Thursday, January 13, 2011

Harm vs. Good

Talking about my job is an uncomfortable situation most of the time.

The chain of events is so predictable, I can pretty much mark it out scene by scene. With strangers that I am unlikely to ever see again, I give the quick answer, "I'm a social worker, I work with kids". That usually satisfies them. We move on to another topic. But talking to people who know me a little better- like my psuedo family who I spent the holidays with - can be even more challenging. 

First, I get the inevitable questions about how my job is going ...
which lead to questions about what "exactly" I do at my current job...
which is inevitably followed by that someone's opinion about my job...
which range from "God's work" to "why would you want to do that?"...
and one particular person (that had categorized me on the "saintly" side)
was raving about all the "good" I'm doing...
and I found myself making this statement...

"In any given time period, I do more harm than good."

I think I shocked the person into silence.

It might have been one of those times where I gave too much information. You'd think that after all these years, I would have learned that I should keep all non-social workers on a "need to know" basis.

Perhaps what made the person all the more shocked was my tone - I was completely matter of fact. I'm not apathetic about the pain, but I have come to accept my part in the situations my clients find themselves in when they are assigned to my team's caseload.

But my filter was on the fritz, most likely due to the pre holiday chaos, and out came that statement:

"In any given time period, I do more harm than good."

Now, I didn't mean that I personally do my job poorly. Nor was I saying that I specifically cause trauma and pain on a regular basis. But the reality is that the system I have chosen to work in, regularly does more harm than helping.

Dispite what some may tell you, this is not because no one cares or because intentions aren't good. It is because the world we live in is seriously messed up. The "solution" to one problem, only creates an avalanche of other problems. One decision can set off a chain of events that leads to horrific consequences.

I don't say any of this to imply that child welfare agencies are intentionally careless, heartless, or should all be shut down. (Though I'm sure to get comments saying exactly those things.) I have had some examples of how the system can take a terrible situation and (eventually) do right by the child. In an even more rare few, we were also able to make things right for their parents. I'll even count the few cases where children had to be legally seperated from their parents, but where those relationships continue to be honored by their new family, as successes. But for every success, there are at least 5 cases where resolution has never come.

The reality is that there are parents out there who intentionally and unintentionally harm their children.

The reality is that when I come in and remove a child from that home, I cause more trauma.

The reality is that many very nice people are not emotionally capable of parenting that kind of trauma.

The reality is that I often can not know who is capable until I place that child in the home.

The reality is that despite participating in a wealth of services, some parents will not be able to have their children returned to their care.

The reality is that those children will feel the pain of that seperation for their entire lives.

The reality is that every child deserves a permanent family.

The reality is that there are not enough willing and able families to give every child what they deserve.

The reality is that there are no clear answers or "right" decisions.

I don't actually facilitate or control  most of those situations. I don't perpetuate the abuse/neglect. I am not ever the person who makes the decision to remove a child. I don't issue the termination (or adoption) decrees. I don't order children returned to their parents either. I simply do the best I can, advocate where I believe is appropriate, and try to lessen the pain for whoever, whenever I can.  

I don't say or write these things to be dramatic or to fish for compliments. I write them because I feel the need to bridge the gap between "saint" and "baby snatcher". I stand in the middle ground, the place where I admit the failures of the system while also recognizing that there just isn't a better solution yet. I continue to allow myself to be part of the "bad" in hopes of doing some "good" along the way. 

I am a proxy of this system, therefore I can not be blind to the harm that the system, and myself, cause over the course of time. To hide behind my good intentions and occasional happy ending will not serve my clients or myself well in the long run.So, after I'd explained my statement as best I could to a layperson, the question was presented to me:

"Why do you keep doing it then?"

I gave the only answer I know how to give,

"Someone has to do it...

... and I'd rather it be me."


  1. I had an experience with my older kid a little over a year ago that really showed me the value of your work. I saw where he came from. I saw some of the people and got a good picture of the situation. Oh my...there are not words. I thanked the Social Worker that day, because I knew everything he went through to get to our family-all the "harm" your post describes-was better than what could have happened if he had stayed where he was. I have even heard my kid (now almost 21) say many times that he wouldn't change his past because it brought him to where he is now. Give yourself a break, Friend. Any "harm" you do is necessary for that moment. I know you don't always get to see the outcome, but have faith that one day everything will be made right.

  2. You all have such a bad wrap. As do we. Unfortunately, some have earned it.. but I wish the world at large could see the good. There's a lot of it out there.

    I agree.. someone has to do it.. and I'm glad it's you, too. :) Stay strong.

  3. Better you than someone who doesn't care, or God forbid, a pollyanna. Thanks for putting yourself out there.

  4. Which begs the question: why would you rather it be you?

  5. My job is working with families of origin, trying to prevent foster care placement, so I often don't think of myself as part of "the system." It was kind of a shock to me one day when a family told me I was. But I am. And even when we bring trauma and pain, it should be with the purpose of preventing greater trauma and pain. Should be, I know. I'm glad I just found your blog - I'm interested to learn more.

  6. When people ask, why not just say, "It's not a perfect system, but I do the best I can." or "The system itself has a lot of flaws but my goal is to do as much good as I can." I think that most people can appreciate that.

  7. Thank you for this post - and for being beautifully honest. As foster/adoptive parents of a teenager who spent his whole life up until 15 "in the system" we too find that most people pin us somewhere on the spectrum between child-snatcher and saint. And as you suggest, the reality is much more complicated and ambiguous - he will feel the pain and trauma of his separation from his birth family forever, and while we can do our best to help him build connections and make sense of what happened, there are no perfect outcomes. I feel that to go into it expecting to "do good" is unfair to the kids, because "good" for them might be giving them the stability and safety to express the anger, grief and sadness they feel because their families and the system are broken. In that case the best we can do is to bear witness to what is true, reduce the likelihood of ongoing harm, and sooth suffering.

  8. It's a pity the situations exist, but it's good that there are genuinely caring workers like you.

  9. This is a beautiful post. The job you do is extremely difficult at best. I'd much rather it be you too.


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