Back in the 1960s, as a young, newly married man, I felt a sense of hope for the future – if someone would just do something. I felt that I was up for the challenge. I was naïve. Had no idea of what would lie ahead; how my “liberalism,” idealism and good wishes were no match for engrained experiences and intractable behaviors that resulted in often disastrous consequences.
I started my career in what is now the “Murder Capital” of the U.S.—Camden, New Jersey. Crime was rampant then but not in the same way it is today. There is a sense of hopelessness about Camden. Too much poverty, not enough opportunities for kids, too much easy access to drugs and weapons. When I started, the other young social workers were pretty much in the same boat; idealistic, cocky; to use a cliché, it felt like we could make a difference. Sometimes on protective services calls we went with the police. They were members of the “team” back then, Much as were the prosecutors, judges and the all-important, judges’ scheduler. The scheduler could slip you into chambers to lobby for a client. We saw family issues as system problems and acted accordingly. On TV today, some police dialogue denigrates the role of the social workers. Back then a policeman told me how sometimes he didn’t know how we did our jobs. I said I felt the same way about him. He responded by saying, “…you go into madhouses carrying a notebook, I go in carrying a gun.” We respected one another’s roles and connected accordingly.
Mother Theresa of Calcutta said, to work with anyone, it is vital to be aware of their dignity as human beings. This message proved its validity time and again. It was exciting to work with families adjudged as “delinquent” and see the impact of not judging and not pretending to know how it was for them. Many of the people we worked with were seldom afforded the opportunity to vent frustration, discuss options and consequences. Talking with someone with no axe to grind was a novel experience for many of our contacts. Working with families as the “State” was a tricky proposition. Our motives were suspect. We were felt to be the people who took children and separated families. Unfortunately, sometimes this was what happened. In many cases, as time went on, trust was established, shields were lowered and positive relationships were able to be developed. People sometimes would decide to discard historically dysfunctional approaches to consider issues and chart a course for themselves that was out of their established comfort zone. No better feeling than experiencing people let themselves loose in the possible. Great stuff. I dove into Social Work and have never looked back. Times have changed, systems are far more complicated, but the need to be mindful of each of our dignity remains the same.