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Rage against the machine*

* with apologies to the band (I was college undergrad when the band was popular)

I thought I’d cross-post some of the blog posts I wrote on my other blog about child welfare. My other blog is focused heavily on adoption, so I wrote several posts to help articulate some of the broader contexts that influence and impact what happens specifically regarding the adoption process in the United States. This post from March 2007 in particular reflects my experience working for a large public county child protection/child welfare program.

Titanic_2

It’s a precarious position for anyone who tries to be an agent of change within any institution. It can be difficult to balance the needs between individual people and systems that were created to help and instead have become so bureaucratic that it is a wonder anyone is helped at all.

When I was in graduate school for social work, we were often told that social reform and social justice were as important to the profession as the ability to empathize and help. Truthfully, however, the field of social work is quite polarized.

I would say the majority of the people in the field (and most of them are women) came into the program because they wanted to "help people"  (I could go into a whole separate post about how women are valued in our society and why that created an over-representation of women in the "helping professions" because that deserves an investigation as well. But I’ll leave that for another day).

Many of my colleagues spoke passionately about how their personal spiritual beliefs "called them" to the field.Well, I have no argument with that because in a way I also feel "called" to my work, though not by a sense of spiritual duty. My "calling" if you can call it that, was based on many goals;  first, I did not want to participate in a profession that was based on the production, marketing or selling of consumable goods. Secondly, I wanted to try to be an agent of change within the field and represent as a voice not included in the existing framework (as both a person of color and as an adoptee). Third, I strongly felt I could contribute to critiquing and challenging the current paradigms of practice and research.

I think "helping people" is a nice goal too. And I believe that it is very important. But in my view, having only a tight focus on "helping people" is limiting. We can "empower" people to change their lives on a singlular basis and I believe that is all well and good. But without looking at the rest of what is happening in the forest, we might be encouraging people to try and work within an overall system that is set up to fail them and send ’em right back to your doorstep.

We give a lot of lip service to the abstractions of  "social reform," "social justice," and "empowerment." But it would be more accurate to say that a great deal of social work involves social control more than our obligation to empower the people we serve. And, in fact, I have difficulty with the concept of "empowerment" because as one of my insightful fellow grad students once stated,"empowerment is a gift we bestow on our [clients]." We’re speaking about privilege here, because as social workers we have the power and control (backed up by our government and agencies) to make people do certain things in order to receive services. Right, we don’t just believe in the welfare state – people need to prove or earn their way to services.

What we are really about is telling people how to fix their lives the way we think it should be fixed, as arbiters of whatever framework of morality we believe.

The result is a push-pull between "worker" and "client" (on a tangent, let me just say that I really despise the way social work has chosen to appropriate business/market economy language – as if the people who use services are free to choose among a buffet of options).

The push-pull in adoption services is balancing the needs of prospective adoptive parents and the children who become adopted. I’m not selling goods, but I’m definitely selling ideologies. In order to make prospective families and children in foster care appealing to each other’s social workers, we use marketing strategies. Wednesday’s Child or Thursday’s Child as many "markets" call them are features of foster care children in newspapers. Just like the puppies and kitties they feature for adoption on other days. We use brochures and flyers and videos of the kids to show prospective adoptive parents. And prospective adoptive parents are asked to make brochures and flyers about themselves so the children’s social workers can determine if they look like "a good match." Many adoption agencies have web sites where prospective parents can look at featured children and read a little blurb about the child. If that doesn’t seem eerily like shopping on the internet, then you are not being honest with yourself.

It’s one part marketing and one part matching services like an on-line dating service would provide. Which begs the question: who is the real "customer" in this transaction? The prospective parent, or the child?

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