Earlier this year, UCONN Magazine brought together a distinguished panel of alumni from the School of Social Work to discuss current issues and challenges in the field of social work. The alumni who gathered in the Zachs Community Room in Hartford included Joseph Bisson, vice president of business development, Saint Raphael Healthcare System, New Haven; Robin McHaelen, executive director, True Colors, Hartford; Heidi McIntosh, senior policy advisor, Children’s Bureau, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.; Carlos Rivera, director, Department of Health and Human Services, Hartford; and Patricia Wilcox, vice president of strategic development, Klingberg Family Centers, New Britain. Catherine Havens, associate dean of the School of Social Work, moderated.
What do you see as some of the major challenges for social workers today?
McHaelen: One of the most significant challenges is this concept about doing more with less. The range of responsibilities for social workers continues to grow exponentially, but the number of employees doesn’t grow. Each social worker has to be both a micro and a macro person.
Rivera: As the needs of our environments pull at us and really stretch our resources, it’s more and more difficult for social workers to find good mentors. I was fortunate in that I had certain mentors, but nowadays you’re just thrust into the environment without much support.
McIntosh: There’s been a national decline in caseloads, but I think people confuse caseload with workload. It’s not a one-to-one metric. Whether it’s your state legislature, or even Congress, they want to build a budget according to caseload decline. The struggle of social workers is to put into words the work that needs to be done on cases. People want to assign a dollar amount to the caseloads so that the [budget] dollar declines as the caseload declines. It’s important to have a conversation about workload versus caseload.
Bisson: We’re all involved in health care to an extent, and I think it relates very strongly to the national debate right now regarding health care reform and how you manage some of the issues that are coming down the pike. Where does social work fit into helping manage populations and helping to create accountable care organizations? There are some real national challenges when you’re trying to deal with diminished resources.
Wilcox: The work that social workers do is hard work because you interact with so much pain. Whatever realm the social worker is in, they end up connecting with a lot of difficult experiences. In order to keep people fresh and vibrant in this work, they need time to take care of themselves; they need time to talk to others about what they’re experiencing.
Rivera: Our degree is a multifaceted degree. When you get an M.S.W., people always ask, ‘What exactly are you going to be doing?’ You’re expected to do a little bit of everything. I think that the schools, the academic institutions, are being challenged more and more. They need to be up to the challenge to adequately prepare the students for an ever-changing environment because there’re all types of demands being placed on social workers.
What are some other issues that you think are particular challenges across all your various experiences?
McIntosh: Everything is data-driven now, and I think it’s probably something all of us could relate to. It impacts social workers, but it impacts all of our entities as well. We know that data drives the budget. It drives billions of dollars. But for social workers, trying to translate it [into helping clients] is what we struggle with the most. That’s a significant challenge.
Wilcox: What we have a really hard time with, and it affects social workers, is that some of the people in the world are very badly hurt and can’t be fixed in six-week programs or 12-week programs. We really need a concerted approach over years, and yet that’s pretty hard to come by in our system today.
What role can social workers play in current societal issues such as social justice, health care reform, education, and others?
McHaelen: Social workers can help frame the questions appropriately. We can, at the policy level, help people look at the issues from a human perspective and, in using the construct of social work, help inform the questions that they’re asking. I worked with gay, lesbian, bi- and transsexual youth, and for a long time they were viewed as a monolithic group. We began to discover that not all gay kids are at risk; that a subset of gay kids are the ones that are at risk, and this is where the resources should go. [You] look for ways for the social workers at the higher levels to be able to say, ‘Here’s what the question should be, and here’s how you should be looking at the issue.’
McIntosh: It’s important for our voice to be at the national level [and] at the state level, because it’s important to say that we see it from the ground level, and we need to blend our resources together. Social workers are nimble and flexible where others aren’t, and we have the ability to bring people to the table to really talk about resources, where there are policy gaps, and reframe issues.
Wilcox: I’ve always been proud that social work is one profession that looks at both the internal and the external of a person, looks at their psychological experiences in health, the systems surrounding them, and their social issues, because they’re not separate. [Being] a social worker is very good preparation for being able to see the way the needs link, and work to put [together] the resources in a linked way.
Rivera: Having grown up in Hartford in a family that benefitted from social service programs, you [can] often [be] disconnected from the rest of the world. One of the core responsibilities of a social worker, or it should be, is to help give voice and help folks find their voice. It’s very important for folks in our communities to understand that they have rights too, and that voice needs to be heard. We need to help them find that voice. That’s a critical role.
How do you think your social work education at UConn influenced you?
Rivera: I still remember the first thing my field instructor asked me. He said, “So, tell me about yourself.” And I immediately felt threatened. I said, “This isn’t supposed to be about me. It’s about them.” That has really stuck with me because as a social worker—which I really feel I still am—you have to know yourself. Unless you do a lot of introspection and really consider why you do what you do, it really minimizes your effectiveness. That’s something that I preach to my management team all the time.
Bisson: I was working full time when I got my social work degree. They worked it so I could do my field instruction at my place of employment. I remember that it was tremendously helpful to me, in terms of the work I was doing, that I could apply what I was learning to work.
McIntosh: It was a time of self-reflection, a time for me to really think about what I wanted to do and how I was going to apply what I was learning in the classroom and in my field placement.
Wilcox: You don’t often get a chance to try on a couple of jobs—do one job for a year and then a different job for another year; that really helps you formulate what you’re looking for. If you can try different parts of social work, hopefully your two placements are quite different from each other, [and] you can clarify what kind of job you want.
McHaelen: One of the ways that the School helped me the most and how it influenced me was that they were willing to be really flexible with me. They were supportive and gave me the resources to create my own experience. And out of that fieldwork experience grew the agency that I run. One sort of just grew right out of the other.
What do you think the School of Social Work, through its MSW program, should do to prepare future social workers?
Rivera: I think it’s important for the instructors to connect strongly with the students. It was something that I was passionate about, so taking an individual’s passions and making perhaps some individualized time, bringing more experiential things into the classroom.
Wilcox: Something the School has improved quite a bit since I was here is being flexible with adults who have lives and have to have various adaptations but still want to learn and contribute a lot.
McIntosh: I like that the School has broadened out to get more of a generalist role in the first year and to offer everybody having both micro and macro experiences in the first year.
Bisson: There’s a real connection happening with the people who have graduated from the School and the broader community of social workers who have left the educational setting. My sense is there’s a real outreach to professionals in the field.
Wilcox: I think that partnership idea is very important—having more and more active partnerships with all the agencies of social workers and having people from the practice come in to talk to the students.
What would your advice be to someone who expresses an interest in pursuing social work as a profession?
Wilcox: There’s such a wide variety of things you can do. You can clarify with your field placements and your experience what part of the profession you want to go into.
McHaelen: Social work is a passion as well as a profession. The best social workers don’t do this as a job. They do it as a career and as a passion, something that fills up who we want to be in the world and what we want to be in the world. If you want to take your passion, create something, and work with people to create something in their lives, social work is the place to be able to do that.
Bisson: I would encourage anyone who is going into it to do the real social work first—in my case, it was families—to really have a sense of what the foundation of the practice is before you go into policy or to administration. It helps to understand the scope of what you’re dealing with and what you’re trying to impact on a broader level when you take on greater responsibilities.
McIntosh: From private practice all the way to huge think tanks in Washington, D.C., social work has a huge influence, and you want to dream that you can be that as a social worker. That’s what I think is amazing about our profession.