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.