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Archive for February, 2011

In the past week, I’ve been busy with social workers – not because I needed one but because they needed me, or more precisely, some publicity about the fact that we need more of them.

Social workers are involved in a vast range of occupations and activities, as advocates and agents of social change, as well as providing immediate aid to vulnerable people and those in crisis.

Lately, with the Queensland floods and now the devastating earthquake in New Zealand, there has been even greater demand for their skills and knowledge.

If you are unaware of the vital role they play, consider their role in the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in 2009.  Social workers at the Alfred Hospital, which was the chief trauma hospital for victims, provided initial crisis management, a 24-hour on-call response and psychological “first aid”, including comprehensive trauma psycho-social assessment, counselling, education and information, practical assistance, advocacy and liaison with external agencies.

In fact the model of case management that developed from the bushfire response generally was endorsed last week at the University of Melbourne Social Work Department’s 70th anniversary Colloquium by Victoria’s new Community Services Minister, Mary Wooldridge.

Speaking for the first time in her new role, Ms Wooldridge said, “One of the experiences out of the bushfires was the model of case management, where instead of families trying to access the complexity of government and community-run services, … the family is put at the centre, with a partner to help navigate the range of services that are needed to deliver the support that they need.”

“I believe that this is an incredible opportunity to take that example in a managed small way and expand it to the range of government services and community based services that are offered,” she said.

Yet social workers are facing a crisis of their own. There aren’t enough of them, and it’s hard to attract them and keep them.

A roundtable of experts at the Colloquium concluded that some of the problems relate to the fact that there is not enough awareness of the positives of a career in social work.

Most of the publicity the profession receives centres around the harrowed child-protection worker. Yet, child protection is just one of the many and varied roles that social workers play in society.

The presentations at the Colloquium were a case in point. Social workers help indigenous people in remote areas, they work in city hospitals with people with cancer, they work in schools all over the country, they work in prisons, they work in hospitals and aged-care centres and they work as advocates for those coming to Australia for refuge and asylum. Now they even work in major law firms, in recognition of the fact that problems need to be addressed holistically, not just legally.

Diversity, challenge and reward were consistent themes at the Colloquium, which celebrated the leading role the Department has played over the past 70 years in educating social workers, as well as in research and policy.   As the convenors said in their welcome: “Social workers, with skills in listening, organisational change and advocacy, play a key role in modern democracy, whether at the most junior new graduate level or in senior management or policy positions.”

Traditionally, social work has been dominated by women and as such has provided extraordinary leadership opportunities. The alumni at the Department of Social Work at Melbourne University includes a long list of women with distinguished careers, including Emeritus Professor Dorothy Scott OAM, who taught at the School of Social work at the University of Melbourne for 20 years, and who was the Foundation Chair of Child Protection and the inaugural Director of the Australian Centre for Child Protection at the University of South Australia until her retirement in 2010.

Also attending the Colloquium was Margaret McGregor, the founding director of the first family counselling agency, Southern Family Life, now known as Family Life and which serves families in the City of Port Philip, Kingston, Glen Eira, Bayside and the Mornington Peninsula.

Margaret McGregor also implemented the first foster grandparents’ scheme in Australia, called Extended Families, after seeing one during a study tour of the United States. She then took over Yooralla in Balwyn, changing it from a medical model to a child-care model that gave much more autonomy to clients – an early attempt at de-institutionalisation. But not without a fight.  To achieve it she had to resign and take her complaint to the Ombudsman. “I got an apology. I was before my time,” she laughed.

These days, social work is also being embraced by men who are strong advocates for social change, such as Kon Karapanagiotidis OAM, lawyer, social worker, teacher and CEO of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

Addressing the delegates at the Colloquium Kon urged social workers not just to make a difference, but to make trouble. “The important message for social workers is that we have power, we have influence and we have status,” he said. “That piece of paper means we need to make trouble.”

It was a powerful message that recognised social workers as agents of change and which was reiterated by the Head of Social work at the university, Marie Connolly, in her closing address.

As professionals, social workers were influential mediators, she said. “We have the power and we have power over resources – and we have considerable autonomy.”

Let’s hope that young people who are considering a career today heed the message. The world they will want to live in may be one that they need to create themselves, and being a social worker – a powerful agent of change – may be just the way to do it.

PS:  Colloquium is a Latin term meaning “meeting for discussion”.

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