Monday, September 20, 2010

Response to Jeremy Summut and Child Protection

I was listening to Jeremy Summut talk about child protection on radio national tonight and then searched for more information on the man and other things he may have said about the subject. He seems to have easy access to the ABC so they obviously regard him as somewhat of an expert on the subject. One of his entries on the ABC.

His statements on the whole are unhelpful because he seems to lose sight of the fundamental problem. Summut believes that the Child Protection Services are more interested in preserving the families than they are in protecting children from harm. My work with Families SA has proved to be a little different from that. On the whole the focus is definitely on what is in the best interest of the child, well that is the mantra presented at most meetings with Social Workers. I certainly support that notion, and I don’t think anyone would dare to suggest anything different.

What Summut and others fail to talk about is the decision making process and the experience of those making the decisions. Then there is the supervisory support offered those making the decisions and the way the supervision of social workers and psychologists is conducted. Then there is the one I love and that is that none of these people are accountable to anyone. They are professionals but most of them, particularly social workers are not compelled to belong to their peak body, the AASW. They are shielded by their organisation and only answerable to people who support the negative aspects of the work they do.

If Mr Summut wants the system to change then he needs to understand more about the profession which underpins the problem, Social Work. Social Work has a specific way of critical analyses which incorporates a more systemic view of the world and which takes into account all the facets of a person’s life. The balancing act between what is in the best interest of the child and the parents propensity for change cannot be ignored but in many cases is not even considered. As a Social Worker I have seen many parents change as a result of the intervention of social workers at Families SA, now that has definitely been in the best interest of the children. I have also seen parents change and the changes not even recognised by the Social Workers. Inconsistency is another issue. The inability to have consistent protocols and values is appalling and puts more children and their families at risk than anything else.

Then there is my pet problem which seems to be ignored by Mr Summut and that is societies failure to understand that if we are not able to change the parent then they will continue to have more children who will become GOM kids. So while Mr Summut dismisses parents as being important perhaps he could calculate for us all the cost benefit if we worked with every family who have multiple children in government care and what we could save if 50% of those families found better ways of parenting after their first child was removed. The problem Mr Summut is that we give up on them too easily, just like you. That we don’t cherish the family and what it represents in all its forms. I know that when we work with the family productively we have great outcomes. What we need to do is find ways to engage and understand the systemic problems which have brought the children into the gaze of the Minister in the first place.

Child protection is all about protecting children from harm. It is also about demonstrating better ways of engagement with parents so that we can develop partnerships which work towards change. I certainly don’t have an issue where it is evident that parents are not able to change at this stage. I have a problem where unrealistic goals are set in a short period of time and parents are set up to fail.

Summut’s response to this problem is too simplistic and way left of centre. It is narrow and regardless of the research he says he has done it is tainted with a narrow view of the problem.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Who notices what you do?

I have often thought about the loneliness of the work we do. In my world everyday I am confronted by the sad stories of my clients. They come to me because they want help. Whatever that looks like. I listen and try as best as is possible to understand what they have experienced. For the hour they spend with me I focus exclusively on their experiences and the emotional pain many of these experiences have caused them. Clients express all the range of emotions you can imagine during that hour. Some leave relieved that they have been able to expel their feelings. From these emotions they develop understandings that they wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for this experience. Others come to me because they just want to be understood and validated in some way. There are so many reasons why clients visit with me and not all of them are helpful (eg. to validate bad behaviour).

The clients I enjoy working with the most are those who are the most disempowered in the community - those who are looking for a sense of justice and someone who will go beyond being a counsellor and who will advocate for them. These clients want a voice amongst a screaming bureaucracy and professionals who have all the power and impose that power with little to no understanding of the clients experiences. I love this work because it represents the best form of Social Work.

It has its problems though because there is no funding for this work in private practice and all I ever receive from other professionals is negativity. I will be waiting for a long time before I hear any of those professionals I work with while advocating for clients tell me that they appreciate the work I do. I know I am an irritation to many of them because I am there to speak for my client. One would think that within the Social Work profession we would celebrate difference. To have someone critique your work and to suggest other ways of working I would have thought was a positive aspect of Social Work. We haven’t developed as a profession where we see this as an essential aspect of he work we do even though it is codified in the AASW code of ethics.

I am aware that amongst child protection workers I am often seen as “the enemy”. I am frustrated that the work I do is not valued. I am angry that I am viewed as an irritation. I am resentful that there are some social workers who haven’t even met me pass judgement on me because of what others have said about me. I am disappointed in my own profession because no one has supported me in the work I do. I have attended many meetings over the years with other social workers who bag Families SA in ways that I would never think of doing but none of them have ever confronted the organisation or workers about unhelpful practices. They tend to hide amongst anonymity and the sly comment when they think they are talking to a sympathetic listener, but they do nothing. 

So I am like the “Shag on the rock”, easy pickings and a clear shot, for anyone who wants to take out their frustrations. Not only do I not get paid for the work I do with this client group but it is emotionally exhausting. Recently a client told me that her partner stated that I wasn’t doing enough for them to have their child returned to them. Not only have I been working for them for twelve months without any payment what so ever, I field calls from them evenings and on weekends. I have meetings about their case at the highest possible level. I feel their pain and frustration. I keep this to myself but it has a toll. I go through periods when I lack enthusiasm and start staring down a very dark and deep hole. This is not a good place to be.

I am not seeking sympathy but I am seeking understanding. I know that I am reasonably competent at what I do. My goal has always been to work as a partnership with other professionals because it is through that sort of collegiate enterprise that we will have the best outcomes. I know from experience that is the case. We need to understand what it means to have other critique the work we do and we need to understand that the more we understand the practices of others, either helpful or not, we will be develop a better and more comprehensive idea of our own practice. This produces better outcomes for clients.