Saturday, February 20, 2010

Social Work and those who don't like you

As you may already know from some of my previous posts I am involved in working with families of children who have been removed by Child Protection Services. A couple of days ago I was contacted by a TV station to see if I would be interviewed and offer professional comment that will support their story around the dysfunction of the agency which manages child protection in this state. The thought of putting myself "out there" is when I am confronting individuals or small groups of people is fine but where thousands of people will see me is another thing all together. What will I say? Will it make any sense? Will I look like an idiot? It was predictable that all they wanted to take was very small portion to support their story. Talk about five seconds of fame.

It has been lovely how so many of my friends who happened to not blink and see the segment have commented so politely. Now there is one exception to this and this is the reason for this blog. Many years ago I was asked to work with a client of a friend of mine who worked with Families SA. My friend, a fellow social worker, asked if I would work with this client to help him manage some intimidating behaviour. My experience working with men is that often if the desire is strong enough and the consequences significant we can make some significant changes.

There was certainly no doubt he wanted to have his children returned to him and his partner, but his behaviour was so extreme that he kept on putting people off side. He intimidated and bullied everyone he met. The reception staff at the office were fearful of him. Other workers took restraining orders out against him. Regardless of all of this I did believe that he had some genuine grievances against the department and even though he didn't have the skills to express these and acted badly I still needed to express his concerns in an appropriate way.

He calls me on occasions to let me know of his latest efforts to abuse others and that he is going to make people pay for what they have done to him. He hasn't directed this sort of behaviour at me to this point. Well, when he saw me on television he called me within thirty seconds telling me that I was on television because of the support he had offered me. Hold on, this had nothing to do with him at all. Where was all this crap coming from? After a minute of abuse I hung up. Then he called me again and I didn't answer the call and he left a message which was vile and abusive. He has clearly become worse and more obsessed over the years.

A part from writing about the experience I discovered that I was able to let it go. Within five minutes I was able to enter a group I was running and have one of the best sessions I have had for a long time.

There was a time when I would have been hurt by what he said and the intensity of my feelings would have been almost debilitating, but that didn't happen. Regardless of what he said I was able to move on and not allow someones version of me take over and affect me negatively. What I have been able to realise is that no matter how dedicated and professional we are we are not going to please everyone. With the work I have been doing with clients of Families SA and the conflict this produces I now realise that I am unable to change entrenched views. It interests me that some professionals in the department which this client has been battling for years have a very similar view of the world. They are "right" and to be critiqued is simply a no go zone. Like the abusive client, they are not prepared to view other ways of working which will enhance their interactions with others.

It is sad that some can't find ways to stand back and acknowledge the damage their behaviour does to others.

How nice it is to realise that the power is not to be shared with others but it is something which sits inside me and belongs to no other.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Workplace Bullying

For many years I have been working to help organisations face the problem of workplace bullying as well as writing programs which best address the issue. How long does it take before a significant even has to take place before a vital issue such as this becomes newsworthy enough for the media and others to report the damage done from disrespectful and harmful workplaces. Last week the owner of a cafe and his employees were fined a substantial amount of money because of the death caused by them of an employee who was bullied. We know that bullying takes place, most workers have experienced it or seen it perpetrated against others. Most of us though do nothing about it.

By doing nothing means that we are as liable as those who bullied. If there was someone who had noticed the bullying of the young women who suicided then perhaps she would have felt protected from those who were doing the bullying and encouraged to leave. Who knows what the outcome may have been but it could have been different from what eventuated. By ignoring bullying we are saying it is okay and we are putting lives at risk. If we all made a stand against disrespectful behaviour we would create working environments which would be far more productive, fun to work in and enhance our sense of wellbeing.

If only we could learn that to acknowledge that we have hurt someone is not about being a wimp and that asking how you can behave differently isn't about giving up your power but enhancing it. How many managers do we know who practice any of this? If they are not practicing it then how can we expect them to "get it" and therefore how impossible would it be to ask them to change.

I have reflected on cultural change since I worked in Rockhampton for three months to do just that. Unless you have the big stick and the authority not much is going to change. All the training programs you can afford are not going to change entrenched bullying. There is not a program or worker on the face of this earth who is able to change the culture of an organisation unless those at the top are prepared to support any effort to change and model those changes.

More people will have their lives ruined or die at the hands of bullies. It is about time we all did something about it. Say NO to bad behaviour - talk about how it makes you feel - tell them how you expect them to behave - explain the consequences if they choose not to change. You may not be important enough to them for them to want to change their behaviour. Accept that not everyone thinks and behaves as you do. But remember that most people do. Find those that do because together you may have the power to make a difference.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Social workers - who are we?

It is evident, to me any way, that many of us struggle to articulate who we are, what we do and what makes us different from other professions. I wonder why this is so difficult. For a number of years I have been supervising University Students who are on placement and am amazed how many of them are unable to explain any of the above. It is somewhat disturbing that a fourth year student is unable to articulate not only what social work is but why they chose to spend four years towards a degree in the first place. What sort of Social Workers are we producing if they are unable to express what the profession is about and how they practice social work. It is no wonder that the public and other professions have a skewed and misunderstood of what social worker is. A worker for a large federal government department viewed social workers as people who hand out bus tickets to those who can't afford them. For some social workers that may be the total limit of their skill set.

The universities don't seem to value the profession. You don't need a very high TER to make it into university. Not that I see that as bad thing but just think for a moment how the profession would be viewed if we limited places and the TER was say 95? Would a high TER add value to the profession? Would this also mean that we would take more notice of what the profession meant? We would probably become elitist academics who had no idea of equity and fairness.

So what is it that prohibits the inability to articulate the great virtues of this great profession. It could be that no one models them. Perhaps those doing the modeling, back to teachers and supervisors, don't get it either.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Child Protection and Social Work Practice

For some time now I have been working with parents of children who have been removed by Families SA the child protection agency in South Australia. Even though this work has not been all that financially rewarding there is something about this work which represents social work in its purist form. Representing clients who are the most marginalised in our community is what social work is meant to do. In all our work it is about acknowledging the strengths, dignity and worth of all our clients. In this work it is imperative that we use our social work skills to enhance the experiences of people who have suffered the extreme experience of having their children removed from them or being removed from their family.

The work of social workers within child protection is vital because it is about keeping children safe. The childs needs are paramount and this is certainly acknowledged myself through the work I do. However the system and the practice of some social workers needs to be challenged. Here is the problem. This is such a complicated area and one which needs to be understood and critiqued. I am the first to admit that I don't understand all that I can about child protection but I am able to inform my practice in this area by adhering to the basic principles of practice as outlined through the AASW's code of ethics and the Practice Manual. The practice manual states that regardless of the area in which we work the principles of practice remain the same. When offering a critique of practice we need to keep this in mind.

I have been criticised for offering a critique of practice and recently I have had two different clients tell me that they have been told that I have a vendetta against Families SA. I need to be clear here that this could not be furtherest from the truth. The reality is that there are some social workers who don't understand the difference between a difference of opinion and personal criticism. I am open to a critique of my own practice and welcome the opportunity to talk about what I do and why I do it and what it means to the client and the community. It interests me that some social workers from Families SA will not engage in this process. What they seem to do is disengage from conversations and in two instance have refused to have conversations with me about the clients we jointly represent. This has proved to disadvantage the client and prohibited my practice by disengaging with me when issues of paramount concern to the client are not relaid to the clients social worker. This effectively is restrictive of trade and contravenes the AASW Code of Ethics. More of the impact of this in another post.