As a social worker, we spend a good deal of time looking at systems, and systems work means we can’t only focus on what’s “wrong” with the individual in our office. Our focus can’t simply be what can this person do to move toward more emotional happiness? We need to always be considering how living in the world and engaging in relationships with other systems and other people play a large role in what this client does, how they think, and how they feel.
My job isn’t to just locate the unhelpful belief my client has about their self-esteem or retrain how they respond to a negative thought. When doing systemic work—even with just one person—I need to look at how race, ethnicity, age, sexuality, and gender play a role in my client’s life. I need to look at how that client’s family system, school system, government system, community systems, and more played a role in shaping my client.
As basic as this is, it’s important to note that It’s a fairly un-American way of going about things.
The Big Lie of Individualism
We’re taught that we should hold up the self-made man. We celebrate that guy to no end in movies, plays, songs, and stories. It’s our enduring myth.
We, social workers, see the monstrosity in that idea—pleasant and attractive though it is. We know that human beings can only grow and thrive within relationships, not apart from them. We know that nothing is self-made. We know that we are working from day one of life to attach to others.
We need to push back on the “self-made man” myth because it’s racist. It’s sexist. It’s heteronormative.
And it’s killing us.
And since I work mostly with men I want to be very direct because it’s literally killing us as the suicide rate for men is incredibly high: five times greater than for women. And we apply words like “strong” and “hard” when we’re describing masculinity? Something is missing. The weaker sex, the special snowflakes, are the ones who are supposed to need help. Not us.
Social workers disagree about many things and we have lots of ways we think are the best way to help any given client, but one thing we can all agree on when it comes to healing is that the relationship does a great deal of the work. It can begin to heal trauma, mental illness, and the “worried well.” It’s the way in, it’s the way through, and it’s the way out of suffering. It’s not the only thing, but it’s part of everything. Death is in the separateness, the lack of relationship.
And name your –ism because that’s about separateness too. We can’t fully heal a white person without moving through white supremacy together and we can’t help men without addressing the patriarchy. We may not call it out or by these names, but to connect with someone in their suffering is to refuse white supremacy and masculinity.
We need to keep doing what we’re doing, but we need to go further. We’re healing the people without healing the system and we can only thrive so much within a sick system.
Moving Ourselves Toward an Ego Dystonic State With the World
In a mental health session, our work is often to connect our client with other people. Often this happens through the therapeutic relationship with us first, but ultimately, it’s done so they can connect with the other people in their life. Doing this on an individual level is important, and as difficult as it is (and it is difficult), it’s really the bare bones of our work. Because what we’re doing, if we stop there, is helping people build up coping strategies to survive in a broken system.
So we have to stop and ask ourselves if in our work we are challenging the system that our clients live in and, not for nothing, that we’re living in too. Now, this can be a controversial stance for some people. It sounds “agenda-driven” and done unskillfully it is just that. But for those who feel they are thriving in this patriarchal, white supremacist world, do we have any choice, ethically, but to aid them in shifting their lens?
For too many of us, we have come to see this world as ego syntonic and we need to push toward discomfort in ourselves to see the world as it is. And that will move us toward change.
A Child Welfare Example
Let me take my work in child welfare as an example. Most of the parents I’ve worked with over the years are well-meaning and loving people. Many of them are involved in child welfare because they had hit their children in order to discipline them. Many of them feel this is ok. Many of the child welfare workers think it’s ok to physically discipline a child. We even have different words so we separate “abuse” from “physical discipline” and we jump through hoops to try to define “excessive corporal punishment” as separate from “physical discipline”. Many parents have no hesitation telling me that when their child gets out of line they need a slap, a spanking, a something that lets them understand limits, but that this is discipline and not abuse.
And in the course of this conversation, I usually hear the inevitable, “It happened to me and I turned out ok.”
And right there is the thing that I’m talking about with these systems. You “turned out” in such a way that you think it’s ok to hit a child, your child. And this is the proof that you didn’t turn out as “ok” as you think. You grew up with something violent being normalized.
But that’s our society. That’s the society that collectively calls sexual assault “locker room talk” and elects a president. That’s the society where powerful, talented men are allowed to produce and direct movies for years without consequence for their sexually abusive behavior.
Systems work is helping people see that things they take for granted could be wrong. Knowing
- That there are not simply two genders.
- That race is not encoded in our DNA.
- That women are not genetically more nurturing.
- That there are no such things as boy and girl toys.
Knowing all that means we have to fundamentally shift our way of thinking, our way of feeling, our way of living—day to day—in this world. And we may need to fundamentally, though not radically, change the way we approach therapy.
Merging the Therapist and the Advocate
Great things can come from our work with individuals, couples, and families. We can support people in relieving a lot of pain and finding healthier ways to interact. We move people through trauma, out of depression and anxiety, and to better navigate relationships. We help people live within our broken world—which is no small feat. Part of our happiness can only come by becoming more open to uncertainty which is all we really can be certain about.
But can we do more or does our job end there?
I believe we can. Not by “pushing an agenda” or preaching, but by becoming grounded in a strong analysis of the patriarchy, in racism, and in anti-oppressive work. With this analysis, we understand ourselves differently and we understand others in a new way. We see more easily how reactive our clients can be while not realizing they’re being reactive. We are so skilled at reaching for feelings or for picking out the latent content. We see through all of the mental healthy stuff, and we bring it into our work. But, we can see through the racism, the gender norms, the patriarchy, the homophobia and bring that into the work as well? The stronger we are in our own analysis the more able we are to help clients see when they’re reacting to a system instead of their own desires or someone else’s needs.
Most of us just aren’t so good at doing it yet. So many of us separate this work: “I’m a therapist in the office, and I’m an activist when I’m outside.”
That’s great. It is. But we need to find a way to merge the two. To make them inseparable.
Can we repair an airplane while we’re flying it? Can we change our systems while living in them?
Well, first off, we have no choice. We can’t step outside of it because it’s the air we breathe.
With everyone we meet, whether client, friend, lover, or family we need to be grounded in our awareness. We need to support the people we care about, our clients or otherwise, and do all the great engagement and interventions we learned in social work school and beyond—but we have to have an eye on the system. The system they’re in. The one we’re in. The whole shebang.
We need to not preach. We need not be so agenda driven that we miss the humanity of the client or clients sitting in our offices and their suffering. Our need to end the patriarchy cannot be at an individual client’s expense, of course!
But in session and out, we need to be on the lookout for moments to open our own and others’ eyes to the sickness that we are living in. The sickness that lies and says this is the only way to be.
Single Father Adopts Five Siblings from Foster Care System
Back in October of 2020, single father Robert Carter adopted a set of five siblings so that they would never again be separated by the foster care system. Robert became inspired to foster after being split up from many of his own brothers and sisters when he entered the system at the age of 12. Following his emancipation, Robert became legally responsible for two of his siblings, which inspired him to continue to expand his family. He became a foster father to three of the five siblings and quickly realized that it was his purpose to adopt all five children.
A Systemic Issue
There are currently over 400,000 children in the foster care system, two-thirds of whom have a sibling in the system as well. Many of these children are separated from their siblings for reasons including a lack of families able to foster sibling groups, diverse needs of children and lack of resources for finding placements. Other siblings may be more likely to be separated by social workers due to myths that sibling sets will not integrate as well into a new family dynamic or that it is in the best interests of a parentified older child to be removed from their siblings.
Sibling separations, like Carter and his children experienced, often compounds the trauma that children in the system endure. In a foster care system where 63% of children are removed from their homes due to parental neglect, sibling relationships help to provide much needed stability and emotional support. These sustained relationships allow sibling sets to have greater success in school, better relationships with foster parents, more successful permanency outcomes, and better mental health. Yet, until the last couple of decades, the advantages of keeping siblings together were largely ignored from a policy perspective.
In 2008 this changed when keeping siblings together became national priority when the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act was passed. This Act “requires a state plan to provide for reasonable efforts for joint placement of siblings in the same foster care, kinship guardianship, or adoptive placement unless it would be contrary to the safety or wellbeing of any of them.” This act also requires that children who are unable to be placed with their siblings be allowed frequent visits with their other siblings.
While sibling placement is defined as a priority on the federal level, states may interpret the implementation of a plan differently. As of 2018, only 37 states have statutes requiring these reasonable efforts to keep siblings together during the placement process. States may often vary in their definition of “sibling” as well. While children often define their siblings as those who grew up with them, including step-siblings, often state laws only define sibling relationships in terms of blood relations.
Certain states, such as Oregon, have a Sibling Bill of Rights to help protect children in the foster care system. Some of these rights include being able “to live in the same home as (their) sibling if possible” and “to live with foster parents who are trained on the importance of sibling relationships.” Bills like these offer children autonomy and protection when entering the system so that they can advocate for themselves.
As laws continue to evolve to protect children in foster care like Robert and his kids, Robert hopes that foster and adoptive parents will step up to help keep families together. Here’s what he said in an interview with Aol.com:
“A lot of people think you have to be married to adopt or be a foster parent. I want people to know: No matter the situation, as long as you have the means to take care of a child [you can] become a foster parent,” he explains. “We have so many kids still in custody, there are 400 kids in Ohio waiting on forever homes. And I am happy that I was able to help encourage and inspire other people to step up.”
Currently, over 100,000 children are to be adopted, many of which risk being separated from their siblings. You can help to keep these children together by becoming a foster parent for a sibling set and learning more about the adoption process.
If you are unable to adopt or foster right now, research your state’s sibling protection measures and help advocate for policies that support sibling reunification.
Protecting Children from Harm in the Context of Distance Learning
The nation saw an uptick in domestic violence calls in the midst of the pandemic and the shutdown. The convergence of social isolation, economic pressure, and psychological stress created favorable conditions for abuse to occur. Adults are not the only victims of abuse in the home. Children, too, are vulnerable. History shows that violence against children and child exploitation intensify under conditions of isolation and economic pressure. While the pandemic may be temporary, child abuse often has long-term consequences.
School systems play a vital role in intervening in the lives of vulnerable children. In fact, schools make 21% of the reports to child protective services according to The Washington Post. When COVID-19 forced the schools to close, states saw a drastic drop in the number of children being referred to CPS. Unfortunately, this reduction did not mean that the incidence of abuse decreased. Indeed, as reports to CPS dropped, ER doctors saw a rise in more severe cases of abuse. Child abuse not only persisted, but it went unchecked during the shutdown. Without school personnel, community workers, medical and dental personnel, and other mandated reporters, there was no watchdog to report the abuse until children sustained injuries severe enough to warrant medical attention.
Clearly, schools serve a vital function in protecting children from harm. Now more than ever, they need to be alert and responsive to abuse as children return to school virtually. Distance learning presents unique opportunities and challenges that should be addressed proactively. Social workers can and should play a leadership role in adapting child welfare protocols for distance learning and retraining school personnel to identify and report suspicions of child abuse and neglect. This article outlines a proposed curriculum for child abuse and neglect reporting in the context of distance learning.
School personnel should be well-equipped to spot signs of child abuse and neglect in the context of distance learning. Asynchronous instruction affords teachers a glimpse into students’ homes. In addition to any disclosures of abuse, teachers should be especially attentive to:
- Verbal threats of harm, hidden, unexplained, suspicious, and/or repeated injuries
- Suicidal ideation in students
- Sexually inappropriate behaviors or images
- Weariness when an adult is present or approaches the student
- Excessive dirtiness or lack of proper hygiene in the home or the student
- Illegal substances or evidence of impairment in the caregiver
- Evidence of malnourishment in the student
School staff should also note that it is illegal under most state laws for children to be home alone unless they have demonstrated sufficient maturity, and there are safety structures in place. Young children should not be home alone. Furthermore, children with a record of behavior or emotional problems (e.g. frequent suspensions) should not be in the home unattended. Children who are able to be home alone should be able to access safe adults in case of an emergency, and there should not be hazardous conditions or items present. Children who can take care of themselves may not be mature enough or capable of taking care of younger children. School staff members play a critical role in monitoring these conditions. Clear steps should be outlined for reporting any safety concerns or suspicions in a timely and accurate manner to school personnel (e.g. principal, guidance counselor) and child protective services.
Because teachers will be exposed to the live conditions of the home, they have to be prepared to respond to crisis situations. Crisis management in the context of distance learning is different from that in more traditional settings because the staff person is physically distant from the student, and there may not be another adult present with the child for reinforcement. As a result, they are at a disadvantage in terms of their ability to intervene.
Still, there are measures staff can take to manage the crisis from afar. In the event of an imminent threat to the safety of a student, staff can adapt telehealth protocols such as:
(1) call local 911/EMS while maintaining contact with the student
(2) identify bystanders who may be able to assist by providing information, monitoring the student, and/or intervening, as appropriate
(3) obtain the student’s physical location, an alternate contact in case of a disconnection or other technical issue, and contact information for the student’s caregiver
(4) while maintaining contact with the student, contact the caregiver to advise him/her of the situation
School personnel has an important responsibility in monitoring student attendance. Countless children can be lost to human trafficking and exploitation if schools falter in this duty. As such, the onus is on the schools to locate children who do not report for school. Students should be expected, at a minimum, to check in occasionally so that school personnel can check on their well-being.
Finally, school administrators should be cognizant of the increased risk of exploitation by school staff when supervision and monitoring are lacking. Clear codes of conduct should be put in place or adapted to guide online interactions between students and school staff. Outside meetups should be prohibited unless they occur at school during school hours with proper supervision. Administrators should ‘‘float’’ from class to class to monitor interactions and conduct in the virtual classrooms. Caregivers should also be encouraged to monitor online learning. An adult should be present at all times during synchronous sessions to supervise and provide support.
Schools play a critical role in protecting our most vulnerable population. Critical attention should be given to adapting child welfare protocols for distance learning so that school personnel can make the necessary efforts to be effective in this capacity under these unprecedented conditions. Social workers should proactively address this issue and retrain school staff in child welfare protocols.
Normal Childhood Behaviour Misconstrued and How Assessments Are Helpful
There is a quote attributed to Sigmund Freud, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. So too of childhood behaviour and incidents; they may be simply within the range of normal childhood life. However, in the context of high conflict separated parents, the simple explanation can get transplanted with extraordinary suspicions and theories.
Normal childhood development has toddler-age children exploring their bodies, discovering the genitals and anus and taking pleasure from self-touching. They are at the toilet training stage of life and hence are drawn by normal parenting behaviour to attend to these body parts. In intact families as children are observed to engage in self-stimulation and genital play, they are simply redirected to either stop or to engage privately at appropriate time and place. In the context of high conflict separated parents, there is a risk to ascribe these childhood behaviours to sinister behaviour on the part of one of the parents. So a parent may inadvertently bring greater attention to the child’s behaviour and thus actually reinforce the concerning behaviour themselves while at the same time alleging sexual abuse at the hands of the other parent.
As preschoolers, children take flight on playground equipment. They may be learning to ride their two-wheeler. Hence this is a time of childhood injuries, particularly bruises, bumped heads and broken arms. In the context of high conflict separated parents, a parent may be suspicious of child-abuse in view of injuries and use the situation to allege physical abuse or at least neglect. However, and again, even in intact families, children can get hurt; bump their heads and fall from bikes and playground equipment.
As school-age children try to get their own way, they naturally try to pit parents against each other. They will use whatever strategy works. Kids may tell you that other kids are getting or doing what is desired or they may tell you that the “other parent” let’s them do as requested. In intact families, parents simply call their children on manipulative behaviour or at least check with the other parent to determine if what the child is saying is true. However, in the context of high conflict separated parents, a parent may take what a child says at face value and believe that the other parent is undermining their own parenting or the values of the child.
In intact families or even between separated parents with good communication, normal childhood events tend not to escalate with suspicion and drama. Issues are nipped in the bud and children are redirected to appropriate behaviour. Injuries are attended to without additional fanfare. A parent may feel guilty for a child’s injury, but not blamed per se.
In the context of high conflict separated parents, normal childhood behaviour and incidents can take on epic proportions. Otherwise, normal behaviour can lead to suspicion or be used against a parent to undermine care and custody. As one parent cries foul, the other cries parental alienation syndrome. The fight is on and heats up to the point of boiling over. The child is caught in the middle and their behaviour escalates as a result. Both parents then use the child’s behaviour as evidence of their own claim against the other.
Here is where a good assessment is so necessary. The assessor will tease out normal from abnormal childhood behaviour and incidents and determine how much of a child’s behaviour is attributable to just the conflict between the parents versus truly sinister behaviour deliberately aimed at harming or neglecting a child.
Parents beware though. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, despite suspicion.
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