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What’s It Really Like to Be a Social Worker?

Countering myths and misconceptions.

Passages Hospice, CC
Source: Passages Hospice, CC

After 20 years as a social worker, Jessica Ritter ran Pacific University’s social work program and is the senior author of the book 101 Social Work Careers, now in its 2nd edition. I had a conversation with her today on my NPR-San Francisco radio program. Here’s a distillation.

MARTY NEMKO: Many people don’t realize that social workers can do counseling, even open a private practice. Am I correct that psychologists focus more on what’s going on within the individual while social work clinicians are more likely to consider external factors such as the client's community?

JESSICA RITTER: Yes: the culture of violence, effects of poverty, substance abuse in the family, and so on.

MN: You wrote that child-protective casework can be very stressful, especially in a courtroom custody battle.

JR: Yes, the parent is usually given a court-appointed lawyer, the child gets another lawyer, and the social worker gets a third lawyer. There can be a lot of screaming about how much access the parent should have to the child, even in cases of abuse.

MN: Social workers also work with older people, and you say that the most common form of elder abuse is not physical but financial.

JR: Yes. Family members may, for example, steal money from their parent.

MN: Maybe some of them figure they’ll eventually get the money anyway and if they need the money more than their parent does…Anyway, other social workers specialize in substance abuse.

JR: What may be surprising is that former abusers are often good at working with current addicts.

MN: That makes sense: They can understand, in a way that others can’t, the compulsion to use drugs and the challenges in stopping. That’s why I believe that, for example, the best math teachers aren’t the naturals but those that had to struggle to get an A. Would it also be true that ex-offenders would make good parole officers?

JR: The criminal justice system isn’t big on hiring ex-offenders. However, criminal justice is an excellent niche for social workers, for example, as victims’ advocates, helping them from when first attacked all the way through trial, if necessary.

MN: You write about a niche within criminal-justice social work called mitigation specialist.

JR: Yes. They try to argue for more lenient sentences based on the offender’s circumstances.

MN: Do you ever worry that social workers view justice too much from just the client’s perspective? After all, if offenders get lenient sentences or are allowed to get their biological children back, given, for example, the 17% five-year re-abuse rate and 68% three-year overall recidivism rate, don't we significantly increase the chances of people, including those abused kids, getting victimized again?

JR: Yes but that’s why social workers’ roles should go beyond the individual in favor of activism for social change, social justice.

MN: I worry that social work school particularly but also many other university-based training programs, teach students to view social justice from only one end of the ideological spectrum. One of my core beliefs is that wisdom resides across the spectrum. For example, a reasoned argument can be made that short sentences, welfare, and other income redistribution impose liabilities: disincenting motivation and rewarding bad behavior, putting those recidivistic people back where they can victimize people again, and redistributing money from the pool of people that's more productive and likely to create jobs to the pool of people that's less likely to.

JR: I feel strongly that society would be better if we did focus more on redistributive, what I call, justice: health care for all, a full social welfare system like Scandinavia and that social workers have an important role in fighting for those.

Marty Nemko’s bio is in Wikipedia. His new book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko.

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