county authorities has climbed across Wisconsin to its highest level in nearly a decade. A USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin investigation found drug abuse is clearly driving the uptick — leaving more families in turmoil, straining public resources and creating a shortage of foster parents.”

Referring specifically to Wisconsin (with figures that could easily come from anywhere in the country), Mueller and Kyle write, “Social workers are now commonly finding children who were left to fend for themselves, often in filthy homes with drugs and needles scattered around within reach. Some kids have watched a parent overdose. …The issue has gained the attention of state lawmakers, who have been considering a more than $6 million increase in child welfare services as well as pay raises for foster parents.”

The article goes on to say that cases involving drug-addicted parents “create significant problems for social workers because they often take longer to resolve as parents struggle through recovery and work toward providing stability… The risk of relapse is real for parents struggling with addiction, so much so that social workers plan specifically where children should be dropped off if a parent is about to fall back into drug abuse.”

Without doubt, this problem cannot be dealt with unless greater resources and human capital are brought to bear on it. What are your experiences with drug addicted clients and their children? Are you getting the support you require? Are your clients? This is a very serious issue with no easy answers yet in reach. Please share your experiences with us.

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