Social workers as policymakers

Social workers are not, as a general rule, very comfortable with power.

Listen to a group of social workers, or social work students, talking amongst themselves for any period of time, and this will usually become quite apparent. “You know, I wanted to make the big bucks; that’s why I became a social worker!” (facetiously, of course) “They don’t tell me anything; I’m just the social worker!” You get the idea.

The reality, of course, is not only that such self-effacing attitudes are quite self-defeating (more on this later, since I just realized I’ve never written up my whole “power speech” for students!), but also inaccurate.

Social workers have tremendous power. Ask any client who has ever been rejected for services, been made to feel ‘less than’, had her children removed from her home, been required to attend condescending classes, or been scheduled for an appointment at a terribly inconvenient time.

In fact, every day in many ways large and small, WE are what our clients most directly experience as power, and as policy.

And when we deny this, or when we fail to recognize it, we don’t win any points for our martyrdom. We don’t empower anyone by pretending that we have less power than we do. When we fail to adequately account for and ethically employ the power we have, we, instead, fail our profession, our institutions, and, most importantly, those we serve.

This is an often uncomfortable realization for social work students who, after all, got into this business to help people, not to wield power over them. But power, and the way that power works in relationships, is really at the heart of any clinical relationship–how would we, as social workers, ever help anyone to change his/her life if not for the power granted to us by virtue of that mutual relationship? And it’s an integral part of administrative and advocacy practice, too, particularly when it comes to the discretion that social workers at all levels enjoy–to apply eligibility rules, to interpret ambiguous rules, to selectively apply certain incentives or sanctions. The literature and history of our profession recognize this–skim any introductory social work text for “social control and social assistance”–and we know that, if we were honest, our job descriptions would also include words like “gatekeeper”, “rule-maker”, and “policy police”.

This discretion is a core part of what what makes social workers (and other, similar professions) professionals, and it’s a big part of what makes social work a feasible proposition. Think about it: there is no way that an organization could create policies to account for every possibility, and there are dozens of ways, every day, in which policies as enacted are unworkable as implemented.

The challenge for social workers, then, is to acknowledge the policies we make through our decisions, and through our inaction, too. It is to accept the ethical ambiguity of this policymaking and seek consultation and engage in deliberation to approach it with the utmost caution. It is to build mechanisms that incorporate the perspectives of those served in this decision making, and to share power meaningfully so that these clients experience our discretion as a thoughtful exercise of professional authority, not an arbitrary or capricious exercise of personal fiat.

The brief scenarios below come from my own social work practice. I’d love to hear from other social workers grappling with this whole idea of professional discretion and of the iterations of social work policy making within our organizations. How and when have you confronted this realization of your power? As a supervisor, how do you manage discretion for your direct reports? How do you build transparency and accountability into the policies made by your actions, the same way we seek to build these measures into policy we create in other contexts? How do we create a truly empowering relationship with clients, knowing that it is only through an embrace of our own power that we can hope to empower others?

  • As an Adult Protective Services worker, I was regularly humbled and rather stunned by the tremendous discretion that I and other APS workers had to make determinations about what constitutes abuse, neglect, or exploitation, who should be held responsible, and what the appropriate corrective actions are. When social workers go into someone’s home to ask these uncomfortable questions, we are exercising huge authority and serving as an arm of government power. And, most of the time, no one’s watching over our shoulders to be sure that we use this power “correctly”.
  • My work has often required interpreting for clients. Every single time, I am cognizant of the power that comes with this role–I am literally putting words in their mouths, and I’m filtering everything that they know about a situation that is often of real importance to them. While few social workers serve as multilingual interpreters, we all play roles in helping clients to navigate the social service delivery system, bridging gaps, and “translating” their circumstances for those unfamiliar with them. This makes us creators of reality, a gigantic power.

    We spend a lot more time talking about how others do policy to us–state legislatures, Congress, federal agencies–than about how we make policy. I think that’s because the latter is a lot more uncomfortable for us; it requires confronting our power and the often ‘sticky’ nature of our policy decisions. We owe it to our clients, though, to do this confronting. We are, for many of them at many points in time, the embodiment of policy’s potential to oppress or to empower, whether we like it or not.

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  • 160 responses to “Social workers as policymakers

    1. Yes, Danielle, power and powerlessness are relative, in many ways, and, so, we can feel powerless as workers even as we wield considerable power over others. And you’re very right that organizational context influences how we experience power and autonomy. We’ll talk about that more later in the semester in the context of agency advocacy and how culture influences our ability to seek change. Thanks for your insights.

      • Darcy Letourneau

        I think the point you made is a critical concept that all social workers need to realize and remember. Often times social workers get a bad reputation because of this inherit power that exists within our profession. I have noticed this at both practicums that I have had in graduate school but will discuss my experience from last year.

        Last year I worked at Catholic Charities serving pregnant refugees. In this position I noticed the power that I had as a professional in many ways. Firstly because many of these women had only been in the United States for a few months they were unaware of many policies, laws, and customs in the United States. Also many of the women did not speak English so I utilized interpreters. These women and their partners to put an immense amount of trust in me to help them.

        I think is important to realize how people may interpret our profession and potential power so that we can work with people more effectively. There is a lot of responsibility in being a social worker and I plan to take that responsibility very seriously.

        • YES, Darcy–excellent examples! You were a cultural guide and the gatekeeper to their literal translation of the world around them to one they could understand. Those are very powerful roles, inescapably; all we can do is be cognizant of the power imbalance, work to redistribute power as much as possible, and to build different institutional structures that avoid vesting so much power in the hands of a privileged few. All of that starts right where you identified–noticing and ‘checking’ the power we have as professionals.

      • When reading this blog post, it took me back to my practicum last year, one incident in particular. I was at DCF and was riding along with a CPS worker, when we went to the home of parents that had been suspected of abuse. We had already talked to the kids at the school, and from the story line, the allegation appeared to be a false one. So, we went to let the parents know they shouldn’t be too worried. However, we were met with a lot of hostility despite us being there to bring good news. As social workers, we often don’t realize just how much authority or power we could potentially have, or even if we don’t have much, society thinks he have an immense amount.

        For example, in the above scenario, she thought that we could come, without real tangible evidence and simply remove her children from the hotline reported. She was not aware it is a process, and that DCF cannot technically remove a child, Law Enforcement has to be involved, and that takes quite a bit to get to that step most of the time. She was hostile towards us because she thought we were there to tell her that her children were not coming home and that we were arresting her, which we don’t have the authority to do.

        The reason I share this experience is because I do see how society views social workers, and I worry at times if our power is not used carefully, potential clients will shy away from seeking help or services out of fear of our “power” and view us more as wanting to take their children versus actually helping them get where they need to be.

        • Wow, Morgan; I can imagine that was such an uncomfortable experience for you and your colleague–being there to close the loop, so to speak, on a particular concern, and, really, to somewhat reassure the parents–and finding that the response was something quite different than relief or gratitude, certainly. I wonder, though, how some of the processes in place can sometimes reinforce these concerns and fears, rather than assuaging them; what I mean is, don’t social workers in these kinds of investigations have some authority and even discretion to determine what they consider ‘credible’ allegations, what kinds of corrective action they can order (maybe not removing children, since that would require a higher standard of proof, but what about flagging a case for continued follow up and involvement?)? How transparent are the procedures that dictate clients’ rights in these interactions, and how easy could it be for someone to become confused or anxious about the course of events, particularly when there are such high stakes? Your intentions were good, of course, and your adherence to protocol unbending, but is the system necessarily set up to ensure that all workers will approach their tasks with the same level of integrity and commitment to transparency…or is your adherence to these values another way that you flex the power you wield?

      • I found this article to be post to be incredibly humbling. As a long term child welfare worker, early in my career I conducted investigations of abuse and neglect. When a social worker shows up to the home of a client to discuss the heinous allegations an anonymous source and reported clients become immediately defensive, rightfully so. It took me a long time to realize the defensiveness wasn’t personal, it was instinctual. These families went immediately into fight or flight mode and I had the power to determine outcomes for their children, as a parent myself the thought of someone other than myself or my spouse making decisions for my children is frightening. The training I received did not discuss the power and control families felt we (social workers) had over their lives, in hindsight this is significant gap in client-centered care. I reminisce on my days in the field and learn from my experiences. I share my mistakes with others and try to appreciate the power I wield and apply it for the purposes of lifting families up. This blog has provided a new lens in which I view my role as a social worker. I will practice social work with humility, care, and reverence when interacting with clients in my future endeavors. I will be more cognizant of my power and the instinctive affect my mere presence may impact clients.

        • This is a really powerful reflection, Beri. It does seem like such an oversight not to equip workers–particularly new ones–with a lens for looking at their power and how others experience it. I am struck by a word in your comment: “reverence”. That is really profound, a recognition that feeling the weight of our power doesn’t diminish it, can’t diminish it. Only refusing to ever allow ourselves to forget the sacred obligation we have to wield that power responsibly, respectfully, and tenderly can ever mean that we’re practicing, in our power, the way we must.

    2. This is a great post and one I think is vital. If we (as social workers/social work students) don’t recognise the power we wield it can almost become dangerous and is part of the self-awareness/reflection that is needed as a part of the job.
      Power doesn’t have to be ‘bad’ – as there may be a debate as to whether we can empower if we don’t have power in the first place. It is also a part of our role perhaps to guide people through systems that can be quite challenging and process-driven.
      One thing I’ve found (and this might not help newly qualified workers) is that as my ‘status’ within the organisation has changed (I am ‘just’ a social worker with no managerial responsibilities but have built a fairly solid reputation and have become more confident in my practice) I am able to advocate more effectively within it.

      • Thanks so much for your comments–I’m a frequent reader of your blog, although I’m behind on my RSS feed reading right now! I completely agree with the idea that, if we are avoiding assumption of our own power, we can’t hope to “empower” others–as consumers, we always want to talk with a manager if we have a problem, because we know that with power comes the ability to get what we want done. And I think your point about power accumulating with experience and prestige at our organizations, quite independent of our place in the organizational chart, is a key one. Respect and expertise are potent sources of power, and good social workers certainly have the ability to build those up!

        Thanks again!

    3. When you speak of the surprising amount of discretion you had, it reminds me of the article “Street Level Bureaucrats,” in which I’m sure you saw some of yourself if you read it after your APS days. This inadvertent, seemingly invisible “power” is both empowering and frightening. Empowering because so much rests upon one person’s decision to act or NOT to act (sometimes more powerful). Frightening for the same reasons. This is one reason I am excited to learn more about social work administration and policy, so I can have the ability know HOW to use those situations for the betterment of my clients, and how to have my (potential) staff have the same ability. I loved that article, by the way.

      • Good point, Emily, about the power (and the policymaking impact) of inaction. As hard as it is to recognize our power to act, the impact of our inaction is probably even more invisible. Lipsky’s article is a classic–I’d love to write something that would shape the thinking of as many social workers, over as many decades, as he has!

    4. Jessica Clatterbuck

      I often struggle with the dichotomous nature of my role as a social worker… I didn’t get into the “business” to be an agent of social control, rather I would prefer to consider myself an agent of social change. I would also prefer to eat ice cream for every meal but this too is unrealistic. Too often I have found myself in a position to enforce asinine rules and regulations (read: policy and procedures) in order for clients to meet agency expectations. Further, these expectations themselves present a barrier to clients in relation to the assistance they are seeking. Case in point: do I need a complete illicit drug history to give you food when you are starving? Yes, in fact, I do. So not only are clients often shamed by just asking for help but we further erode what dignity that they may still possess by scrutinizing their lives in order to compare with some fantastical model of perfection which has been created by societal norms. Norms that that are perpetuated based on those who have power and influence. I’m sure we can all see the cycle here. We so wish to compartmentalize people so we can “understand” them in an organizational context that we often lose touch with the passion that influenced us to take the social work path. So, I agree that we would rather think of ourselves as powerless rather than recognizing the true nature of our relationship with clients. However, I believe that it is in this recognition that we have the opportunity to stay passionate and keep a client centered focus… especially when considering policy development.

      • Jessica, I LOVE your comment about how what we want, in life and in social work, is often beyond the realm of the wise, if not the possible! Your example about requiring a drug history for emergency food is a very poignant one, too. Have you had experiences trying to change policies like that, and being able to work alongside clients to push for such client-centered policy changes? How does your vision of yourself as powerless, or comparatively powerful, influence how you can engage in policy action? I certainly can’t tell you that the whole discomfort with the reality that we ARE agents of social control will get better throughout your career, but I can tell you that you’re ahead, in many ways, in that you recognize the inherent struggles within that reality.

      • Great insight Jessica. We do often as case managers/direct service staff elect to stay meso and individually service minded. Yet, I foresee my actions post SWAAP to change dramatically. I believe I am blessed in the area of argumentation, which may be the reason I chose the SWAAP concentration. I did not value my future as a degree seeking psychologist so I entered SW as a graduate student. Not long after, I noticed without self-efficacy in Macro Practice, I could not fulfill my innermost desires. I overheard other SW students say things like “But you can’t practice clinical with that degree, and with the clinical degree you can practice Macro”. True. But will the “fire” be lit beneath you to affect change? I don’t think so. Reading this post, the many articles listed in our course documents, listening to this semester’s in-class lecturers and reading our texts has prepare me to “come out swinging”. I feel prepared to meet the gridlock of legislation, take on the CEO of my organization and anyone else who perpetuates the status quo, or social injustice at any level, even if it means I am the least popular person in my organization (ho-hum…).

    5. Jessica Clatterbuck

      I crave to have an experience to work along side a client to change a maladaptive policy! In fact, the opportunities that SWAAP offers to engage in such a practice is my social work “raison d’etre.” Sadly (and cowardly, I might add), when I was confronted with this issue as a student I did point out to my field supervisor that I took issue with this policy but my whistle-blowing stopped there… because it was explained to me that this is the way things are done to meet grant parameters and because, simply, I understood the precarious nature of my situation as a student. I was inexperienced and was searching for a mentor… someone that I could not only discuss the ins and outs of policy but also learn how to actively make a change on the macro (mezzo) level. Also… I’m impatient.

      • We’ve all, as social workers and as human beings, walked away from some battles that, in retrospect, we may have wished we would have fought. I have had some students use their student status to great effect–a kind of “I’m just a student, and so I’m wondering why it has to be this way…” but certainly there are prices for that internal advocacy. We’ll deal with the question of when our own employers are part of the problem, later in the semester, so I hope that you’ll be able to share some of your challenges then, too. Thanks for your insights.

    6. Today I would like to talk about favoritism and power in the social welfare field. The power of social workers definitely determines the success or failure of their clients, and even at times life or death. I have unfortunately seen all too many times power used inappropriately and unfairly in the non-profit world. Last year I worked part-time at a drug rehab center. Power was spider-webbed throughout the facility and, in turn, made the environment very difficult. The daily scene was plagued with clients struggling to gain power of their lives, and workers holding the power to discharge clients. The workers had the power discharge individuals if they were acting inappropriate, not actively participating in their recovery, and/or for relapsing. I witnessed many times the counselors allowing some individuals stay with multiple relapses while others were terminated for one fault. Ironically a great deal of the time, the individuals that were liked around the facility were given multiple chances at recovery while those who were not liked were terminated immediately. Power in this context frightens me. It is extremely apparent that social workers hold individuals’ lives in their hands. I get angry when I see organizations and professional write certain clients off because they are “difficult” or because they just “don’t like” them. I think within social work we need to maintain our integrity and hold every client to the same standard. While these standards are gray at times, we need to know our personal stance of such unclear standards and strive to maintain such. We as professionals also need to have awareness of situations in which we are basing our power of decision off of individual likability and personality. To me a great social worker works diligently to monitor their power given gray areas of the profession.

    7. I have certainly played the “Susie Social Worker” role by saying -“who am I? Just a social worker.” Being “just” a social worker has had many implications in my life. I have held it up high in regards to the empowering work I did and people I helped navigate treacherous social programs; finding the best fits and benefits for my clients. I have also held it low as supervisors and management and policy makers made rules and policy removing levels of humanity I hold dear. The humanity of society is messy and so too is social work. I believe it is important to stay empowered so that one may empower others. It is most important to stay client focused and keep the interests of the client in perspective while using one’s power. There are many times I have had to “value-check” my self against the “system”. And I certainly have used the NASW Code of Ethics to make decisions through the gray areas. Society holds so much diversity it makes it difficult to make “blanket” policies.

    8. Thanks, Trisa, for these reflections–I think you’re not alone in being uncomfortable with your power as a social worker (with power comes responsibility!). And your insight that it’s difficult to come up with policies that work for all of the individual needs we encounter in practice is one of the very reasons that it’s so important that social workers, including those with direct practice experience, play significant roles in policy development–your retention of that focus on the client can inform policies in ways that mitigate the harm that can come from “one-size-fits-all”. I look forward to learning alongside you this semester!

    9. You mentioned interpreting for clients as a way of exercising power, or at least discretion, which is something that completely relates to my experience thus far in the land of social work and social services. Any time that I have interpreted for my clients I have very much exercised power. Particularly because there’s not usually any real accountability for what occurred or what was said. It probably goes without saying, but due to the vary nature of the need for an interpreter due to a language barrier, both sides then become dependent on me for clear understanding. Sometimes I’ve not felt completely competent with the language content. Or what if I made an error without realizing it. Or what if my word choice, or paraphrasing, changes the way the message is understood. Honestly, that’s a given. Or what if I intentionally put words into the mouth of my client or the doctor? In a different sense, but still speaking to the issue of power, I’ve been in medical or dental appointments where I (in sort of an advocate/ medical case manage role) have interpreted for the doctor or dentist and their interaction with my client, the patient, but I have not interpreted the commentary among the medical staff in the room who are talking to each other ABOUT the patient in medical jargon of course. Sometimes the feelings of powerlessness on the clients’ faces are visual in these circumstances.

      • Yes, Rachel! I have felt everything that you said, and, truly, even when only one language is involved, we’re still “interpreting” our clients’ meanings all the time…representing them in conversations with people in power and ascribing intention where it may or may not be. As you say, those kinds of misunderstandings are fairly inevitable. I cringe thinking about the experiences you describe, but I cheer your insights and your identification with their feelings of powerlessness…as well as your recognition of your own power. Thank you for sharing!

    10. I have worked in child welfare for approximately four years. When I initially began at the agency where I continue to work, I only took the position because it was offered to me, not too long after graduating with my bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. However, the more I worked with children and families, the more I realized this was the avenue where I needed to be. It didn’t take long to realize this work was going to affect me throughout all my life. I love the services that I have been able to provide to children and families in need. I believe social work is an empowering line of work, not only for how it makes me feel, but for also the empowerment of the clients we serve. I like one of the previous comments on the blog that states we must stay empowered to empower others. This statement is very accurate. If we do not realize the abilty we have to empower others in this line of work, individuals may continue to face the struggles in their lives that brought them to the situation to receive services. We live in a very challenging world today and the belief in ourselves and our ablity to help others is imperative.

      • I can’t think of another area of social work where our power as policymakers–in terms of mediating how laws affect those with whom we work–is more apparent than in child welfare. To me, I think that could be even harder than the actual technical challenges of the work…this feeling that you hold tremendous authority in your hands. It’s an example of how it’s sometimes easier to feel powerless, because it doesn’t come with so much responsibility. But that brings us back to your statement about how power is a prerequisite for empowerment practice, so we can’t afford to ignore our powers.

    11. I did my BSW practicum in child welfare and I saw how workers who mishandled their power (intentionally or not) when they neglected certain aspects of their cases or allowed bias to influence how they described their clients. It’s a little intimidating to see that misuse of power as a social work student. But it’s clear that trying to back down from that power role as social workers is similarly unethical to misusing the positions power. In putting together what you said in your post and previous experience, I see that to empower our clients, social workers need to recognize the power that goes with their jobs and handle it wisely and carefully.

      • Great point, Corrie, about how seeing power misused can prompt us to shun its use in our own practice (and lives). But your statement right after that says it so well “trying to back down from that power role as social workers is similarly unethical”… The challenge is not to leave a power vacuum but, rather, to develop and own our own power, so that it becomes a counterbalancing force. I appreciate your thoughtfulness in this response–thank you for sharing!

    12. I have read both the blog and the comments. I would like to comment on Jody McCready’s comment first. I agree with the idea that the power individual social workers hold is frightening. I have seen this power used in positive and negative ways as well. I have experience working at a county mental health center. There is a policy stating that if a client misses 3 appointments or doesn’t cancel the appointment before 24 hours of the appointment time, they can be closed to services. I do think it is important to make sure that clients are utilizing services as case loads are high and many clients are on waiting lists or required to access less services. However, I have seen this policy be utilized or dismissed based on the client. I have also witnessed management staff dismiss this policy due to a client accessing management authority. Therefore, since the client knows how to “make things difficult”, they are able to access services based on a different criteria as other clients. I think that utilizing discretion in social work and other professions is a fact of life. I also know that I would not always make the same decision as another worker in certain situations. One thing that makes me nervous about becoming a part of management is how to know and ensure that the staff under me is utilizing their power for good. In a reading from a different class it talked about client-centered organization. I think this is important when remembering and thinking about our power in relationships and decisions. Always asking, “Is this the best decision for the client and in the best interest of the client?” By constantly asking this question, our focus will stay on our purpose as social workers.

    13. Yes, Corinn–discretion is inevitable, and probably desirable, too, at least compared with the alternative–proscribed practice that impairs the working relationship. I appreciate your focus on the client, and the reminder that, in the end, it’s only our values that can keep us truly accountable!

    14. I must say that I have felt powerless as a social worker before but I believe that was because I was unaware of the power I possessed. This blog post really opened my eyes and made me think about past experiences, how the frustration clients expressed was due to a lack of power and how I was perceived as someone with power who could advocate on behalf of that client. Personally, I used to believe that I could not have an impact on policy because I was on the bottom of the food chain. Sure, I would make suggestions and talk to people about policies that were in place, but instead of being persistent about what I felt was an injustice, I would give up if I hit a road block. As this particular blog indicates, social workers must realize the power that we hold and use it to help our clients and for the better of our profession.

      • Yes, John, and hold ourselves accountable for the effective and ethical use of that power…realizing that we aren’t, really, on the bottom, but instead professionals afforded considerable privilege, and that with that privilege comes responsibility! Thank you for sharing your reflections.

    15. Linda Campbell-Laman

      Promoting ethical power is very important to me. As social work administrators in training it is important to gain an understanding of the power we hold and to demonstrate it responsibly and consistently. When scenarios are presented in class we come up with the “right” solution but in daily practice we need to constantly ask ourselves if we are doing the “right” thing for our clients/consumers. I agree with an earlier post that our policy power results from actions we take as well as the actions we avoid when situations are difficult. I believe in the strengths perspective promoted in the KU School of Social Welfare and the consumer-driven focus on the delivery of services. I look forward to gaining additional knowledge on how further expand my policy development skills and recognize the multitude of opportunities that exist to demonstrate them.

    16. Inaction can absolutely be more ethical, at times, than even the action we’d think is done in the “right” way–I tried to intentionally present, in class, some scenarios where not doing anything is the safer ethical choice. I like the fact that you emphasize the focus on clients as the foundation of ethical practice–it is truly our best guide!

    17. As a foster care and adoption case manager I learned the hard way that I could either adopt that belief system of many of the workers who surrounded by (many were not educated in the strengths model apparently) or I could choose to really try to help these families instead of be punitive with them. As a nursing home social worker, I was expected to act as a police officer with some of the residents. There were times when I had to step in that role with angry, shouting familys, but for the most part if you are not doing something to actually help a situation or condition instead of making it worse, you should try a different approach. Revisiting this belief over and over again has served me well to this day.
      Gayle Elliott
      KU School of Social Welfare–Social Policy 841

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    19. As a practicum student working for a drug and alcohol recovery center, I saw countless incidents where a social worker did not realize their power over a client. Worse, I saw first hand the terrible results of power being misused. I’ll never forget the day a client relapsed after 2 years of sobriety, largely impart to the lack of services recieved (the social worker didn’t “have time for her”). Reflecting on these experiences gives me power in my own practice. It is important to recognize each client as an individual and respect their needs, wants and decisions. I find that implementing the strengths perspective in practice helps me to keep my own “power” in check. Power can be a wonderful tool but it can also be destructive.

      • Leah, two pieces from this especially resonated with me–first, the idea that the strengths perspective can help, at least somewhat, to balance the power differential between worker and client; I certainly find that, since we can never be reminded too many times that our clients are the experts in their own lives. And, second, your statement that “power can be a wonderful tool but it can also be destructive”–I completely agree that social workers need to claim our power, and use it for good, but I think that potential for abuse is what makes many social workers wary of power in the first place. How do you handle it when you see colleagues who, in your ethical lens, are misusing their power? And how do you approach contracting with a client, to ensure that he/she understands the rights afforded to clients and how to exercise them?

    20. Power….. In my experience people believe they don’t have power for a number of reasons. One reason is the feeling of powerlessness due to one’s job title. Many focus on the consequences of what would happen to them if they exercised their power. Even I have put my tail between my legs to shy away from consequences of using my power. The truth is there will always be consequences and as social workers we need to be brave and use the power despite the consequences. If something needs to be changed or if there is injustice then we need to step in even if we get into some trouble. I’m not saying we need to break the law but we might have to break a few rules. As Spiderman once said…..”With great power comes great responsibility.”

      • Yes, Joshua! If we pretend that we have no (or very little) power, then we can absolve ourselves (we think) of our responsibilities…what roles, do you think, are there for social workers in civil disobedience? How do we resolve situations when the law is contrary to our ethical standards as professionals? And how would you advise a client considering the same dilemma?

    21. Melinda, your comment about how “that potential for abuse is what makes many social workers wary of power in the first place” was true for me when I first started out in the field. I incessantly worried that I might not be competent and that I had the potential to really mess things up. I learned to alter my thought process after being hired to a position where I instantly became the agency’s “expert” on a topic about which I really knew very little. I was in a sink or swim situation and learned to embrace being a social worker in a position of power (while soaking up every bit of knowledge I could in order to develop competency in the job). This experience taught me that to acknowledge and utilize power does not necessarily lead to or constitute the abuse of power. As social workers, we constantly identify and criticize the many people who abuse power in ways that disadvantages and damage others. We must do more than wag our fingers at this type of behavior. We have to demonstrate the appropriate use of power if we really want to advance social justice rather than maintaining the status quo.

      • And, Anna, we can’t know everything, and so we have to be okay with that. I like what you said about demonstrating ethical use of power as part of working towards social justice…if our social work organizations can’t be ‘laboratories’ for the kind of democracy that we crave (and deserve), what can be?

    22. Kelsey Pfannenstiel

      Such an interesting topic! I feel, like you stated, that we don’t give ourselves credit for the power we have. Personally, I feel this when talking to ‘professionals’ that have what society often refers to as ‘powerful titles’ ex: doctors, lawyers, politicians. We, as a professional, are experts just the same as they are… We are experts in working with individuals and experts in the areas we practice. Also, when we are experts we have to continue to watch our use of power to not overpower those we are working with because they to have power and our their own experts!

      • And, Kelsey, when we undervalue our profession, we, unintentionally, erode the power that we need to be able to advocate for the populations we serve, and the policies that they deserve. We (and, more importantly, they) cannot afford that!

    23. An example of power that I have experienced would be as an representative payee at my practicum last year. I literally decided if and how people spent their money. In that role I always felt qualified to make wise decisions for the people I represented but I had conflicts over what right I had to make those decisions. I was an intern thrust upon these people with complete control over every financial aspect of their lives and they had no decision in the matter. I learned quickly that I had a lot of power and I wasn’t so sure I liked it. I eventually grew into feeling more comfortable with my role as I believed I had those peoples best interest at heart and that isn’t always the case with representative payees. I also believe that many social workers wield more power than many doctors and lawyers. You usually have a choice over which doctor or lawyer you want to see/hire. Many times social workers, like in my case and child protection etc., are forced into your life and you have no choice in the matter and often with serious consequences for non-compliance.

      • Yes, Jeff–thank you so much for sharing these experiences, and I especially appreciate your insights into how the lack of ‘choice’ for many of our clients impacts social worker power. That is often an invisible part of the way that the power imbalance is manifest. I look forward to meeting you tonight!

    24. Melinda, I think the overriding theme in each of your questions is communication. First it is important to speak to the “offending” colleague; by taking a offensive approach hopefully I open the window for a conversation about the use of power. There are two sides to every story (and many times more!) and out of respect for my colleagues I should consult with them about the behavior before taking further action. Secondly, helping a client to recognize their rights involves many forms of communication and empowering techniques. Through verbiage and written word I attempt to ensure that they understand the power in our relationship is equal, even though it may not feel like it. Typically this means reading through the Client’s Rights and Responsibilities and giving them a copy to take home.

      • Absolutely, Leah, using our ‘soft skills’ to communicate better with clients and colleagues can resolve many would-be dilemmas…I often say that we can sometimes ‘practice our way out of’ ethical dilemmas by being skilled in how we create a third way that we might not have immediately seen. And, of course, part of using one’s power ethically requires that we help others to claim and use their own in the same way. Do you think, though, that clients’ power is really equal in a social worker/client relationship? It’s very important to help them recognize and claim the power that they have, but, given that they often don’t have that many options for social workers, and that we usually control things like sanctions and rewards, I think it’s important to acknowledge power imbalances where they exist. What do you see as most important in working to minimize these power differentials–do you think that agencies’ rights and responsibilities are usually adequate, or do you see room for improvement there?

    25. Agency rights and responsibilities policies have a long way to come before they are “adequate.” And I absolutely agree with you that there are power imbalances in the worker client relationship. That said, each client and work arena is different and discretion must be used in each to determine the amount of power minimization that needs to occur. Some one working with newly paroled felons probably shouldn’t minimize their power as much as someone working in a teen empowerment program. I think a great way to judge the needed “power scale adjustment” is for a social worker to examine the clients right to self determination as established by the Code of Ethics.

      “Social workers respect and promote the right of clients to self­determination and assist clients in their efforts to identify and clarify their goals. Social workers may limit clients’ right to self­determination when, in the social workers’ professional judgment, clients’ actions or potential actions pose a serious, foreseeable, and imminent risk to themselves or others.”

      This both acknowledges the power imbalances that exist and gives guidelines on how to and when adjust that power.

      • That’s a really key point, Leah, about how power imbalances–and what we do to acknowledge and moderate them–are different with every client. It’s an important reminder of our requirement to ‘begin where our client is’!

    26. This is very great opportunity. As social worker dear Melindaklewis can you become also a policy maker? is it possible to be both? if so, how? and when?

      Thanks,

    27. One of the other faucets of the power of social workers, aside from the “hard power” of interpreting policy on the front line, is the “soft power” we possess when engaging with colleagues, government agencies, nonprofits, hospitals – pretty much any place where we might find ourselves advocating for a client. Advocacy is something that is taught as a tool for social workers to utilize for clients on a pretty consistent basis. However, the question of “*Why* does advocacy work?” is not normally examined.

      For reference, it’s interesting to take a step back and see how a doctor talks to you when you are the patient’s social worker and when you are the patient. Does the doctor speak with you or at you?

      On a number of occasions I have “talked” a person out of or into making certain concessions that benefit a given client’s situation. Anything from having a food pantry worker waive the need for a client to have a certain piece of identification to access food to talking a judge out of requiring a mandatory jail sentence on a client due to the possible effects incarceration would have to their mental health. It’s just something else to be cognizant of when considering the power of the social worker.

      Lastly on the topic, the term “Social Worker” can be thrown around pretty loosely still. I, of course, understand the importance and utility that other fields such as Human Services or Psychology bring to the table. There are just some concerns regarding the practice of someone who is not a social worker directly affiliating themselves with the field of Social Work instead of saying that they are a Psychology Focused Case Manager or a Human Services Specialist. There is a definite effect on the view of social workers by clients if there has been past experiences with this type of situation. It’s not a new discussion for anyone that’s been in the field of Social Work for very long. The effects might not even be any different than the if clients get social workers who are overworked, under-supported, or under-trained. It’s also not a discussion for which I have an answer, given that there are significant ramifications for any options available. It’s simply something worth highlighting when talking about the effects of power on clients, authority and systems.

      • Great points, Kevin! Of course, in the situations where we are advocating for clients, it’s a sort of ‘our power v. another worker’s power’ showdown, where the relationships that we share, the skills we respective wield, and the influence of our positions help to determine whose power will ‘win out’. And, certainly, the differential power of workers from different disciplines (particularly prominent in a setting like a hospital, where social workers, doctors, and nurses vie for ascendency in a given decision) is another dynamic in all of this, as you correctly point out.

    28. “Power” what an interesting concept. As stated throughout the article and previous discussions power is something that has an influence to change and suggests control. I am continuously intrigued, yet baffled by the entire nature of such social control, and the places in-which power are held; those that are controlled, verses those who are control. Even more complex, is the idea of hierarchy, which regardless of time period has used social cues and regulations to identify social placement and ability to control.
      An important purpose of this article is to address those who feel less-empowered due to societal limitations by suggesting an alternate reality; one as a source of our own perhaps unrealized and/or unused power. Yet all of this is exactly what is so intriguing. For centuries, historically speaking, power is often held in the hands of the few, with exceeding numbers of subordinates. Here en-lies my discontent, who has been given said “power” and why? Beyond such simplicity, is it still “power” if we do not assign actions of submission to those in control? (If we do no assign meaning to the assigned power?)
      For example, pretend a new supervisor is hired at your place of employment. According to our social hierarchy, there would be an implicit suggestion that the new supervisor has power, and all employees are to act in accordance with his/her wishes. However, it is the act of assumption of power that gives the new supervisor power? Hence, there is no REAL physical power being displayed, other than the communicated message of “supervisor.” Yet, regardless, the normative interaction in this situation is an automatic submission, thus the assignment of power. It might then be suggested that power is only given to the supervisor because of subordinates value in employment, which then places power in the hands of the supervisor and the social control of employment (to provide).
      The intent of this small scale example is to illustrate the places where our society assigns power, and the assumed social controls that we actively chose to subscribe to. Essentially, on a surface level, we assign power to another individual over ourselves because they have been assigned a place higher than our own in this particular hierarchy.
      Here is where I find reason for concern. Why is it then that I so easily accept subordination and allow an unknown individual, to have more power than myself? The answer of social control seems simple, yet is not satisfying. If the everyday social constructs suggest I have little power, how can I hope to first find my own sense of personal “power,” and then use it to help others find their own sense of personal “power”? In my mind, this notion of “power” seems like yet another social norm that I often subscribe to without belief in.
      Although it has been discussed by others, to help answer my own question, if one is to assume the notion that power is only given if others put belief in the assignment of that power, then one can also assume that without belief in that power, there can be opportunities to create power else where. Ultimately, as this article and discussion would suggest, it takes the ability to not subscribe to ALL of assigned powers and controls, and find alternate ways of power creation within ourselves. It is that understanding that can create true power, power used for the purpose of good rather than simply control. However, what is most interesting about this entire discussion, is that it seems to be nearly impossible to have power without some form of social control. Although a reality, the implications of social control suggest that society can seek to change that control; thus suggesting that to change where power lies, is to change our thoughts about power and who has power over us. After all, at its simplest form, “power” is just a word. WE are the one’s who assign the applied meaning of that word; in that there is true power.

      • I really appreciate the thoughtfulness of this reply, Ariel, and your willingness to accept the ways in which we, by exercising our power as professionals, are complicit in exerting social control over others. Acknowledging that helps, in itself, to soften some of the power imbalance, and open opportunities for us to talk with those oppressed about ways we can dismantle the oppression.

      • Not your student this semester but got the email re: postings. My field instructor provided the name of a very good book about leadership and power–The 5 Levels of Leadership. Level 1 is that people follow you because they have to (you’re the supervisor). Level 2 is people follow you because (I think–foggy on this) of what you’ve done for the organization, 3 is more because they want to, for x reason and so on. The key is “influence,” credibility, trust. If we don’t build trust by being credible and therefore, influential–we will lose our audience.

        • I read that book, or at least one with the same concept, when I was in grad school, Gayle, and it stuck with me, too. Thank you for sharing, and for reading. It’s great to hear from you, and I hope you’re doing well!

    29. I read this blog post in the context of completing my other reading for week two – and particularly with Lipsky’s Chapter 2, “Street-Level Bureaucrats as Policy Makers” – in mind. It strikes me that in addition to social workers needing to acknowledge ourselves as power brokers of sorts, and, indeed, as the kind of street-level bureaucrats Lipsky describes, we also must make a decision to be not only trustworthy in our own exercise of discretion, but to be trusting of others in their exercise of discretion.

      I find myself struggling with this, especially in light of recent events in Ferguson, MO and Ottawa, KS – events wherein police officers, arguably acting as street-level bureaucrats, exercised their discretion in shooting to death one young man who was unarmed and may or may not have been involved in illegal activity (Ferguson) and another young man who may or may not have been armed but was actively and publicly suicidal (Ottawa). I do not so much question the danger present in these particular situations, or the expediency with which police had to undertake a plan of action, as I wonder at the knowledge-base these officers had that undergirded their actions.

      Lipsky writes, “To the extent that street-level bureaucrats are professionals, the assertion that they exercise considerable discretion if fairly obvious. Professionals are expected to exercise discretionary judgment in their field.” He goes on to explain that discretion is not likely to be eliminated in such professions as police work, teaching, and even social work for three reasons: 1. because street-level bureaucrats work in complicated situations that do not lend themselves to programmatic response; 2. because street-level bureaucrats work in situations requiring a flexible response to human behavior and interaction; and 3. because street-level bureaucrats’ exercise of discretion legitimizes their role as care providers and professionals in their field. Even acknowledging that this is true, however, I find it difficult to trust discretion exercised by others in the absence of any substantive understanding of the complicated nature of social interaction, of the intricacies of human behavior, and of the power that such professionals wield – this is the knowledge-base I’ve already mentioned, and which I believe has a direct impact on the discretion that the police officers in Ferguson and Ottawa chose to exercise.

      I do not doubt that the vast majority of individuals who enter helping professions do so with the intention to help. Without appropriate education, and especially without a sensitization to the assumptions that society in general may make that bear no relation to reality (for instance, our societal assumptions that a young black male walking in the street is necessarily up to no good, or that when someone wishes to commit suicide-by-cop we as a society have no safe choice but to comply), the discretion that street-level bureaucrats may exercise is likely to be counter-productive, if not outright dangerous. And yet, as Lipsky points out, in the face of excessive rules-promulgation, street-level bureaucrats will yet find ways to exercise their discretion – in fact, I have, myself, found ways to exercise my own discretion when faced with rules I haven’t thought served my clients well.

      So, then, I am faced with my own hypocrisy: I wish to be trusted to exercise my discretion on behalf of my clients, and will likely do so even in the absence of mechanisms allowing such an exercise of discretion, and yet I am distrustful of others in their exercise of discretion under the exact same circumstances. I’m not sure where that leaves me, other than to advocate for all professionals to be educated in and sensitized to accurate social sciences research steeped in the values of social justice – that is, for all professionals to be provided with a knowledge-base that includes acknowledgement of the systematic pressures and biases that shape human experience.

      • Oh, Z–Yes. I struggle with these same competing doubts and longings and fears. Even as an educator, I am so cognizant of the ways in which I have discretion–when I allow an assignment to be submitted late or when I decide how to apply the specific criteria from a grading rubric–even when I am leery of that same discretion in education more broadly (particularly what I see as a general sliding of academic standards, in pursuit of greater ‘customer satisfaction’). Am I fooling myself to think that my application of professional discretion is better justified, more internally consistent, more defensible, better informed? Or am I irrationally afraid of my colleagues’ discretion, unwilling to concede that they are just as justified in their discretion as I am in mine, if not more? Or both? And, yes, what does this mean for my advocacy? Is it really that I want systems that reduce the risk of arbitrary use of discretion, or that I want systems that vest individuals with my same worldview with this discretion? How can we ensure that the lens that would prevent most abuses of power–informed, as you describe, by a deep understanding of our own biases and weaknesses–is well-honed in all instances? Barring that, what kinds of systems design for these failures?

    30. This is a very interesting piece, Melinda! As a social worker student, I am honestly not comfortable playing with power because my culture background influences me very much and I like to help my clients but avoid conflicts or tensions. However, if I cannot confront conflicts or step up, I am powerless myself and cannot help my clients access what they need.
      And we are practicing with our clients the power which we may not be aware of all the time.
      I was trained of Marxism from elementary school. Although I do not agree with all his points, but Marxism talks about, to overturn the old and corruptive system, the oppressed should unit and fight together. To me, using our discretion as a thoughtful exercise of profession power/authority is not just to help clients access what they need, but also empower my clients to step up and be actively involved in what they really care about. I am sure my client’s dilemma happens to other clients too. If I can help the clients convey the injustice to the upper level of power (from this angel, I become a change agent in external environments or policy conduit), and then power dynamic may be changed and more people will be involved in and beneficial.
      Professional discretion is the skill that all the social workers must learn. When facing the ethical ambiguity of the policymaking, I hope the supervisor , the caseworker and the clients can sit together and interpret the case and its context. The clients should give more sanction to be actively involved in rational decision making process because they are the reason we provide the services for.

    31. There’s so much I want to respond to here! First, absolutely our own experiences with power–culturally, and from our own personal backgrounds–will shape how we interface with power as social workers. We can’t avoid that, so we just need to name it and be aware of how it shapes how we practice. Here, ‘power’ doesn’t have to mean control, but the ability to exert one’s will…I think of it in the concept of the Spanish word “poder”, which means “to be able to”, and that’s really what power (also, “poder”) allows. Second, yes, building power alongside those we serve means thinking about how we normalize the experience of difficulty and help them to claim their right to address the injustices with which they struggle. And, finally, of course we cannot defensibly exercise power over our clients capriciously. But the conversations with our clients about power–who has it, how we get it, what it means–can be important parts of transformative social work practice, too. Thank you for sharing your insights!

    32. This is the “what” a lot of social workers (myself included) don’t think about: “Social workers have tremendous power. Ask any client…had her children removed from her home…required to attend condescending classes, or been scheduled for…a terribly inconvenient time.”
      From my side, that isn’t “power”, but it completely is power as perceived from the other side. You’re absolutely correct, as uncomfortable as it is for a group of people who generally want to make things “better” to admit they are in charge and in control without embracing, investigating, and owning our inherent power we run the risk of appearing condescending, disingenuous, or weak in the eyes of the people depending on us which won’t increase confidence.

      • That’s a really critical point, Becky–sometimes those actions of social workers are not reflective of their power, responding as they are to the constraints/expectations placed on them by their organizations’ policies or individuals with power within those structures. But, yes, perception matters tremendously, as does one’s relative power, and, in many cases, while social workers may not feel powerful in those instances, they still evidence far more power than the clients who are also affected. Still, your comment reminds me that empowering clients will require also (first?) empowering workers, so that they are positioned to facilitate the development of conditions conducive to clients’ development of power, too. Thank you for sharing!

    33. It’s so important to realize the power that social workesr have. We are walking a very thin line of having power over our client versus empowering our client. When a client walks in the door they know that you have the key to all the needs and access to resources. They already know that the power has shifted, and that we aren’t meeting them on ground level. Thats the power we have, we empower our client by connecting to those resources. If we are the “rule makers” we need to continue to advocate changes to the rules to continue to be able to empower our clients the best we can.I think its interesting that the article talks about how we have the power to decided what constitutes abuse and neglect. This is such a sticky situation, and social workers aren’t perfect 100% of the time. We are dealing with people’s lives and that is very powerful to to have that say over someone’s well-being.

      • Yes, Morgan–ignoring our power is dangerous, but, of course, so too is empowering ourselves at the expense of our clients! How can our clinical skills help us to guard against these dangers? How can we seek to build more equitable relationships with those we serve? What agency policies could we institute as administrators, that might address these imbalances?

    34. I think sometimes even knowing that one has the power to determine something important in the client’s life can be intimidating. I had a situation once when I was told that depending on my responses on a client’s progress, “they” were going to decide whether or not the child would be taken away. I agree, we are humans and we make mistakes, but sometimes there is no room for mistakes when it comes to deciding in the lives of others. I believe in the strength perspective and in giving people the opportunity for change. From experience, I have seen a great growth in people who want change. I also seen how my energy goes and goes to people who are not ready for change. It’s important to have support from the supervisor and the team when we feel we didn’t accomplish anything with a client. I have to admit that having reflective supervision and group supervision once a week and group therapy once a month has helped me stay focused. Having a good support system and practicing self-care is important to help clients better.

      • Thank you so much for sharing this example, Dairi! Yes, it should really make us pause, to consider how much power we have in a given situation–there is tremendous responsibility there, and we should absolutely approach it with humility and caution. At the same time, had you ‘punted’ that decision, someone else would have ‘scooped up’ that power…it’s not like the decision wouldn’t be made. And how much better for the client that you were the one approaching that decision, with the care and commitment to client that I am sure you brought to it?

    35. Yes, it was good they considered my input before making the ultimate decision, which could of affected the client. I was able to utilize my knowledge in that situation for the best interest of the child. Like they said, “knowledge is power”.

    36. I really enjoyed this read! It has never crossed my mind that social workers often see themselves as the less empowered profession in comparison to supervisors, administrators, etc. I think for me this is because I have always had a drive for power. Since I began my college career I knew I wanted to be in a position of power. I have wanted to have that power as a means to better serve my community. The word power itself is something we as social workers normally only associate with our clients, not ourselves. “Clients have the power to self determine their futures.” “Clients have the power to choose their life style.” However, I think you are right that not many social workers feel comfortable with thinking of themselves as a locus of power and control in their professional lives. I believe this comes from an unwritten concept of giving power away to clients instead of using power to empower clients. You are spot on about social workers always having power and not realizing it. I hope to one day be a supervisor or executive officer of a non-profit. I do understand that this would enable me to have more power than many other social workers. However, it is most certainly true that all social workers, no matter their position, have the power to influence and change the lives of their clients. I enjoyed contemplating the power most social workers take for granted while helping clients on a daily basis. I would love to begin advocating to social workers about their sense of power and control over their professional lives. I want social workers everywhere to realize their importance and the amount of power they yield when working with clients as well as other professions.

      • I appreciate everything about this post, Emerald! I especially love the statement about how we confuse giving away power to clients with using power to truly empower clients…I think that’s a very accurate assessment and must, then, be a part of how we work towards the critical use of self in the helping process, whether we’re working 1:1 with a client or seeking to use policy systems for positive change. I wonder if you’ve thought about how you might be able to use your orientation to power to help your colleagues get more comfortable with the levers of power? Thank you for sharing these reflections!

    37. The concept of “Inaction is action” was taught to me before I ever thought about social work as a career. As a member of the 12-step community, one of the greatest rewards of sobriety is being available to the addict who still suffers. If I don’t show up for meetings, who’s to say anyone else will be there for the individual who is at the end of his/her rope? I am granted the power to represent the recovery community by being available at meeting time.

      As far as policy and agency work goes, I have found that being granted the power to make appointments with clients is, in a sense, creating the agency’s policy as a prompt and available agency. If I fail to keep an appointment, for whatever reason, the client’s view of the agency policy os that we don’t show up for our own appointments. That is not the policy I will be responsible for creating.

      • Powerful parallel, Jon, to your role in other contexts…the idea that ‘if not me, who?’, and constant responsibility for the reality left in our wake, by the actions we take or neglect to take. I think there are also important considerations about our own boundaries and how we self-care, as social workers, but the basic concept that we must claim the power we have, recognize its implications, and wield it consciously and ethically, is an incredibly significant starting point for our practice. Thank you for sharing this reflection.

    38. I think I first realized my power when I had to testify for the termination of parental rights of a child (my first year of being licensed in the field). This experience was traumatizing as I questioned my ethical standards and the possibility that I did not do everything I could to help reintegrate the child with his/her family. I do not think the end result (termination of parental rights) was incorrect, but it made me realize how my power impacted the case and results.
      For me, the policies made by my actions of accountability and transparency were constructed through time. Being honest, open, goal directed, empathetic, trustworthy, and dedicated were concepts I attempted to reach during direct practice. I had to realize where I was coming from and where my clients were before actions could take place. I guess listening, problem-solving, seeking advisement, researching, and decision-making were cyclical on many levels personally and professionally.
      I did enjoy the assigned readings as they made me reflect on my practice positively and negatively. The implications of change and adaptations to federalism and social justice created a structure to help me understand policy implications in the field. The models of policy-practice made me able to identify fellow social workers in each category and what capabilities they have at influencing policy. The Street Level Bureaucracy read clarified how important my low-level social work practice could help to make or break an agency. The grip each individual in social work has on social justice was made exceptionally clear with those three reads. I think to better empower our clients is continue to strive to ask questions, educate ourselves, and take action.

      • That’s one of the clearest examples, Rebecca, of that ‘street-level’ policymaking in action. To that family, YOU were the policy, the authority…and your awareness of that fact is critical, for your ethical wielding of that same power. Then, the insights that you gained from your reflections and observation can also be leveraged to change the systems in which you later operate…in ways that won’t negate the significance your individual agency, but may give you and your client a better constellation of options within which to navigate. Thank you for sharing this reflection!

    39. Interesting read; I hadn’t thought about social work from this perspective. It reminds me of the current situation with DCF in Wichita right now. Many families are coming forward to testify against the department, claiming their families were wrongfully split up and forced to complete rigorous tasks only to have their case worker deny reunification. I believe that puts fellow social workers in a unique situation. On one hand, we want to support, defend, and legitimize the work DCF social workers do. On the other hand, they have the “power” spoken about to determine which families reunite and which ones remain in the system. If we decide the former, are we doing so only to find egg on our face because of the latter?

      • Oh, Kristi, really good questions. It’s one thing to acknowledge our own power, and have to reckon with that. That’s tough enough, often, when it forces us to come to terms with the ethical constraints in which we operate, and their very real consequences for those we serve. But when the power in question is wielded by our colleagues, and, so, we’re faced with uncomfortable questions about how they’re using that power, not just how we have used it ourselves, that’s really sticky. How do we stand with our clients–to whom we owe primary obligation–while also presenting a nuanced understanding of the pressures confronted by social workers…and, then, as you said, leaving space/grace that we may need ourselves…a sort of ‘people who live in glass houses’ phenomenon?

    40. Power is a paradox in that our job as social workers is to advocate for an environment where power is distributed equally. The contradiction comes from the fact that we must utilize a certain amount of power to do this that isn’t readily available to others. It can be justified to a degree because social workers (generally) have received special training, certification, and maybe even degrees that help prepare us to wield this power. However, this training can only begin to prepare one and it is not the end of training when one receives a degree… it is the beginning.
      By coming to terms with the power that has been appointed to us by the system we live and work in, we can begin to support other individuals in the community/ advocate for them effectively. What can I do to make sure that I am in line with the best interests of the community so I am truly acting as an advocate as opposed to a controlling force?

      • I really like that line, Jake, about using power not widely available, in order to push for a more equitable distribution of that same ‘good’. Very insightful. In terms of how we wield it appropriately, I think the key is not in getting more training, or checking how well we’re ‘representing’ those most affected by the policy in question, but rather in how we seek to always ‘give it back’, to put the most vulnerable in control, whenever, wherever, and however possible. That won’t be completely, obviously, but it’s the difference, for example, between speaking at the press conference ourselves, or equipping our clients to do it. Or revising the agency policy ourselves, versus asking clients to help us craft it. It’s a process, in other words, more than an end product, but I think that the ‘how’ really matters here. Thank you for sharing these reflections.

    41. I didn’t recognize the sort of power a social worker could have until I learned about macro practice. I believe that everything a macro-practitioners does is powerful and I was able to confront the realization of this power in my work at a community research organization wherein I had the opportunity to advocate for the statewide behavioral health system implementation of a Trauma-Informed System of Care. Through my research on TISC policy and interpretation of this material, I was able to create a Blueprint for Action and develop a Position Paper that was adapted for a proposal submission to the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services (KDADS). We recently learned KDADS is getting the ball rolling on statewide implementation and it’s exciting to know I had something to do with that work. Now I am interested in work whereby I directly impact policy and can find my thumbprint in the positive changes take place in society.

      • I don’t see macro social work as more powerful, really–can there be any greater evidence of transformative power than working with an individual to change his or her life? But it’s certainly true that macro social workers are among those who can use our power for greatness, if/when we learn to identify, claim, and deploy it? What do you think holds us back, here, sometimes? What could have triggered this ‘lightbulb’ moment for you, earlier?

    42. This is the information I have been missing. I observe, in my current role, a lack of discretion on behalf of my superiors to wield power. I notice there being a grey area of demands being made. In hindsight, (post two weeks’ notice delivery) my supervisor is not a social worker. Her degree is in something else (B.S). I now realize she was not taught to demand action. She was taught to subserviently adhere to mandates, practices and policy whether or not they are ethical or suit well the outcomes of the program (its implementation). I used to question why her eyes would glaze over when I requested support staff for clerical work, or when I mentioned the extra distance I had to travel to provide the same service our Missouri case managers did. She does not identify with being a “policy police” officer. It’s not on her agenda to ensure equitability. She only seeks to ensure the lowest overhead cost of service delivery, even if it means having four staff turnovers in six months. Her utter avoidance of one-on-one supervision with me is now understood. She may in fact see my demands for equitability in service delivery as personal fiat, when in effect I merely want to be treated fairly in my work efforts. While this current situation is one of advocating for staff needs within my agency, I am proud that I have done it correctly. I have interpreted the problems of our programs implementation not only for myself but for my replacement. Maybe after my role is filled for the ump-teenth time, will administration listen and act. I was comfortable presenting the detriments of my location, lack of technology, and weak leadership. I did a good job as a social worker. Although the change I sought did not occur immediately remaining in my position, working two or three times as hard to meet goals, would by way of accepting the responsibility, an acceptance of the policy by way of inaction. This is wrong. I too recently observed in a KU Student Activism Committee meeting, the self-defeating attitude many in our field portray. One of my peers made the statement that we as KU students of Social Welfare cannot make change for the entire university and that we should only attempt to affect the SSW. I blatantly disagreed. We as students of social welfare learning within this institution have the responsibility to take charge of the implementation of policy that addresses the needs of marginalized groups within our school. We cannot expect the engineering students to do so, nor can we expect the business students to do so. From my statement, I saw the eyes and hypothetical engines of action within our group “light up”.

    43. Thank you for sharing your experiences as a student and social worker. I’m glad that you’re involved with the student activism committee and that you have found an audience for your perspective there. I look forward to seeing how your advocacy continues to evolve!

    44. The comment you made about being a translator really resonated with me. I grew up helping friends and family translate and didn’t think much about it until just recently when I worked at a nonprofit that helped many latino families. It struck me after a session that in their shoes I was a complete stranger, yet they trusted me enough to, as you said, put words in their mouths. I was incredibly awe struck at the amount of power I was wielding and shied away from it because I was so afraid of misusing it. I also began to realize that one reason that this person was willing to trust me was also because of the community’s trust in the nonprofit. This trust had been built up by advocating for latino families through relationships. To me this was a great example of how the organization was able to advocate for their clients externally and internally, fully utilizing their relationships and understanding their power dynamics within the community.

    45. Growing up I acted as a translator for my family and friends. However, I didn’t realize the power that came with this until last year when I worked at a nonprofit that worked mainly with latino families. After one session, I remember the realization hitting me all of a suddenly. How could someone trust a complete stranger to, as you said, put words in their mouth? Upon realizing this, I began to shy away from this power dynamic because I was afraid of misusing it. However, I began to pay attention to how the organization used these power dynamics in order to advocate for these latino families both externally and internally. This organization continues to be a case in point for policy advocacy on multiple levels both within the organization and outside of it through commitment to transparency and constant evaluation. Also, the fact that they approach these dynamics with a cultural humility really strengthens their relationships. I am continually assessing my position in an organization, in the community or around clients now in order to be aware of the power dynamic I bring to the relationship and how I can use it to truly represent and communicate social work values.

      • Absolutely, Danny–the control of access to information, and the filters through which it passes, is a tremendous source of power. In addition to translation, if we think about things like who has access to research data, how accessibly our language is constructed, and how we allow (and don’t) others to tell their own stories and construct their own realities…it’s hard to think about what is a more powerful role than this gatekeeper of knowledge and of the means of its construction.

        At the organization you referenced, are there practices being put in place that seek to shift this power distribution? For example, by hiring multilingual staff so that translators aren’t needed, encouraging service participants to assume roles of authority, and seeking their expertise in crafting materials and messages? How might you advocate for some of these changes?

    46. Yes, I didn’t think of myself as a filter, but that is very true. I also am finding out how powerful stories can be, especially when the person who lived it tells it. If I were to tell someone else’s story, it would take away from the power that that individual had in their story.
      The organization I mentioned takes great pride in the multilingual staff they currently have. This gives more power to the consumers by diminishing the effects of filters. However, one area that I felt needed improving was their organizational structure. I drafted a consumer down organizational chart that focused on putting the consumer at the top of the organization rather than the CEO. This chart was not implemented, but I was able to pass it to other administrative staff in order to advocate further for the participants in the program that fueled the services and who are the purpose of the organization.

    47. What would it mean, in practice, Danny, if consumers were at the top of the organizational chart? Can you give an example of a particular practice or policy that you believe would change as a result? How would this translate, in other words, to a different approach to the work of the organization?

    48. I think that by having the consumer at the top of the chart, it would shift the mentality of the organization as a whole. This could influence the communication among staff, and lead to more emphasis on the clients. I’m not sure if it would translate to a different approach for the organization, but it could potentially indirectly empower the clients through the organization’s staff. It would be a shock to see the client’s at the top instead of the CEO who you assume has the final say, but what if it was represented as the client having the final say?

    49. What would that look like, though, in terms of changes in staff behavior? And how would clients actually have the ‘final say’? How do you operationalize it? I mean, what if a client doesn’t like a staff member–should he/she have the authority to fire that person? What if there isn’t enough money in the budget to meet a particular client’s need? Does he/she get to overrule the CEO? It’s important, I think, because we often talk about empowering clients, but without thinking about what that actually translates to in organizational practice. How do staff members actually engage with the organizational chart? What relevance does it have for their work lives?

    50. Hey Melinda! I found this blog especially interesting in terms of thinking about ethical ambiguity and discretion, and the power social workers have in that. I find myself in a very interesting headspace when I try to think about the power my education has given me. I have always been one to downplay any decision-making power I have, which has been even weirder ever since I started law school, going to a place where people seem to crave power rather than try to act as though they don’t have it. The nice thing about my legal education has been that I have become comfortable with ambiguity, but I am no better able to understand the power that I hold. If anything, I feel farther from accepting it. I find myself saying I’m not a lawyer, I’m a social worker. As if that eliminates any power dynamic between a client and myself!

      As far as what I have seen in the field regarding discretion in decision making, I think about it in terms of agency policies and exceptions to those rules. In my practicum placement, we have several policies that the director sometimes bends in order to best serve the individual seeking assistance. To best serve the client clearly fits with our ethical code, but I’ve seen this discretion morph into a lack of consistency that can confuse/anger clients. So it seems like having discretion, and being aware of the impact of that discretion, while best serving clients can be a challenge while working in the field.

      • Really thought-provoking, Maslyn, the distinctions between your two professional ‘hats’ and their relationship to power…and what that will mean for you weaving between them. Yes, blanket rejection of discretion is seldom useful for those we serve–who want people close to them and committed to helping them to have power–nor is our utilization of this discretion without careful reflection constructive for anyone. Where do you find guidance on how to reconcile these strains? What in the Code is instructive here? Do you have mentors who can help? Where is your ‘North Star’ for this navigation?

    51. Hi Melinda,
      I enjoyed the blog and find the topic especially relevant on a continual basis as a case manager for seniors. On a daily basis, I find myself just scratching my head in amazement at some of the responses I receive in my professional duties from people I have just met. The power is real. Whether any of us want to admit it or not. Its there. As a case manager, it is vitally important to realize the power imbalance that does exist. I still struggle with both the perceived and real power differential and establishing an honest and open relationship with those clients that I work with. Learning to walk the fine line between impartiality and accountability to our participating regulations is an on-going learning experience.

      • Thank you for sharing this, Chris. I think the evidence is clear that the risk of abuse of power is greatest when one denies that such power exists, or tries to minimize the very real imbalances that characterize our relationships with those we serve. What have you seen, in your experience, as most constructive in helping social workers claim and reckon with their power? What practices do you employ to keep yourself ‘honest’ about the power you wield and what it means for those with whom you work? How should social work education–perhaps, particularly for administrators–talk about and support students in thinking about power?

    52. So much of this post rang true with what I have confronted (and will continue to confront) as a macro-level social worker. You are right, most social workers go into the profession for more altruistic reasons than to hold power over consumers/clients. It is interesting as I start my practicum, the situation that I find myself in. I already am at one of the inner-most levels affecting HCBS waivers in Kansas. I found myself feeling timid about participating in this and wondering why me? Well, why not? I have been put in a very privileged position and am able to advocate for constituents at the state level. Instead of wasting my time thinking that I am not worthy of being in the room with such big players in the advocacy field, I am doing my best to make every endeavor to learn from them, and not by solely observing (although, I will be doing quite a bit of that, as well).

      The power we wield with and for clients is daunting and could lead to stalemates in policy making. It would be easy to think “well, it works well enough and I don’t want to further harm consumers, so I won’t suggest any changes.” In order to get over this, it is important to use actual consumer input to inform policy. By using their voices and involving them directly in policymaking, it adds an extra level of humanity and transparency to advocacy.

      • You know, Morgan, I’d honestly not thought that maybe part of social workers’ reluctance, sometimes, to claim and wield our power comes from fear that we might in some way exacerbate problems or misdirect resources…I had always thought more about general squeamishness re: getting close to people with power, and ethical concerns about how power imbalances can distort relationships. This dimension is more manageable to tackle, really–with what kind of knowledge and skills do you need to equip yourselves, in order to feel confident to step into this role? How can your MSW prepare you for that work? How can I help?

    53. I absolutely love that you pointed out the power we do possess TO OUR CLIENTS. It is so true. To them we are the law, the gatekeepers of services, and sometimes the judge and jury. I think as social workers we do not always view what we do in that way simply because, like you said, we are always looking at the boarder society (congress, etc.) as what “they are doing” to us. It really is fascinating to consciously look at what we do from our clients perspective…politically, of course.

      you wrote, “…the latter is a lot more uncomfortable for us; it requires confronting our power and the often ‘sticky’ nature of our policy decisions. We owe it to our clients, though, to do this confronting”. I’m still trying to see how this fits to me. I do not think I fully understand what you mean, but interpret it as: my life and they way I choose to live it is not ultimately as affected by certain laws as our clients. Therefore, its easier for me to exercise the power I do have in the realm of social work, then to get uncomfortable and go after a system that effects everyone…

      Anyway, very thought provoking!

      • Thank you for your comments, Aarion. Yes, I think that part of this is confronting our tendency to choose the ‘path of least resistance’–pulling the levers available to us, to get an accommodation for this client or another, rather than working for fundamental change–but it’s also recognizing that sometimes we are what’s preventing our clients from getting what they want or even what we think they deserve. It’s easier to blame a distant policymaker or impersonal bureaucratic structure than to acknowledge how our organizations’ limited resources, or the rules that we construct to try to control access to services (which, while perhaps necessary, may still be perceived as arbitrary), sometimes collide with clients’ needs. It’s important, though, not just for ethical practice, but also because helping our clients see us as policymakers will help them to identify their own power to influence those with authority over aspects of their lives…and that is how our organizations can become laboratories for the kind of democracy we want to see people practice. I’d be happy to talk about this more, if you’d like!

    54. It’s very interesting to me that this post states that when we fail to use and account for the power we have, we are failing our profession. I feel that in most clinical classes I have attended, there is always the key point of establishing rapport with the client, and trying to diminish the hierarchy of power in the relationship. While I agree that power shouldn’t be abused and overused, I also struggle with the thought of minimizing our power in order to make our consumers feel better. I feel this is a constant struggle for many social workers, trying to find the fine line that establishes what power we have without presenting as domineering. I feel as if I have seen both ends of the spectrum and have seen everything in between as supported by those in our field. I’ll admit to diminishing my role to “just a social worker” and not thinking of my position as one that holds much power. It’s interesting, though, to see it through a different lens, as a gatekeeper that holds discretion and can make life altering decisions for a family.

      • I’m so glad that you brought the clinical perspective to this post, Cali! I actually don’t see these as incompatible, or, even, really, as opposite ends of the spectrum. In my experience, social workers can alter the role of power differentials in the clinical relationship precisely by more accurately accounting for them, peeling back the layers on what is otherwise a somewhat hidden, or, at least, ephemeral, concept. When we help our clients to understand where workers’ power comes from, how it functions, and how worker and client can work together to leverage collective power to achieve clients’ aims, we can simultaneously strengthen our relationship to those we serve while also positioning ourselves to be more revolutionary forces for change. How do you think that that frame would be perceived by your clinical colleagues? What do you think?

        • Now that you say that, I do see accountability of power still being used in the clinical realm, for instance when a practitioner makes a statement to the consumer concerning mandated reporting. However, I still sometimes get the impression from many clinical practitioners that they appear to minimize their power and work more alongside their clients to a common goal. While I’m absolutely not not disagreeing with this method, I still find it intriguing that in some instances, social workers strive so hard to diminish the appearance of their authority, as a way to establish rapport or allow the client to feel more comfortable instead of actually showing the client that they can use their power to help them.

        • Thanks, Cali! I think what this can look like in practice is that the social worker’s power is framed as a shared resource, to be leveraged by worker and client. That way, rather than minimizing the power differential by negating the worker’s power, you are minimizing it by putting the power on the table, to be claimed collectively. It’s a new paradigm but, I think, aimed at the same goal.

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    55. Stephanie Pastewait

      I think it’s important for us to recognize our power as social workers because it’s a constant reminder of our responsibility to the clients that we serve. If we diminish our power, we are shifting our responsibility to clients onto someone or some thing else. Comments like, “That’s the way we’ve always done it”, “I’m just the social worker, I don’t make the rules” or “That’s not my job” can be a roadblock to progress in ourselves and with our clients. Keeping a critical mindset is important so that we maintain our profession’s value of social justice. Professional peer supervision might be helpful to discuss work situations where we have utilized our professional power. We also need to be aware of our own potentials for personal bias and how it can be expressed when using power, i.e., are we treating our clients with fairness and utilizing our power in an equitable manner?

      • Yes, Stephanie, and those kinds of responses can also obscure the mechanisms of power, too, which doesn’t do anything to help clients trace the source of the obstacles they face. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” may be true, but it’s also true that change is possible…starting with an analysis of where that ‘standard of practice’ came from. Have you had a conversation with your field instructor yet about what your supervision will look like and how it might help you to ‘own’ your power? Of course, the ultimate purpose of critical introspection is not just greater self-awareness, but construction of a constituency to dismantle oppressive systems. What might you look for, to spot places where intervention could shift power imbalances within your organization? What ‘checks’ exist to rein in the process of institutionalizing individual biases?

    56. I completely agree with this post on a social workers power. I really did not think of policy in this context before (i.e. removing a child from a home) where the social worker is truly the one with power to the client. I often find myself working against some policies in my agency, especially fiscal policies, in the way that I see it as barriers to my clients where the financial unit sees it as protecting the agency from audits. I also run into issues for my clients when they are needing something from the program I work in but they have not met the specific policy requirements in order for me to release funds from the program. This can be a huge barrier when I’m working with clients in crisis. Typically they are not going to want to be bothered with me explaining what I need from them when they are needing their basic needs met. The one thing I do enjoy about the program I work in is that there is a lot of “grey space” meaning it allows me to advocate and explain why a client may need something to my supervisor in order for her to approve it for my client. Thank you so much for this post! It really did put the power I have as a social worker into perspective.

      • Thank you for these reflections, Danae! Yes, there is tremendous opportunity within worker discretion–we can wield our power to make systems work better for the people we serve. There is also great risk here, both in the event that some workers will misuse their power in ways that are harmful and, even when that doesn’t happen, I think there’s a real loss when clients have trouble navigating opaque systems that depend on worker discretion. What I mean is, even if we’re able to work within the gray space, the fact that it’s gray can be disempowering, because people don’t know exactly which levers to pull in order to get what they need. Their fates depend to a greater extent on others’ actions, which isn’t the arrangement we want, or that social work values can support. Do you see ways to close in some of those gaps, within your organization? Do you have a transparent appeals process? Do clients receive clear notice of their rights? Are clients represented on decision-making bodies? What do you think would be steps forward here?

    57. Victoria Stracke

      I will be the first to admit I am guilty of not recognizing, or utilizing, the power bestowed on me as a Social Worker. I often find myself feeling timid and fearful of “stepping on toes.” However, I recognize this as an area of improvement and am eager to search out ways to question authority and policy in a delicate, and respectful, manner. In the post, you mention translating for clients from one language to another. Though I do not speak a second language, it occurred to me that I too do this, but in an entirely different way. As Social Workers, we hear the stories of our clients each day and often relay these stories to co-workers, supervisors, board members, and so on. Although we may not be translating these stories into another language, I believe it is incredibly important we relay these stories accurately, and with our clients’ unique experiences in mind. Though this may not be an obvious or traditional view of power, I feel being a story teller holds a considerable amount of weight. Stories are a powerful tool when seeking funders or developing policies. I hope we can recognize this power, utilize it to improve our systems, challenge the status quo, and portray our clients’ stories authentically.

      • Oh, YES–Victoria! Great point about the languages we speak, not just in terms of accurately portraying our clients’ experiences (which, really, hopefully we do seldom, so that we’re more often acting as a megaphone, rather than ‘being voice’ for people who obviously have their own voices), but also in terms of how language can serve as a barrier separating people from their power, as they try to navigate systems communicated in terms that seem foreign. How can we dismantle this practice, too?

        • Victoria Stracke

          Yes, of course, any opportunity for a client to share their own story is ideal. As for navigating systems, bringing clients to the table and asking them about the systems they use and how they experience those systems is very important. I can think of a few concrete examples, such as providing a post-program survey for clients (assuming the answers are used to improve service delivery). A second example, which I learned about this morning, is reduced fair ride sharing (think Uber or Lyft, but cheaper) when traditional public transit is inadequate or unreasonable for the circumstances. Many of our systems need a complete overhaul, but in the mean time, building these bridges to get around weak systems is a step in the right direction (I hope).

    58. I completely agree and can see how my clients may feel disempowered when working within a system that is confusing and not necessarily always helpful. Within my agency there isn’t an appeals process for worker decisions specific to their decisions but I attempt to explain the process as best I can to my clients and give them all of the information I have available. I also complete case plans and give every client a copy once it has been approved from my supervisor. Within the case plan I first list the expectations and guidelines of the program, then I list the things I’m needing from the client and finally list what expectations the client has ask of me (i.e. providing community resources for housing, helping with resume or career preparation, health and safety information etc). I can see how the program can be extremely frustrating for my clients when they are needing or expecting something from the program that we aren’t able to help with, so to try to fill in the gaps I attempt to make a lot of community connections with other agencies and community resources. What is unique about our program is that we have a council made up of the clients we serve. There are regional councils and the Kansas council. Anyone who was an older teen in foster care is allowed to get involved with this group. They often advocate and lobby the legislature to get certain bills passed that will benefit youth currently in care and also those who aged out. While these councils are helpful there is room for improvement, especially with getting more youth involved. I see moving forward our program can make handouts on how to get involved the councils. I can also make sure to check in with my clients to make sure they understand the program policies that directly affect them and clarify if needed. I can also see that it would be beneficial for the program to have a list of rights for our clients. There is one for older youth currently in custody but I believe the program would benefit from having a list of rights for the client to refer back to when needed.

    59. I really enjoyed that this post pointed out the power we DO have as social workers and why it is important to acknowledge that power. It often feels like we are powerless in the agencies we work in due to policies, procedures, job title, or because of the way we diminish our own power- “I’m just the social worker”. While reading this post and reflecting on my own experiences, I realized that even as a practicum student in my foundation year, I held power. I did assessments with residents in a long term care facility everyday, which played a large part in determining if the resident would benefit from seeing a LCSW or psychiatrist for therapy. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had the power to help decide where limited resources were allotted, and who would be receiving extra help and attention. As a student working part time in an agency, even I had the power to make a decision that could have a huge impact on someone’s life. Recognizing the inherent power our role as social workers gives us, and how that manifests when working with clients is essential to upholding the ethical values of our profession, even if we feel our position or job title makes us the lowest rung on the ladder in our agency. By recognizing we hold this inherent power we can then work to ensure that we use our power to empower and advocate for our clients, equitably distribute services, and make ethical decisions instead of using our power for control, especially in grey-areas where we have to use our own discretion. If we don’t recognize the power we hold and practice self-reflection to regulate and understand our power, it could become misguided.

      • YES, Jane; absolutely. I appreciate your honesty about how we can be blinded to our own power, and also how power differentials within agencies can increase our tendency to overlook our own power, because when we feel relatively powerless (as in, less power), that can fool us into thinking we’re without power…when we’re not. How do you think this manifests in effects on social work agencies, the clients we serve…and the types of policies we perpetuate? I mean, do you think that you would have practiced differently, had you had a more acute sense of the power you were wielding?

        • The biggest change I would have made in my practice would be to take more time and think more critically about the responses I received when doing assessments with residents, possibly also how I asked the questions. In your original blog post you talk about how when you are interpreting and translating for clients, you are literally putting words in their mouth. While I wasn’t translating a different language, I was working with residents who had cognition problems, some who had severe dementia, some who were very hard of hearing, etc. Communicating was often very difficult, and I would have to try to piece together resident responses and make the best decision based on the information I had. In reality, they might not have fully understood what I was asking. With residents who were non-verbal, I did an adapted assessment with the staff members (CNAs, nurses, etc.) that took care of them everyday. I often felt like those assessments were more accurate because the floor staff got to know the residents better than me, a 16 hr./week student. I was able to get to know many of our long-term residents well after a year of working there, but a whole wing of this 100+ bed facility was only people there for short term rehab, so it was nearly impossible to form personal connections with every resident. I often wondered if the responses residents gave me regarding their mood were truthful because if a stranger walked into my room and started asking me personal questions I’m not sure that I would be totally truthful. In terms of policy/procedure in the agency, I think there would have been a better way to assess if our residents needed extra help. Like I said before, if the goal is to genuinely assess how the residents are feeling in order to determine if they need to be referred to a professional, sending a stranger into the room to ask these questions might not be the best option in a lot of cases.

    60. Oh man, I’m so glad we are discussing social worker power because sometimes I don’t think or recognize the power-whether intentional or not, that we have over clients. Starting out, I experienced this, in addition the uncomfortable task of trying to figure out how best to yield it or understand how best to stay aware of it. Even today, I try to remember how crisis and circumstance often make social workers the only hope for the consumers we serve and rightly so they look to us for our skill and “expertise” on how to solve their problems. I think my challenge has always been juggling having a open dialogue/rapport with clients so they trust me enough to tell me everything so I can help and then when I do get them to pour everything- sometimes consumers tend to latch on because they’ve trusted that now you can solve it and it’s on you. I TRY to steer the “power” to them so that they feel empowered by using their own voice but again it can sometimes be hit or miss.

      • I have seen, sometimes, Sheria, that social workers seek to build rapport with clients by ‘commiserating’ about their perceived powerlessness…which is a false equivalency that can be corrosive to authentic relationship and still not empowering to the client. How can social workers own our power while actively seeking to diffuse it? How do we do that in a way that doesn’t frame power as a bad thing…only an easily abused thing? Can you share some examples of when you have felt like this worked? AND, a harder question, even: What do you think that looks like in policy? How can we build policy approaches that help people feel and wield their own power? I have been reading a lot about anti-poverty approaches that put money into people’s hands with no stipulations and wonder how that might begin to undermine paternalistic policy approaches??

        • First, I can understand a desire to try to unconventional approaches to policy but I’m not sure how effective that would be, especially without stipulations. I am a big cheerleader for strengths based practice because I feel when clients are motived and empowered, they will have more interest to follow through. I think the most effective policy would have to have strong person-centered,strengths based approaches, finding best practiced to build themselves up and create sustainable change. In regards to social workers owning their power, I agree that social workers power over clients is not debatable. I believe there can be a balance between worker to consumer..by transferring power to the consumer by empowering and helping them find their strengths in order to become self-sufficient.

        • These are honest questions; I’m authentically trying to wrestle with this. I guess I just wonder, what could be more strengths-based than just giving people what they say they need? From a justice perspective, I receive substantial tax benefits with few stipulations put on those benefits; they’re just not framed as ‘benefits’ in the same way. And how do we measure ‘effective’ policies, in this context? Finally, should self-sufficiency be our goal, or should we pursue policies and engage in practice that recognizes our mutual dependence? As you think about a particular area of policy you care about–like poverty–what does ‘strengths-based’ policy look like there?

        • Sheria Howard

          Strengths based policy would be policies that empower and strengthen individuals and families, not make life harder for them. Off the top of my head, I think about earned tax credits, quality education starting in Pre-K and affordable healthcare. The overall outcome is giving people what they need. I guess my view on self-efficiency that way the mission my last agency swore by was if we adequately provide services to our consumers their first go-around in case management (job skills, employment assistance, budgeting skills, healthcare) then once they are on their feet and doing well, they will no longer have the need to depend on agency funds, other than minimal resource assistance here and there, then we’ve freed up more resources to help other families, therefore achieving multiple things: improving the quality of life for a family or individual, contributing to the economy and job force, have more resources to help more consumers and showing positive outcomes. Just my take on strengths based case management.

    61. Thanks so much for providing these details, Danae. I can see how you have sought to be transparent in your work process in order to equip clients to advocate for themselves. I’d love to hear more about the council. How is leadership organized for this effort? What is their scope of influence? Could they be tasked with drafting a ‘client bill of rights’, to jumpstart that process within the organization? The challenge here is to make sure these are substantively empowering, not just advisory groups…but that can be tricky, because agency leadership doesn’t always welcome ceding that authority.

    62. This blog post raises an important point of how powerful direct practice social workers are. It connects to the theory of the social worker as a policy conduit mentioned in the Wyers policy practice models. That social workers “convert his or her values, principals, and theoretical assumptions” into policies that affect services. No matter how much we try to avoid looking through our own lens we as social workers will work harder to help someone that we believe “deserves” help based on what we have learned is the “deserving client.” This concept is also present in the “Street-Level bureaucrats” article. The examples that they discussed of direct practice employees rebelling and finding a way around policies that they believed were unnecessary or did not provide needs to clients/patients reaffirmed the power of social workers discussed in this post. Even when procedure and policy is followed we still choose who we are going to spend more time on, who we are going to fight for. Personally, the experiences I’ve had helping young women in the agency I worked at in my foundation level practicum were the most memorable and gratifying because I connected with these women easily and had hope for them even though I had more older male clients. This connection/lack of connection that I felt probably had more of an effect on how my clients perceived me and what sort of services they felt they were getting than I intended. This post emphasizes the importance of slowing down, being mindful and reflecting on the effect that our own biases and our power can have on clients, especially clients that we consider hard to work with.

      • Oh, yes, Katy–great reflections. Thank you for pulling in this concept of ‘policy conduit’; it is so often true, I think, that social workers and the agencies where we work are where clients really experience policy. This is a tremendously potent form of professional power. One thing that I often think about is the concept of ‘buffering’ our clients from particular policy implications. I mean, to what extent should we work to bend rules and make exceptions and try to ‘soften’ the impact…versus helping our clients to push back against and dismantle the systems that create such binds in the first place? Or, are there ways we can do both? If so, what do you think that looks like? Also, thank you for owning the reality of worker biases and the many–often seemingly small–ways that those manifest.

    63. Christina Cowart

      This is an important and too often neglected topic in social work and I’m glad we’re having this dialogue! For five years I worked with clients in the mental health court program. It was my job to ensure that they were complying with the expectations of the court program and to report back to judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, and other court staff. This gave me a lot of power and discretion. For these clients, I was bridging two big systems: mental health treatment and criminal justice. The best way that I found to utilize this power was to first establish clear boundaries and expectations with my clients. I also made a point to be completely transparent with my clients about what their report to the judge would read and would often ask my clients, “Do you think this is accurate and fair? And if not, why?” I sought regular supervision with my boss and with other staff members to ensure that I was making fair, unbiased decisions. I also made sure my clients had an opportunity to speak with the judge directly up at the bench if they had a problem with any of the reporting or questions about the legal process. I ultimately tried to ensure that my clients felt that their voice was heard and that their behavior and progress within the program was accurately reflected and recognized in the reporting that I did.

      • Thank you for sharing these tangible examples, Christina! There’s so much here to lift up: first, the inherent power imbalances in these particular systems–mental health (with its involuntary commitment, in particular) and criminal justice (perhaps obviously), as well as your elevation of their voices and your modeling of client agency, creating the space for them to shape the narrative that will be put forward about their experiences. I’m interested in whether you perceived any pushback from colleagues or others within the system about your use of these practices? Conversely, what do you think would help to institutionalize such approaches, so that their utilization does not depend on individual workers’ decisions but, instead, would be routine?

    64. Social workers often forget that their professional power is a source of connection to their clients and communities. In many cases our clients are part of a more vulnerable community and when they seek help they do see that we often have a better understanding of the policies that affect their everyday lives. I think of SNAP benefits and the regulations behind it, who can get assistance and who cannot. I have heard social workers say “I am sorry, it is out of my hands.” I think clients do not get that, they see you as the person who either accept or denies their application. It can be confusing and often frustrating when these policies are not communicated, and or there are not follow up resources. This is why your post resonates with my understanding of power when you say “The challenge for social workers, then, is to acknowledge the policies we make through our decisions, and through our inaction, too. It is to accept the ethical ambiguity of this policy making and seek consultation and engage in deliberation to approach it with the utmost caution.”

      I recall as a kid having to translate to my mom during her appointments with DCF. I certainly did not understand everything the social worker was saying and in most cases her frustrations were intimidating. Not only did she have to rely messages to a 10 year old who was just learning English but I then had to turn back to my mother and do my best to explain what was said. Even in this case we can see a hierarchy in power. How we engage with clients and how we present things can sometimes be daunting to others because for us, we honestly saw our social worker as the person who did it all. She was the one we spoke to, turned in paperwork to and received mail from. Her name was on our documents and we were always afraid we did something wrong because upsetting her meant no food assistance. When people are unaware of the policies and structures they become powerless. It felt like we handed that power the minute we walked in through DCF doors; where security guards were present, receptionists were yelling out numbers and people being told they could not meet with their social worker because they did not bring in the right documents.

      Now that I have worked in the social services I can see power and I can relate to my clients in different ways. I believe as social workers it becomes important to reflect on how we experience power and how we have experienced powerlessness. How we create and hold space becomes important for our ability to form relationships with clients and our communities. I think as a profession we can better our understanding of power by including power analysis in our educational programs. Power analysis as part of our education becomes essential for social workers because it can offer us confidence and understanding for our clients and the different systems we work within. By understanding power we can help reconstruct agencies, federal, state and local policies to better serve our clients.

    65. Thank you for this reflection, Jane. I see this in my research, too; I can’t pretend that my values don’t influence which questions I ask or the measures I use or the results I deem ‘significant’. They do, and that’s a source of power that researchers aren’t always transparent about.

    66. Thank you for sharing your experiences on the receiving end of social worker power, Gallal. I am struck by both the tangible impact of this worker’s power (e.g. to deny your food assistance), but also by the psychological effects–how you felt anxious and afraid. We know more now about how traumatizing it can be for children to have to interpret, and how damaging to family relationships. It also sends a strong message to families, when organizations don’t provide professional interpreters, about how power is wielded.
      And, YES to power analysis in social work education. We’ll talk more about that in SW846. Social workers have a lot of work to do unpacking power, its sources, and its use.

    67. Thanks, Sheria. I absolutely agree that social work organizations should be focused on ‘working themselves out of a job’, by providing the tools people need, so that they don’t need us anymore. I just wanted to reflect that I think the way that we’ve elevated ‘self-sufficiency’ can frame need as a deficit, when, if I’m honest, I’m not self-sufficient at all; without my kids’ teachers and my neighbors and my extended family and (the list goes on), I wouldn’t function well. Many clients of social work organizations have gaps in some of those networks of support, which requires some scaffolding, then, to support them, but it doesn’t necessarily mean standing totally on their own. How does that sound, from your perspective?

    68. Victoria, thank you for adding that emphasis “when the answers are used for improving service delivery”; it’s critically important, I think, that we not only actively solicit client perspectives, but also that we build structures that privilege those views, too. Thank you for expanding on your perspective.

    69. The term you used, “creators of reality” struck a cord in me in regards to some of my social work experiences. I am often hyperaware of the fact that I have some type of power or authority over the families that I work with who do not understand what my role is. I have had to calm families down numerous times and explain the roles of all the various agencies involved because no one has taken the time to help them understand or the family is in such immediate crisis they are not able to comprehend what they are being told. I often feel as though I have little power within my agency in regard to helping develop policy or change policies that are not child friendly or family focused. I sometimes forget that the perceived “power” I have is seen by the clients I serve. In past employment, specifically working at a domestic violence shelter, we were trained to be aware of the power and control dynamic with clients. I think that due to the nature of domestic violence this focus was important on many levels. I feel that my role among many in my current position is to empower the children and their families that I serve. I have told countless parents that the choice is theirs to make, I am just providing them with clear explanations of the system and what they may or may not expect as well as providing them with resources to look into on their own. I think that by allowing people to have a voice and telling them that they are right to speak their concerns helps me be a better social worker. Looking to move policy and advocate for clients in a way that they feels is appropriate should be the focus.

      • Thank you so much for this, Brandy. I think that your insight re: how social workers’ feelings of relative powerlessness within our organizations can blind us to the power we have with/over clients, would be echoed by many of our colleagues. I am also struck by your reflection that your clients are particularly compromised in their ability to possess and wield power at this moment in their lives–exactly when they’re encountering you–because of the nature of their crisis. I wonder if there might not be ways to collaborate with domestic violence organizations, which may have a better ‘grasp’ of the power dynamic and how it influences social work, to help that lens permeate the work of other organizations? It seems that there could be a lot of value in incorporating understanding of power into professional development within other contexts, too. Thank you for sharing. I look forward to your continued professional advancement, so that you have more power to shape the systems that affect people’s lives.

    70. I never thought of social workers as professionals that hold any legislative power. Not a single social work student goes into this field because they want power and money, so I really appreciated you painting this picture for me because it is absolutely true. Many social workers and case workers don’t feel very comfortable with idea of having power over their clients, but the truth is that we are the face of power and policy that controls what happens to them. I think it is very important to inform social work students of this power they have, and empower them to make the most out of it by giving them tools and skills they can use to provide better services to their clients. There is still such a strong stigma among social workers, and this leads to “self-defeating” attitudes. I certainly agree with other posts on this that say that we can even be blind to our own power by not acknowledging the true importance and influence of our work. Many times we find ourselves in a situation that is quite ambiguous and it falls on us to make the decisions regarding our clients’ care. If that’s not power than I don’t know what is. I think that this is one major reason why the NASW code of ethics is so vital to social work practice. The field of social work is so broad and there are many different capacities that a social worker can be working in, and I think that the NASW code of ethics is what ties us all together. Because those values and ethics are what lie at the heart of our practice.

      • It’s not always legislative power (although they could, if we all followed Brett’s advice!), but it’s so important that we understand (and claim) the power we do have…and that we wield it ethically. I just had this conversation with my practicum student, who is dealing with her own struggles re: working within a community organizing effort, trying to build more power, when she feels acutely that she already has more (as an educated, upper-middle class, white person) than many of the people with whom she works. I told her what I often say to students–that it’s precisely those who are so cognizant of the risks and abuses of power, whom I want to have more of it. Thanks for weighing in on this.

    71. It’s difficult to reflect on power when thinking about my time in disability services. I had a lot of power in regards to checking on agencies and was supposed to use that power to advocate for my clients. However, there was a strong sense of complacency within most agencies that was difficult to overcome. It seemed that, regardless of the company, case managers/social workers needed to be very careful about what they said and when, in order to not make any waves or changes. There was a lot of pressure against case managers to make positive change. And this was only in organizational change and advocacy! Interacting with clients was a completely different concern, since very few of my clients could verbally communicate with staff or me.

      It would be nice to own the power that I do have as a social worker to make organizational change and advocate effectively, rather than feeling like a tool for my supervisor to wield.

      • Thank you for sharing this reflection, Erin. From what I know of your work there, it seems to simultaneously embody both of these angles re: social worker power–the power that you had over those with whom you were working, which was sometimes nearly absolute, right, because of relatively little oversight, and at the same time, you had relatively little power over your own working conditions and the terms of your service. That’s why your last phrase, “a tool for my supervisor to wield” really struck me. That’s not how our profession should be dealing with anyone, self included.

    72. This is an internal battle I struggle with every day as a student, social worker and privileged human in society. I am constantly questioning if I am showing up correctly, who I am showing up for and who’s message/agenda I am pushing. I think it is much more of an advocate approach than a social work one although these things are not always mutually exclusive. I think people/social workers, who center social justice, go through this dialogue a lot more because they see the fault in policy and power. So it becomes this internal conflict of power and service that you mentioned quite clearly in this blog post.
      I have dreams about running my own agency or program one day that usually puts me in a spiral of some sorts. I think about how my agency will run with the board being made up of people accessing the services. I cling to an unrealistic version of the client-centered approach to programming that probably would never fly with donors or stakeholders. I also believe that this would be the only time power would be challenged properly. It is so hard to work within the confines of a system that constantly inflicts power and control on all of us in some capacity.

      • I sometimes console myself, Isaac, with the fact that surely it’s better to be struggling than not struggling; I mean, better to be constantly checking how I’m showing up than either not showing up at all–intentionally avoiding struggle–or being oblivious to how I take up space. But, I also totally get that that’s some self-consolation in action, for sure.

        I am really interested in how these issues will manifest when you are the boss of an organization. Now, when you observe that a given organization isn’t adequately attending to community needs or that people’s voices are being marginalized, you have a clear ‘enemy’ to blame for that failing…but when that ‘opponent’ is much more diffuse, and when you’re more central to that whole dynamic, how will that feel? (I know you don’t have the answers to that question at this point, nor do I; just putting that out there.)

    73. Your reflections on wielding power bring be back to my days as a case manager for children in foster care. I was 22, with a bachelor’s degree in music, making decisions which had the potential to drastically alter the fate of the children and families I served. Often, I was forced to make these decisions quickly, without much supervision or support, because lawyers, relatives of the children, therapists, or schools were putting pressure on me from all angles to get me to write their perspective into my reports for the judge. In hindsight, I should have ignored their requests when I was unsure if their interests were well aligned with the best interest of the child. In hindsight, I also almost saw myself as a child in the ways I was navigating and learning to understand all of these systems of power for the first time. In this way I felt powerless, but in other ways I had entirely too much power, more than I knew how to competently wield. I know I am not the first or last individual to be forced into a situation like this, and see it entirely too common in the social work profession while we struggle for the resources to properly arm practitioners with the knowledge to make the right decisions. I also consider power in this context as a ripple effect – decisions I made affected the families I served then, which affected their extended family and communities, and will continue to have an impact for generations.

      On a separate note, there is power in assuming the role of a gatekeeper to services. Another position I have held involved distributing rent and utility assistance to individuals who called in to the agency where I worked. We had no policy in place to determine which 10 or so people out of the close to 100 that called each month, so it often depended on the whim of whichever case manager answered the phone – if they had time, if they were more inclined to serve an individual referred by another agency, if they were more willing to help someone who walked into the office instead of called. I wished for a more concrete policy to help with the ethical issues present in this strategy, but of course there is also power dynamics implicit in how the policy is developed.

      • Thank you for sharing this, Leslie. It is such a poignant example of how the relative powerlessness of many social workers, within their own organizations, can lead to mistaken perceptions of actual powerlessness, a feeling that obscures the power we have–and wield. What do you think social work programs could do differently/better to help students navigate power dynamics? I think this is an urgent ethical and practice imperative, and I want to get better at this, myself.

        On Wed, Nov 15, 2017 at 11:39 AM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:

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    74. I remember the first time I had this realization. I was part of meeting to select who would adopt children, and someone grumbled, “I feel like we’re playing God.” I felt intimidated, humbled, and not altogether comfortable with the whole notion. But these kids needed a forever home, so we as a team tried to use our best judgement while making this selection. Administrators and other policy makers had enacted policies and guidelines to help us, and we were interpreting them to apply to the particular situation. Although these children would probably never remember us, we were making a decision that would tremendously affect their entire lives.

      How often, especially when in large organizations, do social workers feel like they are merely cogs in a big, complicated wheel? How often do we feel like if we were to quit, our duties would easily be replaced by someone else? This gives us the notion of powerlessness.

      But sometimes it is easy to predict the outcome of a case (good or bad), only by knowing the professionals involved. Sometimes it is easy to predict the direction and the ultimate outcome of an agency because of the person who is at the administrator’s desk. Maybe, just maybe, we each have individual strengths and skills that give us power to help or hinder the directions of individuals’ lives.

      Individuals who seek and use the services of social workers are often, by nature of the profession, members of vulnerable populations. We are called by our professional ethics to serve and advocate for them. It is important for social workers to realize that this creates a differentiation of power. It is equally important to approach this realization with humility, if we are to provide compassionate and effective services.

      • This is a poignant example, Ruth, of the intersection between clinical skills–including the ephemeral sense of ‘humility’–and policy, particularly the establishment of clear parameters that provide limits on executive action. As a future social work administrator, how will you support those in direct service, occupying the roles (and struggling against the same forces) that affected you as a worker? What helped you, and what do you wish you had had?

    75. Jenny D'Achiardi

      I liked the observation you made about how irrespective of the position we hold in an organization, front-line worker or CEO, we social workers exert a considerable amount of power through our discretion. If we are not in a role like CEO, I think we sometimes disregard the authority we have in situations with clients because it relates to one person instead of being about a policy change that is going to affect numerous individuals. I think back to some of the decisions I made while at my foundation practicum and can better recognize now how much of an impact these little things had on my clients’ lives. One of my clients was an immigrant who fled her country because of domestic violence and was not allowed to drive until she had resolved her immigration status. She had voiced frustration to me about being a new mom and unable to explore her community while the rest of her family was at work. She was afraid to use the bus on her own because she did not speak any English and lived in an area next to a busy highway without any sidewalks. Her world was confined to a couple of streets in a neighborhood and she felt isolated. I proposed that on our final visit together we take a field trip to the local library and make a day of it, with lunch in between to break up the more than 4-mile jaunt round-trip. This was something that no other home visitor had done before at the agency and meant that our normal 1-hour visit would extend out to about 5 hours. I exerted my authority to plan and get permission for this outing in order to help acquaint her and her son to a local resource that could potentially serve them in the future. Yes, I used my power to help just one client and not hundreds, but the reality is, if this event was empowering for her, I am exercising my discretion in the way that I am called to do and that is never a small matter.

      • Thank you for sharing this example, Jenny, and for the insight you show in recognizing how your position of power made a difference for this client–and the responsibility inherent in that recognition. This is an example of using not only your discretion but also your influence with others in authority, in order to help a client, but, of course, social workers could take the opposite tack, too…which means that what we do, and don’t do, matters a lot.

    76. Trinity Carpenter

      This. This. This. I speak to this often. My friends and I sit around and discuss how power differentials show up across helping professions and how if we are not honest about the power we hold how detrimental this could be to any practice or advocacy efforts. I appreciated my ethics professor who broke down the concept of parens patriae. By her acknowledging this immense power we hold to remove children she made us critically examine how this power is applied and how we have always known that this power is not applied evenly across the different populations we serve. She went further to challenge us to apply dignity when referencing those we serve and advocate for. She spoke of a term she saw appear throughout the classroom papers. Hotline. She said that making a report should not be haphazardly called hot-lining. That this term takes away the magnitude of that call. She said at some point in all our careers we will face circumstances and scenarios that make this call necessary but if we not weighing the impact or considering that women are the ones consistently held accountable for the welfare for their children why men often are allowed to be absentee or never held responsible or accountable we are not doing our clients justice. Deemed the protectors of those who cannot protect themselves comes with great responsibility and power. If throughout our work we are not actively trying to shift power and autonomy to our clients and communities (no matter who) we are failing as a field.

    77. Wow–that is a really powerful point, and how turning ‘hotline’ into a verb makes it sound so clinical, allowing us to distance ourselves from what that action really is…and what its consequences truly are. Thank you for sharing this.

    78. I know I am very late here, but I wanted to thank you for writing this article. I’m currently taking a social work policy class, and our professor assigned this as a reading for a response paper, and I thought it was an excellent read.

      I was curious about something: what are your thoughts on the dilution and convolution of policies by the time they reach the social worker (e.g. Medicaid going through so many changes and having so many rules applied to it before the service-delivering social worker even becomes involved in the process), and how do you think that relates to social workers’ interpretations and implementations of those policies?

      • Thanks, Brian–I think this speaks to the importance of implementation and ongoing policy monitoring, as part of a social worker’s policy practice. Those rules and interpretation and ‘convolution’ all happen through the rule-making process–over which social workers can absolutely have influence–and engaging in those processes and ensuring that what ends up as policy not only adheres to the original intent of the legislation (when that is, indeed, consistent with social work values), but also–and far more importantly–meets the needs of the people we serve. Thanks for weighing in.

    79. Jorden Matney-McCorkle

      For me, I am very aware of my power role when I am working with a client who is older than me. I think this is why I tend to prefer working with youth. The power dinamic With the youth that I work with feels more natural. When I am working with clients who are older than me, I have to remind myself that I am the trained professional in this situation and I am the one who can assist and provide the resources that this person needs. Even then, I still feel uneasy when it comes to the age difference.

      I have had the experience when an older adult refuses services from me because they do not think that I am capable of performing the services. They ended up receiving the services from my preceptor who addressed the situation in a similar way that I believe I would have. This example proves to me that not only does the social worker experience that power dinamic but the client does as well. This is when social workers have to be very aware of how they present themselves to clients and ensure that they are creating that safe space for the clients.

      • That’s a really interesting perspective, Jorden; I can see how the same power differentials would feel different when working with youth clients, who are probably pretty familiar with the experience of feeling less powerful than older others. I think, though, that the dangers of power dynamics are not necessarily less in these cases. Still, it’s important–and difficult–to ensure that clients retain ownership and expertise over their own lives, and occupy positions of real authority over their own experiences…indeed, in some ways, I can see that that would be more challenging with younger clients, because social workers’ insistence on empowerment runs somewhat counter-cultural when the clients are those accustomed to having others make decisions for them and constrain their choices. How do you create this ‘safe space’, as you describe, in working with youth? What have you found works for helping young people you’re working with to see you as a partner, rather than an ‘expert’?

    80. I confronted the realization of my power while facilitating client crisis intervention cases at my last practicum, and it was uncomfortable for me. Even though I was honoring the policies of my agency, I often had to deny resources (rent/utility assistance, food, bus passes, etc.) to certain clients because they didn’t have the correct documentation, live in the correct county or because they had overutilized our agency’s resources. Every time I denied someone a resource, I felt like a fraud. If I was born in a different country, with a different skin color or even to different parents, I could have easily been on the other side of the table. I thought to myself, “When I have been so fortunate in my life, who am I to deny someone benefits or receive such high praise for providing assistance?”

      Although, this post helped me realize that when we discredit the worth of our work as social workers, we discredit the worth of our clients as human beings. An article I previously read pointed out there is “us” vs. “them” mindset that stigmatizes those who are homeless or living in poverty. These stigmas cause community members to be hesitant to support certain laws and policies. As social workers and through policy change, we need to focus on combating these stigmas and embrace our own power to empower others.

      • Thank you for sharing these experiences, Emily. I have had similar conversations with several former students who were in similar roles, confronted not only with their power to ‘gatekeep’ but, as you point out, the commendation they received for doing so. Combating stigma here demands some nuance, though, I think, as it’s certainly not the case that we can even presume to know what others are living, or the journeys they’re walking…and yet absolutely have an obligation to find common ground on which the foundation of a strong, mutual, empowering relationship can be built. Looking ahead to your macro social work practice, how do you think these power dynamics will play out, and how might they affect you? What are you looking for in a future practice ‘home’ to help you avoid–or, at least, work through–the discomfort you experienced last year?

    81. Not only do we wield power as gatekeepers to resources, safety, and otherwise I can’t help but notice that social workers innately represent “power” by the fact that the majority of our field is white, educated, and middle class. If we are to be agents of change, then we have to continuously elevate people of color into our field and into administrative roles so that we can better reflect the clients we serve and adopt cultural perspectives the field may otherwise lack. In my experience, as an ethnically-mixed woman, I’ve held my tongue in the classroom and in the field when a colleague/peer/supervisor has said something bordering on discriminatory. However, the “power in inaction” is something I must reflect on and do better to resist. I have a moral obligation to stand up for people who look like me and for clients who may come across homogenous agencies where they feel or expect to feel unsafe or unheard.

      • Thank you for this, Lana. A million times yes, and we have to acknowledge that these manifestations of power are not accidental or incidental; aspects of our profession and our credentialing process–including the requirement to complete substantial practica, most of which are unpaid–serve to make the profession relatively more accessible to people who come to it with considerable privilege. Your comment underscores that it’s not enough to approach our own practice with a critical eye toward power imbalances, and to try to empower those with whom we’re working; we must also seek to dismantle the structures that have perpetuated these same power divisions for so long.

    82. What stands out the most to me is, oftentimes, our clients are more aware of the power we as social workers possess more so than we ourselves are. During my time as a case manager with Swope Health Services, I cannot count the number of instances I had a client request my assistance visiting an agency, apartment complex, or what have you for assistance simply because the client was treated differently (that is to say, with more dignity and respect) when a case manager was present with the client than when the client attempted appointments alone. As it turns out, generally the clients were correct. I made it a point to observe how other clients interacted with staff members during the wait times prior to the appointments with my clients and while some agencies (namely health-focused agencies, such as hospitals or health clinics) treated all clients relatively the same, other agencies (particularly apartment complexes) had staff approach case manager-less clients rather defensively. This stood in stark contrast to the pleasant demeanor my client was afforded when I went up with my client and introduced myself as the case manager.

      Even if we are not making decisions that could impact someone’s life (such as with the example of working with APS), we as social workers have the power to influence how our clients are perceived by others, something I think many social workers may be unconsciously aware of but do not take advantage of.

      The question then becomes: if social workers can influence how the client base they serve as perceived, how can this influence be utilized to assist the client-base? Regarding policy at least, I would think the answer would be fairly clear: social workers can advocate for our clients by clearing up preconceived notions and misconceptions which often serve to hamper our client’s ability to receive assistance. For example: a homeless client may struggle to find way due to employers mistakenly believing anyone who is homeless lacks work ethic, which affords the social worker the opportunity to advocate for our clients and correct this misinformation.I think it is no mistake social workers are often referred to as “lifelong learners”; with an continually expanding knowledge-base and the power to utilize this knowledge to educate the masses, social workers have the capability to help improve the lives of many, many people.

      • Such an insightful response, Josh. Yes–how often does our mere presence influence how others are perceived–for the positive, as your experiences suggest, and also sometimes not, as when people may be stigmatized for being ‘clients’. If we don’t attend to this power and the ways it affects people, we not only potentially squander some of our potential utility; we may end up doing harm, too. Thank you for your thoughtful contribution here.

    83. Melinda,

      Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom! This blog post certainly has me thinking. It is more than possible that I am guilty on multiple accounts for not utilizing my power. As a white guy, society has certainly privileged me with unearned power. However, this unearned power has made power itself a subject that I struggle knowing how to navigate. As a social worker, yes, I agree that we owe it to our clients to utilize our power. I agree that it is only through an embrace of our own power that we as social workers can hope to empower others. But perhaps I also owe it to my clients to take into consideration the historical, social, and political nuances of my power. To what extent should I seize the power I have been given as a person of privilege? How should privilege affect the power dynamics of the client-practitioner relationship? How should client-centered humility affect the power dynamic between practitioner and consumer? Where in this equation should affirmative action fall? I agree that power should be meaningfully shared between client and practitioner: I am unclear how privilege should influence that power.

      I find myself unsure of how to respond to this clash between capitalizing on my agency as a social work practitioner and appropriately addressing our oppressive system. Does that make any sense?

      I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

      Austin

      • Austin, this is tremendously insightful. The power I was thinking of was that which accrues to us by virtue of our professional credentials, but you are so right to also name the power that accompanies social identities, including the overarching dynamics of race and sex and the power they convey. Here, then, how do you not only navigate the power dynamics that can separate worker and client, but also use your relationships with clients–in an administrative, advocacy, or even clinical context–to upend the hierarchical system that oppresses so many…even as it positions you in a place of tremendous potential influence. I think–and I’d be interested in others’ thoughts on this too–that transparent, humble, and non-defensive reckoning with the sources and natures of social power in our society, is the only starting point. There are absolutely ethical considerations regarding how you use your varied powers, but there’s also no absolution for avoiding its deployment, due to your discomfort. Quite the contrary; your clients will likely experience any reluctance to wield your power alongside them as a reinforcement of the same oppressive structures.

    84. I think you’ve made important points about the need for social workers to recognize our own power and the reluctance most social workers have to do so. If we do not recognize the full potential of our own power, how can we utilize it effectively to help those who feel powerless? I definitely relate to feeling humbled and intimidated by my own power in others’ lives through social service work. In my work for an employment program, I was responsible for assessing client strengths, needs, and even “potential” in order to decide if they were a good fit for the program and what resources they would need to support them in finding meaningful employment. I would write 4-6 page assessments in which I was crafting their story (or creating reality) and I really had the power to emphasize whichever portions of their lives I wanted to determine the outcome I wanted. We use our powers not only to empower others, but to gatekeep our programs and funds based on our own (biased) perceptions of people and reality. I think this power comes with immense responsibility to act ethically and in the interests of those we serve who inherently have less power. I think building transparency into our own actions requires honest reflection with ourselves, our peers, and our supervisors about the effects of the policies we create through our actions. We can create empowering relationships with clients by being transparent and authentic with them, connecting them with the skills and resources they need to effectively advocate for their own needs, and using our power to bolster their voices.

      • I want to respond to one aspect of your comment here, Whitney–thank you for lifting up how our interpretation of our clients’ experiences is, itself, such a potent manifestation of our power. It’s not just in the ‘decisions’ we make about their futures, but also how we help to shape the narratives that are told about them, which then become ways that others see them (and, sometimes, they see themselves), that our power is known. We can’t forget that it is our responsibility to construct systems that allow people to tell and write and claim their own stories.

    85. Stephanie Stauffer

      I was just talking to someone about this last week! I wish I had read your post prior to that conversation.
      I work in a temporary crisis care facility for children. Mothers often utilize the organization as a last resort in the midst of the most difficult situations. Some clients live in poverty, face homelessness, are experiencing medical emergencies and/or are fleeing domestic violence. Usually a mother calls and has hesitations, and then through trust building, we convince her that placement in shelter will be the best opportunity for the children. She will trust us as an authority and entrust us with her precious children. I just recently began to realize how much power that really gave me. There have been a number of times recently when we have had to make reports to CPS based on information that children share. Occasionally, an investigation is opened and the children are pulled from their mother’s custody, but left in the care of the shelter. The first time this happened, I felt terrible for having been involved in what felt like a kidnapping. It seems unfair to punish a mother who is truly trying to put her children in a safe situation and is working to survive under terrible circumstance (that are not usually her fault). I have seen mothers working diligently with case managers to meet goals and establish safe housing, only to lose their children and faith in the organization, leading to total defeat and disengagement. Mandated reporting is so important and I cannot imagine what it must be like to be the investigating party trying to determine if children should be pulled. I just feel like there has to be another way to go– to honor that a mother is trying her best and maybe needs more resources and less punishment added to a life that honestly has involved a lot of undue punishment already. Situations are so rarely clear-cut and maybe solutions should not be absolutes either.

      • Oh, Stephanie, this is so wrenching. It’s really indicative of our failure to construct anything that truly looks like a ‘child welfare’ system–that would, in other words, really give families what they need to ensure the welfare of the children in their care. I can only imagine what it feels like to bring people into your confidence–your efficacy depends on your ability to do this–and then to feel that trust be betrayed by sources beyond your control. I’m interested in your conversation about social workers’ power, though; how did that unfold, what perspectives do your coworkers hold, and what do you know about how the mothers who use your service perceive, anticipate, and bargain with the power held by these systems?

    86. This is a subject of great importance to me and one about which I have thought a lot about throughout my career thus far. I, like a few of the others who posted here, began my social work career as a Child Protective Services worker, where the power you have, perceived and actual, is dynamic and complicated. I took my responsibility and power very seriously and where others of my colleagues often casually skipped over notifying the caregivers of their RIGHT to speak to us or to choose not to speak to us, I almost always ensured to make that very clear from the beginning of the interaction. However, I did frequently get the sense that people did not truly believe that was the case and felt there would be ramifications if they chose not to speak with me, so they usually did. There were many times that parents/caregivers perceived that I had much more power than I actually did and there were times, to be quite honest, when I allowed people to continue that impression, with the hope that it would change their behavior for the better, therefore allowing the chance for their child to remain in the home. I know that does not sound very good, ethically, but when you are in these situations, sometimes ethics become gray areas and you make very difficult choices based on what you believe is the best thing at the time. As a CPS worker, my focus was figuring out how to keep children with their families. I would often plead with my supervisor during case supervision meetings to please just give the family one more chance, let me try to work with them on x, y or z or lets give them a chance to try this service, etc. etc. Sometimes it worked out and sometimes it didn’t. I was keenly aware of the fact that I had a tremendous amount of influence over whether or not children were removed from the home and it was a grave and serious responsibility to hold. I noticed that another person commented that social workers cannot just removed kids from the home without involvement from law enforcement. That is true (in Kansas), but in my experience, law enforcement/the DA/the courts almost ALWAYS go along with whatever the DCF social worker says and acts accordingly. So, by extension, protection workers do have the power, when it comes down to it. Although, there was one particular case I recall where it was the other way around. I did not see the need for removal of the child, but was being heavily pressured by local law enforcement and the Assistant DA to write an affidavit requesting that the child be removed. I tried to push back a bit, but ultimately I felt powerless and like I had to go along with it. I feel like it was more about the fact that this family (a black family) was notorious in the community and law enforcement wanted a way in to get some control over them. The day that child was taken into custody, the mother, righteously angry, charged at me and a police officer and make threats of harm to us. My reaction was visceral – I crumbled onto a bench and began sobbing uncontrollably once she was led away by security. I ended up having to testify in court against that mother for a criminal threat charge, with her sitting in the court room, staring me down all the while. It was one of the most difficult things I ever had to do. And I really didn’t want to testify against her, but I was again heavily pressured to do so. So, these are some examples I have experienced of being both powerful and powerless as a social worker. I could go on and on and on, because the examples of power or lack thereof are numerous when you work in child welfare, but I think my post is long enough. I will just close by saying that I cannot stress enough how important it is that new social workers be educated and trained in regard to their power, both perceived and real. I appreciate you writing on this subject, Melinda.

      • You raise a crucial issue here, Emily–how do we know when ‘consent’ is really consent–true, authentic, enthusiastic partnership in the work, rather than acquiescence in acknowledgement of the intensity of the power imbalance? And what do we do when we have reason to believe that it’s the latter, more than the former? Another key point you make is that social workers’ power is certainly not absolute; indeed, there are dynamics when we can feel that far more powerful forces are arrayed against us. And, as you point out, that’s just as real as our power–and just as important to talk through with those with whom we work, who are, similarly (although obviously dissimilarly, too) both powerful and seemingly powerless, in various times and configurations. Thank you for sharing your experiences so candidly.

    87. Power is something that I often grappled with in my last practicum because it involved going into people’s houses and teaching them various things about child development and child raising. For households that had kids, it seemed like we were shaming the mothers when they found out that something they did with their other children was not what you were supposed to do. If a household had already had their other children go through the program, why were we there teaching them things they already had been taught? It was because we had access to resources that they could not access any other way. It seemed very predatory of the agency to require certain things in order to get referrals to various resources. The families we were visiting were supposed to accept what the home visitor was saying when they may not have access to resources to combat certain ideas.

      I did understand to a point what the program was trying to do, but it was not culturally competent and I was observing someone who was regularly seeing immigrants from parts of Asia.The home visitor herself wielded power by not taking into consideration different people’s beliefs and often asking immigrant families about celebrating Thanksgiving. I did not like the power the home visitor had in indirectly shaming another culture for not celebrating the same holidays or not understanding their parenting views. The families each had their unique stories and perceptions about ideas that the home visitor never seemed to ask about. I would ask later in private about their story to see if there was some way we could assist them that we were not thinking of, and I almost always got the “I don’t know” response. That didn’t sit well with me.

      The last way that power in a social work context really grabs me is in the way that social workers talk to other social workers about their clients. They are allowed to shape the other social worker’s view about their clients with the way that they describe them. Now that other social worker has a preconceived notion in their head about a family that could impact services in the future. So, while I think that social workers should be using their power to advocate and change policy, we should always be checking in with the people we serve and empowering them to be the voice of change when they can.

      • It strikes me, Chloe, that there are power dynamics on a few different levels in operation here–the power differentials that accrued to you and your colleagues, as professionals with control over resources, the power that your racial/ethnic privilege conveys in this cultural context (very different, as you point out, than in other contexts), your relative lack of power within the organization, as a student whose questions about ‘why do we do this, and what have we thought about what this might feel like for those with whom we’re working’ were probably not always well-received. The point about the power of judgment, and how that power reverberates, affecting an individual client throughout their lives, is a crucial one. And, this is a power over which we have some real control (unlike some of the others); if we consistently and constantly and courageously challenge ourselves when we begin to pass judgment, subject others to our values, or portray others in a way that may not reflect their own experiences, we can tilt that power imbalance back.

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