Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Where Are The Boundaries?

I want to take some time to address an issue that came up because of my posts about Angel and Rocker. That issue is: Boundaries.

Boundaries are a very tricky issue in the world of social work (or any "helping" profession I suspect). Most social workers are taught in school and encouraged by supervisors and agencies to "not get attached". We are told we should remain objective and clinical in order to be able to "do your job". And I do understand why this is important and agree with it to an extent.

When a social worker enters into a relationship with a client, there is a certain amount of power that the social worker automatically assumes. You are the "professional", often seen to be the expert, or at the very least the more knowledgable person. And when your client is a child there is even more power, for the sole fact that you are the adult. Now, add on top of all of that - the child is especially vulerable due trauma, abuse, neglect, and a variety of mental health issues. The amount of power is overwhelming at times - and its a main cause of the burnout we hear so much about.

I was a Child Welfare Worker for a total of 4 years. During that time, I made hundreds of decisions* for the children with whom I worked. (Me, 25, straight out of grad school - I'll discuss this lunacy later.) Decisions that changed their lives - for better and for worse. I decided when and how often they'd see their birth parents. I decided if they needed therapy, or medication, or all of the above. I had to decide if they should live with their siblings - or which siblings in a big group would live together. I had to decide when they would leave a foster home because the foster parents couldn't provide for their needs - even when they had the best of intentions. I decided when they would or would not return to their birth parents. I made these decisions even when I knew I was likely doing just as much harm as I was good. (Because so many decisions that are made to protect children in the physical sense, also harm them in the emotional realm.) It is for all these reasons that most people believe you must maintain your distance - so you can make these decisions with a clear head.

But, for me, I feel like I could never make all those decisions without getting closer to my clients. I need to know as much about them as possible. I need to know what makes them happy and what makes them scared. I need to know their favorite color and if they like dogs or cats. I need to know how they feel about their birth parents, past foster parents, their teachers, and their siblings. I need to know how they feel about themselves. I need to know why they are lovable, because so often they don't know it themselves and they sure don't know how to show it. And, for me, I need to be invested - because I need to know how it feels, for them, when I make these decisions. Even if I can really only know a small portion of it.

I need to know that when I make a decision to terminate a parent's rights - it doesn't matter that that parent never completed a single recommended service and only visited occasionally. It still HURTS to sever a bond that can not ever be completely mended - even if it wasn't that strong to begin with. I need to know that when I make a decision to move a child to a new foster home - it doesn't matter that the current home wouldn't keep the child - its SCARY for the child to not know what the new home will be like. I need to know that when I decide to keep a child in a home where the child is struggling - it doesn't matter that they want the placement to work, it feels UNCOMFORTABLE for the child who has never know stability. And I need to know that when I decide to return a child home - even though the bio-parents are ready and foster parents are supportive, it is sometimes EVERY EMOTION ALL AT ONCE. I believe I have to be acutely aware of how each of these decisions affects the children - so that I am positive I'm making the best decision I can for them. (And yet still, I fear and know sometimes I didn't.)

Now comes the tricky part. I have to be very careful. Firstly, I have to be careful that I watch out for "secondary trauma" - when clinicians experience trauma due to hearing it from their clients. I also have to be careful that I don't get so caught up in the "emotions" that I forget there are rules and laws that govern how I do my job and make my decisions. And lastly, I have to be constantly aware that I'm not making the relationship "about me". I need to allow the children to lead the relationship. And, the hardest part, I have to know when they don't need me anymore. I have to be willing to let go and let that child move on with their life. I want the kids I work with to have a life where they don't need a social worker in their lives! Some have stuck around quite a while - one of my "kids" is in college and we have lunch plans next weekend! Just like real life - relationships grow, change, and sometimes end. And if I can be a relationship that does those things naturally - without the trauma they've usually experienced, then I can say I've been successful at "doing my job".

*Just to clarify - I rarely made these decisions completely alone, I had a team of people around to bounce thoughts and ideas off of and to help me process through all the options. However, at the end of the day - I'm the one who testified in court and I'm the one who had to tell the child the decision. So, I often felt I had the burden of the decisions - even if thats just my perception of reality.


  1. The pressure has to be unbearable at times. I admire you for what you do.

    You totally deserve the award! Just because you're you. ;-)

  2. Just found you because of Wonderful Lisa's award I gave her. You are a gem! Just the little bit of reading I have already done . . . you amaze me!

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. It is wonderful to hear you talk about getting to know the children you work with. You are both eloquent and passionate. I couldn't agree with you more. I have been a teacher educator for ten years (after being a teacher and counselor among other things) and it is always a challenge to get my students, some of whom are going to be teachers, child care and child life specialist or even social workers, to recognize that it isn't an either/or. You don't have to be professional OR personal. When you are dealing with people's lives (especially children) you have to be BOTH professional and personal. The reason many of us we go into these "service professional" jobs is to help people. Cannot be done without knowing something about the persons we are dealing with!

  4. It's like reading something out of my own head. I could not agree more. I can't imagine not putting in the energy to REALLY understand the people we work with. I think you're right that it's hard to know what the best options are for someone having not learned what makes them happy and how they view themselves and others. Extremely well written!


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