Ruth C. White Ph.D.

Culture in Mind

What Empire Got Wrong About Social Workers

How TV reinforces negative perceptions of social work.

Posted May 12, 2017

(c) kgtoh
Source: (c) kgtoh

On last week's episode of Empire (Fox)—now in it's 3rd season and finished its 2nd season as the number 1 show on broadcast television—the episode ended with a social worker knocking on the door of the Lyon mansion. The social worker announced, "We have received reports of child endangerment", entered the home with police in riot gear and guns drawn, and took Bella—baby of Anika and Hakeem (the youngest son of the Lyon dynasty headed by Luscious Lyon). This was a highly unrealistic portrayal of a social worker's role in child protection from abuse and neglect. And this week the show took it one huge step further by having baby Bella be literally "lost in the system" due to some incompetent's paperwork mixup.

Plot Line: Social Worker Grabs Baby

As a social worker who has worked in the field of child welfare in the USA, Canada and the UK, I was very annoyed at yet another TV plot line that shows us as indiscriminately grabbing children, responding willy-nilly to an anonymous phone call.

To be clear: Before a social worker removes a child from a home, there is a thorough investigation. Before removing baby Bella, the social worker had not seen her, interviewed no one in her family, made no home visits and did not consult a medical professional, all of which would be standard professional practice.

When TV shows have plot lines that show social workers as baby-grabbing, incompetent professionals, it perpetuates a negative perception about what it is that social workers do, and creates a hostile environment in which to do our work.

Granted, social workers don't show up at a home to give out good parenting awards, and when we do show up at the door it is in response to a report of something gone wrong. So it is understandable that our presence incites fear and anger. Most reports of suspected child abuse and neglect do not result in removal of a child from the home. It is important to note that child welfare is far from all that social workers do. It is also important to note that according to the Social Work Policy Institute less than half of people with the title of social workers have social work degrees. Professional social workers have either a Bachelor of Social Work or a Masters of Social Work from a school accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

The Ethics and Practice of Social Work 

The opening preamble to the National Association of Social Work's Code of Ethics states that:

"The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty."

The preamble also states that, "Social workers promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients."

With a core set of values that include service, social justice, the importance of human relations and competence, social workers work to protect the vulnerable and to fight on behalf of the oppressed to make the world a safer and more equitable place.

Media Portrayal and Professional Perception

Empire is watched by millions of Americans and includes a great number of African American viewers. When people see a powerful African American family rendered powerless to protect their offspring from an unsubstantiated and un-investigated report of child abuse, the audience's perception of social workers is one of baseless accusations and incompetent practice. In the next episode it is revealed that the social worker is a "weapon" to be used in the fight between two families—perpetuating a false reality that all it takes is an anonymous phone call to remove a beloved child from their caring parents.

This storyline—screaming child ripped from desperate mother's arms—that plays out in so many other TV shows and movies fosters hostility and mistrust between social workers and their clients. Instead of being perceived as a resource to support the health and social welfare of individuals, families, and communities, social workers are perceived as the "enemy", to be feared and resisted.

The plot line continues in the next episode with Bella being "lost in the system"—every parent's nightmare administrative snafu.

What Do Social Workers Do?

As stated in the National Association of Social Workers' (NASW) Code of Ethics, the primary job of a social worker is to "help people in need and address social problems". They also "pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people."

Social workers work with children in families, schools, hospitals and community-based settings. They work with the elderly to support them in having healthy and productive lives. They work in hospitals to help patients and families cope with illness and support recovery and rehabilitation. They help veterans and their families cope with deployment and re-integration upon their return. Social workers also provide a wide range of therapeutic mental health services.

They also serve in elected office, where they fight for policies that promote the health and social welfare of Americans. There is a Congressional Social Work Caucus comprised of prominent politicians such as Senator Debbie Stabenow—the first woman from Michigan elected to Congress. Congresswoman Karen Bass, now in her 4th term, earned her Masters of Social Work (MSW) from the University of Southern California while serving in Congress, and is the 67th Speaker of the California Assembly and the first African American woman in US history to serve in this role. She has founded a bi-partisan Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth. Barbara Lee, who earned her MSW from UC Berkeley began her political career as an intern with the venerable Ron Dellums, who was also a social worker, Congressman and a Mayor of Oakland. Barbara Lee later served in the California State Assembly and the California State Senate before before being elected to Congress in 1998. These are just a few of the social workers fighting on the front lines to improve the lives of Americans of all ages, classes, religions etc.

Rewriting The Script

TV shows and movies need to rewrite the script and show social workers doing what they do best: fighting for the rights of the oppressed and vulnerable.

As one of the most watched shows on broadcast television, Empire has a powerful impact on public perception. As I stated in a previous post, about the first season of the show, Empire changed the way bipolar disorder was shown by portraying Andre (the eldest son of the clan) as a highly accomplished corporate executive who managed his illness with medication and therapy. It has also done a relatively good job of showing a family overcoming the stigma of therapy, both with Andre's challenges with bipolar disorder and with Jamal's battle with addiction.

Media portrayals of social workers need to reflect what social work is like in the real world to eliminate the stigma attached to working with a social worker, so that people can seek out and benefit from the wide range of services that social workers provide.

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