In her columns, Lindor Reynolds has touched on many of the issues professional social workers at Child and Family Services deal with on a daily basis. As a retired social worker who served 30 years in the field (about 10 of them with the former Children's Aid Society of Winnipeg), it is apparent there has been little change in that time. Perhaps I can offer some personal perspectives.
Governments and the society they represent seem to hold a general attitude that undervalues social work as a profession. The reason may be that the groups they work with are generally the disenfranchised whose lives exist on the fringes. Social workers do not have the luxury to choose their clients. Cases come under a child protection agency by default. That is, when all other systems have failed, Child and Family Services picks up the pieces. These walking wounded appear with a wide range of social, emotional and intellectual problems, the families all seriously broken in one way or another. Services are often thrust upon them and they may not be willing participants in the process.
Nonetheless, child welfare workers carry on their work in the shadows of society, unseen and unheard. While they deal with life and death situations and make life-changing decisions on a daily basis, their existence only comes into focus when a crisis occurs, such as the horrific deaths of children like Phoenix Sinclair and Gage Guimond. The media spotlight highlights the dark underpinnings then dissipates as the issues are swept away once again like specks of dust.
While caseload sizes are crucial, safety and public image are also essential factors in front-line workers carrying out their duties. I recall that, as a young wide-eyed novice, many of the potential dangers of the job had never occurred to me. That is, until I heard about the experiences of other workers whose teeth had been punched out or whose lives had been threatened by knife-wielding relatives.
This was not the image the people I knew had of social work. They saw social workers as a bunch of "do-gooders" with wishy-washy personalities who brought a basket of goodies to people who were eternally grateful. While social workers may have been perceived as bleeding hearts, in reality they were more like heavy mettle.
The truth is, I learned about the mental and emotional toughness needed to deal with extremely complex, sometimes heartbreaking, often volatile situations. Rather than being met with open arms and gratitude, I was more frequently met with resentment and hostility. The possibility of a situation escalating into violence terrified me. And why not? On returning from a lunch break one day, I was witness to a student social worker lying at the bottom of the steps of my office building. In an altercation with a father, enraged by her attempts to keep his four-year old son in child protective care, she was pushed down a concrete flight of stairs. An ambulance took her away never to be heard from again.
And social workers do not work independently. They network with other agencies, hospitals, police and the justice system, each having its own bureaucratic and organizational mazes. I have seen suicidal teens sent home from hospitals. I have been in courtrooms where lawyers manipulated the outcome of cases in our hallways of justice. And then there was the judge who returned two children to a mother who had disappeared for three months after having abandoned them in squalid conditions for the third time because "all parents love their children." Ignoring the fact that she stood, suitcase in one hand, clasping her boyfriend's hand in the other, clearly stating she planned to leave town, he chastised the agency instead.
With the lack of support, low status and unrealistic expectations, why would anyone want to choose this profession as a career? Compared with teachers and nurses, it has long been the underclass of the professions, underpaid and undervalued.
According to the Labour Market Information with a Reference Period of 2004-2005, the average hourly wage for a secondary school teacher is $27.07, a registered nurse is paid on average $26.28, while social workers earn $22.38 an hour. One could assume this lower pay confirms its lower value and importance because as a profession, it is generally dealing with those segments of society that are also considered non-productive -- the poor, the vulnerable and the weak. With continuing news reports of a failing system, it would appear these issues for social workers remain unchanged.
Libby Simon is a Winnipeg writer.