The Social Networker

Just What Do Social Workers DO, Anyway?

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on July 23, 2017 · 0 comments

We’ve talked previously in this blog about managing public perception of social workers. This is necessary both to increase amity among social workers and the public at large — which helps in developing rapport with clients — but also to prevent or address unfairly negative perceptions. Too many people who are ignorant of the field think of social workers as nosy busybodies with the arbitrary and unilateral power to snatch innocent parents’ children. Nothing could be further from the truth, but this perception is very real. It’s out there, and we need to address it. The best way to do this is by educating the public concerning what social workers do and the amount of good they create in society. This is the very issue Tricia Hussung tackled in a recent issue of Social Work Helper.

“Becoming a social worker is an ideal career path for those seeking to help others and make a positive impact in their communities,” Hussung writes. “In general, social workers ‘help people solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives,’ according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). They work closely with individuals and communities to assess needs and provide both resources and support. The overall aim of social workers is to improve quality of life for their clients by providing access to resources and services that meet their specific needs. They may work with children, adults, people with disabilities, or older populations. Specific job responsibilities vary depending on client type, but all social workers are responsible for maintaining a caseload and keeping detailed records concerning each of their clients.”

Hussung quite rightly points out that a fundamental tenet of social work is advocacy. Social workers can and do promote awareness of social issues at the local level, at the state level, and even on the national stage. They are the voice of those who otherwise might go unheard. “As part of this work,” says Hussung, “they may work closely with community leaders and organizations to develop new resources or improve existing initiatives. Social work is not a one-size-fits-all job. There are a variety of different types of social workers, each with their own clients and specific responsibilities, from treating drug addiction to locating qualified foster families.”

In other words, the answer to what a social worker does is, “A great deal… and sometimes too much for one person.” There is so much that a devoted, driven, and motivated social worker can accomplish… but imagine what that social worker, and countless others like him or her, can do when they have the support of their agencies and their governments. This is the image of social workers we must strive to promote. This is the outcome of social work that we must underscore in our dealings with the public.

What do you do? What tasks and achievements define your social work? We welcome your thoughts on how you fulfill the responsibilities of this demanding field.

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What Does It Mean To Be Called A “Social Worker”?

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

Those of us in the social work profession have a defined idea of who and what we are. The public often has a different, frequently stereotypical impression of what social workers do and who they are as people. While the truth is obviously closer to those within the field, there is room to argue. But there are those who believe that one need not be a licensed or credentialed social worker to hold the title… and this has been the subject of frequent debate across the country.  In a recent editorial in the Des Moines Register, Dr. Cathy Beck-Cross, assistant professor of Social Work at Grand View University, addresses the notion of eliminating barriers to the title of “social worker.”

“Allowing anyone to use title of ‘social worker’ does a disservice to professionals,” she writes. “Like many Iowans, I ache over the deaths of two young women allegedly at the hands of adults chosen to protect the welfare of vulnerable children. Indeed, changes need to be made in how foster homes are vetted and monitored. It is clear the Department of Human Services is taking a deep look at how to ensure the safety of those it is charged with protecting.”

She’s referring to an issue we have brought up more than once on this blog: the razor-thin margin of error when it comes to social work. If a social worker makes the “wrong” decision, even if he or she follows all protocols, guidelines, and regulations, young people sometimes suffer or even die. This is a tragedy every time it occurs, and we naturally look to our system — which many of us see as broken — to see what can be done to prevent further tragedy. The result, though, is that social workers are held to an unrealistic standard of perfection in which their every action is analyzed after the fact. In this environment, do we really want just anyone to be able to adopt the title of “social worker” despite a lack of credentials?

“In examining what went wrong,” Beck-Cross writes, “much blame has been handed out to employees called social workers, whose vocation is misrepresented when the title is given to those who do not have the requisite education or licensure. Reader’s Watchdog Lee Rood carefully avoids misusing the label in describing the employees whose decisions are under examination. Because social workers do not enjoy title protection, anyone can be called a social worker. This does injustice to the employees, organization and people served. Credentialed social workers are highly skilled professionals who complete a rigorous education that teaches them to examine and respond to the situation at hand, as well as how policies and procedures may inadvertently work against the mission and goals of an organization.”

She’s not wrong. It’s a distinction that is worthy of emphasis, particularly when social workers — ALL social workers — are held to such a high standard by the public. It’s easy to analyze a single failure after the fact while ignoring countless successes. It falls on social workers to manage public perception in order to produce a better outcome for all involved.

What do you think about the title of “social worker?” What are your credentials, and what did you have to do to earn them? Do you enjoy any sorts of professional protections in your state? Please share your thoughts with us.

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Who Is a Social Worker?

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

In Kansas, Debate over Lower Social Worker Standards Reflects Debate Within the Social Work Industry as a Whole

Who is a social worker? What is required to become one? And are our standards too stringent given that the nation is suffering a shortage of social workers? These are some of the questions pondered in a recent editorial by Sky Westerlund in CJOnline.com. In it, the executive director of the Kansas Chapter of the National Association of Social workers — who has served for more than 20 years in that capacity —  urges Kansas citizens not to lower social work standards.
 
“Department for Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore is wrong to suggest lowering the qualifications to become a licensed social worker in the state of Kansas,” she writes. “She is attempting to distract the Legislature and the public from the systemic problems that are plaguing the government agency charged with protecting children from harm. Her agency and the contractors’ rapid social worker turnover results in a destabilized, crisis-oriented service delivery system that struggles to keep up with the needs of children and their families. It is a system problem. It is not a social worker qualifications problem.”
 
Westerlund is referring to the fact that a lack of social worker continuity — as “churn” among social worker personnel threatens the rapport developed between a social worker and his or her clients — is exacerbated by the ongoing shortage of social workers. Some in Kansas and across the country have suggested lowering standards to make it easier for those who wish to work in the field to join the ranks of the nation’s social workers. But, Westerlund emphasizes, this work — in which the safety of children is often at stake — is “time-consuming, complicated and compounded by the lack of services and supports that parents need to take care of their children. Too many Kansas families are in serious crisis. The number of children in state custody has skyrocketed to unprecedented numbers. Social workers work diligently in a system that fast tracks them to professional burnout. Child welfare is just one of many work opportunities for social workers.”
 
The problem, as Westerlund sees it, is therefore not that it’s simply too difficult to become a social worker. It is that those who become social workers are squeezed to hard and too fast within a system that does not afford them adequate protections and support. She advocates providing that support and those protections — not simply lowering the standards for social work personnel in an attempt to net more bodies for an already flawed mechanism.
 
What do YOU think? Should standards be lowered in the hopes of swelling the ranks of social work personnel? What supports could be implemented to improve social worker retention? What factors most make YOU want to move on from the field? We look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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Increasingly, Social Work and Police Work Seen as Intertwined

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on July 14, 2017 · 0 comments

You know what police officers do: They put their lives, their safety, and their mental well-being on the line to deal with the worst elements of our society. They are the “thin blue line” that protects society from the predators among its ranks. You also know what social workers do: They provide an immense amount of support to clients in multiple walks of life, helping those who otherwise could not help themselves, producing societal benefits whose effects have been felt for decades in the United States and around the world. What you may not realize is that, increasingly, police and social workers are operating hand in hand to provide a better outcome for all involved.

Emily Corwin, writing for New Hampshire Public Radio,  cites research that shows “kids exposed to trauma are more likely to be violent, and victims of violence, later in life… Now, the Manchester Police Department is trying to do something to stop the cycle of violence… Through a grant-funded collaboration with the Manchester Community Health Center, Manchester police are working to get kids to this place and others like it. Places where kids — ideally along with their parents — can be seen and heard by professionals. It’s not easy. Parents in crisis can be too overwhelmed to call mental health centers for their kids. Not everyone wants to take parenting advice from police. …The police can send the family’s contact information over to a health center, and let the center follow up. It takes the burden off of the parent, and makes it more likely kids will get help.”

Corwin contends that the program is unique. It has been receiving national attention, with law enforcement and public health officials traveling to Manchester from across the country and even around the world to learn more about how the program works. This makes logical, sense, too: The very people that police deal with are not always — not even often — simply mindless, robotic monsters. Often, the people we think of as predators choose to victimize others from a combination of desperation and victimization of their own.

There is no disputing the fact that many young people who come from broken homes or from environments rife with crime and violence turn to these methods themselves based on that immersion… then, once sent to prison, spend their lives in and out of the system in a vicious cycle of crime, violence, and trauma. That cycle propagates itself across generations, infecting each successive crop of young people, starting itself anew.

The Manchester program represents the best of what police and social workers can do to get to the root of these problems and address them. The result is as much crime prevention as it is remediation of societal problems in the here and now. This is a worthy effort, and one that deserves close observation as it goes on.

What could you do with greater support and cooperation with your local police department? What problems do you see that could be addressed, and how would you approach them? We welcome your thoughts on this issue.

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The Immense Pressure of Working Under A Zero Margin For Error

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on July 12, 2017 · 0 comments

Previously on this blog, we’ve discussed the razor-thin margin for error that social workers face — and the fact that when a social worker makes a mistake, overlooks something, or even abuses his or her power in the rare instances when this occurs, that single social worker becomes representative to the public of all the professionals in this field. Such was the case recently in Missouri when a young boy told social workers and deputies that his father was beating him.

CNN Wire reports that Adrian Jones’s file at the Missouri Department of Social Services comprises 458 pages. “The documents show the 7-year-old, who was killed by his dad and stepmom in 2015, told a social worker two years before his death he was being abused. Adrian’s killers, Michael and Heather Jones, also told the state they didn’t want their son… Still, Adrian remained in their care.”

Adrian Jones’ home reportedly saw multiple visits from Social Services. The boy died after what is alleged to be months of torture at the hands of his father and stepmother. The abuse was reported in the summer of 2013 and, in a follow-up visit, Adrian told the social worker that his father would beat him viciously. He was reportedly deprived of food and made to sleep without a pillow or blanket at night. A request to put Adrian in protective custody was thwarted ultimately through a combination of the family’s lack of cooperation and their move from one state to another. In many ways, a system that was designed to ensure Adrian Jones’ safety  ultimately failed him. Participants and spectators on all sides of the issue are now arguing vociferously over whose fault it is.

So, whose fault is it? Multiple parties could conceivably bear responsibility, first and foremost the monster identified as Adrian Jones’ father. An argument can be made that Adrian fell through the cracks of an otherwise soundly designed system. The necessary reports were made; the necessary requests were filed; the necessary authorities were contacted. Yet no system is proof from failure. This was one of those failures, and the worst kind, for it resulted in the death of a child.

In many ways, social workers find themselves in a high-pressure game of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” Press for more authority to remove a child from an abusive home and the public will cry that social workers have too much power. Go too far in the other direction and all social workers are tarred with the same brush when any one of them makes a mistake or does not make the right decision. The margin for error is zero… and no human being can bear up under that pressure indefinitely. Ultimately, something’s got to give. Realistically, what has to change is public perception, as the social work profession is full of dedicated human beings who only want what’s best for their clients.

How are you bearing up under the pressure? What horror stories do you have to tell? Share your experiences with us and let us know how you cope with the razor-thin margin of error you are afforded as a social worker.

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The Social Worker Shortage Isn’t Getting Better

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on June 24, 2017 · 0 comments

It’s a fact that there’s a severe shortage of social workers in this country and around the world. That shortage isn’t getting better. Hannah Cromer, writing for KRISTV.com, emphasizes the vital role that social workers play in dealing with child neglect and abuse, mental health, and even disastrous events. Social workers, she writes, “have a wide range of duties and have a huge social and economic impact on society.” While that’s very true, the social worker shortage continues to prevent the ranks of the nation’s social workers from doing as much good as they otherwise might.

As Cromer puts it, the United States “is facing a shortage of social workers. It’s a crisis in need of spotlight, but seems as if there is no light at the end of the tunnel.  According to a recent report, there is 20 to 25 percent vacancy rate at agencies nationwide. Every social worker handles about 90 to 150 cases. 75 percent of agencies find it hard to recruit, but these numbers aren’t surprising because the shortage is feeding on itself.”

She rightly points out that the salaries social work pays, generally speaking, are relatively low. Yet the responsibilities placed on social workers are great — sometimes so great that social workers themselves, who often contend with great emotional trauma and stress in the lives of their clients, suffer because of it. Striving for a life/work balance becomes a huge issue, as does becoming emotionally involved with the clients social workers serve. The result is a vicious cycle in which social workers are expected to do a great deal for very little money… yet must also operate on razor-thin margins of error (if any).

In other words, the penalties for making a single mistake, or for a moment’s inattention, are dire. The social work profession faces a tremendous public relations problem in that the citizens overall stereotype social workers as “those government bureaucrats who’ll take your kids away.” Social workers do a tremendous amount of good, most of it “behind the scenes” or in the personal lives of their clients. This work is seldom noticed by the public at large, but this makes it no less real. Yet if a single social worker in a single county somewhere in the United States abuses his or her power, or neglects a client through a moment’s inattention, this reflects poorly on all social workers everywhere and is used to call the profession into doubt.

This is an untenable, unsustainable situation, and the results are the ongoing shortage of qualified and dedicated social workers. Cromer highlights a number of possible fixes, including increased salaries, bonuses, and greater flexibility in scheduling — all of which would pay dividends in the form of increased social worker satisfaction and greater parity between the work expected of social workers and the compensation they receive.

Have you felt the stress of social work… and the sting of the low compensation you must accept for your efforts? How has the shortage affected you as a social worker… and what would YOU do to address it, had you the means? We look forward to hearing your thoughts on this subject.

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Social Workers and Military Personnel

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on June 16, 2017 · 0 comments

It is no secret that the members of our military are among those populations who benefit from, and who require the attention of, our nation’s social workers. Bernard S. Little, reporting for The Journal, underscored this in coverage of National Professional Social Work Month in conjunction with a forum in early March at Walter Reed Bethesda medical center.

“Topics discussed during the forum touched on a number of issues social workers tackle to help people meet their challenges and build stronger communities,” Little writes. “These include individuals who may be experiencing devastating illnesses and mental health crises, veterans, children, families and communities. …Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Director Army Col. Michael S. Heimall opened the forum welcoming those in attendance and explaining Social Work Month began in March 1963. …Pointing out that WRNMMC has the only Child and Family Social Work Fellowship Program in the nation, as well as the impact social workers have made with service members and their families in the Warrior Transition Brigade, Heimall explained social workers provide invaluable services throughout the medical center, one of which is helping to identify and manage behavioral health issues.”

The mental stress and fallout of combat and service overseas naturally creates the need among American service personnel for such services. Social issues have great impact on health status, according to Heimall, so changing health care overall in the United States means addressing social issues. “If you really want to impact health care in America,” Little quotes him, “you have to get at all those social issues that impact health status.”

During the forum, social workers were lauded as the backbone of care provided to many of Walter Reed’s patients. One of the speakers was a licensed social worker, Army Lt. Col. Ronald Whalen, Ph.D., who explained that social workers embedded within deployed military units serve as advocates for individual service members and their families. “Whalen, who has deployed twice to Iraq, explained social workers are the vital links between individuals and commanders in helping to assess the behavioral and mental health status of service members and the unit,” Little writes.

Given all that is asked of our nation’s service personnel, and the deep impact this can have on them as people, on their physical health, an on their mental and emotional well-being, providing the social services that can help them is extremely important. The integration of social work with our military is a natural and needed one. Continued integration of this vital support can only help those who help protect the United States and its citizens.

Have you served with, or provided services to, the families of United States service personnel? Are you interested in learning more about how you can help? Please share your thoughts with us here.

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Are Children Being Left In Unsafe Homes?

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on June 14, 2017 · 1 comment

A recent report concludes that children in Oregon are being left in unsafe homes by social workers in up to half of all cases. The disturbing matter was underscored by Molly Young in The Oregonian. She asserts that Oregon’s child welfare system “leaves children in danger because workers routinely miss or ignore threats to kids’ safety.” Her foundation for this claim is an internal state report recently made public.

“The Oregon Department of Human Services reviewed a random sample of 101 case decisions, after the death of a foster child last year raised questions about agency decision-making,” she writes. “…The analysis found social workers incorrectly determined children were safe in 47 of the cases — nearly half. Social workers didn’t look for defined safety threats in 27 percent of the cases, and identified the wrong risks in another 20 percent. The report summarizes 49 cases and raises questions about the outcomes of nearly all of them, including the case of the mother in a mental health crisis who planned to obtain a firearm. State employees ‘took it at face value that children said they felt safe with their mother,’ the report said of that case.”

Young goes on to explain that the report raises serious issues about the safety of children entrusted to state oversight in Oregon. “In all but 15  of the 101 cases reviewed, kids were determined to be safe,” she writes. “Five of those appear to have ended because the family couldn’t be found. The remaining 10 were the only cases in which children were determined to be unsafe. The analyst who reviewed the report, whose identity and qualifications are unclear, agreed with 100 percent of those decisions. The families whose cases were reviewed in the report were the subjects of 44 subsequent allegations of abuse and neglect.”

At the core of the issue appears to be the idea that workers misunderstood or misapplied state laws and policies governing threats to child welfare. When children’s cases are misunderstood, or when regulations and guidelines governing what is and is not “safe” are not properly applied, the results can be horrific. They include, as we’ve already seen, death. Worse, the report was not a shock to child advocates in Oregon, who have come to see mistakes of this type as almost normal — at least according to Young.

So what does this tell us, and what can we learn from it? The single biggest lesson seems to be that social workers in Oregon need better training and better support. They are required to do an almost impossible job where the margin for failure is minuscule. They can hardly be expected to do that if they lack the training necessary to carry it off… and they most certainly will take the brunt of the blame when mistakes occur. This is not a problem specific to Oregon, after all. It affects all social workers throughout the country, at least potentially.

Do you feel you have the appropriate training to do your job properly? Have you experienced the pressure that comes with having zero margin for error? We welcome your voice on this thorny issue.

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For One Social Worker, Vindication — And The Implications Of Her Case

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on June 12, 2017 · 0 comments

Laura Lynn Fox is a social worker in Oklahoma. She says she was falsely charged with failing to report child neglect — and the city of Tulsa has now paid her $225,000 in an award for malicious prosecution. Samantha Vicent, reporting for Tulsa World says that a jury deliberated for only an hour before awarding Fox her judgment. She’ll likely only receive $175,000, though, because the state’s Governmental Tort Claims Act caps such damages to that amount. According to Vicent, the city is considering an appeal.

“The lawsuit stemmed from [Fox’s] assertion that the Tulsa Police Department did not properly consider evidence before submitting a probable cause affidavit to prosecutors, who charged her in November 2013 with a misdemeanor count of failure to report child neglect,” writes Vicent. “The case was dismissed about a month later after prosecutors received evidence from Fox’s criminal defense attorney, Adam Banner.Records of the case were expunged in April 2014… Fox, who was employed by a private company, had been working under the supervision of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services to assist a family with a trial reunion with their children.”

Vicent goes on, “The children had been removed from the family residence previously due to reportedly ‘horrifying’ conditions, but in August 2013 police records said the home still had odors of cat urine and feces, human waste, rotten food, cockroach nests and flies, among other things.Fox was accused of visiting the home and not reporting its condition to DHS on the day police arrested the parents, Angela and Matthew Prior. However, DeMuro’s 2014 petition says Fox made clinical notes of her observations and reported them to DHS as well as to her supervisor.”

Just what prompted authorities to pursue Ms. Fox without first properly investigating the issue is not clear. What is clear is that every social worker faces both the duty to report… and the obligation to abide by all relevant laws and regulations. It is incumbent on every social worker not only to know the legal landscape in which that social worker operates, but also to conduct herself or himself “by the book.” Adhering to regulations and performing in a traceable, reputable manner is what saved Laura Lynn Fox from serious consequences. Her case sends a powerful message on behalf of all social workers maligned by a system that does not always understand them — but which they are obligated to operate within nonetheless.

Have you ever felt constrained by the legal landscape in which you work? What challenges do you face performing social work “by the book” every day? Please share your thoughts with us.

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Social Workers, Court Cases, and the “Thin, Bright Line”

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on June 9, 2017 · 0 comments

Is saying that a child victim of abuse ‘sounds honest’ a violation of the legal proscription against offering an opinion on a witness’ truthfulness? That was the question answered by the Wisconsin Supreme Court recently — in a case involving social workers and the “thin, bright line” separating propriety from impropriety. Bruce Vielmetti , reporting Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, explains the state Supreme Court’s recent decision on the issue. The court, according to Vielmetti, “decided a social worker’s testimony that a child showed no signs of dishonesty in describing a sexual assault did not cross what had been a very bright line prohibiting experts from offering opinions on other witnesses’  truthfulness.The 5-2 decision reversed a Court of Appeals ruling that said the defendant deserved a new trial because his attorney had not challenged the testimony as improper.”

Evidently, the judge who wrote the majority decision found a social worker’s testimony “was limited to her observations of indications of coaching dishonesty, and did not amount to an opinion of the girl’s truthfulness.” The girl in question was an 11-year-old child who accused one Stanley J. Maday, Jr., of sexual assault. The girl wrote a letter to her mother about the incident. A social worker who interviewed the 11-year-old testified about her interview at trial, saying she saw no evidence of “coaching” (and therefore that there was no indication the girl was making up her accusation). Maday’s lawyer did not object to this line of questioning, though the Wisconsin Court of Appeals took issue with the whole matter and said Maday deserved a new trial. The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision reverses the Appeals Court’s decision.

Confused yet? That’s because it’s a complicated issue. Whenever a social worker becomes involved in a legal case, offering an opinion on the truth or falsehood of a victim’s testimony, things get very complex very fast. Social workers, in fact, often find themselves in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario, in which nothing they can do will please everyone. If you “listen and believe” to a child’s accusation and it eventually proves false, lives can be destroyed. If you instead err on the side of caution and discount a victim’s statements in the face of a lack of physical evidence… lives can be destroyed. The “thin, bright line” of which the Wisconsin justices write is one with which social workers across the United States must contend every day.

So, what is the right answer? There isn’t one. As always, social workers must continue to walk the tightrope between the two sides of every issue, doing their best to prevent harm to innocent victims while also respecting the legal process and the unique position of social workers against and within that landscape. It’s a difficult and often thankless job, but it’s one that social work professionals continue to do every day — because it’s needed. Have you ever found yourself in this no-win position? Please share your thoughts and experiences with us.

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