Vol. 13, No. 2 • May 2009

After 41 Years of Social Work, I Still Love What I Do!

by Bonnie Ferrell

I became a social worker in the days of “welfare rights.” I struggled with the idea that with rights come responsibilities: each of us has not just a right, but a responsibility to develop to our full potential. So for me the question became, “How do we, as a nation and as a community, ensure that people have an equal playing field? How do we give everyone the chance to become the best that they can be?”

It was the theme of social justice that drove my work and the field at that time. And I still believe in that.

At First I Was Pretty Naïve . . .
Yet at the same time I was pretty naïve in my practice. I wanted to help fix things. I thought I was doing good work and being kind, but in actuality I was being very disrespectful. Now I know it’s disrespectful to impose a fix on someone else, even if you do it with good intentions. By prescribing what should happen, I was enabling parents to continue negative patterns of dependency. A parent doesn’t have to take responsibility if I step in and make all the decisions.

But it’s not just that parents SHOULD make decisions for themselves and their family. It’s that they do it BETTER than I ever could. They know their family better than I do. They come to their own idea of what’s wrong and what steps they need to take to bring about change.

It was like a smack in the face that came with experience. Again and again, parents would figure out a solution and I would think, “Wow! I would never have thought of that!”

Gradually I Realized . . .
Over time I came to realize that my job is not to be the change agent for a family, but to be respectful of their ability to create change for themselves. I believe that people can change. If I didn’t, I could never do this work. The key is being able to establish a positive relationship, to articulate my belief in a parent, and to demonstrate my confidence in them to make life better for their children.

It sounds so simple, but relationship building is a powerful skill. That belief in the power of relationships serves as the foundation for nurturing, trust, discipline, and responsibility—essential elements in any parent-child relationship.

I try to convey the message, “There’s nothing you can do that will prevent me from walking this walk with you as you reorganize your family more effectively.” That doesn’t mean I have to accept all of their behaviors. I work with some people who sexually molested their children, and I abhor what they have done. But I still find the humanity in that person and try to find something in them to connect with and believe in.

I’ve learned how to express my belief in parents without condoning negative behavior. I focus on empowering them to take charge of their own family. You can’t just be a Pollyanna, pretending that everything is or will be all right. It has to be real. Forming a positive relationship with parents is always my number one tool: once they feel your confidence and hope in them, amazing things can happen.

Overcoming Fear
Early in our careers, social workers are often petrified. We are afraid that we won’t know what to do, afraid of differences, afraid of hurting children more by not knowing how to ask the right questions or asking the wrong questions. We are afraid of producing more hurt by our lack of skills or of being hurt ourselves in the field. But social work is really a journey. You have to be open to differences and ready to challenge your beliefs.

I think in many ways it’s similar to being a good foster parent: you have to be ready to challenge what you may think about a birth family or a child. You sometimes have to hold back on the judgments and the advice, to allow families and children to make changes in their own way and their own time.

Getting to Know Myself
What helped me over time was getting to know myself better. The more I recognized my own strengths and limitations, the more tolerance I had for other people’s limitations. It can be incredibly hard to be honest with yourself about what you bring to the table, or where you fall short. But once you are open about yourself, it leads you to a greater understanding and openness about others.

In my case, the more I learned about myself, the more confident I became in working with others. I became able to connect with the humanity of each person, and with our commonalities. Then I was able to celebrate our differences.

We all have problems. It is really only a fine line that separates me from an abusive parent. It’s a fine line of control and knowing appropriate boundaries—children do have a way of pushing our buttons.

Many parents we work with come from a background of chaos. I think of myself as a tuning fork: providing a soothing, steady pitch that they can hear over the chaos and, over time, get in tune with.

My consistency also helps. I work very hard to be consistent, reliable, and disciplined. If we meet at 10:00 a.m. on Mondays, I’m going to be there every Monday at 10:00. I do what I say I’m going to do. I have a goal and a plan for each visit.

I try to stay out of power struggles and not get pulled into the day-to-day crises. I’ve also worked to develop competencies and skills—which has increased my confidence and comfort in what I do. I trust my skills now.

Learning Is Central
It’s not that I won’t make mistakes, but I’ll learn from them. In fact, the more I learn, the more I want to learn! I can’t get enough information and training: I just want to soak it all in. Once I opened myself up to questioning myself and my work, it unlocked a whole world of learning. Once you have the curiosity and the competency, then really exciting things start to happen. You really can have fun. It becomes an art, not just a job.

Of course, this is what our best foster parents do all the time. They open up their homes, their families, and their hearts. They take a journey that involves questioning, learning, and finding connections. They become the steady, calming presence in the lives of children and birth parents. They don’t get pulled into the chaos or the provocations that families might create when they’re in pain. Instead, foster parents try to build on the commonalities, like love for a child and the desire for a better life.

Some birth parents may not initially know how to create that better life, and they may even resist trying. This can cause incredible frustration and resentment for social workers and foster parents, who are so eager for change. But with time, patience, and a steady, supportive presence in their life, parents will surprise you again and again at what they can accomplish.

I Love My Work
It’s hard to believe I’ve been a social worker for 41 years. I’ve seen so many things change in the field, and in myself. Through it all, I still have fun. I love my work. I learn new things about myself and about the world every single day. I see parents take responsibility and, little by little, put their families back together.

In the end, what could be better than that?

Bonnie Ferrell is a social worker with Orange County DSS.

Copyright 2009 Jordan Institute for Families