Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The cost of having a voice

I am enthralled when I hear someone fighting in the best way they can for what they believe in. It doesn’t matter whether they are right or wrong in the eyes of others what matters is that they have found the strength to state their version of the truth and often in choosing colourful  language to do so. You can hear their anger at the injustice they believe has been perpetrated against them and others. You can hear the desperation to be heard. You can hear the pain associated with being a lone voice. Sometimes you hear the intelligence and courage associated with not being compliant to a system which is more powerful.

I was inspired to write this blog because recently I have been considering what it means to be an advocate and what it means to self-advocate. There is a Facebook page attacking Families SA in the most ferocious and I believe the most unhelpful ways. It is full of personal attacks, naming workers and threatening physical harm. Even though I accept the emotions expressed I wonder about what some of these people wish to accomplish. As a social worker I would be very concerned to think that children were in the care of people who expressed their anger in such aggressive ways. I know that if I was a worker who was threatened in this way it could generate a degree of fear which would impede the work I do. I can remember a time when I had to lock down my office because of a threat from a client. It was a very uncomfortable period and one I wouldn’t wish on anyone. It does anything but enhance the relationship with the workers.

Recently a client, when told the department was going for a GOM 18, she destroyed the office and threatened the workers. They placed a restraining order on her and decided that what they saw was the sum total of this woman and therefore she wouldn’t ever get her children returned to her. She attended an anger program and realised how unhelpful this behaviour was and wrote a letter apologizing for her behaviour and acknowledging how this must have impacted the workers. The letter was beautifully written and full of remorse, it was genuine. But regretfully the damage was done. Fighting back from this position is almost impossible. I can understand the emotions of the moment but there is no excuse for threatening and damaging behaviour. I do wonder how this news was delivered and what effort the workers had made to engage with the client in a meaningful way in the first place.

However what inspired me to write this is also a YouTube video where a person visited by child protection services videoed the proceedings. To view the video click here. This is an interesting exercise in what to do and what not to do. He told them when he first opened the door that he was going to record the event. They were on his property so he was entitled to do what he wanted I guess. The Social Worker though objected and became defensive from that moment on. Any form of negotiating was lost from that moment. I would have thought that an important aspect of Social Work is to engage the client. The Social Worker, if quick enough, could have responded by saying, “that is a great idea, you then wouldn’t mind if we recorded what happens as well?” Being defensive creates clouded thinking and prohibits clear and creative ideas.

I am not sure why the police were present, I have no information concerning the history of this person, but the police represent power and authority, which probably indicates that the workers were not feeling very confident in their skills to engage with the client. This probably says more about the workers than the client.

I loved the way the client was specific about his rights. Why is it such a surprise to workers to have someone state their rights in this manner and then for the workers to become almost offended when they are asked to leave the property. In the second video I loved the way the client asked who signed the warrant and if it was really a magistrate. A little over the top perhaps but a sign of too much confidence at this stage. I become very frustrated when I hear people justifying their position to people who don’t give a damn. It was obvious the Social Worker was not interested in what the client was saying even though to her credit she remained silent for most of his explanation.

Why didn’t the Social Worker ask him questions, which explored his experiences? Why didn’t she offer him feedback, paraphrasing or summarising, to demonstrate that she was listening and understanding him? Why couldn’t she identify his strengths, his love for his daughter, his efforts to be a good father etc? Why couldn’t this have become a positive experience instead of a confrontational exercise in who wields the most power?

How hard would it have been to have said to the client, “look, how about we sit down here on the steps and talk about what is happening to you and see if we can help?” I believe that statements of this kind if delivered with sincerity and supported by the appropriate skill set can turn most situations into a mutually beneficial experience.

What was very disappointing was that even though he knew the workers were going to return the following day he made no effort to clean up the home. I have no idea if the condition of the home was a significant issue but the fact that the workers were keen to look through it should have been an indicator that it was a major factor in their investigations. I would have spent all night cleaning the house. So I wonder what motivated him to take no action. If it was arrogance and too much self confidence or a burning desire to have a confrontation then unfortunately I have very little sympathy for him. All the good advocacy he did and the video are worth nothing.

This is not about how loud we can shout or how cleverer than others we are, it is about protecting kids from harm and for a lot of people, about not having them removed, but sometimes I see people, from both sides, acting in ways which are counter productive and damaging to the cause. It saddens me.


  1. Perhaps the post could have an alternate title- the basis of power relationships.

    Your articles are for a social worker uncharacteristically honest about limitations / problems of the child protection system.

    However much one knows, or has a voice, if one does something to 'displease' a social worker the 'vindictive' element of power is often exerted by the social worker. Although this might be said to be a human reaction, professionalism in social work needs an honest open relationship and a moral/ ethical one, knowing where the power base actually is. Regardless of the client 'having a voice'.

    Pillows can smother voices to death. 'One Flew over the Cuckoo's nest' probably is relevant to much of social work practises now. Hence the growing backlash and derision associated with social workers.

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