Saturday, January 5, 2013

Review: Unfaithful Angels - How Social Work Has Abandoned its Mission (1994)

Unfaithful Angels: How Social Work Has Abandoned its Mission (1994), by Harry Specht and Mark E. Courtney, is a critique of the evolution and status of the social work profession in the United States up to the last decade of the twentieth century. The authors contended that social workers have largely abandoned the original tenets of Jane Addams and Mary Richmond, early pioneers of societal improvement through community organization and social case work, respectively. Social workers today are primarily trained to use a psychotherapeutic or psychoanalytic approach to help build individual's sense of self-esteem. This type of training neglects the increasingly vulnerable underclass and the macro dimension (community capacity building and policy advocacy). Since most social workers aspire to establish private practices, their clientele is largely middle-class because work in the public social services is daunting, underpaid, and under-appreciated by policymakers and the general public.


As a result, Specht and Courtney argue that this trend has betrayed the original mission of social work, which was primarily to direct those in need to appropriate resources. Students are entering social work to become clinical private practitioners in order to make money and become their own boss.  Furthermore, clinical social workers offer individualized treatment that resembles the therapy of psychologists and psychotherapists. This is a mistake for two reasons: 1) the authors believe that society's problems are caused by the social isolation of modern life (fewer people participate in civic associations and live close to their family), and 2) it is the job of psychptherapists to help people with emotional and mental problems. Social workers should return to their original mission by connecting people with resources and supporting sustainable communities. I provide the preamble to the NASW Code of Ethics (2008) below:

The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well­being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. A historic and defining feature of social work is the profession’s focus on individual well­being in a social context and the well­being of society. Fundamental to social work is attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address problems in living.

Based on the preamble above, Specht and Courtney argue that social workers should stay true to their original mission--improving the welfare of families and empowering communities to achieve economic and social justice. Social workers should spend less time fighting for clinical licensure protection and third-party reimbursements. Instead, social workers should focus instead on promoting policies and services that enhance social participation and community well-being. In other words, social workers should work on addressing the environmental conditions that hinders their clients' well-being (e.g., lack of jobs, inadequate transportation or child care arrangements, etc.) rather than looking for irrelevant psychological treatments.

Recommendations included public policy and fiscal support at federal, state, and county levels to redirect the social work profession toward a community-oriented social care system in every neighborhood. Although their guidelines are vague and impractical (everything ties back to funding, and governments are notoriously conservative when it comes to allocating funds for the poor), they believe this will ensure a healthier society for all. While some readers may not agree with the authors' views, it is timely and relevant because social work has drifted too far from its original mission of providing resources for the oppressed and marginalized. The arguments and proposals of these two educators in the field will be of much interest to academics, professionals, social welfare students, and other readers who are searching for antipoverty frameworks..


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