Social Work and Race

July 9, 2008

Today in training, they were talking to us about some common values/traits in different kinds of families.  Well, they did not do the greatest job ever (although not awful either) and so we launched into a conversation about race, how we approach different families, and theories about why Black and Native American children are overly represented in the child welfare system.

So this got me thinking: does any other profession discuss race as much as social workers?  A core class in all MSW programs is a diversity/ cultural competency/ racism class.  Does any other profession have this?  Not that I can think of.  And I am glad that we do.  It is an important class and important topic for social workers to be thinking and talking about all the time.  Of course, it is not easy because we as a society have difficulty talking about it.  So maybe we social workers can be a sort of group of leaders on this front.


Social Worker Academy

July 7, 2008

Today was my first day of Social Worker Academy – the statewide training that is required of all new social workers hired by the state. The good news: it wasn’t as bad as I had been warned it would be. The bad news: it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. Of course, I knew that it wasn’t going to be. I would love it to be an in-depth, challenging exercise combining the day-to-day of what our jobs will entail with the philosophical debates of what our roles should be and why. Some day I will create this fantasy social work laboratory somewhere. Hmmm.

Anyway, back to the present day. Some initial thoughts:

  • it was interesting meeting lots of people from all over the state.
  • I was surprised at how many people were older – they are grandparents older – who are starting this job.
  • I was not surprised that there was only one man in our group (but that the 2 heads of our training were male).
  • I am not used to having a 1.25 hours for lunch. And I probably never will after this training.
  • Almost my entire unit has their MSW, so I was a little surprised at how few people at this training did – I think it was 9 of 34 (although there were some other random master’s degrees).
  • People from the rural parts of the state are quite different, in a number of ways.
  • I wish there was an expedited version of this training.

So the way this works is that I have 2 weeks of this, then have 2 weeks back at my office, and then go back for 2 more weeks. We aren’t supposed to have cases yet, but I do, so I am doing a little bit of juggling. Which actually isn’t too bad (yet). I got a bit of work done today, put out a few fires, and kept things under control a bit (so far). And it was nice to have something to multitask during the training because my mind needed the exercise. It might have put me to sleep just having the presentation to think about. But, listening to the speaker and thinking about the casework was actually a good balance that I think kept me on target.

Tomorrow I am actually skipping the afternoon session to have a home visit with Blue, which should be very interesting. And then I am having another home visit with one of my new cases, because, I might as well do them on the same afternoon.

The Elephant in Current Social Work

June 1, 2008

I have not written about this topic, yet, despite the fact that I have spoken about it with multiple people from various facets of my life. This would the child protection case that has been going on in Eldorado, Texas. 460 children were removed from a polygamist sect after concerns had been made regarding the safety of the children, specifically for sexual abuse. On Thursday, some parents won an appeal that said that the state did not have enough evidence and overstepped its bounds to remove all of the children.

So what the heck do I think? Many things, of course! Some of them:

  • There are many factors in play with this case, religion and culture being chief among them. Undeniably, this sect (does that word have political implications, too?) lives quite differently than mainstream America. They live in community, dress differently, and very little interaction with society at large. Oh, and they believe in polygamy. So I think there are some large philosophical questions regarding if, when, and how (in that order, by the way) authorities intervene with how this group is living their lives.
  • I am not a libertarian so I think there are definite times for authorities to intervene (if) and that concerns of sexual abuse (and general child maltreatment) are definite times for the authorities to step in (when). Of course, the big question is how. The interesting thing is that this latest court ruling did not dismiss the “if” or “when” questions – it was more the how question. Specifically, they were justified in being concerned and then removing some of the children, but not all of them. I don’t necessarily disagree with the court with this ruling (in hindsight), but my big question would then be, in the moment that all of this is going down, how do you make distinctions between which children are at-risk and those that are not. I suppose a quick answer would have been to remove all of the girls, but leave the boys, as the particular referral that led to the raid was girls being married at young ages. I just don’t know that if I was making that call if I would be able to sleep at night, knowing that child sexual abuse is by no means limited to female victims. I believe (and hope) that there was a conversation regarding these issues among the higher powers of the Texas Child Protection agency (and I would have loved to observed it!)
  • I don’t think that our society has a full understanding of sexual abuse. It is one of those things that we don’t do well talking about or even acknowledging. So I think that society has some misconceptions that I think many peoples’ outlook on this case. One is how much shame is involved in sexual abuse. The emotional toll on victims is tremendous and they learn very quickly to bury and hide all of the evidence, which is chiefly their emotions. The cycle begins as they hide their emotions, they feel more shame as most people don’t pick up anything is wrong, which leads to their hiding and feeling more shame. Another misconception is regarding perpetrators. I think that many people still think of perpetrators as the typical “dirty old man” characteriture, when in fact, they come in all shapes and sizes.
  • Then there are the mothers that went on various television programs, including Larry King. I think they are great example of blunted affect. Essentially, blunted affect is a restriction on one’s range of emotions. This is most often found in people with some forms of schizophrenia, but also those suffering from PTSD. I guess I would be very concerned about the trauma histories of each of those women (and think it helps make a case for a “culture of abuse” within the community. Of course, proving that is much more difficult).
  • Which I guess leads me to my final thought (of this posting), which is something I am becoming more aware of in my own work, which is that there is sometimes a disconnect between discovering maltreatment and being able to “prove” it in a courtroom. I understand the necessity of proving things in court (to protect the innocent), but with that standard also means that sometimes perpetrators don’t get prosecuted, which in this case, means that kids are still in harm’s way. Of course, I don’t know how to fix this (yet, perhaps?), but there is a gap.

11 Volumes

May 27, 2008

One of my tasks today was going through a case file – 11 volumes in all (each volume is a large 3-ring binder) and searching for information so I can synthesize it into a report for adoptive parents to have. Not something that I want to do daily, but a good way for me to learn more about how a case is filed, what different documents look like, and a basic sense of how a case went.

Of course, while going through this file, I have lots of thoughts about it. And the big question that I came away from this case was, when does a child’s right to have a stable, permanent home trump a parent’s right to parent their own children? Or simply, how many chances do parents get?

In this case, mother had a long, intense substance abuse history. This lead to chronic neglect of the kids, whether it was putting them in precarious situations (around dealers or locked in a car in a parking lot) or not meeting their basic needs of hygiene and food (never mind, emotional and intellectual stimulation). There were numerous filings made on this mom, leading to her having the kids removed from her care. But some how, she would get it back together enough to convince the court that she was ready to parent again. And it appeared that she did often, but only for a limited time, and then she would relapse and the kids would be taken back into care.

So studies say that kids do better with their biological families, except in extreme situations. But where do you draw the line? I don’t think many would argue that parents should have their parental rights terminated after having one bout of substance abuse and not having a chance of cleaning themselves up. But do they also get 2 chances? 5? 10? 25? 100? This case certainly did not have 100 filings on it, it did not get to that point, but again, where do you draw that line?

I don’t know the answer, but I do think that this is going to be an issue that I will be revisiting often. I can see myself getting very upset when I think that we are on one side of the line and someone with more power than me (supervisors or the court) disagrees with me and wins the argument. I can see myself feeling frustrated that I will not be able to stop or prevent an injustice from occurring. But maybe it is better that I realize this now, so I expect the frustration. Maybe it will lessen the blow, but I doubt it.

But again, the job is trying to figure out what will be best for kids in the long term. And unlike the “hard sciences” there is no sure way of knowing, making this “soft science” much more difficult.

Someone Stole My Chair!

May 21, 2008

Some thoughts:

  1. Someone stole my chair over the weekend. On Monday morning, I sat down in my chair and it felt different. I looked down and indeed it was different. I could not believe it. Oh, and the thief(ves) also left a dolly in my cubicle. Strange.
  2. Bad news. So I need to go to the state-wide training before I can officially have my own cases (and feel like a real social worker, instead of an intern). I thought that was what I was going to be doing on Day 1. Nope. So then I thought I was going to be doing it in the beginning of June. Well, nope. So I am signed up to start in July. That is so long away. I am glad that I have to do this training and I am glad it is mandatory, but I wish it was more accessible. At this point, I would like to do it as an Independent Study.
  3. The drug and alcohol treatment facility for mothers that are pregnant or have small children that I supervise a visit at is very depressing. It looks like it is a petri dish of neglect. Very cute kids, but there are some very clueless (distracted/incompetent/overwhelmed/struggling) mothers there. I am curious what some of the numbers of how the program does are. But I do not like going there.

Finally, I went to a meeting today – a brown-bag open dialogue – between Dept. social workers and members of the judicial bench to foster communication. There is a new commissioner (same as a judge, but appointed instead of elected) and many social workers have had some issues with her. So they had this meeting and for the 1st 45 minutes they addressed written questions that they had received from the head of the region (which supposedly received them from office heads who gathered them from social workers). Anyway, at that point some social workers told them that they didn’t have issues with the procedures, but mostly had issues with the way they were being treated and the tone used by the new commissioner. Essentially, they felt degraded, disrespected, condescended to, and insulted in court. Not good.

So aside from all of the immediate and practical implications this has, I got to thinking about some of the larger systemic issues that might be at play here. One is the major hierarchy of power here. Judges rule. In the courtroom, they make the decisions and in a lot of ways, do what they want. Social workers are way down low on the totem pole in that setting (although do most of the work). In a sense the courtroom is a microcosim of society. Another is some of the miscommunication issues and where they stemmed from. Who and where were social workers’ issues filtered from the court? Interesting.

But the big thing that I have been thinking about is sexism. Now I don’t want to let this new commissioner off the hook here – she should be treating everyone with respect. But does the fact that she is a woman play into this at all? She is the only female that I have seen on the bench (granted I have seen only a handful). But perhaps she is feeling the need to establish her authority early and is fearful of not being taken seriously (or as seriously) because she is a woman. Perhaps people are viewing her comments as harsher than they would from a man because she breaking the expectation that women are nurturing. I don’t know if these play into it at all, but I do think they probably are at least a little bit and have the potential of being huge factors. That being said, treat people with respect, and don’t steal their chairs!

State Diction

May 6, 2008

It is amazing to me how different states use *almost* the same words to describe child welfare. The first example is what they call their respective departments. A sampling:

  • Oregon: Dept. of Human Services, DHS
  • Massachusetts: Dept. of Social Services, DSS
  • Washington: Dept. of Social & Health Services, DSHS
  • Illinois: Dept. of Children & Family Services, DCFS
  • Texas: Dept. of Family & Protective Services, DFPS
  • New York: Office of Children & Family Services, OCFS
  • Florida: Dept. of Children & Families, DCF

Of course this is not limited to the name of the dept (or office). In Washington a report of child maltreatment is called a referral and the person making it is a referrer. In Massachusetts, it is known as “filing a 51A.”

So what is the point of all this? Well, I get the lovely task of *almost* knowing what people are talking about while I am learning a new state’s system. I feel like I am constantly translating terms and comparing and contrasting so that I am grasping how this system works. I wonder if it gets easier as I learn more states’ systems (I am on my third now) or if gets harder as there is more to decipher through. (I am leaning towards that it gets easier, but maybe I am just telling myself that). But it definitely makes me want to be a little less transient.

Day 2 Dilemmas

May 4, 2008

So I had a dilemma right now about whether or not to write this blog – I just had a really good beer and have a pretty good buzz right now and I would like to keep that going by having another beer, but I know that it is important that I be consistent in writing, so I am going to write this before my next beer.

So Day 2 had me at court all day with 2 other social workers in my unit. One had to give testimony in a hearing to “default” a parent – basically saying that they have not participated at all since the Dept. has been involved and that they do not warrant further consideration because of their lack of involvement. Not very exciting testimony, but interesting to see. I did sit on some other hearings for other cases and it was interesting to see the various dynamics at play. I was amazed at how much power judges hold and sometimes they gave these long lectures that didn’t really seem to be even clinically appropriate. However, they get to order people do stuff and people can’t stop them because they are judges. Hmmmm.

The other interesting element had to do with the people who held various roles at court. There was a lot of time that we spent just hanging out waiting. There were social workers, court staff, Assistant Attorney Generals (AAG) (that technically represent the social worker and Dept.) and the defense attorney. There was quite a bit of time spent by the social workers and AAGs talking about the defense attorneys that they liked (rare) and did not like (more likely). I am not sure what I think about all of that, but I am sure that I will have more to say when I get more involved. There was an element of all of the cliques and stuff being like high school, which I am less thrilled about. There was the gossip and the cliques and segregated spaces and hierarchy and it was a little too much. Again, I will be interested in seeing how I fit in and feel about it when I am more involved.

So Monday I am going back to court for a hearing I am excited to see. And then, who knows? But now? Beer.