Social Work: Most Days I Do More Harm Than Good

BlogHer Original Post

Talking about my job is an uncomfortable situation most of the time.

The chain of events is so predictable, I can pretty much mark it out scene by scene. With strangers that I am unlikely to ever see again, I give the quick answer, "I'm a social worker, I work with kids." That usually satisfies them. We move on to another topic. But talking to people who know me a little better -- like my psuedo-family who I spent the holidays with -- can be even more challenging.

First, I get the inevitable questions about how my job is going...

which leads to questions about what "exactly" I do at my current job...

which is inevitably followed by that someone's opinion about my job...

which range from "God's work" to "why would you want to do that?"...

and one particular person (that had categorized me on the "saintly" side)

was raving about all the "good" I'm doing...

and I found myself making this statement...

"In any given time period, I do more harm than good."


I think I shocked the person into silence.

It might have been one of those times where I gave too much information. You'd think that after all these years, I would have learned that I should keep all non-social workers on a "need to know" basis.

Perhaps what made the person all the more shocked was my tone; I was completely matter of fact. I'm not apathetic about the pain, but I have come to accept my part in the situations my clients find themselves in when they are assigned to my team's caseload.

But my filter was on the fritz, most likely due to the pre-holiday chaos, and out came that statement:

"In any given time period, I do more harm than good."


black and white view of a young girl (6-7) sitting in a corner covering her face with her hands

Now, I didn't mean that I personally do my job poorly. Nor was I saying that I specifically cause trauma and pain on a regular basis. But the reality is that the system I have chosen to work in, regularly does more harm than helping.

Despite what some may tell you, this is not because no one cares or because intentions aren't good. It is because the world we live in is seriously messed up. The "solution" to one problem only creates an avalanche of other problems. One decision can set off a chain of events that leads to horrific consequences.

I don't say any of this to imply that child welfare agencies are intentionally careless, heartless, or should all be shut down. (Though I'm sure to get comments saying exactly those things.) I have had some examples of how the system can take a terrible situation and (eventually) do right by the child. In an even more rare few, we were also able to make things right for their parents. I'll even count the few cases where children had to be legally separated from their parents, but where those relationships continue to be honored by their new family, as successes. But for every success, there are at least 5 cases where resolution has never come.

The reality is that there are parents out there who intentionally and unintentionally harm their children.

The reality is that when I come in and remove a child from that home, I cause more trauma.

The reality is that many very nice people are not emotionally capable of parenting that kind of trauma.

The reality is that I often cannot know who is capable until I place that child in the home.

The reality is that despite participating in a wealth of services, some parents will not be able to have their children returned to their care.

The reality is that those children will feel the pain of that separation for their entire lives.

The reality is that every child deserves a permanent family.

The reality is that there are not enough willing and able families to give every child what they deserve.

The reality is that there are no clear answers or "right" decisions.

I don't actually facilitate or control most of those situations. I don't perpetuate the abuse/neglect. I am not ever the person who makes the decision to remove a child. I don't issue the termination (or adoption) decrees. I don't order children returned to their parents either. I simply do the best I can, advocate where I believe is appropriate, and try to lessen the pain for whoever, whenever I can.

I don't say or write these things to be dramatic or to fish for compliments. I write them because I feel the need to bridge the gap between "saint" and "baby snatcher." I stand in the middle ground, the place where I admit the failures of the system while also recognizing that there just isn't a better solution yet. I continue to allow myself to be part of the "bad" in hopes of doing some "good" along the way.

I am a proxy of this system, therefore I can not be blind to the harm that the system, and myself, cause over the course of time. To hide behind my good intentions and occasional happy ending will not serve my clients or myself well in the long run. So, after I'd explained my statement as best I could to a layperson, the question was presented to me:

"Why do you keep doing it then?"

I gave the only answer I know how to give:

"Someone has to do it...

... and I'd rather it be me."


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