Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Abuse of Power

It has been some concern of mine, for some time, that social workers within the child protection system abuse their power and authority. I emphasise, that this is not always the case, but on many occasions I experience social workers using their authority as a weapon against vulnerable clients.

Recently I attended a meeting between the Department of Child Protection and a client and her workers. The issue which needed to be discussed was the clients drug use. There is no doubt that this was a matter which needed to be raised and had to be confronted by all of us, including the client. Rather than accepting that the client had made a mistake, the mistake needed to be addressed, and then a pathway to move on needed to be discovered.

It was apparent that the client felt embarrassed and humiliated by a poor decision that she had made. Rather than accepting where the client was at that particular time and understanding how she felt it seemed more important for the social workers to hammer home the point that she was a serial drug user. We need to understand that if a client has a long term drug addiction that the expectation that they will not ever have a moment where they are enticed back into their old habits is unrealistic. In the area of child protection we understand that a drug addiction hinders a parent's ability to be able to parent appropriately. There is no denying that it is important for parents to address these concerns, but to expect a person who has a long-term addiction to not return to that addiction in the short term places undue pressure upon the client and adds to their duress.

This doesn't mean that we offer excuses for returning to the addiction, but what it does mean is that we understand the struggle required in order to manage the anxiety and stress, which is caused when someone is attempting to refrain from their drug use. When a client has ticked all the boxes, demonstrated that they have the parenting capacity required to look after, care for, and nurture their child and then revisiting of their drug addiction becomes paramount, it discounts all of the work they have done in order to demonstrate to the department that they have the capabilities required in order to become the parents they need to be. I am not advocating that maintaining a drug habit is acceptable, because it isn't, and it needs to be dealt with before a child can be returned to its parent.

During this meeting the client became angry when she was told that her drug was long-term and that she hadn't been compliant at any stage of the process. This accusation is blatantly untrue and the client knew this. For a social worker to make a claim which is without specific evidence and which minimises all the positive work that the client has achieved, demonstrates poor social work practice. I was feeling angry and frustrated as well so it is no wonder that the client felt angry and demonstrated her anger by swearing and raising her voice.

Rather than accepting where the client was, acknowledging her anger and the reasons why she may be feeling angry, the social worker chose to continue the abuse, by telling the clients that if she continued to swear then she would terminate the meeting.

So how did this end for the client? She left the meeting still feeling angry. Her faith in the system further diminished. Her trust of the workers was completely eradicated. Her sense of self was destroyed. None of this improved the situation, but instead it sends the client to a place she has been avoiding for a long time.

I accept that the hardest thing for any social worker to do is to confront somebody about a behaviour which we believe is unhelpful and damaging to others. However, a good practising social worker will be able to express their concerns in an empathetic and effective manner which doesn't damage the client or interferes with the process. Each client is different and needs to be treated differently. We need to understand the nuances, what triggers those issues which are of particular concern to the client. We should never act in a way which damages or harms the clients sense of self and well-being. It is simply our duty to do no harm. It is frustrating when I notice these simple tenants of social work practice not being adhered to nor being understood.

I'm talking about one incident that happened a couple of weeks ago, but my observation is that this happens far too often. My belief is that the reason why some social workers wish to blame clients is that the social workers believe that the client is a "bad parent". No matter what the client chooses to do is not going to change that perception. When we believe fervently that bad behaviour is the sum total of who the person is we are never going to notice the good behaviour. What saddens me is that there is so much good behaviour that the failure to acknowledge it denigrates and humiliates the very people that we should be supporting.

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