Friday, April 4, 2014

Discovering adoption

Yesterday I just finished attending a conference at which my wife was presenting. She is the academic so she is the one who is likely to attend a conference and do all the presenting while I tag along as the partner of Dr what’s her name. I am more than happy to be he insignificant other. As always it is an absolute pleasure to support her in the work she does. This time though we had to travel half way around the world for her to deliver a paper to a very small audience. An indicator that they were not interested in what we as Australians are doing. The conference was on “adoption” and my wife was presenting on “fostering”. However it was great to be part of a movement which something to say about an industry which I have never considered to be – well I have just never considered it. It isn’t as if I haven’t heard of adoption but I have never considered in any meaningful way eg what it means to be adopted.

What was discussed was a range of interesting issues such as the cost to adopt and the lack of accountability for the money being charged. That much of what happens in this area is now inter-continental and inter-racial. What does it mean for a white person to adopt a Nigerian child? What does it mean for this child as they grow up? Were they legitimately placed for adoption or were they kidnapped? Does adoption provide a new and better opportunity for a child? What views do I hold which colour my views of adoption?

Before this conference I considered adoption was probably a good thing because it provided homes for kids who were living in poverty or were unwanted by their parents. This may be true but it isn'’t always the case. How do we know what is true and what isn’t? The truth is that we don’t know. There are very few checks and balances that can determine if a child is a legitimate adoptee.

What concerns me is, who are we to judge whether a life in a different country is going to provide a better outcome for the child. Because we may offer a more material and educational environment doesn’t mean that we are have the answer to happiness and that we are going to provide joy and mental well being for a child. Far from it in fact it is more likely that a child living in poverty in some countries is going to be better of mentally than in a western society. For us to assume that we are “saving” these children is a judgement which is not correct. I notice that this notion was raised but wasn’t debated nor is hotly contested. I guess that is because those that have an investment in adoption would find those ideas particularly challenging. It was evident that a reasonable percentage of academics attending this conference were adopters or adoptees – either way their was not discussion on the merits of adoption vs the disadvantage of adoption.

May important questions were raised but none more so than the notion that if large amounts of money are being generated per adoption then how open is this system to corruption. This is like the elephant in the room and certainly no one spoke to this issue. One presentation I attended talked about the amount of money exchanging hands but refused to take a moral stand on this issue. Within this system there is considerable concern for the trafficking of children, the abuse which is likely to take place because of this trafficking. There is virtually no legal authority across borders who can control what happens in other countries.

I doubt that I will take this issue up as I have other child protection issues but when I meet with someone who is adopted I will be better prepared to ask more probing and in depth questions.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Reflections of 2013

It has been an interesting year. As I look back I am left wondering what I have accomplished and how any of my work has benefitted my clients. I have discovered that I often become so lost in the immediacy of the problem that I forget about all the good outcomes that have been generated over the year. I am sure that of the hundreds of people I have seen this year that there were a few who benefited from the experience.

I do know that I have limited the impact of “burnout” this year, primarily by playing as much golf as I can. I have had a few very sad periods where I wonder about the efficacy of my work. I often feel tired and resentful because the social issues with which I am confronted seem to become more unresolvable. I have become tired of seeing my colleagues practice Social Work as if it is a third rate profession relegated to something similar to an insurance salesman.

I have become tired of hearing from Child Protection Social Workers that the work they do is SOOOO complicated. The little voice in my head wants to shout “the only person who makes this complicated is your inability to practice Social Work”, I usually follow this with a few expletives.

There is no doubt that this year was very tiring and I can only hope that next year will be less so. I have worked with some interesting people and organisations this year. There is a mining company I work with who have demonstrated that they value the work I do with them. For that I am very grateful. I have worked with some of the most amazing clients this year, from you I have learnt so much. To my EAP colleagues I just want to let you know that I love the work we do together and how much I appreciate the way you have continued to support me over the years.

Without my wife and family none of what I do would be possible. My wife is very busy with her career but always has the time to listen to me talk about my work. For over twenty years Dee has supported me with what I wanted to do, and I know for her that always hasn’t been easy. There have been many low points. My youngest daughter told me recently that she had put down as her University preference, Social Work. This has come without any encouragement from me, but is a nice way of recognising the value she gives the work I do. To my beautiful daughter I thank you for finishing of my year with this wonderful acknowledgement.

To those of you who read my blog, I hope I can contribute to your understanding of Social Work and that you continue to participate in my journey. Have a great 2014.

Friday, December 13, 2013

A critique of Social Work

Recently I attended the AASW Social Work conference. An event attended by over three hundred Social Workers. As a lonely private practitioner I have always valued the opportunity to attend gatherings where there are other Social Workers. It has always been a time where I can gather with like-minded people and talk about practice in an environment where I feel safe and accepted. To have the space to discuss the unique problems associated with the practice of Social Work has always been liberating and caused me to feel accepted and given me a direction has regenerated me. After attending meetings where practice is discussed I have become buoyed by the commonality we have shared the fact that we may have differing approaches but in essence have the same goals and objectives. I love the idea that we can challenge each other and yet have a sense of professionalism which gives credit to the uniqueness which is an integral part of us all.

I attended the conference hoping that again I would find within this large body of professionals the same feeling I have when I attend my local branch CPD sessions or other activities where Social Workers have gathered. However on this occasion I left feeling something very different. This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t anything to be gained from attending because I did score an autographed copy of Hugh Mackay’s latest book.

What is disappointing is that the issues which confront us all are never discussed in detail. Even though we did have some discussion on registration there wasn’t a passionate plea for recognition because it appeared that the AASW were doing all they could to advocate for change. My guess is that there are many Social Workers who don’t care whether we are registered or not or believe that registration is going to add further cost to being a Social Worker. I also wonder if there are those who see registration as an imposition which would make them more accountable. If there were any dissenting voices they were silent. When I think of our ineptitude in fighting for what Social Work means I wonder if we are worthy of obtaining professional recognition through registration?

I attended a session where the topic was private practice. To hear two of the speakers massaging their egos was extremely painful and offered nothing to the debate about what it takes to be a Social Worker. One of the speakers was so obsessed with Mental Health diagnosis that one wonders if he was a Social Worker at all.  He presented as a voice for the DSM V.

Perhaps I attended the wrong sessions but I rarely heard anyone talk about Social Justice or the struggle against social and organisational change. Where was the talk about clients and the inequities in our organisations and society which disempower the most vulnerable. At what point did we highlight the great work done by Social Workers or are we bereft of those Social Workers, or are we simply not doing anything worth celebrating?

At the end of the two days we were asked to make comments about the symposium or aspects of Social Work. One of the questions asked at the beginning of the Symposium focussed on what we could be doing as Social Workers that would make a difference. No one had the answer or at the end of the two days were too tired to make their way to the microphone at the front of the auditorium to make a comment. I know I didn’t. I feel somewhat guilty that I am criticising others for not presenting their voice when I didn’t present my own. I guess I didn’t believe that I would be heard or that anyone would care.

Basically we are a pathetic bunch who struggle to understand our professional identity. I was reminded of who we are professionally when some time ago I was counselling a Social Worker who was faced with a particular work conflict. I suggested that it may be helpful to read through the AASW Code of Ethics to help her understand where she stood professionally in relation to the conflict. She asked me if it was possible to download the Code of Ethics from the internet. She obviously didn’t have a copy of her own and therefore hadn’t read it for some time, if at all. It is a little like being a Christian Minister and never having read the Bible. Regretfully, the connection between who we are suppose to be professionally and who we actually are is a giant chasm.  The exploration of that gap, at this conference, didn’t occur.

There is a need to challenge who we are. Why we do what we do and our efficacy. According the the AASW Code of Ethics “In all contexts, social workers maintain
a dual focus on both assisting human functioning and identifying the system issues that create inequity and injustice.” During the conference I didn’t hear a discussion on the way we are assisting human functioning nor the systemic issues which create inequity and injustice. We could have been offered the challenge to talk about our practice and how our practice produces the outcomes our profession demands. Where are our stories about the impact we have on clients or the challenges confronting us from a government or organisational perspective? Are we so unclear of what we represent that we are fearful of challenging others with what we believe for fear of being discovered a fraud?

When you are asked what you, as a social worker, do, what do you say? Do you hesitate because you haven’t worked it out yet or simply don’t you know? Look for a creative way to describe who you are as a Social Worker. This is not about what you do, this is about working out a definition of your version of a Social Worker given who you are. It is these basic understandings we need to discuss and articulate.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Child Protection and the Court System

Over the past few months I have been working with a client towards having an eighteen year Child Protection order revoked. I was aware that the legal system is not designed to provide fair and equitable outcomes for the poor, disadvantaged and dis-empowered people in our community. It is perhaps my sense of social justice that drives my belief that if you have a valid and reasonable case you will be heard and justice will prevail. Regretfully, if you are fighting for a child to be returned to her mother after some years in care, regardless of the changes the mother has made, the chances are so slim it hardly seems the effort is worth the emotional distress.

What makes this worse is that the child protection system is so distorted and narrow that the social workers are unable to give up their power for the sake of the child and the parent. It is therefore unfair to lay the responsibility for this totally at the feet of the legal system, but at the intransigent nature of the system which believes that under all circumstances it is not possible for a parent to change or that a parent will never change enough to satisfy the workers. I believe that if my client was Mother Theresa she wouldn't have her child returned to her. I have spoken about this issue in many other forms over the years but I am still incredulous as to the negative way in which Social Work is practiced in this setting.

I would have thought that having significant change occur in a persons life needs to be celebrated. As Social Workers it is our role to acknowledge change and when possible demonstrate the benefits it presents. When talking to my client today we talked about out first meeting and she admitted that she didn't trust me because I was a Social Worker and it took her some time to understand that I was there to help her. To hear this saddens and angers me because it is the work of other Social Workers which creates this image. I spend much of my time confronted by the negativity which surrounds our profession because of the incompetence of many of the Social Workers who work particularly in Child Protection.

In this case I can remember a meeting with a newly appointed Social Worker, not too sure if he has a social work degree or not (not a member of the AASW), and he convinced me that he was not like all the other Social Workers we have worked with over the years. He acknowledged all the wonderful changes my client had made over the years. He even commented on the room my client had set up for her daughter, stating that he is going to work to have her returned to that "beautiful room". It was over twelve months ago that he made this comment. Overnight visits were promised but have never eventuated. He told us that he would never focus on her past but it was only how my client is managing now that is important. This is the same man who has never delivered on one of his promises. He is the same man who in a recent report for the court focused on the reasons for the removal rather than on all the changes the client has made. In fact this very obliging and critical man of other social workers (his own colleagues) opposed the return of the child based on the fact that the mother hadn't informed the department of the improvements she had made regarding her mental health.

A few years ago the client had received a favourable report from her psychologist. At that meeting the Social Worker and her Supervisor ignored the report and told her they were not interested in any report written. Three years ago they were given information referring to her mental health by a professional but ignored it and discounted the client's need to have her improvements acknowledged by FSA. Since then I have spoken many times about her improvements but none of this has been considered nor acknowledged. As an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker one would have thought that my assessment would have been valid. Stating in a court document that they knew nothing of the improvements in her mental health is a blatant lie.

The question all of this raises is how does a person with no money and confronted by a system which is bent on destroying the relationship between a mother and a daughter have and chance of being heard? I wonder under what circumstances could a parent have her child returned to her when the child is on a GOM 18 order?

I am certain though that if her parents were middle class and supportive of her that the situation would be different. Her father is the carer along with his partner but he is far from supportive of his daughter. This is a class issue which needs to be rectified or adequate funding arrangements be provided for people such as my client so that justice can be upheld.

I am unable to understand why it is not possible for all parties to get together and work towards a solution which gradually works towards re-unification? What is it that makes a group of social workers so entrenched in their views that they are unable to see that there may be a different outcome which is in everyone's best interest?

Monday, October 21, 2013

What’s wrong with Child Protection?

For years I have been writing about my involvement with clients who have become involved with the child protection system. I am always reading what is happening not just in Australia but all over the world. It interests me that there are very few jurisdictions where they have it “right”. My guess is that the Scandinavian countries tend to have a better understanding of social justice so seem to  have very few detractors. Because of  this perhaps their Social Workers tend to practice differently.

The problem is so complex it is often difficult just finding a starting point. I also understand that because I don’t work within the system I therefore may not understand the complexities. What I do understand is that the principles of Social Work are universal and it doesn’t matter how old you are or when you gained your degree or even how experienced you are the underlying values of Social Work are a constant.

Recently I met with a couple of colleagues who have spent some time working in Child Protection within the government system. They were more than pleased to talk about what’s wrong with child protection. It was somewhat heartening to hear others talk about a system which is damaged because of the lack of effective Social Work practice. A system driven by egos and a strong need to control others. One of these Social Workers predicted that the system will reach a critical mass and implode. This is a prediction which is likely to be realised but I wonder about all the people who will be damaged along the way. For one of my friends, talking about the system under which she worked, was a stressful and saddening experience, it became obvious that the damage caused to her by this unforgiving and relentless industry, was severe.

What I see are Child Protection staff working to establish a power base centred around controlling others and using very covert ways to punish, put down and denigrate others. Time and time again I see toxic relationships being developed between client and worker. I am sure that Social Workers don’t consider for a moment the power differential which exists between them and clients. I suspect that they rarely consider the language they use and the impact their decisions have on the wellbeing of the parent and child.

I am over hearing parents tell me that they have been told not to be emotional around their children during access. As one client stated to me this week. “They don’t have children of their own, they are so young, yet they ask me not to have any emotions when I see the children that I love and I only get to see them for one hour a week”. To ask a parent not to be emotional is just plain stupid. The idea that it will be upsetting to children is just as stupid. Kids need to see that expressing emotions is fine and particularly that they are not responsible for our emotions. What makes it worse is that the parent then is blamed for not moderating their emotions. It is an old fashioned idea which should be sent to the scrap heap. But what it does do is give the worker power and control over the parent and how the child is to experience them. Non-thinking, young social workers would get sucked into these ideas, unfortunately these ideas are propagated by older social workers who are even more stupid because they should be doing things differently. Parents who have these messages presented to them feel devalued, not listened too, disrespected and disempowered. None of this is going to improve the relationship between worker and client. Clients often become so resentful that they begin to push against the system and make life as uncomfortable as they can for the workers. I fail to see how generating two waring parties is about acting in the best interest of the child.

When are we ever going to understand that building relationships with disenfranchised parents is actually in the best interest of children? How are we ever going to break the cycle of abuse if we fail to understand that education and belief in the parent is an integral part of change. We fail to offer parents appropriate solutions to the problems that confront them. We blame them endlessly without weight to the fact that they are often the products of poor parenting.

We have to stop using attachment theory as a tool to justify the removal of a child and realise that the purpose of attachment theory was to educate parents about better ways to attach to their children. We should invest in attachment therapy and work with parents to better understand their own attachment needs rather than blame them for what their parents bestowed on them. 

All I see is the child protection system falsely believing that they are the better parent even though the statistics tell us something totally different. It is about time that Social Workers began to act like Social Workers and strive to change the way they work and to finally focus on the family. However what is lacking here are the skills required to do attain this goal. Social Workers, generally, lack counselling skills, advocacy skills, conflict resolutions skills, mediation skills, engagement skills, problem solving skills and many more. They lack knowledge concerning relationships, domestic violence, drug and alcohol use, gambling addiction and mental health.

From my perspective there are some massive changes which are required before the system works in the best interest of children. Social Workers are often only case managers, and the reason for this is that they are not expected to have the skills required to be effective at their work. It would be abhorrent to those who manage this industry if we actually worked to keep families together, after all it is really about the many people who profit from keeping children separate from their parents. We need to work differently so that parents can learn to nurture their children appropriately and break the cycle which has proved so damaging to them. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Advocacy and Social Work

For those of you who have read my previous blogs know that advocacy is something that I find particularly challenging. So I thought it was time to make some notes about this area of Social Work and how it impacts my practice and me personally.

There are a few guiding principles which are important to adhere to. We must use the three guiding principles of our profession as defined by our code of ethics.

  • Respect of Person.
  • Social Justice.
  • Professional Integrity.

As an advocate these underpin everything we do. In my experience my role as a Social Worker is to identify practices which contradict these three principles. Not listening to clients, dismissing what they say, devaluing them, being punitive, changing the rules, failing to follow through on what was promised, and many more are reasons why it is important for advocates to challenge such behaviours.

Even though other Social Workers may work within systems that don’t value the Social Work role it is no excuse for bad behaviour. Advocating for some clients may depend on these behaviours being identified and another Social Worker being appointed. Unhelpful behaviour will prohibit the work you are doing with the client just as much as the clients own behaviour may interfere with the process.

Advocacy is not glamorous nor would I say it is very rewarding. I can have a therapeutic counselling session with a client and look back and acknowledge that we made progress or the client had some realisation that caused them to think about their situation differently. I can have a number of those clients in one day. How satisfying is that?

Today I had a client whom I haven’t seen for some time call me and tell me that his relationship with his partner was the best it had ever been and he had learnt so much about his aggressive behaviour and has realised the impact this has had on his family. Now that was satisfying.

Even group work has some sensational moments of realisation and change.

However, advocacy work doesn’t have the same sense of satisfaction. The primary reason for this is that an advocate isn’t always looking for change in their client. This doesn’t mean that individual change isn’t required but often it isn’t what drives the work.

There are times though when change is needed and not just from the client. We may need to ask the client to behave differently in order to be heard and we may have to ask the “other side” to change their behaviour so that the client can be listened to.

It isn’t helpful if the client is yelling at others and threatening them. Bad behaviour makes it difficult for anyone to advocate for them. Often it is important to assess what are the barriers to advocating appropriately that may hinder the process. I have found when those barriers are created by the client then it is easier to seek change. Clients who trust us will often see the benefit in changing their behaviour if they understand that this will be the key to them getting what they want. Frankly, clients who continue to behave badly are better left alone. Many years ago I worked with a client who could not accept that his behaviour caused immeasurable harm to his cause and that if he continued to behave in an aggressive way he would never get his children back. Advocating for him and the subsequent court case was extremely damaging to me professionally. However, I learnt much from this experience and have never repeated the mistake.

Being an advocate isn’t always working so that the client gets what they want. I have worked with many clients who wanted to have their children returned to them and I could see that this was not going to happen because it wasn’t in the best interest of the child. This didn’t stop me from attending meetings so that access arrangements could be negotiated or so that a relationship between the client and other workers could be improved.

The strength of an advocate is that you are not automatically in the opposing camp. At the outset the client views you as someone who is prepared to listen to them and to at least understand their perspective. This doesn’t mean that you automatically accept the clients reasons why they believe that things should be different. We can certainly understand the reasons why they may feel so aggrieved but we must also assess the situation from our own Social Work perspective and assess what is in everyone’s best interest.

The major issue for me is that colleagues don’t often see the value of an advocate. Before we say anything we are often viewed as the “enemy”. Rather than this being an opportunity to collaborate and to discover productive ways of bringing about a solution we are seen as confronting and a hindrance. I have pondered this problem for sometime and can only surmise that this is brought about because some Social Workers believe that they are the “experts” in the clients life. In child protection in particular they are locked into the notion that they are working in the best interest of the child, to the exclusion of parents and other stakeholders. They are also fearful that their practice may be exposed as inadequate. If you hold that fear then you are open to be exposed and should be critiqued.

What drives me is the notion of Social Justice. This is a principle that all social workers should adhere too but few seem to understand what it means in the context of their practice. Fairness and equity are key principles. When I was at University we were taught that we needed to be aware of power differentials and that it was the role of the social worker to ensure that their language, appearance and settings did not disadvantage clients. I was taught that we were to be client centred and that the client was the expert in their lives. I was even taught that our role was to work with clients to empower them and that we could assist them to discover what changes they needed to make in their lives. For an advocate these are important principles.

As an advocate we are challenged by the situations clients find themselves in but we are even more challenged by the systems which are created to make it difficult for the most vulnerable in our community to be heard. Unfortunately most of the gatekeepers in these systems are Social Workers.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Its Politics that keeps children in care

Recently I was told that Families SA would not support the return of a clients child to the mother regardless of the changes the mother had made. As disappointing as this is it caused me to wonder about the reasons such a decision would be made given that the social workers working with the mother and child would agree that the mother is more than capable of looking after and caring for her daughter. If I was to ask what the reasons were, I am sure I would receive a response that was unsatisfactory so it is better not to ask. What I am left to do is speculate.

I believe that if this mother was “mother Theresa” it wouldn’t change their decision. The reason for this is that if they began to release children back into their parents care it would be admitting that perhaps they didn’t do their job properly in the first instance, which in this case they didn’t. They would set a precedent which would mean that more parents such as my client would see the department as “weakening” and these parents would also want their children back. What would they do if they happened to make a mistake? None of the reasons why they would not return a child to someone like my client has anything to do with the child’s wellbeing, and certainly has nothing to do with Social Work.

In fact the real reasons why they wont return the child will be played out in court by Crown solicitors who don’t give a damn about the child anyway and who are more interested in acting for their self serving masters. Everyone who supports the mother will be questioned in an effort to prove that they are really not supportive of the mother or to find some fault in their testimony which will make them appear unreliable. None of this is about what is in the best interest of the child it becomes all about winning the case.

The likes of David Waterford, who represents the state care system in this state, need to understand that they are a terrible parent and in some cases are not acting in the best interest of the children. There is something quite ironical about the notion that David is the “Head of the Household” but never meets the children. Talk about an absent father. The “Waterford Factor” is the idea that under no circumstances where a child is on a GOM 18 should they be returned to their parent/s. This is in essence contradicts all that we as Social Workers stand for. Social Work is about change and those of us who do this work no and work for change in individuals, and experience it. When a parent changes significantly and this change is sustained then they need be rewarded. Somehow within child protection that is a strange notion.

As much as I admire David and others like him for the effort they are putting into changing the structures under which they work and the way David supports, sometimes blindly, his staff, I know that very little will change as long as The Waterford Factor” is present. When Child Protection becomes about “politics” decisions will always be made which are not about what is in the child’s best interest.

If the Social Workers workers who are working with my client were given the authority to do what they considered was in the child’s best interest the child would probably be with her mother today or at least close to reunification. But because these people are not seeing the political impact of such a decision they are prohibited from doing what is in the best interest of the child. For some Social Workers working within child protection this must be very frustrating. It would be a wonderful thing if you all could make a stand and express your beliefs and social work values. It would be refreshing to have you speak out against the restrictions that you experience when attempting to practice social work.

I was reminded at a recent meeting that Child Protection plays a part in keeping children safe. I was also reminded, AGAIN, that it is all about what is in the best interest of the child. People keep reminding me of this because they, through these veiled comments, are suggesting that I haven’t the child’s best interests in mind. That is utter crap. My assessment of parents is thorough and comprehensive. I have never advocated for a child to be returned to a parent where I have had concerns for the child’s safety. 

For all social workers it is important to understand that we are not to become involved in politics which is harmful, disrespectful and which is not in accord with Social Work values. The danger has always been that “The Waterford Factor” ignores the needs of individuals and focus’s on political structures and risk. It fails to understand what Social Work represents and how effective Social Work can be in changing peoples lives.