Social Work: Life in the Trenches

Please observe this as a Trigger Warning if you choose to go on to read these thoughts. There will be intense themes of physical abuse, sexual abuse, police brutality, and violence.

Please understand that some of the stories shared here are extremely disturbing.

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Before I dive into this subject, I need to lay out a few things:

  1. I chose this career 13 years ago and am still actively working in the field.
  2. I do not deserve any accolades for my work, and I am not a hero in any sense of the word.
  3. I know that Social Work has deep ties to systemic racism.
  4. I know that Social Workers have been instrumental in destroying the lives of many families over the years.
  5. I know that I am complicit in having been part of the problem at times throughout my career.

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I should also let you know that according to a study put out a few years back, the average lifespan of someone’s Social Work career was about two years before they made a complete career change. So, when you hear those of us who have 10+ years experience, please know that we are deeply invested and that we have significant skin in the game.

Also, please understand that there seems to be a misconception that Social Workers are “soft” or that they are just “bleeding hearts” that think they can save everyone. For the sake of being honest, some Social Workers fit that description; however, I would present to you that this is not the case for many of us. I think what I offer to you in this article may help you get a clearer understanding of that.

Who Cares?

I don’t need anyone to care. I just want to give you, the reader, a glimpse into the career of a Social Worker. I was a part of a conversation earlier this week that allowed me to understand that people genuinely don’t know what we experience. Again, this is not a means to put any self-pity on display or to ask for your empathy. This article is my offering to paint a picture for you.

Buckle Up

Here we go:

To start, you need to know that Social Workers experience things that most people cannot even bring themselves to picture in their heads.

I wish you could understand what it is like to be involved in a child murder case. I wish you could understand what it is like to look into the eyes of someone who ended their own child’s life. I wish you could understand what it is like to see that murderer smirk when the judge brings up the charges in the courtroom.

I wish you could feel what the anxiety and tension feel like when you have to stop a father from fighting his son in the parking lot of an apartment complex.

I wish you could know what it is like to console a teenager as you take him back to a placement where he will continue to be locked up and not be able to return to live with anyone he has known and loved his entire life.

I wish you could understand how helpless it feels when you watch a youth’s eyes when they try to come to terms with the fact that they believe no one wants them and that society has seemingly given up on them.

I wish you could feel what it’s like to get cornered in a room that only has one exit by two men who are twice your size right after you hear from another resident that those men were going to jump you.

I wish you could know what it is like to work with a teenager who was thrown down the stairs by their parent when they were an infant, which ultimately left them wheelchair-bound and unable to communicate for the rest of their life.

I wish you could understand what it is like controlling the seething anger inside your body when you have parents who beat the hell out of their toddler telling you that you are a liar and that they never did what was proven to happen.

I wish you could understand what it is like sitting across from parents who sexually abused their children and who let their best friends sexually abuse their children.

I wish you could understand what it is like to work with children who were victims of incest when they weren’t even old enough to tie their own shoes.

I wish you could understand what it is like to look into the eyes of parents while you explain that there is reason to believe that they are sexually or physically abusing their children who just so happen to be 10 feet away in the next room over.

I wish you understood what it is like to have your life threatened in someone’s home right before you tell them you are going to be requesting the termination of their parental rights at the next court hearing.

I wish you could understand what it feels like to stand in a room and watch a toddler try to physically fight and cuss out an adult after being removed from their parents.

I wish you could understand what it’s like to walk into someone’s house and see their child’s blankets (bed) lying next to used syringes on the floor.

I wish you understood what it’s like to have an undercover cop try to pressure you as the worker to get information out of a parent with whom you are working. I wish you could visualize the terror on a parent’s face after they say they will get murdered if they offer any information.

I wish you could understand what it feels like when a cop willingly puts a worker’s life on the line just so he and his buddies can potentially make a bust.

I wish you could see and smell a meth house where parents frequently chose to cook meth instead of tucking their children in at night.

I wish you could understand what it’s like watching cops slam a man on the ground and break his shoulder when you were supposed to be the social worker that was called upon to help empower him and his family to get back on their feet.

I wish you could’ve been there to watch a teenager get tripped and get his face smashed into the ground because he “spoke disrespectfully” towards a cop.

I wish you could’ve been there to walk in on a parent so blown out on pills that they could barely breathe.

I wish you could feel what it is like to have a drunk parent want to fight you in front of your entire office and their children.

I wish you could feel the weight of those experiences that are carried daily.

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I wish you could understand that those stories are only the tip of the iceberg when looking at many of our social work careers.

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Weary Legs

There is a concept that I need to address and that I want people to see clearly. I have people tell me to take a walk in their shoes when they decided to argue about how difficult their careers are. I understand the need for people to say that. I know that some people feel the need to posture themselves as heroic when truly their work is far from it.

Just know that there are some of us Social Workers that hear people saying that, yet we choose to sit their stonefaced and silently bite our tongue knowing that other person couldn’t survive a day in our battlefield.

We frequently are the first ones on the frontlines. We do it alone. We do it without a gun and a badge to protect us. We do it willingly. We do it with no offering of thanks. We work our jobs where we are consistently criticized by judges, attorneys, families, other coworkers, supervisors, community agencies, and our conscience.

Hear me when I say this:

You cannot walk a mile in my work shoes; because I tore through my pair years back and I have been pounding the pavement barefoot since then.

So, next time you hear someone talk about how soft Social Workers are, I hope the picture that was painted for you here offers you a new perspective, and I hope it helps you open up conversations with those who may not be informed.

Battle-Tested

There are those of us that adorn battle fatigues crafted by the trauma we have experienced firsthand. There are those of us that have made a home in the blood-soaked trenches that surround us daily. There are those of us who are knowingly and frequently fighting a losing battle.

There are those of us that have developed shoulders the size of the Rocky Mountains. There are those of us that have put our time in and earned bulletproof skin over the years. There are those of us that have learned how to compartmentalize feelings in a way that allows us to walk the fine line between inhuman and human.

Even if there are Social Workers that quit because they didn’t know what they signed up for, there are those of us that stuck around even in the face of all these experiences. We do it because we love our communities and because we believe we can deconstruct, brick by brick, the systems that create inequity amongst those who experience oppression in this country.

Through it All

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KNOW that the strength that some of us carry and our ability to step into a firefight is something that is stitched into our DNA.

KNOW that when people swiftly retreat from situations like those mentioned above, Social Workers are oftentimes there silently fighting on the frontlines.

KNOW that there are those of us who wear these battle scars internally, yet we continually have to do our best to stay strong for our families, friends, and coworkers.

KNOW that we live in a world where people couldn’t care less about what we do, yet we still choose to press forward until the day we are buried amongst those we swore to stand up for at all costs.

Previously published on medium

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Photo credit: GrayMatter

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