I Am Incredible Essay Sample
- Word count: 7408
- Category: violence
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I Am Incredible Essay Sample
In order to fill the need for support for families coping with economic and domestic hardships, social work organizations have evolved in modern, urban society. Among the numerous and varied social work organizations, there are supervised visitation programs, such as the one I completed my internship with. Supervised visitation, by definition, is providing an opportunity for contact between a child and an adult, typically the non-custodial parent, in the presence of a third party. This third party is responsible for ensuring a safe environment for the individuals participating in the visit, primarily concerning the child being at risk (Straus, 1995). Overall, the purpose of supervised visitation programs is to provide a safe and friendly environment that maintains and nurtures the relationship of a child with his/her parent(s). By facilitating contact, supervised visitation centers may provide a safe, supportive environment for families to learn healthy ways of interacting, in an effort to abolish abuse and violence.
In this way, visitation programs are valuable assets to society at large (Perkins, 1998). Because there are benefits for children who otherwise could have little or no time with their noncustodial parent(s), visitation programs are receiving the praise of the courts that use them, the parents who exclusion or fears have been relieved, and of the community at large (Newton, 1997). However, society’s increasing emphasis on rationalization and economic instability heavily influence all social work organizations, including visitation programs, and impede their ability to provide personal, humanistic service to clients in need. My research focuses upon the structural components and policies of social work organizations that emphasize bureaucratic values of standardization and efficiency, which are in actuality in direct conflict with the goal of providing compassionate, personal care to families in need. Supported by my own observations as an intern case manager at a local supervised visitation center, my research will explore four themes: “Us Versus Them,” “Rationalization of Social Work,” “Lack of Efficiency,” and “Conflict of Aims.” The first theme addressed in this research, “Us Versus Them,” describes the divisive tension present between social workers and clients, directors of social work organizations and their staff, and even a particular social work organization and outside agents.
There is a great deal of tension between these groups because they all believe that they are acting in the best interest of the clients and that they must defend clients against interference from anyone else. I will also address the tactics used by social workers to cope with these tensions: “Resiliency” and “Community.” The next theme addressed, “Rationalization of Social Work,” explores different mechanisms used within social work organizations to control and standardize work in order to be as efficient as possible. Also observed during my own experience at my internship, social work organizations are structured bureaucracies that seek efficiency through technology, surveillance, and the compartmentalization of duties. Though social work organizations, including the visitation center, are constantly striving to be as efficient as possible their efforts frequently backfire and result in more inefficiency.
I explore this phenomenon, (“Lack of Efficiency”), by examining redundancy, fragmented staff, and breakdown of communication between social work agencies. Finally, my research addresses the issue of “Conflicting Aims” within social work organizations. Drawn from my experience at the visitation center, I have identified a conflict between the economic needs and autonomous operating of social work organizations. In addition, I also observed a conflict between the intended goals of the visitation center’s formal policies and their actual negative effects on the clients. Structural economic instability creates tensions within social work organizations that result in a divisive worldview among staff, the rationalization of social work, an increasing emphasis on efficiency, and conflicting aims of agents within an organization. These structural components of social work bureaucracies impede the effectiveness of the humanistic, rehabilitative aims of social work.
For the basis of my research, I interned at the Peninsula Family Services Agency in San Mateo. This is a non-profit, non-governmental agency that facilitates family services, such as parenting classes, visitation services and childcare. I worked at the center regularly on Wednesdays from 10a-2p and Sundays from 9:30a-5:30p, and filled in as necessary. I began volunteering with the agency in August 2010, and began my formal internship in January 2011. In January, I was assigned my own cases to manage, which included supervising visits and communicating with clients. In addition, I also supported the office with clerical work and facilitated supervised exchanges. The agency I interned with focuses on the well-being of families. The agency has three divisions: Children, Family and Seniors. Within the Family division is the Financial Empowerment department and the Family Conflict Services department. I interned within the Family Conflict Services department, which offers on-site and off-site supervised visits, therapeutic visits, safe exchanges, and parenting classes. The program facilitates visitation for children whose parents are not able to safely interact with one another. The agency primarily serves families dealing with domestic violence, substance abuse, and child abuse.
Nearly all of the clients served at the agency are court ordered to be there. Many of the clients served also have a current restraining order in effect, so there are physical barriers in the design of the building in order to maintain separation between volatile parties. My research focuses on the structural elements of social work organizations and the visitation center I interned with because of my qualitative, participant observation data. I had full access to structural elements of the social organization and was an active participant. My research was intentionally focused away from the specific clients and details of cases, due to confidentiality and lack of permission. It would have been unethical to use clients’ personal information without their permission and I did not have enough access to the rest of the client’s personal lives to be able to conscientiously explore issues of domestic violence or substance abuse.
I chose to use my participant observations for my research because they provided the most insight over time and provided me the opportunity to observe patterns in behavior among the staff, director and clientele. However, I could further strengthen my research by collecting additional qualitative data, through interviewing staff members or anonymously surveying the clients. Because of my identity as a young, white, educated female, I was able to easily merge with the existing staff at the visitation center. Most of the staff is also female, in their 20’s and white. My racial and gender identities did affect my relationship with some clients, and was both an obstacle and a useful tool at times. I was much more positively received by female clients than by male clients, perhaps because women saw me as an ally while men were wary of my judgment. There were also instances where male clients would try flirting with me, in order to try and persuade me to bend the rules for them. It’s possible that women clients may also have tried this on male case managers, but I would have to conduct further interviews to determine this. Overall, I was able to conduct my research fairly smoothly. I began volunteering with the visitation center months before my formal internship began; before I was assigned any cases of my own. This gave me the opportunity to observe the daily operations of the visitation center, and generate preliminary topics to pursue in my research. Because I was embedded within the social work organization, I was able to closely observe the structural elements of the organization and worked closely with staff and clients. As a result of my extended period of volunteering, I had complete access to my subject of research.
“Us” Versus “Them” In the social work agency I observed, there were clear divisions between different agents. While the director, staff and other social work agencies all share the intended purpose of aiding the clientele, tension occurs between these groups, impairing the overall effectiveness of the social work agency. Staff Versus Clients Because of the inherent power differential between the staff and clients at social work organizations, tensions are created and there is a combative relationship between staff and clients. The staff believes they are behaving in the best interest of the children, protecting them from their inadequate parents, and take pride in “doing good.” As Perkins argues, the families being served by the social work agency are seen as failing their children (Perkins, 1998). Because the staff holds this belief, it causes the staff to unintentionally treat the clients in a condescending manner. In turn, the clients respond defensively, resenting the judgment and interference from the social work agency. Families that are compliant with the agency guidelines are treated with much more compassion and understanding by the staff, than those who do not. For example, the families that I have observed regularly completing their scheduled visits and making their payments on time are much more likely to have positive case notes reported to the family court and mediation.
This results in compliant clients regaining some form of custody of their children more frequently than those who do not. Sporadic visits and parental no-shows are perceived as inadequate parenting, because they upset and confuse the children. This tension between staff and clients also results in greater effects. For example, the staff will always assume it is the client who is lying or violating guidelines, and will blindly support one another if questioned. While this kind of solidarity builds morale amongst staff, it positions the client at an even greater disadvantage. Because staff already assume the worst of clients, the clients, who have dealt with many formal institutions criticizing them already, are forced to be on the defensive at all times. This creates a combative relationship between staff and the clients they serve. Another way in which staff and clients are divided is along racial/ethnic and/or language boundaries. There is a visible difference between who the majority of the staff of social work organizations is and who the clientele is. As Yan points out, the majority of social work in America is dominantly Eurocentric, and reflects the hegemonic values and perspective of family life (Yan, 2008). Because social service organizations always exist within a certain social environment, through various linkages, including funding policies, laws, and other forms of social ideology, the missions and policies of most social service organizations are connected to the dominant culture (Yan, 2008).
Though social work organizations are supposed to be neutral, value-free agents, they are heavily influenced by dominant culture and therefore become transmitters of Eurocentric values. I have observed cross-cultural tension at my internship as well, since most of the staff is white and female. The visible exceptions to this rule are the few Latino/a staff who provide service to the Spanish-speaking clients. Most of the clients served by the visitation center I interned with are bilingual, with a significant portion speaking only Spanish. However, the center was not able to offer equal resources for those clients who only spoke Spanish. For example, most clients are referred to the visitation center by family court and are required to also participate in a parenting class offered called “Kids in the Middle.” Both parties are required to attend, and they cannot attend the same class.
The class is offered in English once every month, while the Spanish alternative is only offered twice a year. As a result, if both parties in a case request a Spanish class, they will have to wait a year for both parties to be able to attend separate classes. This means that clients who only speak Spanish are isolated and it is harder for them to fulfill their court-mandated obligations to regain unsupervised visitation of their children. Because they are not able to conform to dominant Eurocentric values, Spanish-speaking clients are impeded when trying to successfully navigate the social work bureaucracy. Staff and clients can also encounter conflict concerning the issues involved with a client’s case. Though they are supposed to be neutral, compassionate and non-judgmental, staff still react, consciously or not, to client issues that are considered particularly appalling, like domestic violence or child abuse. Because these issues have been deemed the worst by society, social workers must uphold a strict zero-tolerance policy for these behaviors (Chetkow, 1997). At my internship, domestic abuse offenders and victims must attend a mandatory parenting class, regardless of the particular circumstances or background of the clients involved in violence. While it is hard to defend violence, social workers have an absolute zero tolerance policy for it. So much so, that staff can appear condescending to offenders and victims, without actually knowing the details surrounding a particular case.
It is irrelevant to the staff how or why or the frequency of any violence, when it is of vital importance to the client. In this way, clients are told yet again that, “someone else knows what is best for you.” Though the social workers have the best interests at heart, their underlying beliefs and procedures are perceived as condemnation by the already vulnerable clients, leading to constant tension and conflict. Director Versus Staff Within social work organizations themselves, there is an “Us Versus Them” struggle between the director and the staff. While the staff members are interacting personally with clients, the director of the program is charged with managing budget, structural and staffing issues of the organization. Though both parties are joined in their ultimate goal of operating a successful social work organization, the duties of each do not appear to be in harmony with one another. One of the director’s duties is to effectively juggle the competing aims of different departments within the organization, such as the financial department and visitation (Buenger, 1996). For example, the director of programs at my internship is charged with the task of keeping the organization adequately funded following the state budget cuts. To do this, the director employs many different strategies, including soliciting donors. The director brings outside organizations on tours through the facility, in order to entice them to donate to the center.
Therefore, the director would like the facility to be immaculate at all times, with all the most high tech and expensive gadgets visible, in order to impress potential donors. Though the director has the best intentions, the staff is oblivious and only sees the action itself. To them, it is invasive to have strangers parading through the center while families are visiting. Further, the level of cleanliness the director is requiring elevates that as a priority over the comfort of the clients, as they are constantly reminded to clean up and made to feel like intruders themselves. Lastly, it is impractical to staff to have the most expensive video games and devices out on display all the time, due the risk of theft or damage. In this way, it appears that the aims of the director and staff are in conflict. The director is concerned with budget issues, in order to maintain the survival of the program.
In order to reach this aim, the director focuses on fundraising and appealing to donors. However, to the staff, whose aims are directed at helping the clients, the director’s methods seem fake and off-putting. These conflicts create an atmosphere where the staff feels perpetually in conflict with the director. Another way in which the director and staff are involved in a combative struggle is that the director must make decisions regarding the structure of the organization based upon its intended purpose, and usually has limited flexibility in their ability to add or change components. Many social work organizations, including the one I interned at, work in conjunction with the formal family court system. Nearly every client will have to go or return to court at some point, so everything the visitation organization does is tailored to that purpose. The reports describing visits, the strict time-keeping and the detailed incident reporting is all done with the purpose of communicating with court in mind. To be successful, the director must ensure that all the staff is working with that aim in mind, or guided by that purpose (Lee, 2007). Especially during times of low funding, the organization must remain a reliable source of communication for other formal institutions, such as family court.
Otherwise, the organization will be discredited and deteriorate. As a result, the director is perceived as less compassionate or caring, since their priority is not seen to be with the clients, causing more tension between them and the staff. In addition to managing conflicting aims and structural issues, the director must also handle staff conflicts and issues. In any profession, employees’ home lives and interpersonal conflicts will influence their work performance to some degree. However, due to the intensely personal, humanistic character of social work, outside problems have a greater effect on social workers work relationships and attitude, resulting in low levels of job satisfaction and commitment (Lambert, 2006). In my own experience, I have observed this as well. When a fellow staff member at the visitation center was having a particularly stressful day dealing with difficult client cases, she commented, “I don’t need this stress. I get enough stress from my own daughter and I get paid better at my other job.”
Further, during my internship, the program manager of three years quit. When I asked her why she was moving on, she told me that she couldn’t deal with the stress of the clients anymore because it was disrupting her relationship with her boyfriend and that she wanted a job that took “less out of her emotionally.” In both of these situations, staff members referred to their personal lives in relation to their work at the visitation center in a negative way. This led the staff members I encountered to have a poor attitude and less commitment at work, even leading to ending their commitment altogether in one extreme case. Since there is a long training period required for staff at the visitation center, it is a great inconvenience when veteran staff members decide to decrease their availability or quit altogether. This puts a burden on the director, who must try to manage staff morale in order to deter rapid staff turnover.
Social Work Organizations Versus Outside Agents The divisive tension of “Us Versus Them” is not only within a social work organization, but is also evident between social work organizations and outside agents and/or forces. The cultural values of social work itself are often at odds with the values of other professionals with whom social workers interact, like judges, law enforcement and lawyers for example. The professional status of social workers is always in doubt, even within the professional community (Yan, 2008). This perception leads social workers to feel defensive and that they have more to prove when dealing with outside agencies. Because they believe their competency and legitimacy is being questioned from the beginning, social workers of one organization are hesitant to trust other agencies (Buckley, 2011). As a result, anytime another agent or organization, such as a mediator or law enforcement, must be involved in a case, it is done with hesitation, anxiety and hostility.
Further, social workers feel as though they need to protect their clients from outside forces, apart from other institutions and agents. Many clients of the visitation center are seen as victims of a larger social problem, involving economic policy. The underlying problem for most clients is economic instability and social workers believe they must support clients against “unbridled economic forces (Schorr, 1972)”. Resiliency While there are clear divisions both within and surrounding social work agencies, social workers themselves employ different strategies to cope with these situations and continue their work, one of which is “resiliency”. The most pressing concern of the visitation center I interned with for the last two years has been finding creative solutions to budget cuts. They have had their state funding slashed, and have combated this through fundraising, donation drives, recruitment of volunteers and pay cuts/furloughs. In addition to these burdens, the case managers have personally provided supplies for the center when necessary. One of the case managers supplies hand sanitizer for the entire visitation center and pays for it out of her own pocket.
As my own contribution, I have personally supplied the center with child safety locks for cabinets, rubber table corner guards, ping pong balls, games, puzzles, clothes, dishes and Kleenex. None of the case managers were asked to do this, but out what I have come to understand as their resilient spirit, they have provided what is necessary to continue to do their work. As seen through my observations, one of the motivations for this resiliency is the unwavering focus on the children being served. This fuels the case managers and me, with the belief that we are doing something productive and positive in the face of hardship. Another tactic I have observed in the constant use of humor among case managers to comfort one another after a confrontation, client termination, or news of layoffs.
I’ve heard case managers jokingly comment many times, “I may not be able to afford lunch, but at least I’m feeding my soul.” As in many of life’s hardest situations, the case managers at the visitation center employ the use of humor to release tension and lighten moods. Community While the case managers are labeling others as outsiders and creating an “Us Versus Them” mentality, they are also strengthening their community amongst one another. Building a strong sense of community is another way in which social workers cope with their highly stressful occupations. At my internship, the loyalty amongst the staff to one another is plainly visible, as they keep the office door closed to outsiders, whisper only to one another when staff from other departments are around and have matching identifying stickers on their entry key cards. As mentioned previously, in any confrontation or incident with a client, the case managers undoubtedly assume the innocence of the case manager and stand united behind them. The staff members draw strength from this support and solidarity, often commenting that their fellow case managers are their favorite parts of their job. Another way in which the case managers create community is through the use of food as a symbol of support and friendship.
Any holiday, special occasion or birthday is celebrated in the office by a potluck. For example, Superbowl Sunday, Valentine’s Day and every staff birthday I observed were marked by all the case managers bringing a dish of food to share. Not an uncommon tradition in any group, the potluck serves as a way to show your support for your fellow case managers and become an active participant. Finally, I have also seen community being extended beyond the workplace. After months of volunteering, I was finally invited to go running with my fellow case managers after work on Sundays. I interpreted this as a sign of acceptance and initiation into the group, having proved my worth to them. Rationalization of Social Work In modern, urban society, social work organizations are forced to seek the most efficient means of providing service, due to the massive number of clients in need of limited resources. To meet this need, social work organizations are structured as bureaucracies. As Weber argues, bureaucracies are capable of attaining the highest degrees of efficiency, precision, stability, discipline and reliability, and that the needs of mass administration make them completely indispensable (Weber, 1921/1968).
Rationalization in administration is sought through technology, surveillance, and the compartmentalization of duties. In an effort to rationalize social work, organizations must achieve a level of standardization amongst all clients. This standardization dehumanizes clients and diminishes the cultural sensitivity of social workers. This is true and explicitly visible at my internship, where clients’ cases are color/number coded with offenses and issues. The categorization of clientele reduces them to coded cases instead of humans (Green, 1966). Clients are not able to receive personalized service, but instead are subjected to strict procedural restrictions. For example, there is a rigidly outlined process of arrival, payment and departure in place for both custodial and non-custodial parties at my internship. Any deviation from this process will result in penalization. While this standardization is meant to ensure universally fair expectations for all clients, it does not allow for social workers to use their own judgment and humanity to consider extenuating circumstances. As a result, through bureaucratic and standard procedures, social workers’ own humanity is suppressed (Yan, 2008).
Technology One of the ways social work organizations achieve standardization and increase rationalization is through the use of technology. First and foremost, computers are used in the professional workplace to monitor, control and rationalize work, making it easily accessible to many at once and providing a universal template for social work staff to use (Rule, 1992). All client information, communications and activity records are entered into a password restricted data entry system, which is of the utmost importance to the social work organization (Lyons, 2010). The use of computers and data entry programs not only aides in rationalizing social work, but it also allows for the generation of statistics and projections quickly. With data entry and storage mechanized, it is easy to analyze clients and cases as numbers and percentages rather than unique situations. In this way, social work becomes more data driven and less focused on personal interaction and judgment (Reardon, 2010) Technology has played a crucial role in the daily functioning of the visitation center I interned with. For example, case managers check their schedules online, communicate via email and text, generate statistical data about clientele for grant proposals through computer programs, and have their own voice mail box for clients to leave messages.
This use of technology mechanizes and streamlines the administration process, allowing the case managers to administer to a greater number of clients. Surveillance Another way social work organizations are rationalized is by disciplining staff (and clients) through the use of surveillance both visually and spatially. As with any successful bureaucracy, management must monitor the lower staff (Rule, 1992). For example, all employees clock in to work with a digital hand-print scanner, so their time is accounted for down to the second. Further, access throughout the building is only granted with personal key cards.
Each area of the visitation center is partitioned from the last, distributing individuals into their own place and breaking up collective dispositions (Foucault, 1977). Since there are no windows allowing access to the outdoors from the visitation center, staff, and clients, are enclosed within the space, cut off from outside distractions and organic means of time keeping. In these ways, management is monitoring and regulating the arrival, departure, and movement of staff throughout the space each day. Along with staff, clients are under physical surveillance at the visitation center from the moment they arrive until well after they have departed. Cameras are positioned all around the outside of the building that transmit live feeds to the visitation staff inside, allowing them to visually identify clients before they have even entered the building.
Cameras are also installed throughout the entire visitation center, allowing for constant surveillance at all times. Clients must be escorted by a staff member at all times, are not permitted to speak in a tone to low for a staff member to hear, and their belongings are subject to inspection as deemed necessary by staff. Through uninterrupted, constant surveillance, which supervises the processes of activity rather than judging its result, and the regulation of space and movement, staff becomes highly disciplined “docile bodies” (Foucault, 1977). Compartmentalization of Duties Finally, compartmentalization of duties, or the division of labor, further rationalizes social work. With regards to clients, each case manager is responsible for all duties regarding their assigned cases, from updating files, collecting payments, and compiling reports and case notes. Case notes and visit reports are all recorded electronically to ensure that all case managers can have access to the complete client database, as well as eliminate the annoying problem of sloppy penmanship.
Though case managers are supposed to be autonomous from one another, there are many tasks they are not allowed to do. For example, the visitation schedules are created by an off-site case manager, who remotely accesses the computer system. This allows her to efficiently update the system whenever she has access to the internet, from wherever she may be. There is also a separate staff member who accesses and maintains the financial records of the visitation center, including client balances and staff payroll. Additionally, there is a separate staff member who handles client complaints and non-compliance, and is the only one authorized to send out non-compliance letters. So, while the case managers are dealing directly with clients, they actually have very little authority or control over any decisions regarding their clients. By dividing the tasks, each staff position must become specialized, further rationalizing the social work organization and creating a bureaucratic agency. Lack of Efficiency To evaluate the rewards of a system so entrenched in the pursuit of efficiency and universality, they must be measured against the wasted time and energy spent when something goes wrong, which is quite often. The pursuit of rationalization by social work agencies can result in redundant work, a fragmented staff and a lack of communication between social work agencies.
Redundancy While the system in place pursues efficiency and quick processing, it can also be extremely redundant, particularly when something occurs out of the ordinary. Because the system is designed for each case manager to be able to operate independently of one another, there are many checks in place to make sure documentation occurs, in order for an outside party to find out what happened. For example, one of my clients did not show up for his scheduled visit and was angry with me when I reminded him that he would be charged double, due to the visitation center’s policy. After our verbal confrontation, I had to write up case notes documenting the conversation, write a “no-show” visit report also documenting our confrontation, email my supervisor and leave her a voicemail. In addition to my four accounts of the incident, another case manger on duty also emailed our supervisor, while yet another case manager was texting our supervisor as it was occurring. Though the organization is trying to increase efficiency, their methods are actually redundant and inefficient, costing the organization more time and money.
Fragmented Staff Social work organizations also experience a lack of efficiency because of their fragmented staff. Because of economic instability and low levels of job satisfaction, social work organizations can be forced to employ only part-time employees and have a heavy reliance on unqualified volunteers. Further, many staff members work in split departments, as a part-time employee in either department, but working a full-time equivalent of hours in total. This means that the social work organization can save money in employee benefits, but still have a staff member for a limited number of hours. Also, the quick overturn of social workers contributes to the constantly fragmented staff. Many staff members are not adequately trained; therefore they cannot provide clear answers and feedback to the already confused clients.
This leads to misinformation and frustration, as well as contributing to the distrust of the entire “system” of social services. Breakdown in Communication Outside of the social work agency, there is also a lack of efficiency to the breakdown in communication between agencies. Clients expect there to be communication between social work organizations, such as family court, welfare, child protective services, mediators, and visitation services. However, the reality is that there are vast gaps in communication between these separate agencies. This often leads to frustration for the clients, who find themselves repeating their information and details over and over again. As Zukerman argues, one allinclusive Family Court should be the ultimate goal, for the purpose of making a family’s experience as easy as possible (Zuckerman, 1969).The situation now is that a family has multiple judges, social workers, psychologists, etc. to deal with. I have been screamed at by frustrated parents who do not understand why none of the service agencies they interact with are able to communicate and share information with one another. As a result, clients view the staff as antagonistic, apathetic and unqualified when they are sent to many different people and receive conflicting answers or none at all.
Clients imagine the social services to be one cohesive unit, when in fact it is actually a fragmented, inefficient and redundant mess. The perception of the clients and the reality of the situation are in constant conflict, resulting in tension. Conflict of Aims Economic Need and Autonomy Because of the lack of funding available to social work organizations, the economic needs of the organization dictate which groups the director must rely upon to fund and support the cause. As Sosin explains, social work organizations use “niche fundraising,” or the targeting of particular groups with an implicit interest in the social work organization, to generate necessary funds. As a result, social work organizations are partially governed by their supporters (Sosin, 1985).
The visitation center I interned with has been subjected to this as well. I have observed the director at my internship stress out about funding issues over the last year. The state budget to the center was dramatically cut, leaving the director to close the gap in funding through fundraising. The director reached out to specialized regional groups, who had an interest in the “niche” the supervised visitation center filled in social work, such as domestic violence and early childhood education programs for low-income families. As a neutral party, the visitation center is supposed to treat both parents a child with equal consideration, regardless of circumstance or custody. However, as Scaia pointed out, there has been a recent increase in the association with battered women and children with supervised visitation (Scaia, 2010). Domestic violence organizations and battered women advocate groups contribute funding to the visitation center, and in turn their information is distributed to clients. This undermines any claim of neutrality and vilifies the men who also use the visitation center. Formal Policy and Human-Focused Service Tension is also created in social work agencies when conflict arises from formal policy interfering with human-focused service.
The focus on policy, in order to reduce liability and keep costs down, is meant to ensure the survival of the organization, but results in the isolation and further alienation of the clients, effectively road-blocking service (Green, 1966). The visitation center enforces behavioral guidelines that aim for safety, but in reality interrupt natural human interaction. For example, taking pictures, talking about the future with your child, and providing gifts are all restricted activities for clients. In normal parenting situations, these activities are not given a second thought. It creates an unrealistic environment that only further highlights the awkwardness of the situation the parents and children are experiencing. The organization’s policies interfere with organic family building at the center, instead creating feelings of insecurity, sterility and rigidity, which are in direct conflict with the ideals of social work. Further, in order to preserve and showcase expensive games and resources, the facility uses an elaborate monitoring system when clients are using the area. The aim of this is to make the facility appealing to donors and state auditors, with the good intentions of raising more funds for the livelihood of the visitation center. However, in reality, the policy makes clients feel alienated and uncomfortable. This creates tension between policies that are intended to be rewarding for clients, but in reality create a sterile environment where clients are already sensitive and feeling like criminals.
The very nature of social work creates a combative dichotomy in which the “Us” knows what is best for “Them.” Though the intention of social work is altruistic, there is an inherent, unilateral power differential in place between the clientele and social work organizations. By having to use social services, including family court, welfare, unemployment, and visitation, clients are submitting to the unspoken judgment that they are unfit to manage their own lives and/or families in some way. In order to receive aid from any social work organization, the clients have to complete a mandated, rehabilitative process. For the visitation center, this process included an orientation, parenting class, mediation, following safety policies and maintaining a relationship with one or more case managers. The overall effect is that the client is told repeatedly by different agents that they must reform their negative behavior and adopt the recommendations of the visitation center, presenting itself as a formal authority.
Though the client really may need guidance regarding parenting, they are always on the defensive and feel constantly attacked. The communicative relationship is always one-way, since the clients are never asked for their feedback regarding the effectiveness or success of the visitation center. As a consequence, there is always underlying tension between staff and clientele. No less important, I observed that economic instability underlies much of the tension found in social work organizations. Tension is created because of the economic crises of the clients and the scarcity of funds available to social work organizations. The visitation center I interned with would be unable to operate in any capacity without maintaining fundraising efforts and collecting payments from clients. This caused economic interests to be one of the priorities of the organization, making it extremely difficult to serve clients with extraordinary needs. For the clients, their personal financial situations were always a concern when interacting with the visitation center. Most clients were unemployed, employed illegally and/or receiving public assistance, and were crippled by the fees associated with the visitation center. For many clients, the cost of visiting their children at the center was too high for them to bear, unfortunately resulting in the termination of their services.
As a quasi-Marxist, I view the overall economic instability of the clientele partially as a symptom of class conflict in society, rather than attributing it to only individual cause (Marx, 1888). The clients seemed to be stuck in a structural cycle of economic instability, brought about by much larger social and economic forces. For future research, I would like to further pursue issues of tension and economics, as well as explore the use of court-mandated programs, such as the visitation center, as a method of informal punishment. For example, how much of an effect does gender have on the social worker/client relationship? From my observations, most of the visitation staff was female and there were distinct differences between the relationships with male and female clients.
In the future, I would be interested to explore whether or not there is tension created by the imbalance of gender between staff and clients. For example, I claimed that there was a power imbalance between staff and clients, with staff always wielding power over clients. When compounded by power struggles between genders, will there be heightened tension between a female staff member and a male client? The economic dependence of social work institutions on special interest groups is also of interest to me. Because the clientele social work organizations serve is nearly always in economic need, the organization must rely upon government funding and donations from special interest groups. As a result, the organizations are partially governed by their financial sources. How can social work organizations remain adequately funded and autonomous, when they are inherently designed to serve populations economically disadvantaged?
The majority of the clientele that I worked with and observed at the visitation center was there involuntary, as a consequence of a court mandate or mediation recommendation. If clients failed to comply, they were further penalized by the legal system. This leads me to ask, is mandatory supervised visitation, with all its costs, intrusiveness and inevitable shame, a justified punishment? Is punishment intended or is it genuinely aimed to be rehabilitative? Efforts to satisfy the economic needs of a social work organization often stifle the humanistic needs of clients the organization is supposed to serve. Wilensky and Lebeaux observed that “between the altruist and (their) desire to help the client lies the machine with its own ‘needs,’” needs that emphasize rationalization, policy and record-keeping rather than the needs of the clientele (Wilensky and Lebeaux, 1958)
As Back states, the values and goals of social work are integrity, compassion, belief in the dignity and worth of human beings, respect for individual differences, a commitment to service, and a dedication to truth; all of which are clearly non-rational impossible to quantify through bureaucratic means (Back, 1969). The dilemma of social work organizations is that bureaucracy is the only feasible way to attempt to process mass amounts of people in need of service in modern, urban society. However, the positive elements of bureaucracies, such as impersonality and standardization, become destructive agents in humanitarian fields like social work. Much like Weber said, I am pessimistic about the possibility of escaping bureaucracies and am frightened of a “future that belongs to bureaucratization” (Weber, 1921/1968).
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