Social Workers are Not Superheroes

A Case Study of Madison, Wisconsin

by Rachel Niesen

There is a pervasive myth in White culture that social workers “fix” society’s problems, and that they do so in a way that is “gentle,” “fair,” and “compassionate.” This rhetoric is seen in UW-Madison’s School of Social Work. The school promotes this myth by making statements to entire classes of students with the sentiment of “social workers make society better!” The final project in the MSW Field Seminar course each year is even called the “Change Agent Project.” This rhetoric is also seen in national organizations such as the NASW and the SoCal Social Work Women’s Council. A few weeks ago, the SoCal Social Work Women’s Council hosted a webinar on social work and structural racism. Presenters spent the first 12 minutes of this webinar complimenting themselves and each other for all their hard work challenging oppression, which was immediately followed by the keynote speaker clarifying that she is NOT an abolitionist, as “abolitionists are usually misguided white people” and “we have to remember that there is value in policing.” This myth of social workers as “fixers” or “change agents” needs to be interrogated within social work as well as within White activist spaces- including and perhaps especially in Madison, WI, which could be thought of as an allegory for social work – we love our “Black Lives Matter” yard signs but we do NOT love doing anything about systemic racism.

Since George Floyd’s murder in May, this myth seems to have gained traction in comparisons between social workers and police officers. At BLM protests this summer, people carried signs saying things like “fund social workers not cops” and have confronted police with statements like “If you actually cared about your community you would’ve become a social worker not a cop!” This response after the George Floyd protests led Kim Young, a Black Social Worker and prominent Instagram presence “@dopeblack_socialworker” to make a post with the simple words “Social Workers Are Not Superheroes.” Kim Young along with critical social work groups like Social Service Workers Uprising Now (SSWUN) and Social Service Workers United (SSWU) and Abolitionist Social Work have and continue to help increase critical consciousness within facets of the social work profession. However, these conversations remain distinct from larger community discussions around defunding the police. I specify that “White activist spaces” – not activist spaces in general – need to interrogate the Superhero Social work myth, because the sentiment is already better understood as a myth in Black and Indigenous communities. Most Black people know that social workers, not police, are responsible for Child Protective Services involvement in their lives at a disgustingly disproportionate rate to Child Protective Services involvement in White households. Most Indigenous people know that it was child welfare social workers, not police officers who were responsible for kidnapping their children and forcing them into Indian Residential Schools. The myth of social workers as “fixers” of society’s problems serves a purpose. This myth protects the social service system from being viewed as a component of a larger system of racist, market-driven policing in our country. It also serves the purpose of teaching social workers that they should be doing their work for the sake of believing that they are “bettering society,” not for a paycheck- this helps keep salaries for social workers low (but that’s a separate topic). By punching holes in this myth, we can take a critical view of social work and begin advocating for alternative methods of caring for our community.

Social Work’s Connections to the Criminal Justice System

One of the most important things for activists to understand is that the social service system is not a distinct system from the criminal justice system. In fact, funding for countless social service programs in Dane County comes directly from the Department of Corrections. As you can imagine, this means that there are strings attached to this funding. This is often rationalized and legitimized by saying the Department of Corrections is “investing in alternatives to incarceration” however, when we look closer at these programs we can begin to ask the question- are these really alternatives or just a different form of incarceration?

Take the Drug Court Treatment Program and the Drug Court Diversion Program, for example. These are two programs which our District Attorney, Ismael Ozanne, touts as a way in which our county is working to keep people with drug related charges out of our jail. At last year’s Social Workers Confronting Racial Injustice Conference, Ismael Ozanne even suggested that these programs are a way in which our county is working to end racial disparities in incarceration. However, the Drug Policy Alliance as well as the Justice Policy Institute have both stated that Drug Court Programs are not only ineffective at treating substance use disorders, these programs have also widened the net of people who get caught up in the criminal justice system. There are a multitude of reasons for this.

Data shows that of mandated reporting calls that are made, only 9% end in substantiated investigations and 6% of that 9% are cases of neglect, many of which can be attributed to poverty where families have inadequate food, shelter and clothing. In these cases, families are met with punishment when what they need are resources.

First, as the Justice Policy Institute explains, “before drug courts, those arrested for a drug offense or low-level offense related to their addiction may have had their case dropped or diverted to a community treatment option. But now, judges and prosecutors have a criminal justice option.”Second, Drug Court programs inflict hyper surveillance on their participants- requiring daily phone calls, multiple random, invasive drug tests in a week, and the provision of private information related to employment, family matters and any other form of counseling or treatment that the participant may be engaged in. If a participant fails to consent to this surveillance, they receive a jail sanction. As many harm reduction and addiction professionals state, treatment is not effective when it is coerced.

The problem of the influence of policing in social work also extends beyond programs that are funded by the Department of Corrections. On November 13th, the Shriver Center on Poverty Law facilitated a virtual panel called “Policing By Another Name: Mandated Reporting as State Surveillance” to bring attention to the way in which mandated reporting laws use social workers, counselors and educators as a means of expanding the reach of the criminal justice system. Data shows that of mandated reporting calls that are made, only 9% end in substantiated investigations and 6% of that 9% are cases of neglect, many of which can be attributed to poverty where families have inadequate food, shelter and clothing. In these cases, families are met with punishment when what they need are resources.

Additionally, mandated reporters are frequently told that if they suspect neglect or abuse that regardless of whether they are confident in their suspicion, it is better to be “safe than sorry.” This sentiment ignores the reality that even families whose reports are never substantiated are harmed by the child welfare system due to the psychological trauma of having your family surveilled and your names “put in the system.” Many social workers are unaware of these dynamics due to a lack of attention to them during their professional education, but even for those who are aware, there is an immense pressure to perpetuate this system due to the threat of liability and having your licenses revoked for failure to make a mandated reporting call. Perhaps if the child welfare system provided a valid response to struggling parents- for example, providing parents unable to provide adequate shelter, food, clothing to their children with a stipend each month, or provided judgement-free childcare to parents in need of childcare assistance while in recovery from mental health or substance use issues- this would be less of an issue. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

This issue of liability as a means of binding social workers to the carceral system can also be observed in mental health crisis responses. Dane County has invested in a system of managing mental health crisis responses that relies on law enforcement. This means that when a social worker has a client who is experiencing suicidality, a domestic violence dispute, a psychotic episode, or any other crisis in which a person may be if danger, the only legal responses for a social worker to take is to encourage the client, or the family of the client to call the police, or to call the police themselves on the client. Even in a situation in which a client or social worker calls the Dane County Crisis Line which is managed through Journey Mental Health Center, if the caller is assessed as being in immediate risk or danger- they will dispatch the police to the caller’s house. As one can imagine, this puts social workers in a position of feeding their client’s to the criminal justice system and it puts many people in need of mental health support in a position of having no one to reach out to for fear of having to interact with the police if they disclose a mental health crisis to a mental health professional.

County Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner, along with other progressive supervisors, have put up an immense fight this year in their efforts to secure county funding for piloting a mental health crisis response system that does not rely on law enforcement. However, the budget season has ended and we have been left with a measly $300,000 for a new Mental Health Triage and Restoration Center. It is hard to call this a victory when the proposal to redirect funds from the deputy sheriff positions to a mental health ambulance pilot was shut down and when the Madison Police Department will receive a budget of $87,000,000. If county and city funding were directed to investing in a viable Mental Health Triage and Restoration Center or better yet, towards a mental health ambulance that could be called on 24/7 (like the CAHOOTS model in Eugene, OR), social workers would have a valid option for assisting clients in crisis and would no longer be coerced into calling the police on their clients in crisis. The ethical issues that social work faces in Madison as a result of its relationship with law enforcement and the Department of Corrections do not exist in Madison alone. The National Association of Social Workers, whose role it is to “enhance the professional growth and development of its members, to create and maintain professional standards for social workers, and to advance sound social policies” continues to promote relationships between social work and law enforcement. After a summer of “Defund the Police” Uprisings, the NASW decided to host and promote a continuing education course for social workers in September on “Police and Police Social Workers: A Collaborative Effort Towards Social Justice.” That in a moment where the whole country was being reminded that modern day policing is a practice that originated in slave patrolling and therefore cannot be reformed, the NASW decided to back its’ relationship with law enforcement, is a testament to the nature of social work.

Reimagining the Future of Social Work

Fortunately, there are small facets of the social work field that are resisting police and social work collaboration with all their might. In Buffalo, New York, social workers have and continue to organize against an initiative to partner social workers with police officers as the solution for preventing police brutality. Over 150 social workers have signed an open letter asking the city to rethink this initiative and state that this initiative does nothing to address the roots of police brutality. Buffalo social worker, Nancy Smyth, stated to a local news station “Social workers need to be an independent solution, an independent mental health response team and we would be very happy to talk about ways we can restructure systems but to work within a system that has as many problems as police do, we certainly need to get it right at this point in time going forward.”

Nancy Smyth highlights an element that must change in order for the field to deliver on what White people seem to think social work does. That is, social work needs to detangle itself from the grips of the criminal justice system in order to provide services that do not perpetuate the criminalization of individuals in need of support. However, even if this were possible, critiques of social work would live on. One of the fundamental issues with the social service system is the way in which it assumes authority over people’s live. in particular, it assumes authority over the lives of individuals and families who are vulnerable to interpersonal and systemic oppression. The social service system tells low and no-income individuals how often they can go to local food pantries and how much money they can use on groceries through FoodShare. It tells people with mental health and substance use issues what types of services they can receive, how often and when, and for how long. It tells parents how they need to parent their children, how much school they need to attend, and what type of school they can go to. This top-down decision making extends throughout all social work settings. As we look at the role that police play in our society and begin to consider its influence on social work, we should also ask ourselves – are there better ways of getting people’s needs met? Are there better ways of caring for each other?

There is a hashtag, #ComradesNotClients that began being used in radical social work spaces on social media this summer. This hashtag sums up the direction that social work must move. Social workers must do better at sharing decision making power with their clients, not just within the social worker-client dyad, but within the policies and procedures that govern social work dynamics with clients. Social work can look at the effectiveness of mutual aid networks during the pandemic for examples of how to do this as well as to see the power of an approach to meeting people’s needs in a way that removes hierarchy and upsets power dynamics. Social workers are not and should never strive to be “superheroes” because this sentiment is not only inaccurate, it also implies that it is ok for social workers to sit in a position of power over their clients. Superheroes are superheroes because they obtained some special power that others do not have, after all.

Social work will never get out of its position as an integral component of policing in this country unless the field is able to accurately identify the systemic forces that maintain poverty, police brutality, wealth inequality, etc.

Additionally, social workers must consider the way in which their responses to challenging or harmful behavior on the part of their client’s might mirror dynamics we see in policing. There are countless micro factors (mental illness, interpersonal trauma) and macro factors (poverty, racism, historical trauma) that cause people to behave in ways that can be difficult to work with. Traditionally, social service programs have the authority to decide that someone is “inappropriate” for their program or that a person can be kicked out of their program due to having broken a program rule like attending a class while intoxicated, or engaging in a fight with another client. Instead of relying on punitive measures for managing these issues, social workers and social work agencies need to begin looking to restorative and transformative justice to understand the roots behind these behaviors and to repair the harm caused in a meaningful way and in a way that does not leave people stranded. In Dane County, we are lucky to have Dane County Time Bank and their wealth of knowledge for learning about transformative justice and how to integrate it into our programs.

Last, social work will never get out of its position as an integral component of policing in this country unless the field is able to accurately identify the systemic forces that maintain poverty, police brutality, wealth inequality, etc. If social work refuses to name racial capitalism and analyzes its influence in social work’s history and present moment, then we will never be able to organize and advocate for the policies that we desperately need – like mental health ambulances, like reparations, like healthcare for all.  I have hope that social work can be transformed, but if not, we might need to abolish it too.

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