Hope and Change: Interview with the New NASW CEO Dr. Angelo McClain

Over the course of my career, I have experienced at least 15 leadership changes, and the atmosphere before the new leader arrives is always the same. Each time, employees or members are hoping for a leader that will take their concerns seriously, improve conditions, and overall make the organization function better. However, the one consistency from one leader to another is change. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. McClain, and he succeeds Elizabeth Clark who held the position from 2001 until May 2013.

As a macro social work practitioner, I have always expressed concerns regarding clinical social work and licensure laws eliminating traditional social work roles and its focus on social justice. In the interview, I ask Dr. McClain some tough questions regarding his thoughts and assessment on the current state of the profession.

membershipMapAccording to the NASW’s website:

Dr. McClain joins NASW after serving six years as Commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, a position appointed by Governor Deval Patrick. While there, he oversaw a budget of $850 million and a workforce of 3,500 employees to address reports of abuse and neglect for the state’s most vulnerable children, partnering with families to help them better nurture and protect their children.

Prior to that position, Dr. McClain was Vice President and Executive Director of Value Options New Jersey where he built and oversaw administrative, clinical and quality management program infrastructures that increased access to behavioral health services for children and youth, including those in the juvenile justice system. via NASW

I must admit that he is off to an excellent start just by making himself reachable. Since being in his new role, the NASW’s website has been updated with email addresses to executive leadership, and he agreed to answer questions for Social Work Helper about his vision for leading the organization into the future. NASW has seen declining memberships in recent years for various reasons. Will he be able to convince current members to stay with the NASW, and will he be able to re-engage members who have left as well other social workers? Here is what Dr. McClain had to say:

SWH: Can you tell us about your background, and what led you to choose social work as a profession?

CEO: When I was a child, my mother said that I ought to pick a job where I could help people.  Throughout my youth, I benefited greatly from the kind,  caring interventions from a number of professionals, which caused me to want to “give back” to others in similar need.  When I was being recruited to play college football, one of the recruiters asked me what I would want to major in if I went to college.  I told him that I wanted to help people, and he said that I could major in social work.

So began what has become a three-degree, thirty-year journey of helping people and helping social workers help people.  Throughout my career I’ve worked with, and learned from, some very talented professionals; I say to them, “Thank you, very much!”  My social work career journey has allowed me the pleasure of working in almost every field and method of social work practice, I bring all of those lessons and experiences to my CEO role here at NASW.

SWH: What will be some of your top priorities moving forward, and how do you plan to collaborate with other organizations in order to achieve your objectives and goals?

CEO: Our profession, and our society, is at a unique juncture. The world has changed a great deal and there are many opportunities and challenges facing NASW, and all professional associations. Thus, these times call for an ambitious grand vision.  Our grand vision revolves around strengthening America’s social safety net, by ensuring that all individuals have the opportunity to improve their human well-being and are able to live free from social injustice.

We will do this by supporting social workers, advocating for the profession, and ultimately serving the millions of clients helped by social workers each day.  NASW is strong—and when we speak, over 600,000 social workers have a voice for achieving our collective human well-being and social justice goals. Most importantly, we can use our influence to make sure that the vital social services and resources that millions of Americans depend on continue to be valued and funded appropriately.

Collaboration with all of our stakeholders and allies is critically important to our grand vision. I firmly believe that in order for us to provide the best services, products, and advocacy for our members, and social workers throughout the country, we must partner and collaborate whenever possible. There are over 40 sister social work organizations and each one fills an important role.

I look forward to continuing to work with, and learn from, them so that we can collectively represent the breadth of the profession as well as cater to the professional needs of each and every social worker. This includes working effectively with our sister social work organizations, allied professionals and groups, and the people, families, groups, and communities served by social workers.

I’ve spent my first three months at NASW meeting with numerous organizations, including the Council on Social Work Education, the Association of Social Work Boards, the  North American Association of Christians in Social Work, the Association of Oncology Social Work, the Clinical Association of Social Work, Child Welfare League of America, National Alliance to End Homelessness, the National Council for Behavioral Health, and many others to determine how we can build on our collective strengths and work together in positive and meaningful ways.

I created the NASW CEO inbox (naswceo@naswdc.org) to hear from members, social workers, and other stakeholders regarding the issues that concern them the most. This has been important because in order for me to effectively provide the necessary leadership, I need to understand the professional landscape and the day-to-day challenges and opportunities facing our colleagues practicing within all the fields and methodologies of social work.

SWH: NASW membership is comprised mostly of clinical social workers, academics, and administrators. What is your vision for continued growth and expansion?

CEO: NASW is the practice association that welcomes all social workers. We will continue to facilitate a “big tent” approach, and welcome all of our colleagues, understanding that the social work profession is much stronger when we stand together. That being said, one of our main goals is to serve a dual purpose of being a large, influential national professional association, as well as providing exactly what our members need in terms of professional resources to practice at the highest levels, to advance their careers, and to maintain a sense of professional fulfillment and well-being.

We want to have conversations with our colleagues, provide materials and resources that are relevant to their experience and expertise, and make their membership experience unique and beneficial to their specific field and method of practice.  Our goal is to delight our members, help them advance their social work practice with enhanced skills and knowledge, and ultimately to provide the best social work practice possible to the people, families, groups and communities they serve.

SWH: Many believe that social work has moved away from its social justice roots to only focusing on the clinical perspective as it relates to the individual and family. Do you agree with this assessment, and how do you plan to either expand it or create balance?

CEO: The strength of the social work profession is its breadth and depth; the profession has always, and still does today, focused on advancing human well-being and promoting social justice.  When one looks closely at the work of social workers in every field and method of social work practice, there’s ample evidence that our grand vision of improving human well-being and promoting social justice is very much alive; however, much more needs to be done before we can fully realize our grandest vision.  I see opportunities for enormous synergy when we approach our social justice and clinical practice goals with harmony and coordinated ethical responsibility.

The resulting synergy will help us achieve even better outcomes across these two perspectives—ultimately, we would do a disservice to the people, families, groups and communities we serve by artificially choosing between social justice and any particular field or method of social work practice.  Social workers not only can live in harmony with one another, but have an ethical responsibility to do so—NASW is excited about the possibilities it has to help lead social work towards its grandest goals.

Clinical and direct practice social workers cannot do their jobs without the efforts of advocates, organizers, researchers, academics, policy practitioners, and administrators.  Obviously, regardless of our field or method of social work practice; we are all in this together; each providing a valuable service to individuals, families, and communities in need and advancing the profession.

The NASW Code of Ethics outlines our primary mission as working to enhance human well-being and helping to meet the basic human needs of all people. We cannot realize that mission without an “all-hands-on-deck” approach of working together. The challenges facing our society are incredibly complex; thank goodness for the power of social work to define, address, and overcome societal injustices and strengthen the fabric of our great nation.

Photo Courtesy of www.fnsc.org

When the Hope of a Social Worker is Gone

Social Workers go where no other profession goes, and our primary job is to give hope to the hopeless. What happens when the hope of a Social Worker is gone? Social Workers don’t usually receive press unless a child dies or some sort of malfeasance occurs, but this is not the media’s fault. It’s the social worker’s responsibility to advocate and create opportunities to influence discussions occurring in the media. However, when an opportunity arises for a social worker to use a media platform to educate and inform, it often results in a missed opportunity. Instead, the megaphone is used to blame each other or shame the client for being poor, uneducated, homeless, and/or drug addicted.

In February 2013, Vice.com, an online magazine, printed an interview with a young social worker entitled, “Social Work in the Tenderloin Will Kill Something Inside of You”. This article stirred a lot of reaction from the social work community. The magazine had to redact items and pictures from the original article which could have been a breach of confidentiality by the social worker who was the source for the article. However, I read the article in its redacted form.

The social worker described clients as having poor hygiene, not wanting to work, and drug addicted while relying on government assistance. Here is an excerpt:

Twenty messages from the same two or three clients who either scream their financial requests over and over, simply sit there and breathe, or tell you that witches are under their beds waiting for the next blood sacrifice. Paranoid clients like to fixate on witches, Satan, etc. Anyway, we get ready to open and hand out checks to the clients who are either on daily budgets, or who make random check requests. The budgeted clients are the most low-functioning, as they can be restricted to as little as $7 per day in order to curb their harm reduction. They’ll go and spend that $7 on whatever piece of crack they can find, and then two hours later they’re back, begging for more money. Clients will find some really brilliant ways to beg.

Has anyone seen Les Miserables?  The scene described above is just a modern day retelling except, today, government assistance provides enough of a morsel to keep poor people under control. In Les Miserables, poverty and disease drove people to rob the rich in order to have a decent meal or a comfortable place to lay their head. Poverty and starvation was the driving force behind the French Revolution. As a cautionary tale to all our government officials that want to cut needed social safety programs, education, and preventive services, you might want to rethink instituting austerity measures.

TiredAs for the burnt out social worker who did the above interview, I understand feeling burnout and being frustrated with clients. However, my client frustration was exacerbated by the poor work conditions and poor supervision that is often encountered while working in a social service agency. These agencies are poorly structured, lack checks and balances, and accountability with a poor grievance process for both the client and employee. If you have a complaint, there is no one to complain too.

They do not require accreditation standards like hospitals, schools, and law enforcement agencies. Yet, social workers are given statutory authority to make decisions that can affect a child’s life for the rest of their life. If a child dies, the social worker often gets the blame, but the Agency should vicariously be held liable. The job is set up for the social worker to fail from lack of resources, support, failure to institute minimum standards and training, and lack of nationwide paperless system.

Ninety percent of my time in Child Protective Services was spent doing paper work, and I had 10% left to handle a caseload of at least 15 families. Holy crap is the only writable term I can think of to express the increase in my caseload when each family had 3 to 5 kids often not in the same household or the same school.  Can you imagine trying to see all the kids and parents twice a month for medium to low risk and once a week for high risk? It is impossible to do your job correctly and being effective is not even a possibility under the poor work conditions and impossible standards. You are basically providing triage care which creates recidivism. There were many days I cried after work, so I opted for the anti-depressant to help me survive each work day.

Almost all of my co-workers were women who had therapists themselves, on some type of anti-depressant, and self-reported chronic health issues in which I believe were stress related. After dealing with the stress of work, many had their own families to take care of after leaving work. I learned a long time ago not to blame my client because one day I could be in their shoes. I am not saying that you need to be poor or experience oppression to serve others. However, if you lack the understanding of oppression and the ability to have compassion, social work is not the right job for you. For those social workers who do have the requisite skill set, many can attest to the horrible work conditions that is endured while trying to give hope to the hopeless.

Many social workers live in fear of losing their jobs on a daily basis because one mistake could cost your career and/or someone’s life. Once an administrator or supervisor status is achieved, there is very little turn over from supervisory positions. They no longer deal directly with the clients, and they are often protected by governmental immunity even if their supervision result in malfeasance.

In the United States, many direct practice social workers in the public sector are not supported by the National Association of Social Workers either because they may not have a social work degree or a clinical license. The National Association of Social Workers is pushing to prevent any social worker, with a social work degree or not, who does not have a clinical license from using the social work title. I completely disagree with this strategy because a clinical license should not be required for entry level positions that are not providing treatment. Many public sector social workers feel isolated and unsupported which is why so many leave the profession or turn into the burnt out social worker. Most Child Welfare social workers do not even know what the Child Welfare League of America does or who they serve. If not for the States who have unions, human services may not have any organizations advocating for their betterment.

Someone has to advocate for system changes, and someone has to hold membership associations accountable to their mission of uplifting and supporting social workers. If social workers are not meeting desired educational standards, what are we doing to identify the barriers and challenges preventing those standards from being met?

I understand the views I have expressed may not be accepted by main stream social work professionals. However, macro and public sector social workers are the minority in management and policy making positions despite being the majority of those in traditional social work roles.  Policy making positions are routinely held by clinical social workers or Phd’s who have only been in academia or providing individual/family counseling services.

Many social work change agents are undervalued and often overlooked because most can’t afford to spend over 100,000 dollars to obtain a social work graduate degree to work in a $35,000 to 45,000 dollar a year entry level job at a public agency. Unless you are privileged and money is not a concern, a social work advance degree is less accessible. By accepting  students primarily from privileged backgrounds, the social work landscape has moved away from social justice issues and traditional social work roles to an increasingly conservative ideology that ignores the challenges and barriers placed on vulnerable populations created by legislative and administrative policies.

We also conducted a live twitter chat on this topic  with the social work twitter community using the hashtag #SWunited. To view the tweet archive,  go to this link: http://storify.com/SWUnited/social-work-in-the-tenderloin

Some may have strong opinions about my assessment on the current state of the profession.  However, strong opinions are sometimes needed in order to start the conversation, and  I am ready to have the conversation if you are. If anyone has any thoughts on this article, I would love to hear them. There were several rebuttal articles and lots of tweets in response to Vice’s Tenderloin story. I will attach them all for you to read in order to come to your own conclusion.

Also View:
Social Work in the Tenderloin Will Kill Something Inside of You
Social Work in the Tenderloin is Not Hopeless

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