Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Emotions–How important are they?

I have written about emotions a few years ago but because of my involvement in other areas I have failed to focus on this aspect of my practice. The passion of the injustices I experience seem to be more important than the fundamentals of therapeutic practice. So for a while I will let the issues around child protection go and give my blog a more diverse flavour.

Recently I was watching an episode of “Insight” (SBS TV) which discussed how we retain memories when we have experienced a trauma and how we process the emotions relating to the trauma. A focus on emotions is important to my practice and the role they play in informing us of events in our lives is pivotal. 

The term “emotional intelligence” is commonly used these days in order to either sell a few books or programs that tell us that if we can develop more EI we will be happier and healthier. I don’t know if that is true or the hype developed by those who are have a vested interest in this concept. What I have done over the years is develop my own model and theories around emotions which are not necessarily substantiated by any research or supported by any theory. This is the Tony Tonkin version of emotions. An idea which works with my clients and offers insights and understandings about their experiences.

Over the past 20 years I have run many programs which discussed anger. I decided a long time ago that we wouldn’t call one of these programs “Anger Management” but rather “What to do about anger’ or “Understanding Anger”. I wondered why we would want to manage anger and how do we manage an emotion anyway? For years I was also confused about the difference between “emotions” and “feelings”. In a moment of rare insight and profound understanding I discovered that “emotions” are a cluster of feelings, which cause an intense experience which we call “emotional”. For some years I would draw on the white board a very poor version of an ice berg and one day realised that the anger which was the part of the iceberg that was above the water line was a cluster of all the feelings under the water line. No one that I had worked with over the years had made the connection. The “anger” was always described as the behaviour which everyone could see. Anger was always portrayed as the emotion being expressed as behaviour. The problem with this was the notion that there was something wrong with  feeling “Angry” and that anger equalled bad behaviour.

Anger, like any other feeling or group of feelings (emotion) is the way we acknowledge our experiences.Without feelings we would be no more than a cardboard cut out or a robot. Feelings are our soul, they are the most intricate and vital part of the human experience. Yet we resist understanding our feelings, even worse we refuse to even identify them.

We know that the brain struggles to differentiate between physical and emotional pain. If it sees emotional pain as the same as physical pain then it makes sense that there would be some form of resistance. It seems rather contradictory though that we don’t store physical pain but we do emotional pain. I guess we learn not to touch a hot stove, we don’t even have to touch one to know that it will generate physical pain. People throughout our life are telling us how we are to interact with the world, who we should associate with, what we should or shouldn’t be ingesting, that there are consequence for our behaviour and so on. In my experience very few people tell us that it is okay to feel.

The very aspect of our lives which needs to be acknowledged and which we need to be encouraged to embrace we are often told to ignore. The result is that our emotions, which are as significant as oxygen, are not expressed appropriately which leads to unhelpful behaviour, poor health and terrible relationships. I know from personal experience the confusion which emanates from the failure to understand our emotions. I often wrestle with what my feelings are telling me. I also know that the decisions needed when you do understand what your emotions are telling you are often not decisions that you want to make. It is easier therefore to ignore the feelings and continue on the path you have chosen because you know that a certain path is going to create more emotional pain and uncertainty.

Even though our emotions tell us where we have been, where we are now and the direction we may need to take, following the message is not always easy. Understanding our emotions means that we are going to be better informed and even though we may wish to remain in emotional despair at least we have an emotional context to work with. It is a relief to be able to say “this relationship makes me feel devalued, hopeless and helpless, but I also know where these feelings come from and they will only play out in the present if I give them permission to do so.” We can now change the thought patterns which create these emotions by realising because my parents referred to me as hopeless doesn’t mean that I have to accept that version of myself any longer. Understanding that the messages given to you, for example,  in your relationship, would not have the influence and power if we weren’t holding onto messages of the past and the feelings those messages generated.

There is much that can be written about this topic. I would be interested in you thoughts. Feel free to comment.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Child Protection and the Role of Social Workers

It was with a great sense of sadness that during this week a worker for Families SA was arrested for taking images of children and disseminating them. It is sad at a number of levels - for the children who are in the care of the state to have them violated in this way is abhorrent. Every citizen should be horrified that these children were not protected by the very department whose role and duty it is to protect them. It is sad for their family who have had their children removed because they were deemed ill equipped to care for them  and then discover that their children were abused by the very “people”, used loosely here,  who criticised them for being “bad parents”. 

I am not angry at the department for employing this person because if you don’t have a record, are clean in every possible way then you are likely to get through the system. This is not the departments fault, unfortunately it is the way it is.

What does annoy me is Weatherall’s knee jerk reaction to the idea  that men are not able to be employed in these roles because for some reason men cannot be trusted. Personally this is insulting to those men who wish to work with children but are tainted by the behaviour of a few. We need to be careful that we don’t tarnish all men because of a few men, very few.

However, it is important at times like this to look for different ways of working that are more likely to keep children safe. Since the story broke about this worker, not a social worker by the way, it has brought into tighter focus the role of Child Protection Workers. A Royal Commission in South Australian has been called to investigate Families SA and amongst many things, the way workers practice. Even though I see this as a positive idea I am concerned that they will fail to focus on the real problem.

We need to evaluate Social Work practice in accord with the AASW’s Code of Ethics and the Practice Standards. I doubt if the Commission will  hold these two documents up for comparison with Social Work practice as it is practiced within Child Protection. I have my doubts that someone with a true understanding of these standards and the difference it would make to Child Protection if they were upheld will point out the benefits that would be offered. 

The key element of Social Work is defined in the Code of Ethics. The citation below clearly explains what every Social Worker should strive to attain.

The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance wellbeing.
Utilising theories of human behavior and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work.

Our role is to find ways which liberate and empower people so that patterns of abuse and ways of thinking can change. I love the statement that “social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments”. It seems to me that it is important that we understand what those “points” are and to develop interventions which meet the needs of the client. Often Social Workers don’t bother to explore the myriad intersections which sit in a persons life. It is the role of every Social Worker to be interested enough in every client to dissect the intersections and begin working with the thoughts and beliefs which are informed by the systems which have governed a persons experiences and often informed them of how they  interact with their environment.

I was astonished when I was working with a client who had her children removed and discovered that the removal of her children was the fourth generation that were removed from their parents. I wondered who was aware of this and whether they considered this a generational issue and what conversations they were having with the client? What would it mean to understand the barriers and beliefs which keep this family locked into poor parenting and abusive behaviour? I wonder what it would mean to map the history of abuse and what action could have been taken over the decades that could have changed this history? This seems like an important place intervene.

When we intervene in a persons life we need to be mindful of the person’s “rights”. In child protection every parent has the right to “change”. Every parent has the “right” to be a parent and to have access to their children. Every child has the right to have a substantial connection with parents and other kinship relationships.

We need to be reminded as to who is our client. According to the Code of Ethics and the Practice Standards our clients are:-

… individuals, families and other kinship arrangements, groups,
communities, organisations and societies, especially those who are neglected,
vulnerable, disadvantaged, alienated or have exceptional needs.

Often, too often, I will hear Social Workers say that they are acting “in the best interest of the client”. The competing idea here is that all stakeholders are our client. There is no exception. It seems to me that when a worker tells me that they are basically saying they don’t care for the parents and others because the child is more important. Certainly the child is important and if at risk clearly needs to be removed. However this idea that the child is more important exonerates the worker from working with the parent and other stakeholders. Often, particularly where the child is young the time spent working on the child’s needs are limited. The fact that the parents need additional support and services suddenly makes Child Protection a little more difficult. Most Social Workers don’t have the skills, knowledge and training to understand the intricacies that are required to work with vulnerable adults. 

I also dislike people telling me that child protection is complicated. If you are working to care for the child and the child alone then it isn’t that complicated. Sure peoples lives are complicated, almost everyone’s life is complicated at some level. I have many middle class clients and even though many don’t have the range of issues that other clients may have I can tell you that many of their lives are very complicated. What is it that makes the work of a Child Protection worker so complicated? Perhaps it is the decision making and the fear that they may get it wrong, leave a child in a home and have it abused or remove a child when it was not necessary? I understand that, but I also understand that the more skilled a worker is and the better the supervision the better the outcome for all concerned. I also know that the stress of this work and the likelihood of “burnout” will be minimal.

Why then don’t we get it “right”? People don’t understand the basic tenants of the very profession to which they identify. It is time that people stopped considering Child Protection as some unique mode of practice and begin to understand that Social Work ethics and principles is the beginning point. From here we have to develop certain skills which enable us to be better practitioners.

I hope that we will begin to take a different view of  practice as a result of the current focus on child protection.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Giving People a Voice

This post is a little unusual for me because it focuses on a business venture that my wife and I have recently established. A couple of years ago my wife and a friend decided that they wanted to put together a collection of ideas, from women, concerning the spiritual journey that many of their friends reported experiencing. This eventuated in a collection of stories from 16 women. This book was published by a local publisher but we had to do the hard yards and launch it and pay for it. We wondered if we could do the same. We didn’t know anything about publishing but surely it couldn’t be that hard.

The original idea which came with that first book was a good one and we became excited when we thought of providing more people with the opportunity to tell their stories. People’s Voice Publishing soon became a reality and before long we had our first project underway.

My wife is a Forgotten Australian and her clan were finding ways to be heard. A book telling of their experiences seemed a great way to begin the business. We were new at this publishing business so we were not very aware of the time taken to edit and develop art work as well as setting pages for printing.

What is exciting is the difference people telling their stories has on the healing process. I know, as a Social Worker, how important it is for stories to be told. To understand anyone we need to know  their story, we need to know their struggles, their emotions, their reservations, their personal doubts. Telling a personal story enables reflection, consideration and reflection. What is eventually printed on the page is a compilation of all of this.

Writing a story is giving people permission to know you. It is saying – you may not like were I have been but this has determined who I am today. I am not the product of my past but I am able to present my past to you and I need you to acknowledge where I have come from and that where I am now and plan to go to in the future is a far better place.

We are providing the opportunity for people to tell their story. To fulfil that goal we now need people to read their stories. You can do that by buying their stories at http://peoplesvoicepublishing.com.au/ .

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Reflective Practice as a tool for organisations

Recently I had the opportunity to work with a corporate client where we discussed Reflective Practice in supervision. It was an opportunity to discuss social work concepts within a corporate structure. Over many years I have worked with organisations discussing conflict resolution or acting as a support when staff were being retrenched or providing therapeutic services. This was the first time though that I had the opportunity to present to a staff member the concept of working at a more in depth level.

There was one particular staff member who was causing some difficulties. The staff member had a sense of entitlement around what he thought could be done and what he believed was within his job description. For some time the organisation had ignored certain behaviours because he was doing the principle work for which he was employed, but he was failing to do some of the more minor tasks which made it difficult for management to report on the activities within his department.

In my experience, organisations generally don’t understand what good supervision should look like. This not only applies to Corporations but also applies in Human Services and Government Departments. For the most part supervision comprises of a set of tasks which were to be met by the employee and moving through those tasks with a manager or supervisor.

This is not supervision this is case management, micro management or activity review or something else but it is not supervision. Supervision is not just the opportunity to reflect on the work someone has completed or not completed but it is an opportunity to reflect with the employee how they are functioning at work. Most managers, and I feel confident in saying “most”, are reluctant to explore anything beyond the work load and the tasks assigned. However the workplace is more than this.

When exploring this recently with the manager I asked him if he knew what “work” meant to this troublesome employee? He could tell me that this staff member had few interests outside work and viewed his colleagues as his “family”. It became evident that the meaning of “work” was extremely significant to him. I wondered how significant it would be for the manager, and “supervision” in particular, to contemplate what “work” meant to this staff member.

The next question which needs to be explored is how, in this new found context, could questions be constructed which gave further insight into why this person chooses to behave in a certain way which would put his employment at risk. It is possible that his application to certain tasks is about building and establishing relationships and anything which doesn't feed that notion is seen as less valuable. We maybe able to see why building relationships are important, they represent “family”, so through a reflective practice model we may find the way to explore the significance of family. It may be possible to understand and therefore explore how this person would feel if they were separated from the “work family”?

By understanding the importance of work and family for this person we may be able to develop a strategy to help them meet the managers needs to have the paper work and other tasks completed.
In essence this process allows the manager to see the employee in a different context which changes the problem solving technique. Solutions when seen from the other persons perspective offer us with an opportunity to develop a win/win. Granted, we have to be a little more creative when we focus on meeting the needs of others as well as our own. Meeting others needs as well as our own is a little more complicated.
What I love about Social Work is the application it offers corporations.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Never Giving Up

Over the past couple of months I have wondered why I continue working to have people heard and regardless of the knockbacks and rejection. I have often wondered about the toll it takes on my emotional and physical well-being.

What I have come to realise is that if I give up on clients I will be giving up not just on them but on everything I believe in. It is important to be true to your beliefs and to those whom you believe in. Change doesn't come about by idly waiting for it. History tells us that those who have brought about social change have had to fight with determination and an ingrained belief that the fight has value and will bring about the required result.

Change is not about getting what you want. It is about changing ingrained beliefs and systems which have remained often impenetrable. It has been important to resist the negativity one receives from other colleagues and to make a stand for the sake of the client. I think many of us give up because the battle wearies us and we would prefer to live a life which is free of the struggles associated with fighting against a system which conflicts with our own values. I fail to see how so many Social Workers can have the same training but yet fail to understand what it is that we do and how working for our clients is based on a simple but not understand standard of social justice.

Yesterday a client called stating that she was feeling bullied by a worker who objected to her attending access with her brother. There were valid concerns about the brothers history of Domestic Violence but there should never have been any concerns about the brothers violence towards the clients daughter. It is this idea that we must categorize, label and place in a box everyone who has acted badly. I fail to understand how berating my client and causing her to distrust her own judgement regarding the welfare of her child is good social work. It is reasonable for someone to have concerns based on his history but it seems more prudent to explore this with the client rather than destroy the relationship with her. This is an example of the lack of empathy, the refusal to engage appropriately that I find extremely frustrating.

The pervading issue is whether this type of social work needs to be challenged? How do you confront it? Is anyone going to do anything about it anyway? Probably not. However, it needs to be challenged for the sake of the client. This, though, presents another problem. That is the isolation and negative impact it has on the client by other workers. I have mentioned in other posts that if I believe that my intervention is damaging to the client then I would need to withdraw. What I have come to realise though is that these days my very presence can present as a conflict for other workers because of the reputation I have developed. Not that this is my desire. I would rather work collaboratively with other workers. The resistance is not of my making - it is a symptom of their belief system, the belief that they will be made accountable for their actions and their failure to accept responsibility for how they behave. I also believe that many Social Workers view criticism by an "outsider" as intrusive and lacking insight. Perhaps this is true. However, when it comes to social work practice I am as well informed as anyone who values their profession and understands the principles from which we work.

So should we give up. The answer is NO. By giving up we are letting our profession down we are being silenced by unjust beliefs and inequity. We are not demonstrating what it means to be a social worker. Above all we are letting our clients down. We have to remain focussed on what it means to be a social worker and for me it is vital that I maintain my integrity by never giving up on my profession.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Mental Health and Patient “A”

While in my car today I happened to turn to a radio station and found myself listening with a great deal of interest to a segment called background briefing. You can listen to the broadcast here.

This is an interesting analyses of the power of the Psychiatric profession and how once in the mental health system a person can become lost, devalued, mis-diagnosed and dehumanised.

It is somewhat scary to hear how the psychiatrists justify what they do. Listen how the profession justify “capacity”. One wonders who has the mental illness.

Please comment on what you think after you have listened to the program.

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.