Social Work

Discussing Social Work Practice in a Real-World Setting

As a group, my friends and I decided to visit the Outagamie County Division of Youth and Family Services, and we did so on October 22, 2007. During our visit we met with Monica Thoms, MSW, The Independent Living Program of Outagamie County Program Coordinator, Tammy McHugh, BSW, Outagamie County Mentoring Program Coordinator, and Janet DeWitt, BSW, Outagamie County Juvenile Court Intake Worker. The four course objectives we decided to examine were (2) demonstrate understanding of systems theory, generalist social work practice, and use the Generalist Intervention model to understand clients’ needs and system responses, (3) understand the functioning of formal organizations as reflected in the operation of social service agencies and apply this understanding to practice intervention modes, (5) understand the influence of social class, race, gender and other types of diversity on professional relationships and apply this knowledge in practice situations, and (6) integrate the NASW code of ethics into all professional transactions, including those with peers and differentiate between personal, professional, agency, and societal values.

One of our group members set up the interview, and coincidentally, I have been mentoring through this county program for almost three years already. I originally became involved with it as part of the required volunteer hours for entrance into the Social Work program. With that aside, what I was most interested in learning was what these social workers actually found themselves doing throughout the day, and just how the stuff they were doing related to these objectives. I have already graduated school once and gone out to the workforce, and I know that college presents more of an idealized view of what a particular profession looks like, and that once one moves out into the real world he or she does work according to a theoretical model, although that model is not necessarily followed step-by-step when one is on the job.

In this paper, I have decided to analyze a formal organization and two clinical social work studies and compare how both executed the four objectives listed above. I believe this kind of analysis will give me the best big picture of how things really are executed when on the job.

In regard to the first objective we chose, which was the second objective listed on our syllabus, it was found that while systems theory and the Generalist Intervention model is theoretically implemented in practice, it is not consciously thought and laid out step-by-step. The workers we spoke to were all certainly aware of the model, but once one actually sits down and does the real work, things work much differently than the way they are theoretically supposed to work. All three of the individuals interviewed seemed to participate in all steps of the Generalist Intervention Model to varying degrees. Monica Thoms, for example, said that “…she is the resource to help them (adolescents in her program) find what they need…” and that she specifically pays for lots of “…little stuff-food, rent, and driver’s ed…” (Monica Thoms, personal interview, October 22). From this explanation, it seems her role most strongly correlates with the Implementation phase of the Generalist Intervention model. Does Monica use all phases of the model? Yes. In regard to the engagement phase, she also noted that “schools and hospitals” are the two primary institutions that refer adolescents to her (Monica Thoms, personal interview, October 22). Most often, her work primarily revolves around helping out adolescents in concrete ways. Does Monica think to herself, “Now, in the engagement phase I will do the following things”? No, it seems more likely that she has developed a certain comfort zone when working with clients and applies it properly as the situation dictates.

In comparison, it was found that social work studies function somewhat like Outagamie County Youth and Family Services. Do the studies found in reputable journals lay out verbatim what they do at each phase of the Generalist Intervention model? Again no, but they do still follow the model. For example, in the winter 2002 edition of the Clinical Social Work Journal, one can find a study entitled “Working Through Family Based Problem Behavior Through Activity Group Therapy” (Troester). Examination of the article reveals no clear definition or layout of the Generalist Intervention model anywhere. The author of the article, however, still has engaged in the process, but not in a step-by-step manner like our book shows. He has clearly already performed the engagement and assessment phases, as he remarks, “…all of the boys except one (Al) had previous activity group experience with the same therapist (author)…” (Troester, 2002, p. 422). So, he has evidently already engaged in those two steps in the past. Basically, the trick is simply to find the key words or sections of the article which allude or relate to a specific phase found in the Generalist Intervention model (Troester).

In regard to the second objective we chose, which was the third objective listed on our syllabus, there was extensive evidence given by each worker that indicated his or her knowledge of formal organizational structure. Each worker knew how individuals were referred to their program, how they were processed, how they could possibly be discharged, and what exactly their own responsibilities and options were when actually working with clients. Each worker also knew which organization provided which services for their client, if additional services were in fact needed. What was particularly interesting to me was the lack of formal organizational structure Monica Thoms used. She did mention that she is “State and Federally funded,” but that “a lot of it (her programs) is voluntary…” (Monica Thoms, personal interview, October 22). Tammy McHugh, the mentoring program coordinator, noted that she would “recruit volunteer mentors for youth,” and to show her understanding of organizational structure, she also noted that Janet DeWitt, a juvenile intake worker, “can refer youth [to Tammy]” (Tammy McHugh, personal interview, October 22). She is clearly aware of how the system referred youth to her. Janet DeWitt, being a juvenile intake worker, has had more extensive experience with different organizations, particularly the county’s District Attorney. She mentioned the District Attorney can authorize a “Deferred Prosecution Agreement,” which allows the juvenile to avoid jail, and instead replaces that with community service or some level of involvement with the Youth and Family Services Agency as an alternative (Janet DeWitt, personal interview, October 22). Janet also mentioned the juvenile can be assigned a social worker during intake in order to assess what services with the Youth and Family Services Agency would be appropriate.

In the same study by James Troester mentioned earlier, Mr. Troester was concerned at one point about interference from systems outside of his own. He was performing group therapy in a public high school, basically in whatever room was available at the time. The particular form of therapy he was providing, called Advanced Group Therapy, is most effective in a liberal environment. Troester noted the authoritarian climate of public schooling naturally contradicted this need for the group. On a few different occasions, he was faced with interference by school personnel who did not understand the needs of his group. The point to take from all of this is that Troester is aware of outside systems and their influence on his own sub-system, and in his study he did take measures to reduce or eliminate the influence from outside systems (Troester).

The third objective we decided to examine was the fifth objective listed in our syllabus, which deals with diversity and worker awareness of the effect of diversity on the worker-client relationship. Being in the Fox Valley, diversity overall is lacking, but is on the rise at the same time. The workers we interviewed confirmed this notion. Janet did mention that while diversity itself is lacking and that there is a higher proportion of minorities involved in the justice system, the Youth and Family Services Agency is not ignoring the issue. She mentioned the agency does “gather all information and statistics on cases to see if minorities are more targeted than whites,” and she said this type of statistical study is referred to as “Disproportionate Minority Contact” (Janet DeWitt, personal interview, October 22). During the interview, I did not note any resistance or prejudice towards diverse populations or beliefs by any of the workers. Also, since I have been mentoring for three years under Tammy McHugh, I can say that diversity is lacking in the mentoring program. I do recall a couple of African-American adolescents and it seemed by the way that some kids dressed that they came from lower income homes, but that was pretty much the farthest extent of diversity. I can also say that from personal experience, the mentoring program coordinators I have worked with over the years, including Tammy McHugh, do respect different beliefs and attitudes. Lower income persons, for example, in some cases do not place as high of a priority on personal appearance and hygiene as middle class individuals might. Coordinators encouraged me to discuss hygiene and appearance with my mentee, but they did not push it to the point where my mentee would have to dress like a middle class individual, which shows respect for the individual’s own priorities.

Interestingly, I was able to find an article discussing one area where social work avoids diversity. When it comes to religious matters, “…social work’s discomfort with its religious roots, [has] resulted in a trend of avoiding religious issues in social work education.” (Sahlein, 2002, p. 381). One study found:

Of the 328 social workers, psychologists, and professional counselors (all practicing in Virginia) surveyed, 79% reported that content related to religious or spiritual issues was rarely or never presented in school. Nearly 38% had attended workshops or conferences related to religious/spiritual subject matter during the course of the past five years. Almost 80% reported on the relevance of spirituality to their own lives. And yet, when asked to rate the desirability of clinicians’ receiving formal education in this arena, the mean response was 5.02 on a scale running from 1 (low desirability) to 9 (high desirability) (Sheridan qtd. in Sahlein, 2002, p. 383).

The point of this evidence is not to defame social work but it just goes to show that even the social work profession, useful and healthy as it is, needs to expand its experience somewhat. On a personal level, it does not seem as though social workers hold any particular prejudices against religion, but it does seem as though the topic of religion does not come up very often.

The final objective, which was the sixth one listed on our syllabus, deals with the execution of the NASW code of ethics, as well as the ability to respect differences in beliefs between worker and client. Again, when conducting the interview, I did not detect any hint of prejudice or judgmental attitudes from any of the workers. All workers seemed to be very professional, and obviously understood how to implement the values of the NASW code of ethics, while simultaneously holding respect for beliefs different from their own. Demonstrating her knowledge of professionalism, Janet DeWitt mentioned that she does in fact “work within the NASW ethics” and also has “training in ethics every two years” (Janet DeWitt, personal interview, October 22, 2007.) Tammy McHugh noted that she must abide by state law, specifically “chapter 938” which is juvenile delinquency law (Tammy McHugh, personal interview, October 22). Finally, Monica Thoms said she “followed laws, county philosophy, chapter 48 child protective service guidelines

As mentioned before, religion is currently a point of struggle for the social work profession. This is not really the fault of any current practitioners; it was the result of what social work had to do in order to be viewed as a legitimate profession. Historically, social work developed from religious roots, but now “Clark argues that in order to ‘. . . become a profession that could earn the recognition accorded to law and medicine (and, in the past, the ministry), the founders [of social work] had to move away from a primary identification with any particular religious tradition'” (Clark qtd. in Sahlein, 2002, p. 386). The NASW code of ethics maintains that “Social workers also should be aware of the impact on ethical decision making of their clients’ and their own personal values and cultural and religious beliefs and practices” (NASW Delegate Assembly, 1999). Social work as a whole does not hold any prejudicial attitudes towards any religious or spiritual beliefs or practices, and it does follow objective six and the NASW code of ethics in that social workers themselves on a daily basis hold respect for diversity, which includes religious and spiritual practices. However, it seems that more education be used, which is a whole different topic to be addressed another time.

Overall, it seems as though both real-life organizations and professionally conducted studies do engage in all of the objectives examined in some way. Are the individuals in each of these groups consciously thinking about each objective and how they might take steps in their practice to adhere to it? Not in a step-by-step process demonstrated in a book, but on a more personal level that demonstrates understanding of the social work process. It seems that as people in each group get experience, many parts of the objectives and some of the objectives themselves become second nature to the professional executing them. On a personal level, it was good to find how these objectives were implemented and that they were actually being implemented. This paper really makes those objectives look important and valid when actually applied to practice, which is what a student wants to see.

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