Wednesday, February 17, 2010

What does a Social Worker Make?

Like I said in my first post - I had a really strong reaction when I first read that poem. I wanted to post about it right that minute. I copied it into a "new post" - and then I stopped myself. I let it sit for a while - I came back to it every so often - and finally, I decided to see what other people thought about it. Thank you all for sharing your thoughts and opinions with me. I really do value each and every one of them! If you are reading now, but haven't read those comments, please go do it now!

I agree that the poem is nice. Social workers have hard jobs, get little credit, and even less pay. Its nice that people think we are helpful and that we sometimes facilitate positive change. I appreciate the poem because I know the author meant it to honor the tough decisions we make and to celebrate the sometimes awesome outcomes we get to witness.

But to be honest - my first reaction was that I hated it.

Firstly, I hated all the cliches - Atlasian, I almost stopped reading at "crack baby" too! But more importantly, I hated that the credit was given to ME, as a "social worker", and not where I think it belongs.

The truth of the matter is, I can't make anybody to anything if they don't want to or aren't ready to do it.

Trust me, I've tried.

I've tried to make a biological parent address their issues.

I've tried to make a foster parent understand the child in their home.

I've tried to make an adoptive placement work out.

I've tried to make a child behave.

I've tried to make a parent understand their child.

But, I've never once accomplished those things. And if I had kept trying to make those people do all of those things - I would have burnt out of this job in a heartbeat.

I am very much, by nature, a "Type B" kind of social worker. I want to "make a difference" in the lives of my clients. I want to make people successful, I want to make them care enough to change, I want to make them "better"...

I can't do any of those things.

Here is what I have come to accept about being a social worker - I can't be the one always putting in the most effort.

I can offer support. I can hold a hand. I can give advice. I can reassure. I can give information. I can give direction. I can be present. I can listen. I can provide a resource. I can care.

But I can't make anything happen.

That is up to the people I serve. It is only through their own resilience, strength, courage, and power that anything ever is "made" to happen.

I am a strong believer in "unconditional positive regard". Even when someone is at their worst - they deserve to be cared about. Even when they fight change - they deserve my support. Even when they are difficult - they deserve my respect. Even when every choice they make is destructive - they deserve the right to make those decisions. And, I believe that it is never too late - there are no "last chances".

If I make their success about me - then I am taking away that person's right to their own life.

I diminish their strengths, I usurp their courage, and I steal their glory. I have never had to battle addiction. I have never been abused. I have never been infertile. I have never be abandoned. Even if I had, and even though I've had my own hardships in life, I have never lived in my clients shoes. It would be wrong of me to take credit for their successes - no matter how involved I was in the process!

And if I make their success about me - than I have to take their failures as my own too.

And I don't think that would be fair either. Not to me, but also not to them. We learn from our failures. The consequences of failure is what teaches us, motivates us, and often enables us to do better next time. If I take all of the responsibility when my client fails - then I am robbing him of the necessary tools to make different choices next time. I can certainly try to make those failures less devastating and I can help them find ways to make restitution for their choices - but I can't remove all of their consequences. That wouldn't be serving them at all.

It is a fine line - one that I walk every day as I try to balance my expectations with the realities that my clients live with every day. I can not decide what is best for them, I can't make their lives simple, I can't control everything around them, I can not do the changing for them, and I can not make them do it for themselves.

So, what do I, as a Social Worker, make?

I make time - time for my clients to yell, laugh, cry, scream, and talk to me about whatever they need to talk about in that moment.

I make phone calls - calls to check in, calls to remind, calls to give options, calls to get information, calls to tell them I care.

I make allowances - not excuses, but allowances for the struggles of a person to change and for times when the hurdle is to high.

I make room - room for the people I serve to breathe, to think, to be safe and to change whenever they are ready.

I make referrals - I can't do everything for every person, but I can point them towards someone else who knows better than I.

I make pathways - some are easier/straighter/cleaner, others are harder/twistier/cluttered.

I make commitments - to stand by someone, to join with them when possible, to cheer them on, to respect their path, to honor who they are now, not who I hope they will be.

And, I hope that does make a difference.


  1. I also hated "crack baby."

    I agree with everything you said. It is the client who ultimately makes the decision about their path. We are merely those people at the airport who flash the lights on the runway...

    "this way..."

  2. Love this. Esp. the "I've never battled an addiction..." etc. So true.
    Except I'd also add that when good results happen from any encounter, the Holy Spirit's gotta get the most credit (I'm sure you agree), because without Him, the client won't even want to fight to get free or better in any way and the social worker won't know how to help or even really want to. Social worker/counselor/relief worker just has to go in with the attitude of "Let's watch and see what the Holy Spirit will do with Jim today," and then let it flow.

  3. I like yours MUCH better. Totally agree with your discussion about not owning our clients' successes. I'm also not into social workers making themselves into martyrs, which I think many of these kind of hackneyed 'tributes' do. We'll never have the political power our profession and our clients deserve if we present ourselves as 'miracle workers'.

  4. The day I read the poem, I was in an optimistic, idealistic mood and took the poem to be the Hallmark rendition of social workers- not quite right but touching and sentimental. The next day I was more cynical (especially towards my administration!) and took the poem as an affront. Either way, I think your version hits the nail on the head.

  5. So well said! I think I want to be you when I grow up!!


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