Category: Social Work Practice

The Social Work Dilemma

I haven’t practized social work in almost a year now. I realized only in the practical sense have I not practized but in principle I never stopped being a social worker.

Reminiscing on my days in the social work office
Reminiscing on my days in the social work office

It is when you are having normal day-to-day conversations with friends and significant others that you realize there are certain things that have become instilled in you due to the work you do. You do these things even when you are not in a work setting. It’s like when people say lawyers like to argue…they do this even when they are not in court. It becomes their lifestyle to argue every point even when discussing general issues. In the same way, I realized the social worker in me did not switch off when I left the profession about a year ago. I still think and talk like a social worker. And I have found, to my dismay that this is not always a good thing.

Scenario 1: I am having a normal conversation with my mother and I find myself not agreeing with what she is saying. Instead of supporting my point of view properly like her daughter, I start psycho-analyzing her. I start wondering why she might be taking that stance instead of the other. Quickly in my head I am calculating how I can question her to get the right answers as if I am in a counselling session. Ask questions that will make her show me the deeper thoughts behind whatever statement she makes. This is no longer a normal mother-daughter conversation. It is now a client-social worker dialogue. The formal tone and line of questioning is enough to make anyone defensive.

Scenario 2:  I am discussing a problem a friend might be having, I switch into social work mode. I start thinking every quandary has a solution and it is the role of the client (my friend) to think of all available options before selecting the desired solution…with my help of course. In a way, I think my friends appreciate the advice at the end of the day but am I really being a friend or I am treating them as clients? I doubt they care or see the difference as long as they leave with a solution. This is when I realized not so long ago that I actually give good relationship advice (just wish I could take the same advice myself).  But where do you draw the line because at times our friends just want to vent and do not necessarily want to be grilled until they solve the issue.

So yes I cannot erase or silence the social worker in me. I want to be a good friend and daughter but I need to learn to balance the professional voice with my own. The two have become so mixed that I can’t tell which one is me and which one is the professional.  I don’t think I want to change totally, because in principle social workers are really cool people (I have to say that!!!). I like being helpful to my friends and family but do they enjoy being treated as clients? On the other hand, I also feel that the people I care about deserve to talk to me as I am, not wearing the professional mask on.

I really should learn to just be myself…but social work is my life so I don’t know how I can separate the two.

What are your thoughts?

“What do you think you’re doing talking about us in this way?”

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“In 1990 I was invited to give a paper on disability research to a conference of academic researchers in Sweden and this gave me the opportunity to reflect on the issues involved. To this day I remember entering the conference room on the first morning with the other researchers, none of whom were disabled, and finding the words ‘what do you think you are doing talking about us in this way?’ written on the board. No-one except me thought it referred to us; those who even noticed the comment at all simply assumed the board hadn’t been cleaned by whoever had used it the day before.

What did we think we were doing: pursuing knowledge for the benefit of humankind? Informing policy and practice? Helping disabled people? Building networks? Developing our own careers? Having a freebie at someone else’s expense? All of those things probably and more; but also much less.”(Oliver 1997:15)

This was a class assignment in the research module of the Masters in Social Policy I am taking. The question asked the learners to describe the role of the researcher in emancipatory research. I have decided to publish this because I feel it has huge implications for society and I found the above excerpt very interesting and thought provoking. I wrote a much more academic article for marking but this is another personal evaluation of the topic and not at all subject to academic grading. It is my personal view. 

After reading the above excerpt I thought what a good observation. So often society assumes that we are doing things for the benefit of others when in actual fact we have not consulted the “other” about whether that is what they actually need. We spend thousands, and for those big foundations, millions of money on conferences and projects for different groups of society that we think are in need. The statement also implies the presence of “us” and “them” which already signifies the divisive nature of society.

Is true emancipation of oppressed groups a realistic goal or an impossible dream? How do you seek to empower someone unless you have consulted with them and together concluded that they are indeed seeking what you as a “helper” seek for them? How many times do policy makers and “concerned” citizens do things “for” and not “with” the people they seek to assist? Who is really benefiting from our well meaning acts? Where is the voice of the marginalized in the policies we are making? Where are our motivations coming from? Because it is not enough to congregate and discuss what we think are the solutions to the world’s problems without proper consultation with those affected. We might actually do more harm than good because what we perceive may be so far from the truth.

Do not begin to assume you know the full extent of someone’s problem if you have never walked a mile in their shoes. There is more to the personal experience than can be described. Assuming that we know people’s needs or what is right for them is downright patronizing. The question above has surely given me cause to pose before I think a certain intervention is what my client needs without hearing from them how they propose to solve the quandary they may find themselves in. This is a basic core of social work “helping individuals to help themselves”. First year of college basics.

I just wonder if anyone actually found an answer to that question “What do you think you are doing talking about us in this way”? What would you even say? Um.. we thought that these bulleted points on our written strategy that we have been working on for weeks/months/years are just what you need to solve the problem of disability/poverty/…any perceived lack of something. Most of the findings are actually based on research but I stand by my view that nothing beats the subjective experience.

I fully understand the extent of hopelessness that marginalized groups may feel. Who marginalizes them? Who emancipates them? Emancipation in most cases is a very expensive commodity. How do you emancipate yourself with no resources or income to do so? So the “haves”make it their mandate to provide what they think is needed but there must be another way to do it without making the “have nots” feel further disadvantaged and offended. Our terminology alone is discriminatory, socially constructed to create “otherness”. Disability/poverty/lack…are all man-made terms. We are all human and we are all capable until someone tells us we are not!!!

It’s worth a thought…

How culture affects social work!!!

I have been AWOL the past couple of weeks, or has it been months??? I apologise to my loyal readers but I always try for this blog to remain relevant. That means I can only write when the material I have pertains to social work and my experiences with it. That sometimes can be a difficult task as I have to be in the right mind space to be creative. Having said that though, I am happy to be back!!!

Today I want to write about how social work fits into different cultural contexts. In other words how do we do work with clients from different cultural backgrounds? I attended the social work forum this month where the topic “A constructivist approach to the help-seeking process of clients:A response to cultural diversity”( Mo-Yee Lee a Master of SW, CSW and Phd holder) was presented. It was a very good research done on various clients of different cultural backgrounds in the Asian community and comparing with the Western culture. It led to me to thinking and making comparisons in my own work context with the clients I meet. This is what I call putting learning into practice….*proudofmyself*.

My serious look. Check my instagram for more pics @jusgee_gee

So I used to think a child in need is just a child in need nomatter where they come from as in which country or what language they speak or their religious affiliation. In the course of the past two years I had an increase in the cases of Zimbabwean children who were found in need of care in Cape Town. I often wondered how this was happening but anyway as I started comparing with the South African, Congolese and Angolan children I had on my caseload; I realised there were differences in the way the helping process takes place. I realised that culture plays a big role in determining what kind of intervention is most appropriate for each child. Each case is therefore looked at individually and holistically which is one of the main components of social work itself

How the child from Zimbabwe perceives her problem will be different to how the Congolese child would view hers. Furthermore how they both perceive to solve the problem will depend on what they were brought up to believe and makes part of their culture. So what makes sense in one culture will not necessarily make sense in the other culture.Let me go deeper with an example…

A 12 year old Zimbabwean child is found on the street after running away from home. After an interview she explains that she made her aunt whom she was residing with in South Africa angry and she got a hiding. The child perceives her problem to be the fact that she made her aunt angry and not the fact that aunt physically abused her or used corporal punishment as a way to deal with a problem teen. This is because child strongly believes that there is nothing wrong with adults hitting you if you did something wrong, this is part of Zimbabwean culture. ”A good hiding with a belt straightens a naughty child.” So in this case trying to get said child to open a case of assault will not be the desired solution and it will cause tension with the client. She will not want to tarnish the family name and it really is not abuse according to her…  

*not real case, just illustration*

So you see the predicament the social worker faces. The law in South Africa is clear on corporal punishment. The South African child would readily open a physical abuse case and accept placement in safe care until matters are resolved with family. It is therefore clear that problem identification and solutions depend on the cultural context. In order to provide a good intervention it becomes important for the
social worker to listen carefully to the client’s description of the problem and hearing the value systems not imposing their own. This encourages an open mind and a willingness to learn about cultural diversity.

Congolese families are very close knit and they normally solve their problems amongst themselves in their community groups. It is not uncommon to find a Congolese taking in a destitute child just because they are from the same country. Their sense of community stretches to the children calling each and every adult aunt or uncle and one would think they are all related. Maybe they all are in a way and their solidarity is admirable. Nigerian communities we all know that their problems seldom reach social workers or any official authorities if they can help it. They are a very self-sufficient cultural group. Some people believe in spiritual solutions to social problems. Again it is not uncommon to hear a parent offering prayer or a prophet as a solution to a social problem. It is all up to what the client believes to work for them and that is what they will gravitate towards.

In conclusion there is no one size fits all social intervention. There are variants of factors that can make it work for one group and not the other. It is good practice to negotiate which is the best for each individual client.

Below are pictures of me speaking on cultural day at Ons Plek Projects for Girls. I was wearing a form of Zimbabwean cultural dress, my face painted in the form of Xhosa cultural make-up.

Thoughts on my mind…#social work

I am deeply motivated by children who have been through traumatic situations yet they still find a way to smile and get through the day. I have seen children who have been raped so many times that they think it is normal. I have encountered children whose parents have abandoned and rejected them. I have sat and had a chat with children who have relatives that cannot take care of them because they feel it is not their place to do so. I have been with children who do not know what it means to be loved or hugged by their parents. When they hug a professional caregiver they hold on so hard that it is painful; that is how you know. I have seen children who have known abject poverty yet they are grateful to just be alive, have a roof over their heads and a warm plate of food. These children basically have nothing and yet they still make it through the day smiling and playing. Granted there are bad days but seeing them survive in spite of it all is amazing. The resilience that they have is inspiring and some adults need to emulate this.

It must be the innocence of childhood. It may just as well be the knowledge that once they are in a place of safety like a children’s home; then somehow someone is handling all their problems. As a social worker I am fulfilled to at least know I am taking these huge burdens away from my child clients. I had a thought recently about a common occurrence. What happens when a child has hope that all that has gone wrong in their life is being fixed but in the end they realize that nothing is taking away the huge gap that the absence of their families left? Like no matter what anyone can do in a day’s work you cannot return a mother/father to their child if the mother is dead or has gone AWOL. Is it the child that has unrealistic expectations of the service being provided or is it the caregiver taking on more than they can handle? I figured the way to handle it is to not make promises from the onset. Just be there for the children as much as you can. Be a comfort for them but refrain from giving hope of things that may not be possible. Saying “I will do my best but I can’t do more than that” might take some of the pressure off. Social workers are not miracle workers after all. We aim to avoid burn- out at all costs, where we can. After five years of working with children I can vouch for this. I may get stressed out but I am not suffering from burn-out.

You’re not God; you can’t solve all the problems; you cannot prevent every infection; you cannot save the world. Give yourselves permission not to be perfect. Pierre Brouard in his training sessions for carers at Soweto Chris Baragwanath Hospital

Each day brings its own small victories. It is important to take stock of these moments no matter how insignificant they may seem. In my experience just the fact that the children can smile,dance, do their homework after school, act like the normal everyday child means I am doing something right. Even though we cannot fight world poverty or stop abuse of children we can try to make one child’s day and that is still making a difference.

Its that time of the year again…

It is that time of the year again…festive season and holiday time. At the children’s home it’s again that bittersweet time when the children are preparing for the holidays. For me and the staff at the home it is a mentally and physically draining time. Last week we said goodbye to one of the children who has been in the home for ten years, practically grew up there and it was a mixture of joy(for her starting a new chapter) and sadness(because she had made her home at this place). Some of the children cried like there was a funeral watching her leave with all her belongings she collected over her stay at the home. For the others it was a question of “when will it be my time”. Needless to say I had a busy afternoon trying to console the ones who remain and getting them to see that this exit was a good thing.

Kids art

Now back to the Christmas planning, it is hard to make plans for those who have nowhere to go and just the thought of them being left all alone when others are gone is heartbreaking. Well I have been trying to find host parents, at least someone who can have some children over for the day or weekend over Christmas. Not an easy task… We also have as plan B a Christmas day celebration so that there is Christmas at home and a good feast for those who will still be in the house by then. And there will be presents for everyone.

It is hectic and I am always sad around this time. What makes me upset though is those guardians who have made no effort to change their circumstances over the years so their children can come back home. Orphans and foreign children I can understand their predicament but children who come from dysfunctional families will always feel the unfairness of not having anywhere to go yet your parents are still alive and probably having a jolly good time for the holidays. Well safety of the children is first and we will not expose them to a risky holiday. Not to speak of all the emergency placement requests I will be getting because of children left all alone or exposed to drugs and alcohol this festive season.

One moment of exceeding joy mixed with tears was when we read out Christmas messages to the girls yesterday. One of the girls who is 12 made a speech about what she is grateful for. I can tell you that what touched me the most coming from this girl who is thought to be mentally challenged was the acknowledgement that the children’s home is her home now. She thanked the social worker (me*biggrin*) and in tears said that when she came she did not speak a word of English but now look at her giving a speech of thanks in English. My heart went out to her and I realised nomatter what we do these children do see and they do appreciate. I realised also that on some level, whether she lacks some cognitive abilities she knows what love is and she has opened up to receive it. These are the moments I live for.

Well I look forward to a busy December with my kids as I call my clients. I am learning motherhood this way and I love it.



Reflections from my past week….

The week that just passed has been a rough week for this social worker. I had to think long and hard about where I am at emotionally and as I reflected upon the whole week I felt so much better. These were my reflections about last week:

  • I don’t always have the right answers, I don’t know everything. This was a bit tough to admit but it is so true. If I keep an attitude of knowing everything then I become un-teachable(if such a word exists) and do not leave room for growth in my life. I can be too hard on myself at times; I cannot bear the thought of being wrong. I had an incident where my knowledge of the Children’s Act was put to the test and I lost my confidence. My interpretation of some parts of the procedures applied to find children in need of care was totally ignored by someone who thought their own interpretation was the right one. Now I questioned all that I thought I knew about the Act and for that moment I could not fathom the thought of being wrong. I had to double check and triple check from the Act as well as contact the Children’s Court to verify. My interpretation turned out to be right after all, but I started wondering why the possibility of me being wrong had affected me so much. Am I that much of a perfectionist?  I am not the one who wrote the Children’s Act and I do not have to know it word for word, but somehow I felt I had to. I am that concerned about giving the best possible intervention to the children I work with. But then I realized it is part of humanity to not know everything and that is how we keep on learning from new information. I am no superwoman and will not make apologies for it.
  • There will be bad days and good days. The bad days come to an end just as the good days do. You can only appreciate the good days if you know how bad the bad days can be. There will be trials and people who will test me. In this week it became very important for me to remember that saying that goes “this too shall pass”. The fact that I am still here after the hectic week I have had is proof of that. It is all about the attitude and how I choose to react to those who are out to try my patience. The moment I choose to allow someone to spoil my day then I lose control of my life. Knowing that I am the one in control of how my day goes surely got me through the week. Trials surely helps to develop one’s character.
  • Time management!!! I reflected upon how I need to distribute my time to those things that bring value to my life. I found myself so drained each day this week and could not make time to study for my Masters Entrance exam coming up. I mean it is a lot. Now I am thinking I need to give more time to things that bring joy and happiness to my life. I need to manage my time so that I spend time with God, my family and friends. These are the people that put a smile on my face. I cannot be so caught up in work that I cannot spare a moment to chat with my mother ; that would be me failing. This blog as well gives me a chance to be me and talk about things I am passionate about; it is my joy and hobby. Having emotional and spiritual wealth has become important to me than chasing money.

    There is a time for everything under the sun. Opportunities come and you win some you lose some. The trick is to wake up everyday by God’s grace and make each day count. People’s opinions of you are just that…their opinions,not yours.

    Sunset Reflections

I hope my journey this week will inspire someone to also reflect upon their lives. It is important not to ignore ourselves and feelings we get as we go along our daily lives.

When a mother cannot protect her own…

Ties that bind

I had a case yesterday that inspired this article. This case left me wondering what is left in the world
for children when their own mothers fail them. When your own mother who is meant to be your nurturer and protector betrays your trust….

I have questions in my mind after the interview that I had with a mother and her child. The child aged 14 was sexually abused by the mother’s partner three years ago. The case was open against child’s stepfather and was withdrawn, man never went to prison, and justice was not seen for this child whose innocence was stolen at 11 years of age. Why? The answer is really why I am baffled and trying to find answers.

The child’s mother is the reason why the man is not in jail. She has influenced the child to say it did not happen the way it did, influenced the child to lie and say he did not do it. All this to protect a man who is guilty but cannot be exposed because he is the financial pillar of the family.  The mother makes excuses like “he does not want to leave, I cannot force him”. As a mother how do you put your man/lover first above your child? As a mother if you cannot protect your own child from such evils who then can this child trust??  When your own mother manipulates you to say what is not true….When your own mother does not think of your care and protection and would rather turn a blind eye…act like nothing happened…

A child at that age is torn between doing what is right and pleasing her family. No one is considering the emotional turmoil that not only came from the assault on her innocence but also from the family pressure. This teenager then starts to act out and be rebellious and still the mother fails to realize the cause of this.  This teenager would rather find her sense of belonging with peers who in most cases are negative than be forced to face the harsh reality. Then drugs come into play to numb the pain…

It is a sad reality to find that maybe the mother has been a victim of child sexual abuse herself. It becomes a sickening cycle because her own mother did not protect her so she does not know how to protect her own. The anger that is kept inside builds up for years and this current child will grow up with the same bitterness her mother did. How will she be there for her own children? Not because she does not want but because she does not know how to…

So who is to blame? Society? Men who take advantage of children? Mothers who fail to protect their children? As a social worker all that is left to do is to ensure that child protection services are rendered. But how do you change ingrained beliefs and upbringing passed from generation to generation?

I am still wondering…