The Positive Impact Social Work Can Have on Public Education

Social workers aren’t always associated with public education. Their roles in social service delivery, legal arenas, and advocacy are often more readily recognized. However, social workers provide vital support within our education system and contribute meaningfully to helping countless children progress through primary and secondary education in the United States every year.

The Social Worker’s Role within the Education System

Social workers can hold a number of responsibilities within a school setting. They might work one on one with students or work with groups and deliver programming. They may also work in home settings with said students outside school hours to help them with homework or learning. However, their interventions are delivered, social workers are primarily concerned with students from disadvantaged backgrounds or with heightened needs. Social workers support their learning processes and make sure they receive the attention they need to be able to succeed in school.

When underprivileged students face difficulties or danger in their home or personal lives, they are far less likely to perform well in the classroom. Social workers’ responsibilities when working with school children that live in tenuous or unstable circumstances can extend past academic support and include monitoring their safety, the provision of their basic needs, and wellbeing of their caretakers. Social workers that are based in schools or academic settings often tend to needs that extend beyond the classroom. They can help provide comprehensive support for school-aged children to give them the best chance of graduating and having success later in life.

The History of Social Work and Its Purpose

The development of the social worker, and of social work in its current form in the United States, can help inform how social work fits into public education and complements the academic endeavors of the educational system. Social work’s origin was brought about by the unintended side effects of industrialization that resulted in high levels of unemployment, abandoned children, poverty, and chronic physical and mental illnesses.

By the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, organized charitable bodies were beginning to oversee social welfare projects and the occupation we know as social work came into existence. Along with hospitals and settlement houses, public schools were one of the primary arenas in which social workers served. From the very beginning, children’s welfare and development has been a primary concern for the social work field.

Since its inception, the realm of social work and services provision has morphed and changed.  Various presidential administrations adjusted Federal funding and support. Large-scale cultural phenomena presented unique challenges at various points over the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries. However, social work still adheres to one of its founding priorities – the support of children and especially those who are disadvantaged. Social workers’ role within the public education system is just as important as ever for providing support for countless children as they progress through their educational journeys.

How Social Work in Other Areas Can Also Benefit Public Education

Though some social workers work more directly with school children or within the academic setting than others, the effect of social work on society at large creates substantial benefits for public education. Social workers can be found in a wide variety of settings – from hospitals to homeless shelters, and from rehabilitation centers to nursing homes. Social workers impact people from all walks of life, and some may never come in contact with a school-aged child.

However, people don’t exist in a vacuum. The widespread nature of social work’s reach means that social workers impact individuals who are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, teachers, and more for children within public education. Their influence helps make society as a whole operate more smoothly, and that includes public education.

The impact of social work on our school system is hugely significant. Social workers provide support to countless individuals across the country, whether students in school themselves or those that support, teach, or care for them. Social work is an integral part of making the public education system successful.

Unpacking the Historical Relationship of Racism and Ableism

A key part of anti-racist social work practice is engaging in the art of reflection as we consider the person in the environment. This also involves being aware of the larger social context in which we live and practice. The social context can, for some people, include experiences of racism and ableism. Recently, I wrote about the symbiotic relationship between racism and ableism and why social workers should care about it. Now, I want to take a step back and look at the historical context that leads us to where we are today with the relationship for disabled people of color. Through the consideration of history, we can understand how to better move forward with integrity as anti-racist social work practitioners.

As the poet Maya Angelou said “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” So what are the historical roots of this relationship between racism and ableism? Let’s explore.

Historical Roots of Ableism and Racism

We began to see the interaction between ableism and racism way back in our nation’s history. Let’s look at four examples to make this relationship clear. During slavery times, slaveowners conjured up the idea of drapetomania, the alleged psychosis that was experienced by runaway slaves which in retrospect was emblematic of the interaction of ableism and racism. This is an example of how race is pathologized to create racism. In other words, people of color were treated in specific oppressive ways in order to create barriers and conditions that resulted in the origination of disability categories. In reflecting on drapetomania, Isabella Kres-Nash points out that “the concept of disability has been used to justify discrimination against other groups by attributing disability to them.” Of drapetomania specifically, Kres-Nash says this is an example of a “disability being created by people in power in order to preserve social order” all of which occurred in a racialized context during slavery.

Moving into the 19th century, we can point to the popularity of phrenology, a pseudoscientific technique originally developed in the late 1700s which purports to determine an individual’s character and abilities (and therefore, alleged superiority). This could be deduced from the size and shape of various bumps on a person’s head. Phrenology, among other things, was used to justify the practice of slavery, as was depicted in the film Django, Unchained. Although this pseudoscience has long been discredited, this technique is considered a precursor to modern neuropsychology and rears its ugly head once in a while in current-day conversations about the use of technology and facial recognition (which is known to be much less accurate for people of color).

Scientific Racism

If we look to more recent times, such as the turn of the 20th century, we can see connections between racism and the ableist Eugenics movement which sought to breed a perfect human race through a form of “scientific racism.” This movement often targeted what were known as “feebleminded” people (now known as intellectually and developmentally disabled people), among others, for sterilization, many of whom were people of color. In his discussion on the treatment of African American and Black “feebleminded” people, historian Gregory Dorr says “African Americans had become the targets of extra-institutional and extra-legal sterilizations, reflective of a more general southern racist view that it was necessary to further protect the white race itself from black folks.” Thus, scientific racism is a prime example of the relationship between racism and ableism.

An Unusual Island in Maine

In the early 1900s, what transpired with the inhabitants of Malaga Island in Maine is also emblematic of the relationship between racism and ableism. This small coastal island was a multiracial fishing community originally founded by an ex-slave. While inter-racial marriage was illegal, the community apparently allowed people to live and let live in this regard. It is said that many of the inhabitants of the island were “feebleminded” or intellectually and developmentally disabled, as we would now say. Whether this is accurate is unknown. As the Eugenics movement gained popularity and as the value of Maine’s coastal islands became more clear as potential tourist destinations, state government officials issued an eviction order to all of the Malaga residents – of all races and ethnicities. All residents who had no place to go were to be placed in the Maine School for the Feebleminded, where some were eventually sterilized and lived out the rest of their lives. The price of miscegenation was banishment from a happy community due in large part to ableism and racism.

An Inextricable Link

These four historical lessons give us some important context for what we may see in social work practice today. So, to put it all together, when we look at how structural racism works, we see the ways in which it has pathologized Black and Brown bodies for the purpose of keeping the White status quo in place. We can see how a society that benefits from structural racism is simultaneously responsible for facilitating environments that promote the development or highlighting of disability. These historical situations set the foundations for present day scenarios in which racism and ableism interact regularly – in our criminal justice system, in our education system, in our health care system, in our child welfare system and beyond.

Action Steps

How can you learn from this history and move on in a positive direction? Your job is to reflect on the ways in which the past plays out in the present day, and to identify the ways in which you can disrupt the powerful relationship between ableism and racism in your social work practice. Here are five steps you can consider taking today as an equity-minded social work practitioner:

  1. Become aware of all of your client’s social identities, think about disability as an identity, not just race.
  2. Use data to identify inequitable processes and outcomes based on both race and disability.
  3. Reflect on the differential consequences of social work practices on people and communities based on race and disability.
  4. Exercise agency to produce equity across racial and disability groups.
  5. View the practice context as a potentially oppressive and marginalizing space and self-monitor interactions with clients/patients/constituents of different racial and disability social identities.

Cultivating an Equitable and Anti-Racist Workplace

2020 was filled with unprecedented events in all facets of life, and, as many have noted across the globe, the year became a landmark for the call to action against racism.

From the incident in Central Park, where a white woman called the police on a black bird watcher, to the murder of George Floyd by police officers, and when the police officers who murdered Breonna Taylor in her home were not indicted for their involvement in her murder, it is clear that racism is still very prevalent and pervasive. It reaches far and wide, including at home and in the workplace, where power dynamics and structural racism can be multiplied. 

Through his talk, “Social Work’s Role in Black Lives Matter,” Wayne Reid discussed racism’s reach into social workers’ professional lives. In the workplace, there are certain barriers that people of color face that white people do not. To address these barriers and inequities, equality, diversity, and inclusion advisory groups are often created. Too often, the burden of creating these groups and addressing racism in the workplace falls solely on people of color, when it is a fight that requires everyone’s involvement, especially those in positions of power. This is part of the push for people to go beyond being non-racist and to become anti-racist– actively fighting against racism and advocating for changes against racist policies and practices. It is an active, ongoing process, not only in one’s personal life but in professional environments as well.

Creating an Anti-Racist Workplace

Wayne works for the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), which currently has a goal to create a universal anti-racist framework that is applicable to all aspects of the social work field. This includes creating an anti-racist workplace, and Wayne and the BASW have an idea for how that would look. As Wayne described, an anti-racist workplace would have a very specific anti-racist mission statement, making sure to interview people of color, to integrate an anti-racism mentality into policies and procedures, to provide adequate anti-racism training to all staff, and to conduct annual pay reviews for employees of color to ensure they are being paid fairly relative to their white colleagues. With these steps, workplaces would have to take active steps to ensure they were discussing race within the workplace and enforcing anti-racist policies.

On top of these ideas for an anti-racist workplace, including mandatory professional development courses aimed at educating people on how to be anti-racist, anti-discriminatory, and anti-oppressive would be beneficial. There are already experts in the world of anti-racism who have done the groundwork, and their expertise can be utilized to help implement anti-racist practices within workplaces. For example, Stanford University has created an “Anti-Racism Toolkit” for managers to better equip themselves to address racism in the workplace and move towards a more inclusive environment, and the W.K Kellogg Foundation has created a Racial Equity Resource Guide full of training methods and workshops to provide structure for anti-racist professional development.

Leadership Inequality

Wayne also discussed the importance of leadership programs for people of color within their workplaces. In the US, black people only make up 3.2% of senior leadership roles, and only 0.8% of Fortune 500 CEO positions. Employers need to sufficiently invest in leadership training programs and provide the resources to ensure the success of people of color within them. Leadership programs for people of color would help address the lack of people of color in leadership positions within the social work field and beyond. For social work specifically, in conjunction with these leadership programs, employers should create programs allowing social workers of color to mentor senior staff members as well, providing insight for them regarding the challenges people of color face in the workplace. That said, while the benefits of this type of program are important, boundary setting and confidentiality are just as vital and would need to be well thought out prior to implementation.

Addressing Education

In order to assist in diversifying leadership, higher education must also be addressed. Despite the increase in people of color attending college, there is still a large imbalance in representation compared to the general US population.

For the social work field, it is important to address the accessibility of social work education programs. Because they are often expensive and have numerous requirements for entry, entry into the field is inaccessible for many. They also need to include a more deliberately anti-racist curriculum, which can be guided by people of color through their lived experiences, as well as experts in the field. The field of social work has long been dominated by white women, and that imbalance has impacted the curriculum that we use today.

Moving Forward

As long as people continue to ignore racism and the effects it continues to have, nothing will change. Wayne and the BASW’s work to integrate anti-racist education and policies into the workplace and social work schools is crucial to the future of social work and the progress of anti-racist work. Social work needs to play a large role in the changing of policies and practices to ensure that the future is more equitable for all.

The Code of Ethics: A Guide for Difficult Decisions

It is common for social workers and case managers to have some amount of firsthand experience with the problems their clients face, but what happens when that level of understanding impacts one’s work in a negative way? A case manager recently shared her experience of working with a teen client who is experiencing confusion with her gender identity. Because the case manager has a personal history of transitioning and subsequently de-transitioning, she worries that her own gender identity experiences might cause problems in her relationship with the client. This issue is complicated by the fact that the case manager has not shared her personal transition history with her agency.

In this instance, the client spoke with the case manager about her interest in seeing a therapist who specializes in gender issues. Now, the case manager is unsure of the right way to approach the provision of services and the referral to a new provider. As she explained, the therapist would be providing a different service, meaning the client would continue seeing both of them. She came up with two options for herself: speak with her supervisor about her history and why she believes a transfer would be a good idea, or wait and see if her lived experience does cause any problems in her work with the client.

In this type of situation, consulting the National Association of Social Workers (NASW)’s Code of Ethics is extremely helpful. The Code of Ethics establishes ethical principles standards that must be followed by those working within the social work profession. The first ethical standard – Social Workers’ Ethical Responsibilities to Clients – has quite a few useful subsections. This scenario highlights the importance of subsections 1.15 and 1.16.

1.15 – Interruption of Services

In section 1.15, the Code of Ethics establishes that social workers must do everything in their power, within reason, to ensure that their clients receive services. Even in the face of personal challenges, social workers should strive to provide continuous services. To adhere to the Code of Ethics in the dilemma above, the case manager should continue to provide services while a transfer to a new case manager is in process.

It is important to acknowledge the case manager’s worries regarding her personal history conflicting with the client’s current feelings. In requesting a transfer to a new case manager, she does not have to disclose her history of transitioning to her supervisor. This is her private information and if it is determined that she would not be the most effective case manager, regardless of the reason, it would be in the client’s best interest to be transferred.

1.16 – Referral for Services

This section establishes that social workers should refer clients to other professionals who are better suited to serve the client’s needs. This should be done in a timely fashion, with the service coordination facilitated by the social worker. Because there is no established definition of service coordination, this can be ambiguous and difficult to navigate. Without a universal guideline of how service coordination and the transfer of services should look, social workers may find themselves in a grey area when trying to ensure their clients are receiving the proper services.

Applying the Code of Ethics in Practice

Therapeutic relationships do not always run their course perfectly, a recent study of therapy practitioners showed that 90% of participants had to terminate a therapeutic relationship before its natural end. The top reasons for termination were facilitating a referral to a practitioner who could better serve the client, and to identify other resources that may be more beneficial. This is in line with the Code of Ethics, which can and should be used as a guiding force behind the decisions social work professionals make, making it a worthwhile tool to refer back to when in doubt about tough situations.

The case manager discussed at the beginning of this article has valid personal concerns but also wants to ensure the client is working with someone who is a good fit for her. Because the case manager understands that she may not be the best fit for this particular client, a transfer to a new case manager may be in order. In this scenario, the Code of Ethics functions as a guide by laying out the path a social work professional should follow. The transfer of a client from one provider to another is often distressing for the client, so it is important for the case manager to facilitate a smooth transfer, where services are not interrupted in the interim.

Can I Ask My Therapist About My Diagnosis?

“I don’t know if I did the right thing. Maybe I shouldn’t have.”

Power differentials are present within the helping profession and may cause the helpee to feel inferior to the helper, particularly in a client-therapist relationship. Oftentimes, clients are in a position where they feel reliant on guidance from their therapist. If there is a significant power imbalance, clients may be hesitant to ask questions and unsure of their role in the reciprocal helping relationship.

On a Reddit social media post, a female client with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) posed this question: “Can I ask my therapist about my diagnosis?” The client has been working with her therapist who is a psychiatrist. The relationship between the therapist and client is fairly new. During one of their sessions, the therapist mentioned that the client might be autistic but they were unsure. The client was previously tested as a child, but the results did not confirm autism or autistic traits. Because the therapist has not confirmed the client’s diagnosis, the lack of uncertainty is creating terrible chaos in the client’s head, as she would like to know if she is or is not autistic. The client is thinking about repeating this question in her next session but is unsure whether it would be rude, pointless, or wrong. Unsure whether or not her therapist is capable of diagnosing autism, the client has tried to persuade her therapist into revealing a diagnosis, but the therapist redirected the conversation.

This is something I’ve brought up with reluctant therapists as well. I understand the reasons they may not want to disclose that info to a client, but at a certain point it’s like if you had to go to the doctor every week to get an MRI and they just told you they’re just concerned with working on your symptoms.” – u/HyaAlphard

Informed Consent

An article on Informed Consent written by Annette Johns discusses how the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW) Code of Ethics (2005) defines informed consent as “a voluntary agreement reached by a capable client based on information about foreseeable risks and benefits associated with the agreement.” Social workers have an ethical responsibility to seek informed consent from their clients at the beginning of the therapist-client relationship. Clients also have the right to refuse or withdraw consent and to have an opportunity to ask questions.

It is also important for clients to be engaged in the decision-making processes throughout the duration of the therapist-client relationship. In fact, informed consent and full transparency are integral to the relationship between a client and therapist and ensures the client’s right to self-determination, autonomy, dignity, and confidentiality. Social workers should use clear and understandable language to inform clients of the purpose, risks, limits, and reasonable alternatives to services.

Receiving a Diagnosis

Clients should be a part of the decision about whether to be assessed for a diagnosis. If the client is willing, the therapist has a responsibility to disclose the advantages and disadvantages of receiving a diagnosis. One advantage is that receiving a diagnosis can be comforting to clients who have been struggling with symptoms. Some clients find relief and feelings of validation when they can put a name to it, as well as decreased guilt, shame, and feelings of isolation. Receiving a diagnosis can also open up resources for the client and strengthen the relationship between the therapist and the client. However, clients should also be informed that diagnoses can stick with people, following them to and beyond adulthood even if they were misdiagnosed.

Suggested Questions to Ask

The client should feel comfortable to ask their therapist questions and express their needs throughout the duration of the therapist-client relationship. When the therapist suggests a “working diagnosis,” it should also be understood that the client is the most important member of the diagnostic process and has the right to obtain clarity by asking questions, taking notes, and being actively involved. Although the questions below are based in the medical profession, they are relevant to all clients. Out of seven questions posed by Helene Epstein, here are four relatable key questions:

What kind of test(s) will I have?

It is important for the client to know what kind of tests the therapist plans to administer. There are many different types of tests and ways to identify the source of a client’s concern.

 Why do you think I need this test?

It is important for the client to understand why their therapist is even recommending the test in the first place, as not every test is essential, and some may be invasive or expensive. The client has the right to ask whether there’s an alternative, if it is costly, or if the test is necessary.

What do I need to do to prepare for this test?

While not every test requires specific planning, some might. If this is not communicated in advance, the client may have to reschedule.

When will I get the results?

Depending on the test and other extenuating factors, waiting times for results may vary. Clients should consult with their therapist for more details.

Clients have the right to be fully informed and fully engaged. Although asking questions may seem rude or wrong, it is not. It is important for clients to be informed about decisions being made on their behalf.

Start with these questions and see if they help give you the answers you need. It’s important you use your voice in client-therapist relationships and prioritize your needs. At the end of the day, the treatment your seeking is for you, so do what feels right.

NASW Apologizes for Past Racist Practices in American Social Work

WASHINGTON, D.C. – As the nation looks at its long, cruel history of systemic racism, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) acknowledges that our profession and this association have not always lived up to our mission of pursuing social justice for all. NASW apologizes for supporting policies and activities that have harmed people of color.

“The murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in the early months of the pandemic spurred our country and NASW to directly address the effects of racism in our social institutions and among social workers,” said NASW CEO Angelo McClain, PhD, LICSW. “While NASW continues to offer anti-racist training in communities, publicly denounces violence and advocates tirelessly for anti-racist policy changes, we must also acknowledge the role the social work profession has played in supporting discriminatory systems and programs for decades.”

For instance:

  • Progressive Era social workers built and ran segregated settlement houses
  • Social worker suffragists blocked African Americans from gaining the right to vote
  • Prominent social workers supported eugenics theories and programs
  • Social workers helped recruit Black men into the infamous Tuskegee Experiment
  • Social workers participated in the removal of Native American children from their families and placement in boarding schools
  • Social workers also took part in intake teams at Japanese internment camps during World War II
  • And since the founding of the profession, bias among some social workers has limited delivery of health care, mental health treatment, and social services to people of color.

These and other examples are uncomfortable truths. But they also reinforce our commitment to ending racism in the social work field and working with strong coalition partners to dismantle oppressive and racist policies, systems, and practices across our country.  Social workers are called by our Code of Ethics to fight injustice in all its forms and to honor the dignity and worth of all people. While we at times have fallen short of this ideal, our profession has recently reinvigorated and expanded its racial equity mandate.  Details of this work are included in the newly released report, Undoing Racism through Social Work: NASW Report to the Profession on Racial Justice Priorities and Action.

“NASW, the social work profession, and our society have made much progress on achieving racial equity in the last few generations, but there is still a long, challenging road ahead,” NASW President Mildred “Mit” Joyner, DPS, MSW, LCSW, said. “Be assured that NASW will not tire in our quest to help our nation eliminate racism and achieve justice and liberation for all Americans.”

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW), in Washington, DC, is the largest membership organization of professional social workers. It promotes, develops, and protects the practice of social work and social workers. NASW also seeks to enhance the well-being of individuals, families, and communities through its advocacy.

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.

How to Deal with Case-Overload as a Social Worker and Carer

If you are a social worker, you probably know better than anyone just how much pressure has been put on professionals since the Covid-19 crisis began. It appears that more than 70% of children’s social workers are struggling with caseloads since the pandemic outbreak according to recent data.

Only 4% said their workload was ‘comfortably manageable’, whilst 24% said it was ‘mostly manageable’.
These statistics make it clear that to the vast majority, the work given to social workers is unmanageable and unrealistic. On top of this, workers are met with additional hardships such as minimal PPE (personal protective equipment) and a lack of clarity from governments about guidelines for safe practice during the outbreak.

Has the Rise in Social Workers Made it Easier?

Believe it or not, according to government data, September 2019 saw the highest record of children’s social workers in the UK. The number of agency workers also grew by 10% over this period. You would think with this surge in employment, there would be an ease on the caseloads given to professionals. However, recent feedback says otherwise.

With more and more investment going into the social work field, influential figures are beginning to realize the vital role they play in supporting both young people and families throughout the pandemic.

So, why then does it continue to be such a stressful area with both high turnovers and increasing amounts of staff going off sick due to burnout?

Common Threats to Social Workers

After finishing the arduous and complex training to become a fully qualified social worker, many are unprepared for the level of exhaustion and work expected of them. This is ironic, as the last thing you want is to make helping others such a priority that your own mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing takes the hit.

This leads to what many call burnout, which unfortunately is a commonly used phrase for those in social work.

What is burnout exactly? It’s the process of struggling to operate, becoming more closed from input, increasingly resigned, irritable, and acquiring a tendency to become angry easily. Sadly, when a social worker reaches this stage, they may have to take extensive time off, or even worse are forced to resign or get fired.

On top of this, the high expectations required alongside poor supervision or mentorship given to social workers makes it difficult to withhold the demanding role and the emotional exhaustion it brings.

Moreover, self-care is a substantial element to burnout prevention and should be taken seriously by all those working in areas that can be emotionally and mentally draining.

Ways to Prioritize Self-care as a Social Worker

To avoid overload and burnout completely, researchers have found that it is particularly helpful to prevent things such as compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and secondary traumatic stress.

By taking self-care seriously, professionals can assess their own needs and ensure they are being met without feeling guilty. From finding supportive mentors, a positive peer group, pursuing personal goals and hobbies to relaxation, there’s plenty social workers can do to increase their wellbeing. Here are some ideas:

Prioritize your comfort in and out of work

Try to eat lunch at your desk as little as possible, invest in a comfortable chair, fill your office or desk with your favorite plants that refresh your spirits. If it helps to play relaxing music that puts your mind at ease while you type up reports, then that is what you need to do.

Get into healthy routines

Conditioning your mind and body to carry out habitual activities that ground and center you are a crucial part of self-care. Before reaching the office for example, can you find one hour to go to the gym? Are you a church-goer who finds peace from worship? If so maybe you can schedule a time to visit after your day is finished. It depends on what self-care strategies work for you personally. Finding these and sticking to them will help prevent burnout.

Seek support

Within the workplace, there should be access to mentorship or advice you can seek out. Also, ensure you surround yourself with a peer group that you feel comfortable opening up to. Learn to check in with each other and personally debrief after an intense case to process what happened and figure out your next steps.

As we can see, social work is never easy, and unfortunately, we still have a long way to go before things become balanced for the majority of professionals. However, taking personal ownership over your self-care is fundamental if you want to avoid burnout and continue serving your community as a successful social worker.

Black Disabled Lives Matter and How Social Workers Need to Address Structural Ableism

Conversations about police violence are happening all over the world from the killing of Mr. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Black and so many other Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPoC). America is at an inflection point where we are being forced to examine our ugly stain of racism which permeates through every American system and infrastructure.

Difficult conversations on structural racism, police brutality, and inequality are finally be held where its a shared reality. And I want to add a disability thread to that conversation, but first…

Several years prior to 2020, Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw added a different thread to the conversation about BIPoC deaths at the hands of police by talking about gender and all of the women who have died due to police violence, but many of those women names are not known. We got to know the #sayhername movement where people began to think intersectionally about race and gender even if the mainstream news media didn’t report much about the deaths of BIPoC women killed by police.

But only recently have we learned that 30-50% of the BIPoC people who have died at the hands of police in this country over a three year period had something else in common, they had a disability. This fact was unearthed by the Ruderman Family Foundation in a white paper that examined media coverage of such cases (PDF file here). It was necessary to study this phenomenon this way as there is no legal requirement for police to track disability data related to arrests or deaths. Did you know that Sandra Bland had a disability? Freddie Gray? Elijah McClain? And so many more…

In studying media reporting, the Foundation noted that disability was either not mentioned, listed as a non-contextualized attribute, used to evoke sympathy for the victim or to blame the victim. In rare cases, it allowed for discussion of the intersecting forces leading to lethal use of force situations. The report concludes states, “When disabled Americans get killed and their stories are lost or segregated from each other in the media, we miss an opportunity to learn from tragedies, identify patterns, and push for necessary reforms.”

Although disabled people make up 1/3 of all households in the United States, which is approximately 61 million people or about 25% of the U.S. population, it still feels as though we are so often *unseen* and *unremembered* in social work circles or any circles as if our identity is an afterthought.

Social workers need to begin to see with a disability lens, to remember disability as an identity. In working with disabled people, social workers need to think about the ways they can prevent the deaths of disabled people at the hands of police – and especially BIPoC disabled people. Disability justice advocate Haben Girma has been out front on this with respect to individual interactions with the police, but let’s think about this more structurally.

Here are a few questions that can guide your work – notice that they move beyond the usual band-aid “train the police to work with disabled folks” response that we usually get and move towards the goal of structural reform! Just as we need to think about structural racism in confronting police violence, so too do we need to think about structural ableism in police work.

  • How can we raise disability culture awareness *throughout* our local police precincts?
  • Are there ways we can rid those precincts of structural ableism such as through the identification and elimination of ableist thinking, tendencies and practices?
  • Are there strategic partnerships we can facilitate that can bridge disability justice advocates with law enforcement and social service partners toward this effort?
  • Are there alternative conflict and dispute resolution systems that we can fund in order to avoid police involvement in “hot situations?”

Are you willing to step up for disability justice in your social work world? 

Treating Teen Addiction With Compassion and Empathy

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Teen substance abuse and addiction to drugs are all too dangerous epidemics occurring across the United States. The most recent national data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that 3.7 adolescents (ages 15 to 19) per 100,000 died from a drug overdose in 2015. To put that statistic in perspective, that’s a 130 percent increase in teenage drug overdoses compared with 1999. Additionally, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Adolescent Health, opioid misuse is one of the most accelerated drug problems, as 3.6 percent of adolescents between 12 and 17 reported misusing opioids in 2016, and that percentage doubled for adults ages 18 to 25.

Unfortunately, in addition to drug abuse, teenage addiction to other substances is also ruining lives. Cigarette smoking, tobacco use and alcohol consumption have deleterious effects on adolescents nationally. The HHS reports the following 2017 statistics regarding teen substance abuse:

  • 9 percent of high school students smoked at least once a month.
  • 5 percent of high school students used tobacco, snuff or dip monthly.
  • 30 percent of high school students drank alcohol monthly.
  • 13 percent of high school students drank at least five alcoholic drinks in one day monthly.

Teen drug addiction and substance abuse can cause anything from mild impairment to serious health problems or even death. Too many teens do not receive the help they need to break their addictions and avoid relapse. Some may be too embarrassed or scared to ask for help, while others can’t pay for it. Some simply don’t believe they have a problem.

Profitability vs. Patient Health

There is no single solution when it comes to treating a teenager who is battling an addiction to an illicit drug or substance. Teen drug abuse is a complex problem that requires the expertise and guidance of different types of health and wellness professionals. All too often, however, the focus is on how the healthcare system can benefit in terms of market share, revenue and profitability. Many healthcare professionals are now looking for other ways to provide care to people in need.

Instead of focusing on costs, many medical professionals are championing value-based care, which prioritizes patient health. Value-based care could have widespread positive effects on teenage addiction success rates and continued abstinence by providing a more compassionate and empathetic road to recovery. Below is an examination of the value-based care model, followed by a look at how taking this approach could potentially improve the way healthcare professionals treat addicted adolescents.

Value-Based Care Basics

Put simply, value-based care is accomplished when providers, such as doctors and healthcare facilities, are paid “based on patient health outcomes,” according to the online publication NEJM Catalyst. Providers are paid for improving patient health in any measurable way.
The value-based care methodology is in direct opposition to the commonly used fee-for-service methods, which are based on paying per number of services rendered, not outcome. NEJM Catalyst notes five major benefits that value-based care could entail:

  • Minimized costs and improved results for patients.
  • Boosted patient satisfaction and elevated care efficiencies for providers.
  • Tighter cost control and minimized risks for payers.
  • Balance between treatment costs and patient results for suppliers.
  • Reduced healthcare expenditures and improved national health for society in general.

While it may sound amazing, the entire value-based care methodology boils down to application. Does the value-based care approach improve healthcare in practice? Specifically, does value-based healthcare improve the treatment of teenage addiction?

Treating Teen Addiction With Value-Based Care

Throughout a teen’s journey from addiction to recovery, he or she will meet many healthcare professionals, such as physicians, nurses, therapists and social workers. Practicing value-based care, these professionals would focus on providing the best care for positive health results, rather than on monetary concerns.

Diagnosis: Physicians, Nurse Practitioners and Nurses

When a teen battling drug addiction seeks treatment, a nurse, nurse practitioner or physician will ask questions about the level of use and any dangerous behaviors while under the influence of an illicit substance, such as driving while intoxicated. The nurse, nurse practitioner or physician may also order urine and blood tests for the patient, provide treatment directions, and recommend counseling or therapy from another accredited professional, such as a therapist or social worker.

Through UCF Online’s Master of Science in nursing and healthcare simulation graduate certificate, students learn the importance of working with their medical peers in delivering supportive care.
A nurse can often spend more time with a patient than the physician and strongly influence how well that patient responds to treatment. Fostering this relationship is crucial, considering many teens battling drug addiction may not continue treatment due to the fear of fighting the battle alone. Doctors will be the ones, though, who suggest a specific form of treatment regarding teen substance abuse or provide a reference to another health professional. “Interprofessional education is the key to the future of health care,” says UCF Professor Desiree Diaz and nursing simulation expert. Her research focuses on improving care for vulnerable patient populations by incorporating simulation technology with real human emotions to educate health care professionals.

At this diagnosis stage, the teen may be worried about costs, results and the length of time any treatments or referrals may take. Teens may not have the money or time to deal with extraneous steps. With value-based care, their necessary tests, such as urine and blood tests, would be included, while extra tests that may not be relevant to directly improving health may not, saving them time and money. Additionally, because of the faster diagnosis and more efficient treatment timeline, teen patients may experience less frustration with the healthcare system — and may even be more satisfied with the care they receive.

Treatment: Mental Health Workers

During the teen drug abuse treatment process, a patient will meet with a psychiatrist when there is a suggestion or referral from a doctor. A psychiatrist or therapist can work with the teen to discover mental and emotional motivators behind the drug or substance use. Psychiatrists can diagnose specific mental health disorders as well as prescribe medication. Helping patients to understand their physical and mental ailments and that addiction is an illness, without passing judgment, can help teens successfully treat their conditions.

At this stage, basing the pay system on patient health may significantly improve the care that teen addicts receive from mental health workers. For instance, additional medications that don’t work would be ceased, and therapies without benefit would be cut. As a result, patients wouldn’t pay for further treatment that doesn’t work for them. It’s that sense of empathy for the specific situation that might make possible a teen’s long-lasting recovery.

Rehabilitation: Social Workers

Social workers can engage in therapy with patients as psychiatrists and therapists do and provide resources for self-help and teen substance-abuse programs like nurses do. Social workers are also fundamental in the discharge-planning process, helping to ensure teens battling drug abuse have additional health resources that complement scheduled treatments or prescribed medications. Social workers can also help identify harmful social or environmental situations that may be contributing to a teen’s drug abuse and can develop solutions to remove the teen from those negative influences.

In the rehabilitation stage, social workers can play a key role in lending a compassionate ear and providing relevant resources for their clients. Social workers may work with healthcare providers to minimize medication or therapy costs, streamline processes, run cost control, and also analyze risks that teens or their benefactors would be taking on. Value-based care would allow healthcare professionals to work fully with social workers — to the ultimate benefit of addicted teens.

Treating Addicted Teens With Care

Drug and substance addictions are impacting thousands of teens across the United States each year. For example, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens, a total of 5,455 overdose deaths occurred in people ages 15 to 24 in 2017 alone — 99 alcohol overdoses and 5,356 drug overdoses. Teenage addiction is a complicated matter, and teens need all the compassion and empathy that healthcare professionals can provide.

Alternative-care methods, such as value-based care systems, may help improve patient outcomes, minimize prices, and improve efficiencies for both patients and healthcare systems. According to the Center for Health Care Strategies, value-based care is one of the “tools that policymakers and payers can use to encourage greater access to [substance-use disorder] treatment in primary care.” Healthcare may be taking a step in a more client-compassionate direction.

6 Helpful Webinars and Websites for Social Workers

At this time of uncertainty, it remains crucial that social workers are reminded of the importance of their roles in communities, legislation, and in their profession. After all, social worker employment is projected to grow 11 percent from 2018 to 2028 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 2020). The websites listed below are intended to support social workers and other helping professionals emotionally, intellectually, and socially. Although these websites do not offer CEU credits, they serve as valuable resources to improve practice, gain new therapeutic skills, and promote self-care.

The Dibble Institute Web Series

You probably haven’t heard of them. The Dibble Institute is a nonprofit agency that specializes in relationship training for youth. Their goal is to help young people build a foundation for healthy romantic relationships now, and for lasting, positive family environments in the future.

The Dibble Institute is currently offering a 12-Week curriculum, “Mind Matters Online Series” to help the viewer develop skills and coping mechanisms to overcome anxiety and build resilience. It is presented by Dr. Carolyn Curtis and Dixie Zittlow. The sessions are recorded, so being present live is not necessary. Be prepared to gain insight towards the self, laugh, and even dance in this series.

ADDitude Resources for ADHD and helping professionals

This hidden gem has been around since 1998. Even though ADDitude is known for their website, they have a print magazine ADDitude, weekly newsletters, live and recorded webinars, ebooks, and free downloads. The inquisitive side of you will enjoy exploring since there is so much to uncover.

You may not have heard of Bessel van der Kolk, MD. He is recognized for his research on trauma and it’s various impacts at different stages of development. As helping professionals, we could learn a thing or two from what he has to say. In his presentation, On the Global Coronavirus Crisis: Steering Ourselves and Our Clients Through New & Developing Traumas, you will learn how to create and promote connection and community in this crisis and gain activities to share with clients that keep them from re-experiencing past traumas. 

Oregon State University Cancer Institute (OHSU)

Caring for Yourself and Caring for Others During a Disaster/Epidemic OHSU Center for Ethics in Health Care is led by Susan Hedlund, LCSW, OSW-C. Susan is Director of Patient/Family Support Services at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. This 25-minute webinar is helpful for not just social workers and social work students, but all health care professionals seeking to manage the stress of the coronavirus pandemic.

Therapist Aid

Therapist Aid provides therapy worksheets on challenges such as anger, self-esteem, CBT, stress, and relationships. These activity worksheets can be assigned to the client as a “homework assignment” or, like most helping professionals, this can be a joint activity with the client. You can also find helpful videos on Therapist Aid to help guide your sessions or use them as a teaching tool with your clients or students.

National Association of Social Workers

Last but not least: The National Association of Social Workers (NASW). This is an obvious choice. However, the NASW is constantly releasing new information, articles, and press releases. Recently, the NASW released a document titled “Anti-racism Resources” that lists books, podcasts, articles, and films to engage in anti-racism in light of the George Floyd protests and advocacy. The NASW website has a job search engine, research library, and offers online events.

There is an endless amount of excellent websites, webinars, and articles for social workers to improve their profession and it can be overwhelming. At the end of the day, self-care also helps us improve our practice and our profession. These are resources to lean on in times like these. 

Social Distancing for Social Workers During a Global Pandemic

Social distancing has become the new urgency for different industries, sectors and corporations around the world. The creative challenge is to figure out how each of us will shape the nature of our work. Many social workers are making home visit remotely or providing therapy via video conferencing, and many in this sector are being forced to find creative ways to provide services that will benefit our clients while also allowing us to maintain our physical and emotional well-being.

This transitioning from in-person services to different forms is leading us to formulate, experience and witness new ways of creativity, resilience and persistence like what we saw with the quarantined Italians singing from their balconies.

Creativity

‘Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesise new things’ – Steve Jobs

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Before we connect our experiences, as he said, there is no better time than now to examine deeply what each of us have in our toolkits. What matters, now, is to consider and believe what we have, to be of significance. What we have in our toolkit is as unique as we are. So, create.

Here is my toolkit. I hope it inspires you to reflect on what you have in your toolkit to utilise it to the best. To add sparks of joy, grace and meaningfulness. Because we are in this together.

My toolkit

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”- Nelson Mandela

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

1) Education

Apart from my Master’s in Social Work certificate from a University, good grades, 1000 hours of unpaid internships, and my other volunteering experiences, I consider the following to be equally significant to serve clients effectively.

2) Vision

I am curious about human potential. To unearth, cultivate and channelise it gently, thoughtfully and effectively. In ways that spread inspiration, positivity. Persevere ahead with patience and empathy for self and others.

3) The Code of Ethics (Australian Association of Social Workers)

A mandatory source of reference that provides insightful principles, responsibilities, values and guidance for social work profession. You should find and become familiar with the guiding code of ethics for your location.

4) Values and Authentic Self

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

‘What if I come across a situation in which I have to manage a caseload where my values are different than the clients I serve ?’ asked by a student to their field education supervisor.

The supervisor responded by saying never feel obligated to work against your own values. ‘One time, I was approached by a client whose values were completely different to mine with respect to the caseload. I politely directed to a different social worker within the same organisation whose values were congruent with the client.’

This is a valuable insight. It was prudent for the student to inquire and confirm before proceeding to engage with the client instead of realising it midway. The significance on having clarity of personal values can enable or inhibit being one’s authentic self while in service to clients.

5) Journaling

This is my third year of loving to journal on a consistent basis, and this practise is teaching me to pay more attention. Close attention to what’s happening within me and outside me. Sometimes it is scary. Other times, enlightening. At the same time, it is consoling. A mixed process indeed.

I deem this exercise to be not only my source of self-care but also helps me to access, name and take the time to feel my emotions and interpretations, during different life events. Going through this process, offers patience and empathy, for myself, which I can then offer to the clients who might it need the most.

Photo by David Iskander on Unsplash

6) Social Work Theories

Everything we do to serve, our clients, are underpinned by theories. We carry and transmit the essence of it, consciously or unknowingly, while we interact, advocate, direct, manage, make decisions, engage or disengage, with our clients, co-workers or managers.

Hence, utilising a post-colonial lens to read, explore, learn, think, reflect and write, social work theories, is a practise that needs to be actively encouraged within the sector, organisations, services, outreaches as well as educational institutions to provide social work services that are inclusive in nature.

This awareness is crucial because clients from diverse backgrounds will have unique perspectives as a result of emerging from cultures that have different ideologies and therefore values different from Western ideologies.

Hence, it is important for a social worker to reflect well in order identify our personal inclinations and to never impose them on clients whose perspectives could be different to us. And often, when I engage and decide to choose a theory, I ask myself these questions:

  1. Is the theory inclusive of the client’s stage of problems/ circumstance?
  2. Am I including/excluding client’s input?
  3. Considerations /possibilities of the theory that can enable or inhibit client’s aspirations/goals/circumstances.
  4. The strengths of the theory
  5. The limitations of the theory

7) Experiences

This is one profession where transferrable skills can be optimised to serve purposes of the job constructively. For instance, I learned a core insight regarding writing from journalism class as well as internship experience during my undergraduate educational phase. Regarding the 5 W’s and 1 H…What, Where, When, Why, Who and How. Social Work involves a lot of writing. Whether, it is writing case notes, assessment reports, project plans, research reports or support plans, writing is crucial. 

This awareness magnifies the significance of having a diversity of skills, educational experiences, perspectives and transferable skills in which to maximise possibilities and opportunities.

Here to create a legacy

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

“You have no idea what your legacy will be because your legacy is every life you touch”- Maya Angelou

And, I could not agree more. At times when we are bogged down by uncontrollable factors resulting in unfavourable crisis, we need a different point of view and perspective that emanates hope especially now during this global pandemic. As individuals, it is necessary to consciously choose our thoughts, words and energy about the situation within our spheres of influence.

‘Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom’ -Victor E Frankl

Even at times like these, let us choose responses that reflects growth and freedom while promoting goodness to create our legacy individually and collectively.

Please share with us your perspectives, toolkit, and how the nature of your job has changed during this global pandemic in the comments below. It is essential to know the changes, challenges and barriers within our respective sectors in order to help us borrow, adopt and apply what works and avoid what doesn’t work.

Case Managers: The Other Frontline of COVID-19

Case Managers must make impossible choices to manage the complexities of an unstoppable pandemic—and they are working against the clock.

Unless, like me, you are married to or related to a Case Manager, you’ve probably never thought about what they do, yet they are critical to the healthcare system that we all rely on. They reside in the central command center of a crisis. The unrecognized role of Case Managers changes slightly depending on whether they work for a healthcare organization or hospital, long-term care facility, or social service department, but in general, they are responsible for overseeing a patient’s case to ensure the best outcome.

Case Managers, most of them registered nurses and social workers, coordinate with physicians, nurses, mental health and insurance companies, and family and friends of the patient, their client. They receive constant input from stakeholders with vastly different viewpoints, and it’s their job to bring all of that information together to ensure the best interest of their patients is being served. In addition, as part of interdisciplinary teams, professional Case Managers are responsible for tracking outcomes, not only for case management but also for the interventions of the entire team.

Case Managers have a stressful job on the best of days. COVID-19 has made it untenable.

The coronavirus has had an extraordinary impact on their professional and personal lives because we’re dealing with a pandemic that could not only infect patients but also the very system tasked with mitigating the outbreak. Doctors and hospital nurses are often spoken about as being on the frontlines of the coronavirus. I would argue that Case Managers represent another frontline; one that requires them to take incredible risks and make difficult choices every day. And for them, there is no triage.

As I mentioned, my wife is one such person. Due to the unwelcomed, invisible intrusion that is COVID-19, she is now working from home, but with an increased caseload, greater complexity, and more responsibility. And that is on top of adjusting to the reality of being isolated in our home day in and day out. As the world we’re in now calls for social distancing there’s no way for her to distance herself from the call of duty. Things were very different for her when she was able to walk down the hall to speak with a doctor or nurse about something. Now, she is tasked with coordinating people without the benefit of human connection. As many workers in America are finding out, working from home often results in a loss of work-life balance. This is especially true when your job was already taking over your life.

This week alone my wife has been charged with helping cancer patients who are unable to have critical follow-up appointments because oncology offices are closed. A two-year-old asthma patient who was discharged home because his lung doctor’s office is closed. Patients with terminal diseases who came down with coronavirus and, therefore, are unable to see their families when time with them matters most. And patients who are discharged from the hospital after testing for COVID-19 who are being told to self-quarantine but are then unable to get their results.

A lot of patients have become stranded, and even getting critically ill patient-placement has become a challenge. It’s like a scavenger hunt for empty hospital beds! And the virus hasn’t even peaked yet. All of these situations bring tears, confusion, fear, and loss—all of which my wife, and Case Managers like her, are supposed to alleviate from a remote location with little support and in the middle of a system plagued by glitches and breakdowns.

This is ground zero, folks. Case managers are in a battle behind the scenes, huddling daily to plan for the next six months. But mostly these men and women are alone, hunched over computers in trenches of their bedrooms or living rooms, making frantic phone calls, staying focused on the needs of patients even when their families need them, too.

There is no denying that the doctors and nurses you see online sharing photos of their bruised faces after spending hours in protective masks and goggles are heroes. But when those people need the go-ahead to perform surgery or need to know where to send a patient next, they turn to a Case Manager like my wife. She is a hero, too.

If God forbid, you or a loved one ends up in a hospital during this pandemic, utilize your Case Manager, trust your Case Manager, and, please, be kind to your Case Worker. He or she is making a great sacrifice to ensure the best outcome for you.

Morgan State University School of Social Work Secures Contract to Support Baltimore City Pediatric Primary Care Providers

morgan-state-school-social-work
Morgan State School of Social Work students performing field work consultations

Program Will Provide Critical Aid to the Maryland Health Department’s Effort to Address Disparities and Better Serve the Behavioral Health Needs of  Underserved Communities

The primary goal of the project is to support pediatric primary care providers, strengthening their capacity to meet the behavioral health needs of young people in their care. To accomplish this goal, Morgan State and its M.S.W. program participants will engage in training, telephonic and telepsychiatry consultation, information gathering and dissemination, referral for specialized services available statewide and additional activities designed to support primary care providers.Morgan State University School of Social Work (SSW) has been awarded a $960,641 subcontract from the Behavioral Health Administration (BHA) of the Maryland Department of Health (MDH) to provide frontline support in assessing and treating mental health needs of Baltimore City families and youth.

Teaming with the Behavioral Health Integration Program for Pediatric Primary Care Program (BHIPP), faculty and students from Morgan’s Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) program will conduct critical field work focusing exclusively on underserved minority communities, many of which have experienced long-term trauma and great disparities in mental health treatment. The effort will establish a collaborative learning community to support behavioral integration and foster interprofessional learning opportunities for next-generation social work clinicians.

anna-mcphatter
Anna McPhatter, Ph.D., LCSW, dean of the School of Social Work at Morgan State University

“For our future clinicians who aspire to affect the communities they serve in bold, meaningful ways, programs like these offer invaluable field experience that will inevitably help bridge gaps and enhance service within our most underserved populations,” said Anna McPhatter, Ph.D., LCSW, dean of the School of Social Work at Morgan State. “As an anchor institution in Baltimore, we are proud to carry the mantle by addressing critical issues in behavioral health and creating new pathways for rehabilitation.”

The Morgan State BHA/MDH subcontract in coordination with BHIPP places a significant emphasis on urban areas and populations suffering from shortages of child psychiatry practitioners and other health-related disparities. Working collaboratively with primary care providers, Morgan M.S.W. program participants will be instrumental in early intervention, reducing long-held stigmas associated with mental illness and increasing the population’s general knowledge of mental health services.

“To utilize the expanding knowledge base of the social work profession and address the growing complexity of the population it serves, it is important that all social workers be equipped with practical field work related to their academic pursuits,” said Laurens G. Van Sluytman, Ph.D., LCSW, associate professor and assistant dean of SSW and co-principal investigator for the program.

SSW will identify and supervise students to serve as social work interns, Dr. Van Sluytman said. The interns will conduct field placements within primary care settings and establish working relationships with pediatric offices to coordinate mental health screenings and psychiatric consultations and better understand the overall goal of integrated care. Dr. Van Sluytman anticipates that, through this advance practicum, Morgan students will gain deeper insights into the implementation process, identify strengths and weaknesses within the program design and improve upon the program in future scale-up efforts.

The expanded minority health component secured by the Social Work program at Morgan through this subcontract is part of an ongoing statewide interagency initiative that has enlisted the support of advanced-year M.S.W. students from Maryland higher education institutions. The project was initially forged as a partnership with the University of Maryland School of Medicine and The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and was broadened to include Salisbury University, which placed interns in rural pediatric primary care practices in Western Maryland and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Morgan State’s involvement and its emphasis on urban/minority health further broadens the scope of the project.

The Human Impacts of Covid-19 and What It Could Mean for the Future

A few weeks ago, I sat down to write about the profession of social work in light of March’s designation as social work month. My intention was to speak to the work we do and express gratitude for all those who have come before me and hope for all those who will come after me. That seems like a decade ago. Now, I find time clearly demarcated as the world pre-Covid-19 and the world in a pandemic.

I look to the day we can add the world post Covid-19 to our continuum of time. To talk about the rich history of a profession that exists solely to challenge injustice and respond to the needs of the times now seems callous when the needs of the times seem urgent to many. But the reality is that for social workers, the needs have been urgent for generations.

While social media is flooded with laments of barren shelves in our local groceries, calling out those who seem to take what they want with little regard for their neighbor, I would say…same stuff different zip code. For generations portions of our communities have survived in food deserts where produce and fresh meat are an occasional option (one that comes at a premium price) and yet there is no outcry of inhumanity or moral abomination.

While some celebrate the low gas prices found as they travel from store to store desperate for food and supplies, others in our communities could share lived lessons of finding ways to survive without access or reliable transportation. Not because of an unprecedented pandemic but because of generational poverty rooted in racism and supported by systems designed to create privilege based on race, gender and who you love. While the worried well grow anxious about the limitations of a health care systems that weeks ago seemed fine from their perch, countless others in our communities live with the scars of a healthcare system grounded in privilege not equity.

The reality is we have been a nation in crisis for generations but a different dichotomous thinking has made this crisis our norm: the dichotomy of privilege verses oppression. Prior to Covid-19, black and brown people in our nation have been dying at rates much faster than their white counterparts. We accept a disparity of life expectancy of up to 13 years with little more than a shrug. But we close entire states for a virus that shows no respect to privilege.

Don’t get me wrong. Covid-19 is a national crisis and extraordinary steps must be taken to reduce it’s long term impact and protect those deemed most vulnerable to it’s assault. Social workers will lead the charge, support our communities as difficult decisions are made and meet the needs of these days. But I long for a day when we apply the same urgency to the disparities that render half our population vulnerable to the diseases of racism, poverty and bias from birth.

If our hearts are stirred to action to support those around us left isolated or at risk by a virus, why aren’t our hearts stirred about the hunger that is a part of our nations fabric every day? If we call our nation to prayer in the face of Covid-19, why don’t we call our nation to prayer over the disparities in the justice system?  We are flooded with updates on confirmed Covid cases and fatalities and our compassionate core rises to intervene. Would we respond with the same zeal to reports of children in our community who take hunger to bed like a blanket?

Many have written about the opportunities presented in this crisis. The opportunity to slow down, to reflect on what matters most, to reset if you will. As a social worker I support the idea of reset but with the call for a collective reset…not to what we once were but rather to what we can be. What we once were is a nation that mastered the ability to use privilege as blinders, allowing some to move freely in spaces that they control and that honor a singular story.

Let’s reset to a future that dismantles our past. One that acknowledges the sins of oppression and commits to equity and liberation as our sextons. One that is shaped by a daily conviction to connect and support rather than a crisis driven, telethon style response that assuages our guilt. The selfless acts of countless in the midst of Covid-19 show us all what we’re capable of. May our post Covid-19 world be the world we should have made all along.

How Social Workers Play A Role In Disaster Relief

Federally declared disasters have increased by 40% over the last 15 years, according to the Clinical Social Work Journal, and internationally, those numbers are higher. Over just the last two decades, natural disasters have doubled.

In the past, the term “disaster” was poorly defined, leading to emergency response plans that were a one-size-fits-all solution to multifaceted problems. This approach left survivors with fewer options for critical care, especially in the area of mental health.

The National Center for PTSD recently redefined disaster as “a sudden event that has the potential to terrify, horrify, or engender substantial losses for many people simultaneously.” It went on to further define disasters based on type, differentiating between natural and man-made disasters. If more widely accepted, this definition opens the door to opportunities for mental health care in these urgent situations, giving social workers a vital role in relief, recovery, and community resiliency.

Responses in Disaster Relief Social Work

Social workers can offer a variety of mental health services in the immediate aftermath of disasters. Traditional psychotherapy performed by therapists is known for its long-term approach involving session work and trust building, allowing patients to share their trauma narratives. However, when social workers are called up for active disaster relief, their critical and immediate intervention skills are far more necessary for psychological triage. Among them are:

  • Psychological first aid (PFA): PFA assists those in crisis in the aftermath of disaster. It relieves initial distress in an effort to promote short- and long-term coping. This sometimes includes crisis intervention and counseling.
  • Family care: Family social workers help families during crisis. They aid survivors in locating the services they need to overcome post-disaster challenges and repair their lives.
  • Mental health media communications: This field provides voices and vital points of view for under-represented or disadvantaged populations.
  • Resilient community capacity building: This includes creating response plans for various groups.

Above all, the pledge to “do no harm” is the first aspect of every skill.

Assistance During Disaster

Disaster relief programs typically consider the short-term needs of survivors in order to identify the best allocation of resources and promote beneficial coping in the aftermath of tragedy. Social workers assist in these programs in a number of ways, including:

  • Case management: Social workers locate appropriate resources for clients, making sure they receive the services they most require.
  • Case finding: Case finding involves providing survivors with information about the programs available to them. Many are unaware that such services are available or fear stigmatization for participating in them.
  • Outreach: Social workers performing outreach increase program locations in order to allow services to be more accessible.
  • Advocacy: Using connections within various relief organizations, social workers advocate on behalf of clients to qualify them for additional services.
  • Brokering: When acting as a broker, social workers link client systems to the resources they need, fulfilling client needs throughout a multiplicity of programs.

Ultimately, all these methods allow social workers to disseminate information, refer clients to services, and assist them in qualifying for resources in disasters.

Disaster Relief Social Work in Practice

In the U.S., the American Red Cross and the Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program have provided almost half of all social workers participating in disaster relief programs. Depending on the type, duration, and severity of disaster, the challenges and requirements of social work change. When preparing ahead of an impending calamity, social workers may be identifying and organizing supplies, assisting with area and hospital evacuations, or even determining which patients can or should be moved.

During an actual emergency, the needs of the afflicted tend to take precedence over one’s own needs. Moment-to-moment changes in operational requirements contribute to the notion that social workers must remain flexible. They must be able to go where they are needed when they are needed there. The following are some real-world examples of social workers in the midst of disaster.

HURRICANE HARVEY

The residents of Beaumont, Texas, were witness to devastation on a massive scale. In the fall of 2017, Hurricane Harvey descended on Texas and Louisiana, and with it came ruined homes and wrecked lives.

In the end, the storm caused over $125 billion in damage and took 107 lives. The end of the storm was nowhere near the end of the damage. Long-term psychological trauma is a reality for many survivors, especially children. According to a recent survey in the aftermath of a hurricane, nearly 3.4% of respondents were found to have suicidal thoughts. The assessment, response, and counseling of suicidal behaviors were critical concerns that social workers on the ground were able to address.

HURRICANE MARIA

In September 2017, the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship, was deployed to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The crew included social workers and mental health providers for inpatient and outpatient mental health services. These providers developed protocols to educate the ship’s staff in treating psychiatric patients in addition to treating patients on board.

NORTHERN CALIFORNIA WILDFIRES

The Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative was established in Sonoma County after the devastating Tubbs fire to offer survivors tools for dealing with trauma. In the wake of the fires, The Guardian reported that many social workers were funded by grants from FEMA, which allowed them to connect with nearly 70,000 people in Sonoma County alone. These social workers were able to identify and refer thousands to much-needed mental health services.

Research Applications

Further study of the impact of disasters on the mental health of survivors is critical to the practice of disaster relief social work. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has emphasized that children are especially vulnerable in disaster conditions, as they take their emotional and behavioral cues from adults.

Anxiety and startle responses, typical symptoms in children that have survived hurricanes, require therapeutic activities to help them cope in healthy ways. According to NASP, other disasters can prompt separate trauma responses. Tornadoes can cause survivor’s guilt due to their suddenness, whereas wildfires, given their advance warning, can cause anxiety. Negative effects stem from displacement, property destruction, and the concerns associated with biological threats to one’s health.

Addressing White Supremacy in Social Work Institutions and Curriculum

“We must summon the courage to have productive conversations about racism in our field. White workers especially need to reflect on the defensiveness we feel when we are confronted with white supremacy culture, and how we benefit from the existence of it in our institutions and our interpersonal conversations. We must create a discipline around self-reflection, increase our stamina for holding discomfort, and continually ask ourselves where we are centering our engagement – is it on the needs of the oppressed or the comfort of those who fear change?” – SWCAREs

In an effort to help facilitate anti-racist, solution focused, and strength based conversation, SWCAREs will be hosting a twitter to chat to discuss white supremacy in social work curriculum. As our guest, we have invited Dr. Elizabeth Beck share her work on the topic. In order to get to know Dr. Beck before our March 5th twitter chat, we asked her to talk a little bit about her article publication and offer a few thoughts related to white supremacy in social work academia in our recent Q&A.

Dr. Elizabeth Beck is a Professor at Georgia State University in the School of Social Work at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. She is a prolific writer, having authored 26 peer-reviewed articles, one law review article, a number of book chapters, and three books. From 2006-2010, she was principal investigator to the Georgia Council to Restorative Justice, and is currently involved in community-based initiatives exploring restorative justice. In addition to her work at Georgia State University, Dr. Beck teaches at Phillips State Prison as a participant in the Common Good Atlanta program.

In her 2019 article in the Journal of Women and Social Work, “Naming White Supremacy in Social Work Curriculum,” Dr. Beck explores postcolonial theory, race, and ethnicity in the context of social work education and practice. She calls on our field to hold ourselves accountable to challenging the destructive qualities of whiteness, and how they show up historically and currently in the field.

Here is our Q&A as follows:

SWCARES: In your article, you call on yourself to challenge the direction of your white gaze and look hard at the hegemonic and destructive qualities of whiteness. Can you say more about that?

Elizabeth Beck: I have remained haunted and deeply motivated by something I read by Philosopher George Yancy in a piece that he wrote that was addressed to white people.

“As you reap comfort from being white, we suffer for being black and people of color. But your comfort is linked to our pain and suffering.” As a human being and a social worker, I have never wanted to cause pain and suffering, and yet Yancy reminds me that I do so daily.

Therefore, it is not enough to own my privilege or to identify as an antiracist who speaks truth to power, I also need to figure out daily how to mitigate my own role in causing pain and suffering. Of course, I don’t come close to having all the answers and indeed I think there needs to be conversations about how we can do this.

But the two things that I try to do are to engage in truthtelling, which means being clear about racial terrorism, the new Jim Crow, the harm of colorblind remedies, and the fact that our nation is based on and in white supremacy.

Secondly, I try to get out of the way. For example, I must work as an antiracist and work hard, but know that the answers and strategies cannot come from me. They must come from those people most affected. I need to support people of color who are doing the work– and that support can take many forms from working alongside individuals and within coalitions or providing a hot meal when a rest is needed. I also work to share or pass on opportunities that are offered to me in part because of the privilege that I have receive as a white person, and I must hold myself accountable.

SWCARES: Can you speak about the need for whiteness and white logic to exist in social work curriculum, and the impact of their absence currently?

Elizabeth Beck: The academy and the professionalized nature of social work are sites of whiteness and privilege. The knowledge that comes out of the academy is largely going to reflect that, while a paucity of literature will critique and confront it. In social work we have to look hard to find those critiques, and there are a number of treasured pieces out there. Social Work is also in an unique position within the white academy, as we want to be seen as a discipline that has scientific rigor, that oversees credentialing, and that is not marginalized within the academy or scientific community. Rather than finding our own unique positionality in which affected people are expert, we emulate positivism and gatekeeping, both of which align us with whiteness and white logics.

But, we also need to look more critically at the foundational aspects of social work and social work education. For example, we tend to acknowledge the whiteness of the Settlement House Movement, and yet we often hold it up as milestone in the profession’s move toward social justice. This of course then holds implications for the impact of whiteness in the way in which social works constructs and understands social justice. I believe that we need to evolve our understanding of social justice and we must highlight Black and Brown women, men, transgender and non-binary people who changed the world, such as Ida B. Wells, A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and many more.

In addition to Kimberle Crenshaw, we need to know the other women who helped to theorize intersectionality, such as Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and members of the Combahee River Collective. With these voices not prominent in the curriculum it is not surprising that scholar Gita Mehrotra notes that in social work, intersectionality is associated with multiculturalism, when indeed intersectionality, which is largely theorized by queer women of color, is also political movement driven from an intersectional analysis of power. An analysis in which those individuals whose lives are “on the margins”/most affected hold the necessary analytical information for transformative solutions.

An additional marker of whiteness for me has been in the language of things like “cultural competency,” (a dreadful idea, that states that I am the norm and you are other thus I need to be competent in you, thereby further enshrining whiteness) or the reliance on acceptable and non-political words like diversity. While we know that diversity is an important goal, journalist Pamela Newkirk, in her book Diversity Inc.: The failed promise of a billion dollar industry, makes clear that without truth telling about systemic racism, ideas that sound accommodating like diversity do not accomplish the goals that they seek.

SWCARE: How do you see this work translating into the classroom? Where does an analysis of theprocesses of domination belong in our instruction and what would it look like?

Elizabeth Beck: As a white social work educator, the first thing I need to do is model antiracism, truth telling, the ability to defer to people of color, and not engage in any sort of fragility. It’s difficult to say where an analysis of processes of domination belongs in instruction, as the ideal would be infusion throughout the curriculum, but then infusion can lead to it being overlooked.

Toward infusing ideas associated with processes of domination and systemic racism, our faculty has tried to do things a bit differently, as we work together to find the space for things like critical theory in our program. With some discussion of critical theory we hope to provide students with the ability to deconstruct knowledge rather than just accept the knowledge derived from white methods and logics. We also hope to offer opportunities for critical consciousness. All of our MSW students read Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I fully agree with Paulo Freire that once you see the truth you are compelled to change things. Certainly, that is what George Yancy did for me.

SWCARES: What does this work look like in the institutions of academia? How does this translate to admissions offices, field placements, and faculty meetings?

Elizabeth Beck: I am not an administrator nor do I coordinate or even oversee field placements, in that way I am not the expert. I am additionally different because our MSW program is a macro based program which means that we tend to attract students who want to be on the cutting edge of social justice work, and that this desire often comes from their understanding of inequality. With that said I do have some thoughts. I think one important aspect of social work admissions is that it places emphasis on people’s histories, stories and experiences. My university is a leading institution in the graduation of minority and first generation college students.

We have a wonderful program that provides emergency grants for students in a financial crisis. This program can be emulated. We must also work hard to ensure supports for first generation college students and those on the academic margins. Mostly we must advocate for policies that make higher education far more accessible to include much more public financing. We must ensure that faculty meetings and committee assignments are equitable and that we have fairness in salaries. I have always been proud that our faculty protects the time of assistant professors. I also believe that faculty meetings can be places where we explore the use of language like white supremacy and challenge ideas of white fragility.

Join @SWHELPERorg and @SWCARES on March 5th at 1:00 PM EST using the hashtag #SWCARESchat to discuss white supremacy in social work curriculum. 

Discussing White Supremacy: Having Difficult Conversations Are Required and Not Optional

By Authors: Hoge, Hayes, Hostetter, Fisher, Watson, Yearwood, Plummer, Barbera, & Washington

“The key to moving forward is what we do with our discomfort. We can use it as a door out—blame the messenger and disregard the message. Or we can use it as a door in by asking, Why does this unsettle me? What would it mean for me if this were true?”Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

In the Winter 2020 edition of The New Social Worker, three founders of #MacroSW published an article entitled “Calling In Call-Out Culture: Social Workers Having Difficult Conversations Ethically on Social Media.” Being an organization that primarily exists on Twitter, they expressed a “keen awareness” for the importance of interacting respectfully in digital spaces, describing themselves as an online “safe space” where social work students, professionals, and academics can lean into difficult conversations about macro practice. They offered as a sign of their success the victory of having avoided most negative confrontations online. This, they believe, had allowed the social work community to engage in productive conversations, even those that have involved provocative topics.

What ensued after the publication of the article was backlash from activists who had been advocating that #MacroSW be more intentional in its conversations about white supremacy. Prior to the publication of the article, two activists had reached out to the organization to ask that a chat take place focusing specifically on white supremacy in social work education, and that the topic of white supremacy be folded into already scheduled chats. These activists are members of an organization called SWCAREs, a newly founded coalition of social workers whose primary mission is dismantling white supremacy in social work education.

Many readers here bore witness to the fallout that ensued after this article was published, which included both activists speaking out about what they believed were mischaracterizations of their work, one of the authors then removing her name from the article to avoid pointed confrontation, another issuing a thoughtful self-reflective public apology, the #MacroSW organization itself issuing its own public apology, and finally, The New Social Worker retracting the article altogether.

In an effort to learn from this experience, SWCAREs thought it would be productive to explicitly detail the manner in which white supremacy manifested in the events leading up to the publication of #MacroSW’s article, and how it is reflective of the wider social work community as a whole. We believe that it is time for our field to take a long and difficult self-inventory and identify some of the ways we have partnered with white supremacy in our education, practice, and implementation of social justice.

Stating the Problem – White Supremacy Culture

Those of us engaged in social work are well-versed in the discomfort of emotionally charged conversations, whether they be online or in person. What begins as a minor disagreement can often devolve into a personal attack in what seems like an instant. At the same time, we know that emotionally charged conversations can also be a catalyst for change.

We want to be clear that we believe that #MacroSW is doing the very hard work of reflecting on their organizational culture and taking steps to challenge racism both inside and outside of their organization. This article is not meant to throw any shade in their direction. In fact, it is to commend them for their reflection and to use what happened as a tool for learning. The best opportunities for learning arise from not getting it right in the first place.  

In her article “White Supremacy Culture,” Tema Okun identifies the “norms and standards” that uphold white supremacy culture within organizations. These characteristics are rarely spoken about explicitly, but instead are upheld through the attitudes in favor of and/or against the behavior of comprised members. “These attitudes and behaviors can show up in any group or organization,” says Okun, “whether it is white-led or predominantly white or people of color-led or predominantly people of color.”

Below we will outline some of the characteristics that Okun identifies, and how they manifested in recent events, as well as how they emerge within social work organizations specifically. We hope to use the retraction of the “Calling In Calling Out Culture” article as an example of how white supremacy was effectively challenged in the culture at #MacroSW and how it was so easily missed prior to the article being published.

  1. 1. Perfectionism: For social work academics and students, perfectionism can feel like a self-driven curse, an internally generated standard of proficiency that defines our worth in the field. For those of us who teach, we have seen the toll that grade insecurity can take on our students. In social work academia, perfectionism can look like a professor creating rigid attendance policies and/or unreachable grading standards. It can also look like a student’s internalization of the inability to meet these requirements, assuming themselves to be incapable or a failure. The effect of perfectionism is that a person becomes a sum of their mistakes, as opposed to an imperfect human worthy of value and expected to fall short sometimes.

In the since retracted article, #MacroSW defended against having a specific conversation about white supremacy because they were concerned about their inability to find an appropriate facilitator: “We want someone who is experienced with addressing White supremacy, with facilitating Twitter chats, and who can continually re-focus the chat on the topic, with respect, tact, and perhaps even humor.”

We want to be clear that while we do believe that there are facilitators who would embody all of these characteristics (whether we believe they are all necessary or even productive is another conversation), their inability to find a perfect match for this conversation led to zero conversation happening at all. Ironically, it is in the failure to have any discussion at all that white supremacy reared its head, perpetuating the silence that is often complicit in maintaining a culture where racism thrives.

Insight: Perfectionism – Oftentimes, social work organizations will avoid the difficult work of self-reflection as it relates to its complicity with white supremacy. We do so out of fear of making mistakes. After all, if a person is indeed a sum of their mistakes, perfectionism can quickly transform an act of racial ignorance into a person internalizing themselves as racist. Instead of demanding perfection of ourselves, we must work toward a culture of appreciation for challenging conversations, specifically the discomfort that comes with embracing accountability. Essentially, doing what is right does not always mean saying everything perfectly. It means being willing to make mistakes, humbly apologize, and then commit to the hard work of moving forward.

We’d like to point out that the issued apologies from #MacroSW and Patricia Shelly speak to this final point, as they pointed out a commitment to self-reflection and organizational change. As uncomfortable as these apologies might have been to write, we believe that they led to successful growth for all parties involved, even though they would likely have been perceived as a failure if viewed through the lens of perfectionism.

  1. 2. Defensiveness and Power Hoarding: As social workers, many of us know the defensive posture that an institution will take when confronted with its complicity in perpetuating white supremacy. Institutions who have a vested interest in the values of equity and open mindedness can be even more defensive. Social work organizations are expected to effectively serve oppressed communities, and so many of us are reluctant to reflect on how our own efforts have continued to oppress those we believe we are helping.

Prior to the article being written, there were efforts to create conversation around the topic of how white supremacy manifests in social work academia, (i.e., tone policing, gatekeeping, whitewashing of history, etc.). While this is often a critique of academia in general, we feel it is especially urgent for social work education programs to prioritize requests such as these. Unfortunately, it is infinitely more difficult for social workers to reflect on the manner in which they might be allied with oppression. Who are we if our “help” is hurting? What does it say about us if our “service” is causing harm?

In an effort to avoid the sinking reality that our actions may be out of line with our values, many social work organizations will attempt to avoid self-reflection altogether, instead mounting a defense against those who are aggrieved. This was the misstep that the authors took in publishing “Calling In Call-Out Culture.” By centering on the comfort of individuals in power over the valid reactions of the ignored and aggrieved, #MacroSW positioned themselves as a group worthy of support and those harmed deserving of silence and scrutiny. The result of this defensive posture is that power is hoarded and maintained, and the original request for a conversation about white supremacy becomes irrelevant.

Insight: Defensiveness and Power Hoarding. It is especially threatening for social workers to think of themselves as oppressive. Many of us tether our inherent value as people to qualities of compassion, kindness, and a shared commitment to serve vulnerable communities. However, without committing to improving our racial literacy, we conversely run the risk of becoming an ally to the oppressor as opposed to those who are oppressed.

Without challenging white supremacy culture in social work education, we will end up prioritizing universities over students. Without challenging disparities that exist in health care facilities, we will ultimately protect a system that disenfranchises instead of empowering the patients in need of care. Without dismantling the power that exists in nonprofit social work organizations, we run the risk of exploiting the needs of a community for personal gain as opposed to dismantling the power that created that need in the first place.

  1. 3. Fear of Open Conflict / Right to Comfort: To many of us who live and work in activist spaces, the idea that we need a “safe space” to speak on issues of race can be frustrating. As social workers, we certainly want to ensure that our interventions embrace autonomy and agency for all participants. However, this demand for “safety” is more often an unjustifiable demand for comfort.

In her book, “White Fragility,” Robin DiAngelo explicitly speaks to this when she points out that this insistence by white people that they experience racial comfort will ultimately shut down the necessary conversations to dismantle racism. She goes on to say that “this insistence also functions to punish those who break white codes of comfort.” We see this taking place in our work through the weaponization of terms like “civility,” “politeness,” and in the case of the retracted article, a call for “professionalism” and “ethics.” 

When reflecting on the publication and then retraction of “Calling In, Call-Out Culture,” we can see how this fear of open conflict not only shut down an important conversation about race, but then sublimated this discomfort into punitive actions towards those who spoke out, embodying the punishment DiAngelo illuminates. We cannot think of a more disturbing accusation than to challenge the ethics of social workers who speak out against racism, simply because it made White social workers (in positions of power) uncomfortable.

Insight: White people often conflate feeling uncomfortable with feeling unsafe. Not only does this shut down necessary conversations about racism, but as DiAngelo spells out, it also “trivializes our history of brutality towards people of color and perverts the reality that is history.” 

We must expect for white supremacy culture to redefine and weaponize terms like “comfort,” “professionalism”, “civility,” “kindness,” “politeness,” “empathy,” and even “love” in an effort to maintain power. Anti-racism demands that we instead radicalize these terms and lean into the discomfort that is a professional conversation about race, a radical empathy and love that centers on the demand for equity and justice over the complacency of comfort. We must embrace the unfortunate reality that racism exists in all of us. The fact that our field is comprised of approximately 68% white people makes this infinitely more urgent.  

Processing

In her plenary interview at the 2020 Society for Social Work and Research, Feminista Jones called on our field to reflect on its complicity in oppressing marginalized populations. “Social work has destroyed generations of communities’ self-determination in the name of white benevolence” she said. This call to action is one that could not be more timely, as we see social workers engaging in a child welfare system that disproportionately separates Black and Brown families; social workers partnering with the judicial system in their “treatment” of individuals (disproportionately Black and Brown) arrested for drug and alcohol offenses; and ultimately, social workers profiting from community needs without involving themselves in efforts to dismantle the power that created those needs in the first place. 

We must summon the courage to have productive conversations about racism in our field. White workers especially need to reflect on the defensiveness we feel when we are confronted with white supremacy culture, and how we benefit from the existence of it in our institutions and our interpersonal conversations. We must create a discipline around self-reflection, increase our stamina for holding discomfort, and continually ask ourselves where we are centering our engagement – is it on the needs of the oppressed or the comfort of those who fear change?

We sincerely hope that the fallout from the article “Calling in Call-Out Culture” will serve as an education for our entire field. We trust that all parties will continue to focus on our shared code of ethics, one that prioritizes social justice and equity. We also ask that readers reflect on what it means to be ethical and professional in social justice movements. This work is not easy and it is rarely comfortable. It is almost never perfect. That said, we believe that our profession is up to the challenge, and we look forward to continuing to organize with one another, roll up our sleeves, and get the job done.

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2016). Racial disproportionality and disparity in child welfare. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.

DiAngelo, R. (2019). White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. London: Allen Lane.

Okun, T. (2001). White Supremacy Culture. In Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change. Retrieved from http://www.dismantlingracism.org/white-supremacy-culture.html.

Zgoda, K, Shelly, P., and West, R. (2020, January 8). Calling In Call-Out Culture. The New Social Worker Magazine. Volume 27, Number 1., 26-28. (Retraction published January 13, 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.socialworker.com/feature-articles/practice/calling-in-call-out-culture-social-workers-having-difficult-conversations-social-media/).

Social Work and the Reproductive Justice Framework

Policies and debates about contraception, abortion access and the ability of individuals to make their own reproductive decisions have consistently been central for many reproductive rights and justice scholars and activists. These topics have also mobilized individuals to take political action. Social workers have often been at the forefront of mobilizing for social justice issues, however their involvement in the reproductive justice movement has in many ways been limited. In a review of the reproductive justice literature in social work journals conducted in 2018, only 3 articles substantially included a discussion of reproductive justice in their work.

This gap is particularly concerning considering the politically-crafted crisis in reproductive health care exacerbated by recent abortion restrictions, which particularly undermine the reproductive and sexual health concerns of women, individuals with uteruses and non-binary individuals impacted by these laws. Social workers who are conversant in, and practice from, a reproductive justice framework are part of a necessary antidote to this crisis. Abortion bans, limited access to contraception, the criminalization of miscarriage and the undermining of Medicaid expansion and access to health insurance all require the increased mobilization of social workers to deal with the impact these policies will have on communities and clients. 

Reproductive Justice 

Reproductive Justice as a political movement and analytical framework emerged out of critiques that reproductive rights discussions were often centered on the concerns of white, straight, and formally educated women, ignoring the issues that were key to individuals outside of these groups. As scholars and activists Loretta Ross and Kimala Price have noted, reproductive justice was developed as a unifying framework that went beyond the legal right to abortion and contraception access issues central to the reproductive rights movement and included the reproductive health concerns of poor women and women of color. 

Ross (2006) and Price (2010) have defined “Reproductive Justice,” as “the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, social and economic well-being of women and girls…” and as being realized when “…women and girls have the economic, social and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about our bodies, sexuality, and reproduction for ourselves, our families, and our communities…”.

Reproductive choice is defined broadly and holistically in this framework. It includes personal freedom related to governmental regulation and polices, but just as importantly, centers the importance of choice related to additional constraints, such as environmental contaminants, or a lack of access to childcare. Price describes Reproductive Justice as centering on the three core values of “the right to have an abortion, the right to have children, and the right to parent those children”.

These core values provide a way to conceptualize the linkage between larger social justice movements with reproductive health. Reproductive Justice is strongly rooted in intersectional and feminist theory and critiques the exclusion of women of color in the reproductive rights movement. Though originally theorized primarily in relation to movement building for political action, disciplines such as law and sociology are increasingly using the reproductive justice framework in academic and scholarly work, though social work has not yet integrated this framework into the research and practice of the profession. 

Social Work and the Reproductive Justice Framework

Reproductive Rights and Justice frameworks are highly congruent with the ethical and theoretical foundations of the social work profession in addition to the profession’s goal of promoting and advocating for social justice. However, despite Social Work’s focus on incorporating and applying social justice theories to practice and research, reproductive rights and justice are not frequently focused on in social work publications. The social work profession is unique in being one of the few that specifically mandates this requirement to promote social justice.

As highlighted in the preamble of the Social Work Code of Ethics: “the primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being…with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty…social workers promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients…[and] strive to end discrimination, oppression, poverty, and other forms of social injustice”. The emphasis on advocacy and performing work which promotes justice is one of the distinctive qualities of the occupation.

The importance of utilizing the reproductive justice framework in this call to more broadly promote social justice is highlighted by the fact that social workers increasingly provide a large number of reproductive and sexual healthcare resources and services and frequently act as gatekeepers for those seeking medical care. 

In 2018 I conducted a literature review of the top 50 social work journals. The search term “reproductive justice” was used to identify 10 articles published between 1994 and 2018. Though 55 articles were found with the search term “reproductive rights”, only 3 articles were found that substantially included a discussion of the reproductive justice framework. A content analysis of the articles was done to explore the study population, location, purpose and topic, year published, journal, key findings, and social work implications.

An upsurge in reproductive justice research was called for by all 10 articles. Though it is encouraging that the social work profession was highlighted as being congruent with the reproductive justice framework, this research shows that there is a lack of articles on reproductive justice and that the framework has yet to be integrated into research on sexual and reproductive health within the profession. 

What Now?

As my work and other scholars have noted, there is an existing gap in social work research and practice which the reproductive justice framework can begin to address. This framework is required because of the limitations in how the language of “choice” has been used to categorize the sexual and reproductive decisions of marginalized groups of people as “poor choices” while ignoring broader structural barriers. This rhetoric continues to direct and influence debates around reproductive and sexual health and further marginalizes vulnerable groups of people. Social workers have historically and continue to often be in positions of facilitating or restricting access to social services, making the need to incorporate a reproductive justice framework in this work essential.

The use of a reproductive justice framework offers social workers the chance to facilitate a holistic model of healthcare for their clients and to preform research on healthcare access and systems that centers social justice. Although social work has yet to meaningfully incorporate a reproductive justice framework into its research or practice, there are many opportunities for the reproductive justice framework to be applied. Recent government restrictions and legal battles highlight the immense urgency of this work, as social workers will no doubt continue to be at the forefront of advocating for reproductive and social justice.

Read more in Jessica Liddell (2018), “Reproductive Justice and the Social Work Profession: Common Grounds and Current Trends” (Affilia).

NASW Iowa Chapter Releases New Assessment of Iowa Labor Force

The NASW Iowa Chapter (NASW-IA) worked with the NASW Foundation and the University of Iowa School of Social Work, in 2018-2019, to assess the Iowa social work labor force. The initiative was funded by a generous $50,000 grant from the Telligen Community Initiative.

“We wanted to gather information in a concise and organized way that would allow us to make the case that we need more professional social workers in the state of Iowa and how professional social workers can improve the lives of Iowans,” according to Denise Rathman, NASW-IA Executive Director.

Two key outcomes of the initiative, she said, are that NASW-IA now has “an excellent action plan that will serve as a roadmap as we work to collect the data we need to do our advocacy work for the profession.  We have a better understanding of why some organizations don’t always look to hire social workers.”

Additionally, Denise said, “We needed hard data to confirm our suspicions that we need additional culturally and linguistically diverse professional social workers to serve the diverse populations of Iowa, more professional social workers to serve older Iowans, and additional professional social workers in our more rural counties.”

To read the full report and an executive summary, please follow the links below.

The project was funded by the Telligen Community Initiative to initiate and support, through research and programs, innovative and farsighted health-related projects aimed at improving the health, social well being and educational attainment of society, where such needs are expressed.

Please visit the NASW Iowa Chapter website for more information about social policy, professional issues, continuing education, and other priorities.  The NASW Foundation is running a special feature about NASW Iowa Chapter, Denise Rathman, in the “Spotlight On Chapters” section.

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