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In the Field and in the Boardrooms: The Diverse and Demanding Role of the Social Workers

According to Beverly Clarke, social workers have a vital role to play in advocating for change and shaping social policy for the benefit of all.

It's a spectacular spring day in St. John's, and brilliant light pours into the airy, elegant office of Beverley Clarke BSW'81. As chief executive officer of Health and Community Services, St. John's region, Beverley is a busy woman. As she holds forth about the diverse and stressful job of social workers, she is never less than polite and gracious. But it's clear that her time is tightly slotted. Her responses are articulate and to the point, and you are instantly struck by her professionalism and a certain let's-get-on-with-it manner.

Beverley has been in management for many years, and her background in social work lends her views on the profession a credibility other executives might lack. She worked in the addictions area, both on the front lines, as the expression goes, and at the management level. She acknowledges that, despite an expanded role and broader range of responsibilities today, social workers still live with a stereotype that is more incomplete than inaccurate.

"One perception is that they deal with people who are povertystricken and help provide them with income support. And that they take people's children away when people don't look after their kids properly."

That may be simplistic, but Beverley says the traditional job of social workers remains, in many ways, its most important one. "That direct clinical service, which can be many things depending on the situation people are in, is about being able to provide support to people when they're in very vulnerable situations, often when it concerns issues of parenting. It's that initial assessment of, and then support to, individuals who are vulnerable in our society. To me, that is the role of social work, but that can encompass many things."

Contacted by telephone in late March at her St. John's office, Ellen Oliver BSW'77, had just returned from a national conference of the Canadian Association of Social Workers, of which she is president. She's eager to talk about the leadership capabilities of people in her profession, and knows all too well their struggle for understanding and respect. Ellen is now teaching at Memorial's School of Social Work. She agrees that the public continues to associate social workers with child welfare work and aid to social assistance claimants.

"They don't associate us with, for example, doing counselling, with providing services in workplaces where people need stress management, and they certainly don't think about social workers as people who would be managers or take on positions of responsibility in that way," Ellen says. "We work in community development, we work at the policy level, and we've always done that."

Beverley Clarke echoes that view. She says the public is almost completely in the dark about the level of advocacy social workers undertake on behalf of clients—not only ensuring they get the services available to them, but advocating to others (including up through their own system) when clients need additional support.

"Helping to shape policy—whether it's in your own program area or looking at the larger societal reasons for poverty or child abuse—is very much part of the broad scope of modern social work," Beverley adds.

Ellen thinks social workers are better equipped now to deal with that challenging range of duties. Social workers must have a bachelor's degree in social work to practice in Newfoundland and Labrador. Memorial graduates about 50 BSW recipients a year, and more are entering the master's program. (There are close to a thousand social workers registered in the province.) Ellen points out that social workers can take advantage of a number of continuing education programs at the university. (In fact, social workers must clock 20 hours of professional development work a year to keep their registration.) "The continuing education program offers workshops and seminars several times a year for people to try and upgrade, once you've got your degree and you want to keep up to date," Ellen says.

The course content changes annually, but offerings include workshops on social work ethics and solution-focused therapy, an approach to working with families and individuals, and seminars on dealing with volatile and vulnerable clients. Beverley lauds the profession's insistence on continuous upgrading of skills—and the university's role in furthering professional development. She'd like to see more collaboration between the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Social Workers and Memorial on programs offered, especially in the area of community development.

"I think it's important that the School of Social Work be current in terms of the areas of training that we need in social work," Beverley says.

If the issues social workers confront now are more complicated and time-consuming, Ellen suggests that's all the more reason for the public to recognize the commitment and leadership of these professionals — whether it's focused at the grassroots level or at the leadership of health care organizations.

"The reason that we exist is to try and change social conditions so that social problems are less of an influence on people," she says. "Having some recognition of that would be helpful, to see us as partners in making change happen at a societal level."