Hagwilget Peak, Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en territory

The Problem with Social Work

My name is Morgan Yee, a name that is representative of both my Chinese and Caucasian ancestry. I am in my last term of my Bachelors of Social Work at UBC, and am specializing in child welfare. I grew up in the small, primarily First Nations community of Hazelton, British Columbia, on the traditional lands of the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en nations. Hazelton is a collection of three townships and seven reserves, and was an amazing place to grow up. First Nations culture was a huge part of my childhood, and revitalization efforts are ongoing; we had Cultural Awareness classes all through elementary school, which explored Gitxsan worldviews, practices, and language skills. The strength and pride associated with being First Nations was and is emphasized throughout the community, and I am so grateful I was raised in that environment. However, life in Hazelton is also challenging for a lot of people – high levels of poverty and addiction are very serious concerns throughout the region. I think that I understand the issues facing these communities very well – from the outside. My lived experiences have been very much shaped by my position as a “middle-class,” Chinese-Caucasian woman; my life has not been directly impacted by either poverty or addiction.

I come from a family of social workers – my mother was, and my father still is, a child protection worker in Hazelton. I grew up really respecting social work as a profession, and I still do – I don’t think I could be in this line of work if I didn’t – but as I learned more over the years about the colonial roots of social work, I have had to think more and more about how I want to practice. The system currently in place still favours white conceptions of family values, familial roles, community, and success; most social workers are white women.

Social work1 has a long history in Canada. Western child welfare practices have traditionally been used as a colonial tool to control Aboriginal peoples, beginning with the institution of mandatory residential school attendance for all children under the age of 16 in 1884. For more than 100 years, government, church and social work officials were involved in removing children from their homes to place them in residential schools. The last residential school closed it’s doors in 1996, which is frighteningly recent. Although residential schools had become less common by 1969 (due in part to their clear ineffectiveness at assimilating Aboriginal children into White Canadian society, as well as protests from Aboriginal communities) Aboriginal children and youth continued to be removed from their homes in vast numbers during a period known as the 60’s Scoop. During this period, social workers are estimated to have removed 11,000 status Indian children from their communities to be placed for adoption in mostly non-Aboriginal homes between 1960 and 1990. It should be noted that this statistic does not account for non-status Aboriginal children, so this number is certainly much higher. Aboriginal children still remain disproportionately represented within mainstream child welfare systems.

It’s hugely important to understand the relational context between social workers and Aboriginal communities; there is an enormous amount of mistrust between the two parties, making child welfare a difficult field to manoeuvre. This is probably one of the hardest aspects of social work for me to reconcile.

I’m almost finished my last practicum of my last term of my Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) with the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), at their Aboriginal Family and Child Services office, and even there most of the workers are non-Aboriginal. It’s a huge challenge facing social workers, trying to avoid falling into the same combative, paternalistic role we’ve traditionally had in Canada.

At my office, this effort is perhaps more conspicuous – Aboriginal art work hangs on the walls, Elders have permanent positions on staff to provide cultural support and conduct smudges, and we have a special department which focuses on connecting children and youth with their traditional Nations and family members.

All this goes a long way in helping people to feel more at ease when working with the Ministry and being physically in the office, but there’s so much more to social work than putting people at ease; to me at least, the overarching goal is to assist people in feeling that they are the agents of change in their lives. Strengths-based approaches to social work take this into consideration, focusing on the gifts that each individual brings to a situation, and exploring ways that they can use and build on their skills to reach their goals. This is a really broad explanation of a strengths approach, but I keep the definition broad because there is no single correct way to apply it. I am still developing my own understanding of how I can apply this approach in an Aboriginal context. During this period where self-government, land title, and Aboriginal rights are key political issues, it is particularly pertinent for social workers to consider the ways that they may inherently be contributing to the negative role child protection has played in Canada’s history for so long.

In an ideal world a social worker would have a caseload of around 20 cases (rather than upwards of 60 in some regions). You would always have time to see the people you’re working with, complete the paperwork within the allotted timelines, and consult to your heart’s content. Social workers would all be up on the latest evidence-based practice. But even an ideal social work world might not equal boom-wow-everything-is-great. How much is it going to matter that I complete a file review on time, if the case family is still dealing with problems like abuse, addiction and health issues? Likewise, it doesn’t do much good for there to be smaller caseloads, but a shortage of spaces in resources. A lot of kids miss out on opportunities for funding because of system backlogs at basically every agency.

To see ground-breaking, meaningful change, the whole social welfare system needs to improve. It doesn’t work like it’s intended to (and some would argue that even at it’s best, the system is broken) .The sense that I have gotten from my experience with the Ministry so far is that you need to get used to feeling perpetually behind, like you’re only doing a so-so job. The turnover rate is high for social workers – over 10% of full time child protection workers leave their positions each year. Vicarious trauma is a very real concern, and burnout often occurs within just a couple years of being in the field. For example, there is very little support for social workers in rural communities who are struggling to deal with caseload issues, social isolation, and the emotional toll of their work. Most social workers across the province are expected to find their own support networks outside of the Ministry.

This is a really grim picture of social work, I know. It’s not all terrible – relationship-building can be really fulfilling for all parties involved, and I’ve really enjoyed learning how to create professional relationships with people who realistically would rather you were never ever in their lives. It’s a bizarre way to interact, for sure, with the implicit understanding that once we no longer have to knock on their door, they’ve “made it.” Working with people to problem-solve is unbelievably inspiring, and even when it fucks up it’s like, “Well, that didn’t work, I guess we’ll try again.” Not everyone is resilient, but a lot of people are, and it’s one of the most rewarding things to see. Because in most of the cases a social worker will have, there won’t be a huge life-change during the time they’re receiving services. I think that as a social worker, you need to be hopeful that people can help themselves, that they can change, and that they won’t fall apart willy-nilly at the drop of a dime.

If I sound very pragmatic, I am. Social work requires you to be realistic, tough-skinned, and efficient. It also requires you to be optimistic, positive, empathetic. It’s a lot to try to leave at work, a big messy slough of emotions that are contradictory-but-not. Will I be able to do this work, when I have a caseload of 40 or 50 and I’m tired and want to tell everyone to just stop having crises? I think I can, or else I sure as heck would not have put up with some of the courses I had to take, but I won’t really find out until I’m in the field.

  1. And in this monologue, when I say “social worker” I mean “child protection worker.”
  • ubcede

    This was a great read! Thank you 🙂

  • Josh

    That was an interesting piece to read. Thank you for sharing your story thus far in your pursuits to become a social worker in child protection. I too am planning on going to UBC to get my bachlors in social work. I have heard those same sorts of stories as you and i can understand why as you mentioned in your article. How would you say your experience has been like with your coworkers and instructors?