Social Workers’ Use of Moral Entrepreneurship to Enact Professional Ethics in the Field: Case Studies from the Social Justice Profession

Social Workers’ Use of Moral Entrepreneurship to Enact Professional Ethics in the Field: Case... Abstract Social workers must manoeuvre within the challenging landscape of service delivery to achieve better outcomes for clients. We apply the concepts of moral entrepreneurship and street-level bureaucracy to three case studies to illustrate how social workers meet organisational mandates while maintaining personal and professional integrity. Dolores, a child-protective services worker, refuses to separate a family rendered homeless due to intimate partner violence despite the difficulty of finding appropriate housing. The Women’s Community Revitalization Project, a Philadelphia non-profit, works collaboratively with constituents and researchers to leverage power, hold city agencies accountable and garner resources for the low-income communities it serves. Brigit works in a court-affiliated prostitution diversion programme; she is critical of existing social systems and resources that limit her clients’ choices, and strives to deliver non-judgemental and practical assistance while desiring broader change. These case studies demonstrate how social workers can and should utilise discretion to further the interests of clients, to resist structures that undercut these interests when necessary and to act in accordance with their professional ethics. Discretion, moral entrepreneurship, professional ethics, resistance, social work practice, street-level bureaucrats Ethical decision making within the constraints of day-to-day social work practice Drawing on the work of Jerome Wakefield, Carol Swenson (1998) describes an organising value as the ‘defining function or primary purpose of a profession’. Social work’s organising values include social justice, human dignity, and advocacy for and with oppressed people and communities (National Association for Social Workers (NASW), 2008; Canadian Association of Social Workers, 2005; International Federation of Social Workers, 2016; British Association of Social Workers (BASW), 2012). While national and international social work codes of ethics outline the values embraced by the social work profession, it is not always clear how they are to be put into practice. No code provides guidance for every practice situation that may arise, and many of the concepts embodied in the code are themselves contested. Even when an ethical path may seem clear, social workers often lack the resources to act in accordance with their professional conscience. Social work practice is further complicated by the fact that many social workers are ‘nested’ within systems with priorities that are in tension with social work values, such as prisons (Buser, 2015), criminal courts (Leon and Shdaimah, 2012) and social service agencies charged with surveillance, social control and individual responsibilisation (Carey and Foster, 2011; Fronek and Chester, 2016). Social workers’ inability to practise in accordance with their professional and/or personal ethics and values over time may give rise to what has been called ‘moral distress’, which emerges when the gap between ideal practice and what is possible becomes untenable (Weinberg, 2009). Studies from a variety of national contexts report such concerns (Lynch and Forde, 2016). According to Sarah Banks (2012), despite the ubiquity of ethical challenges across national and international contexts and the growing interest in professional ethics, there is a dearth of real-life examples in the literature. Proponents of reflective practice claim that professionals learn best from understanding and analysing their own and others’ experiences in the field (McCoyd and Kerson, 2013; Schön, 1983). Practising social workers regularly make decisions that influence clients’ lives and their ability to achieve their goals. Even when they are not made explicit, ethical stances are implicated in social workers’ decision making. Reflective practice allows social workers to identify and think critically about how different ethical stances inform their work. Lynch and Forde (2016) argue that reflective practice can improve social workers’ management of moral distress by enhancing their ability to change the circumstances that give rise to value conflicts and identify spaces for resistance. Highlighting social workers who utilise discretion in the service of social work values such as social justice, equity and self-determination can help us learn from and celebrate such practice. In this article, we use the concepts of ‘street-level bureaucracy’ and ‘moral entrepreneurship’ as lenses through which to view the challenging landscape of social work practice. In 1980, Michael Lipsky developed the concept of ‘street-level bureaucracy’ to describe front line social service agencies. Street-level bureaucracies are the ‘schools, police and welfare departments, lower courts, legal services offices, and other agencies whose workers interact with and have wide discretion over the dispensation of benefits or the allocation of public sanctions’ (p. xi). These agencies are characterised by insufficient resources, high caseloads, conflicting or impossible top-down mandates and hierarchical supervisory structures (Lipsky, 1980). Public policy is constituted through the interpretations of workers (street-level bureaucrats) acting within the constraints of street-level bureaucracies. Most social workers function as street-level bureaucrats as defined by Lipsky, whether they are cognisant of this role or not. Given that most street-level bureaucrats operate with insufficient resources and conflicting mandates, their ability to practise in accordance with professional ethical standards may be compromised. As Evelyn Brodkin (2012) notes of public service employees, the work of street-level bureaucrats is characterised by ‘the daily struggle … to perform their jobs well and, in the process, to do good for their communities and society’ (p. 941). While extremely constrained by their work in street-level bureaucracies, street-level bureaucrats in fact have high levels of discretion and autonomy vis-á-vis the people they serve (Lipsky, 1980; Brodkin, 2012). The amount and type of discretionary room that is afforded to street-level bureaucrats depends on the agency culture and organisational dynamics (Rutz et al., 2015). Within this discretionary room, street-level bureaucrats have discretion over or on behalf of clients, as well as to interpret for themselves which of several possibly conflicting mandates to pursue (Brodkin, 2012). Ambiguity and contradiction present challenges when street-level bureaucrats are required to carry out policy goals that are ‘contradictory or … cannot be implemented’ into ‘actual front-line policy’ (Kriz and Skivenes, 2014, p. 76). When workers resolve these challenges by exercising discretion, ‘their resulting actions and decisions may be contradictory to the original policy aims’ (Kriz and Skivenes, 2014, p. 71). Since Lipsky’s work was first published, the autonomy of front line workers to utilise discretion has become widely accepted by scholars of social services. While some recent scholarship questions the survival of professional discretion in the neo-liberal welfare state, most scholars believe it remains an integral component of social work practice for direct service providers and managers alike (Evans, 2010). In some cases, discretion prevails as a way to build clients’ trust by acting in their interest. Conversely, some street-level bureaucrats employ discretion to evade responsibility or as a means to prioritise the many limitations on their time and resources (Savi, 2014). The periodic successes that use of discretion affords street-level bureaucrats allows them to retain some of the vision that they hold for their work in human services and ‘promotes workers’ self-regard’ (Lipsky, 1980, p. 15). Discretion is a key aspect of social work practice, as social workers are not only required to apply an established framework and body of knowledge, but also to provide individualised services (van der Aa and van Berkel, 2015). Yeheskel Hasenfeld (2000) has used the term ‘moral entrepreneurship’ to conceptualise how street-level bureaucrats use discretionary power to resist the limiting structures facing clients and communities. Street-level bureaucrats’ moral and value-based understandings of social problems or a client group shape policy implementation within organisations through the decision-making process—a process that can also be informed by the agency values and mission (Maynard-Moody and Musheno, 2003; Müller et al., 2016). For example, street-level bureaucrats may assess a client as ‘deserving’ and, therefore, work harder to advocate for that client or they may allocate ‘blame’ and save scarce resources for clients whom they view with sympathy. Moral entrepreneurship should be given serious attention as an element of policy provision and a space for creating social change. This article extends the moral entrepreneurship literature by applying this concept to case studies that describe how three social workers maximise their ability to meet professional ethical obligations by choosing actions that were informed by, and compatible with, social work values. We purposefully chose quotidian examples or what Banks (2016) calls ‘everyday ethics’ rather than more dramatic ethical dilemmas, as the former are much more common and, often, more difficult for social workers to identify and work through (p. 36). Case studies as a tool for professional reflection Case studies, which provide an in-depth picture of a person, agency, case or phenomenon (Flyvbjerg, 2011; Yin, 1994), have long been important tools for professional education. The situated nature of the case study allows us to examine the interaction of multiple factors (Floersch et al., 2010). Because they convey what life or work or practice is actually like for the people or phenomena that we study (Toulmin, 2001), case studies provide opportunities for professionals to see themselves in the story as it unfolds. Gary Thomas and Kevin Myers note the value of case studies for enabling: … what Flyvbjerg (2001: 132) calls ‘getting close to reality’. By this he means thinking with your own experience and your own intelligence—[which the] case study is particularly good at encouraging, for it … endorses and stimulates a critical, creative approach to problem solving (Thomas and Myers, 2015, p. 8). In this article, we use case studies from three different social work practice settings to describe how social workers utilise discretion as it is theorised by Lipsky and Hasenfeld to further social work values. The social workers described here come from the fields of child welfare, community organising and forensic social work. These case studies are drawn from the first author’s research, for which necessary ethical approval was granted and all participants gave written or verbal informed consent which was obtained in a private setting (Leon and Shdaimah, 2012; Shdaimah, 2009; Shdaimah et al., 2011). All respondents were provided with confidentiality and any names used are pseudonyms. We did not seek identifying information for anonymous clients whose stories were provided by our respondents in order to consent them; extra precautions were taken to protect their anonymity by changing minor details. We do not claim that these examples are either representative or out of the ordinary, nor is this a traditional report of research findings. Instead we provide these case studies of social work practice as a reflective tool to show how social workers can and do use discretion to employ moral entrepreneurship. Child welfare, conflicting agency mandates and doing the right thing Dolores worked at Northeast City’s child-protective services (CPS) for twenty-one years. After holding a wide variety of positions, she moved to a unit specialising in domestic violence-related child welfare cases. When she worked with a housing unit in the past, Northeast City’s Housing Authority (NCHA) set aside housing slots for CPS-involved families. However, Dolores explained that NCHA had cancelled the set-asides and ceased co-operating with CPS. This means that CPS clients must fit into specified criteria. Even families that are eligible are placed on lengthy waitlists, which are incompatible with CPS timelines for family reunification. The difficulty of carrying out her job due to lack of resources, failed coordination among city agencies and mismatch between bureaucratic rules and clients’ needs is a typical burden faced by street-level bureaucrats. Dolores describes how she and her clients are affected by these burdens: Now the problem with that is, all of our clients here at CPS don’t necessarily have drug and alcohol problems or [are] physically disabled or any of those things, so we only meet a very small criteria. We only address a very small amount of people with those particular problems. We need housing when we need housing. When we have families that, especially where I’m in now, I’m in the Domestic Violence Unit at CPS, women who are being completely abused; we need to get them out. We have nowhere for them to go. Many CPS clients face practical dilemmas: choosing between homelessness or domestic violence, food or medicine, working with inappropriate childcare or risking loss of public benefits upon which they depend to meet their basic needs. Her clients’ dilemmas pose personal and professional ethical concerns for Dolores, who often finds herself in conflict with agency policies and practice. For example, Dolores believes that separating families and removing children due to poverty are unjust. She described her work with a twenty-eight-year-old pregnant mother of two who came onto her caseload that morning as an example of her routine frustration: The man literally beat her in the head with a pistol, threw a sheet over her head, tied her neck. The only way she got away was her friends were there, two girlfriends, and they pulled him off of her and she ran. So she came to us. Well, she has two options—we can take her kids and place them and she can sleep on somebody’s couch from place to place, you know, pillar to post as they say, or she can sit all day at the shelter and hope that she gets a place. Although there are shelters that take women with children, there were no immediately available spaces for this family: This woman should have been on bed rest, she should not have even been out. She’s seven months pregnant and has been a high risk pregnancy the whole time. Even when I was down there [sitting] with her, she was having problems; and I’m thinking, ‘Do you need to go to the emergency room?’ She’s like, ‘I might’. Dolores’ moral outrage on behalf of her client fuelled her frustration with the limited tools at her disposal. She sat with the woman all morning, repeatedly calling a housing counsellor, who suggested that the woman shuttle around with her eight-year-old (whom Dolores noted must be pulled out of school for the move) and her toddler. Rather than giving up, Dolores was motivated by the woman’s dire straits and her professional ethical obligations to find her client a secure placement despite the initial refusals she faced: ‘So I went back to the counselor and I said, “This woman needs ... somewhere to go right now.” And it’s like, “I don’t have any place for her to go”.’ If Dolores’s client voluntarily signed her children over to the CPS, she would be forced to exit the family preservation unit, removing her from Dolores’s caseload. This would place her on a track where fewer efforts would be made to keep her family together. It would also likely lead to what has been called ‘concurrent planning’, where efforts to identify an alternative to a children’s current parents are pursued as a dual (potentially conflicting) mandate, even if the primary goal for the family is reunification. Dolores found a placement, describing her client as one of the ‘lucky ones’. Dolores pointed out how limited this luck was; although the family remained together, they were placed at the farthest end of the geographically sprawling Northeast City relative to their existing medical and social support system. When Dolores complained to the housing counsellor, explaining that ‘this girl may even need an ambulance just to get across the street’, he agreed to arrange transportation. While Dolores was grateful and relieved, her moral distress over this client nearly losing her children as well as the less than optimal ‘resolution’ of the case was palpable. Dolores toggles between clients’ individual concerns and the broader factors that impact people’s choices. These include loss of affordable housing to gentrification, low-wage jobs, difficulty finding affordable and appropriate childcare, and transportation. As to her work with this particular client, Dolores indignantly explained her actions in the face of hurdles, closed doors and limited resources in her own bureaucracy and its partner agencies: This woman didn’t do anything to her children; she had a home, she was chased out of the home because of this abusive relationship. She’s petrified of the man, he terrorises the neighborhood. So now you think I should place her children? To me that’s really just penalising her for being abused; so I’m gonna take her kids away? I don’t think so! Dolores’s handling of this case and her understanding of it are grounded in social work values of social justice, the importance of human relationships and advocating for marginalised clients. Dolores’s framing of the situation illustrates how social workers use moral entrepreneurship in exercising discretion within street-level bureaucracies. She resists agency mandates and resource limitations, taking action on behalf of her client and pushing others to do so. Her actions are grounded in social work values and her internalised standards for professional practice. Dolores’s acts of resistance come at a cost: she spends more time on her cases than some of her colleagues, finds herself in conflict with others at the agency and partner agencies, and worries about her inability to do more for clients. On the other hand, Dolores’s enactment of moral entrepreneurship allows her to manage her moral distress and helps her navigate a system in ways that are compatible with her professional ethical standards and values. As Lipsky suggests, periodic successes such as these also allow Dolores to continue to work in child welfare under the difficult constraints her work presents. Organising for change within a limiting political and funding context Philadelphia’s Women’s Community Revitalization Project is committed to social and economic justice for low-income women and their families. We develop housing and neighborhood facilities; provide supportive services; advocate for policy change; and honor leadership, dignity, and equity in our communities (Women’s Community Revitalization Project (WCRP), n.d.). In addition to concrete housing services, leadership development and advocacy are core mission areas. The non-profit organisation was started over twenty years ago by social workers and social workers fill key positions from leadership to community organisers. WCRP sees the health and nurturance of individual women and their families as intertwined with neighbourhood sustainability. In addition to rental housing and other assistance, particularly to women leaving abusive relationships, their projects have included neighbourhood initiatives such as community gardens and anti-violence projects. WCRP’s constituents have very little political power or traditional resources. Their executive director recognises that WCRP can use its organisational credibility and political savvy (that comes, in part, from their training and skills as social workers) to leverage power for their constituents: ‘… if you’re someone who’s kind of in the middle and you’re an ally of people who don’t have privilege, by your association with them, you give up some of your privilege.’ In 2003, WCRP received funding from the Philadelphia-based William Penn Foundation to address home-repair needs of low-income Philadelphia homeowners. Very much in line with WCRP’s belief in sharing control of projects by involving constituents in decision-making processes, the home-repair project involved community members. Initially, WCRP conducted a door-knocking survey to understand residents’ home-repair concerns and what they would like to gain from WCRP’s advocacy efforts. Constituents helped shape the political advocacy strategies and testified before City Council. WCRP read the political environment and understood that they would need research expertise to convince City Council members to modify policies. In a reversal of traditional research–community partner relationships, WCRP hired researchers for the purpose of bringing academic legitimacy to their claims. The executive director told us: ‘I want … powerful pieces of information … to shift policy.’ WCRP sees information gathering as a tool that comes from and should be used for the community. Rather than distancing service provision and policy from research, they use data in the service of political action that brings about change. Although WCRP and its constituents often relied on city-funded programmes, it carefully constructs advocacy activities so as to remain critical outsiders and avoid co-optation—a problem often encountered by non-profits. In the early 2000s, homeownership was touted as a route out of poverty whereby individuals could build assets that would help them enter and remain in the middle class. WCRP sought to expose the hardships that homeownership placed upon low-income families due to old and damaged housing stock. WCRP used the research—rather than allowing the researchers to pursue their own agenda—in two innovative ways to reach this goal. The first was as a political tool: research activities were intended to put agency decision makers and policy makers on notice. Much of the information that WCRP sought was publicly available. Interviews with high level supervisors, programme directors and city councilmember staff sent a message to these actors that WCRP was investigating their responses to home repair, with the intent of disseminating this information in a politically powerful way. In many cases, these decision makers were grateful for WCRP’s research that, in turn, supported expansion of their budgets in economically challenging times. WCRP’s second use of the research was to combine a macro perspective of home repair with a fine-grained spotlight on homeowners’ experiences. WCRP’s researchers analysed data from the American Housing Survey and the US Census Bureau together with qualitative data derived from interviews and ‘walk-throughs’ with homeowners. The walk-throughs exposed disrepair that existed prior to, or as a result of, city interventions. Walk-throughs were also conducted with homeowners to learn about trying to apply for home-repair assistance and the obstacles that they faced at each turn in the process, exposing long waitlists, problems with contractors and challenges establishing eligibility. WCRP’s successful political campaign, waged with other local organisations and agencies, resulted in the addition of millions of dollars to the city budget through the funding of a newly created Housing Trust Fund. One of the chief recipients of funding from this campaign was the Basic Systems Repair Program, the primary home-repair assistance programme for low-income Philadelphia homeowners, often referred to as a ‘homelessness prevention’ programme. The description we draw on here is from research with WCRP social workers with whom the first author worked in the home-repair research collaboration (Shdaimah et al., 2011). Prior experience had taught WCRP that ceding control to researchers might mean the researchers would take over the entire process. One of the WCRP organisers explained how and why WCRP retained power in the researcher–advocate partnership: I think the main reason I feel like it’s in the interest of activists to raise the money and to hire the researcher is because I think the power dynamic can be skewed all too often. And so that balances the power a little bit more. WCRP used research to increase social justice and power for their constituents. Having control over the research meant that they could require the researchers to explain their assumptions, methods and analysis. It also meant that the researchers had to listen to alternatives they raised: [Having power means that we] really can think critically about research design. Knowing that we’re not knowledgeable about a lot of it, but knowing that there are things we are knowledgeable about and that [you have] the responsibility to listen to us because we really do hold you accountable to your scope of services and make sure that that scope of services is one that we’re satisfied with. WCRP’s demand for a fully collaborative approach also required the researchers to consider how the research would be used in the political arena and its direct impact on WCRP’s constituents. Although the WCRP social workers’ attitudes towards research (and researchers) are strategic, they also view collaborations with researchers as a larger investment in long-term relationships, as recommended by the NASW Code of Ethics. The lead organiser believes that relationships are central to all of his work. He tries never to treat people as a means to an end; in choosing working partners, WCRP looks for ‘good communication and a willingness to work through disagreement and differences of viewpoints’ to ensure that ongoing dialogue. Collaboration, relationship building and holding stakeholders accountable can be resource-intensive and risky, particularly in constrained funding climates. Nevertheless, WCRP considers it an ethical imperative to factor power, fairness and sustainability into all of its relationships: with constituents, researchers, political allies and policy makers. Are punishment and rehabilitation compatible with dignity and support? Brigit, who began her social work career in the 1970s, worked in the mental health and court systems for many years. She was part of a group of Baltimore stakeholders who shared the goal of creating an alternative criminal justice response to prostitution. Despite persistence and goodwill, the stakeholder group encountered technical, agency and political hurdles that delayed the programme. Brigit’s emerging role was referred to informally by stakeholders as a ‘traffic cop’, meaning that she would be the lynchpin of the programme. Charged with coordinating services and liaising with stakeholders, Brigit acted as case manager, therapist and diplomat. Brigit embraced her role with a can-do attitude, drawing on her knowledge, connections and diplomatic skills to move the process forward: We were just trying to write up the [court] process. They were very—[chuckle] they were very [cleared throat] adversarial. But, to make a long story short, I just came and I just sat here and I watched the process, and I thought we could do this, and when I found out we had the drug assessors, which I also knew about because … . I had sat on the [mental health court] board for a while … and I had done consultation for the drug court when they developed their case management program … I thought ‘we could do this’. Brigit was initially leery about what became the Specialized Pretrial Diversion Program (SPD), which she adamantly emphasised was not a problem-solving court. She considers problem-solving courts risky for participants and worries about the consequences for those who try but fail. She firmly allies herself with the most vulnerable and advocates for their protection and well-being: The one thing I love about [the programme that emerged]—that’s really important to me, is that it’s a no-penalty opportunity. And that’s what’s right about it. I tell them that [the prostitution diversion programme] is the only thing the court does that I know of that you get an opportunity to do something for yourself and there’s no penalty if you fail. Brigit tries not to be judgemental about her clients’ past or current activities, instead rooting her work in the inherent dignity and value of the person before her. She also prefers not to pry where she does not need to, although she invites participants to share with her as they see fit: And I don’t ask them why they do it. My role as I see it is simply to say ‘ok, things are not going well for you, how can we make it better?’ That’s it. And, I can’t fix everything in their lives. Brigit sees the most important components of her professional role as caring and treating people respectfully. Indeed, this was corroborated in interviews with SPD participants who indicated that the caring exhibited by Brigit and other programme staff make this programme unique. Brigit explains: And I also think that if anybody cares, that it’s enough to make a difference with this population. I don’t think we have to be the greatest geniuses in the world. I think the simple fact that we give hugs for people who want them, and we treat people with respect, and we really do care [laugh] about what happens to them. Although it might sound like Brigit is naïve, her empathy does not preclude hard-nosed realism. Brigit discourages SPD participants who tell her that they will come to visit or that they want to continue to meet with her. She reminds them that they see her because they are in a coercive system with high levels of surveillance: I tell everybody ‘I’m not your therapist,’ I may be a therapist but I’m not your therapist. I say at the end of 90 days, no matter how good I am or how much you like me, or how much I help you, you don’t want to come back to the basement on North Avenue courthouse [laughs]. You don’t want to do that [laughs)]. And I know that, and they look at me like ‘yeah, you’re right I don’t wanna do that’. In her realistic assessment of the SPD, Brigit sees her job as connecting people to the services that they think can improve their situation. Warning clients not to return to the courthouse to see her once they have completed the programme shows that Brigit understands the limitations placed on her in the context of the criminal justice system. Brigit recognises her limited power to change structural barriers and communicates that reality to her clients. In an ideal world, Brigit would prefer not to be nested within the criminal justice system at all: I’d have me a van. And, I’d be at the locations on a regular basis. These ladies most of them, many of them know each other. They offer support to one another. They tell each other about stuff. They come in and tell me ‘I heard about your program’. Brigit dreams of ‘do[ing] what we’re doing’ where people are, rather than having the criminal justice system serve as a gateway to services. Brigit also wants more time to educate agency staff in the community. Because the SPD refers clients to outside services, Brigit’s options are limited. People in the SPD, particularly cisgender women, who make up 89 per cent of the clientele, are often in need of gender-specific, trauma-informed and dual-diagnosis services. In Brigit’s experience, unsuitable programmes may do more harm than good: The other thing I would do is I would really like to have more of an opportunity to get out with staff, more time to work with the programs and see where they’re going with [our clients] … [for example] people in mental health care, I don’t think therapists are paying a bit of attention to the fact that they’re using cocaine. It’s like we all have this little narrow vision. Even after thirty years as a social worker, Brigit is surprised at her clients’ dire poverty and the hurdles to finding legal employment that they face. Despite her official role as an SPD social worker, Brigit understands why people engage in prostitution. She disapproves of punishing people for the sale and purchase of sex unless and until people have viable economic alternatives: And, if you mean beyond, I don’t think we are going to stop prostitution. Ok. That doesn’t seem to be [chuckles] on the agenda anywhere. But I think what we have to do is to reduce the need for it. Yeah, now, if you want to do something about the Johns, that’s fine too, but until we are doing something on the other side, the Johns at least are paying, keeping these people in rent [chuckles] I mean [sighs] And … many [SPD participants] stay [with family], and they are also contributing. So, I don’t want to get rid of the Johns until we have an alternative for the gals and guys. Brigit believes that many people engaged in prostitution do their best to survive and support others who depend on them. Her chief critique is levelled not at her clients, but at the society that limits and constrains their opportunities, in keeping with the social work values of social justice. Discussion and conclusion The features of the case studies presented above are typical of social work settings: limited resources, low-income clients, clients in crisis, competing or impossible mandates (Lipsky, 1980). Dolores, WCRP and Brigit reject the range of options offered to them, seeking alternatives and changes with, and on behalf of, their clients that challenge the systems in/with which they work. They integrate social work and push back against an unjust system. These strategies are what Roni Strier and Orit Breshtling (2016) have described as resistance—a concept with a venerable history in social work that leans on the twin pillars of opposition and verbal or physical action with a venerable history in social work. Dolores, WCRP and Brigit draw on social work values to shape their actions and attitudes. Informed by these values, they identify what is wrong or missing in their fields of practice, and collaborate with clients and constituents to create alternatives where they do not exist. The social workers described above are aware that they serve individuals and communities with unique needs and stories. They remain open to these needs, even when they do not fit into the eligibility categories. Dolores, WCRP and Brigit recognise the injustice of policies that harm the people and communities that they serve. They maintain political awareness to practise resistance on behalf of their clients by using their discretion to push for services or to influence political and agency decision makers rather than blindly following policy and procedure. They remain true to their social work ethical obligations even when their practice arenas limit them. Dolores persistently challenges obstacles placed by her agency and their partners’ limited resources and practice boundaries; WRCP works to build relationships as a strategy to better exercise their power to demand more resources and accountability from city agencies and from researchers (Jarldorn, 2014); Brigit pushes her own role beyond provision of individualised assistance to shape the programme and the stance of partner agencies. She adopts a non-judgemental and empathic stance in contrast to the punitive system in which her programme is nested. All of these case studies, whether in the context of relationships with individual clients, pushing back against agency policies or in larger political systems, show social workers resisting prevailing discourse that unjustly places responsibility upon the shoulders of marginalised people and groups while obscuring systemic factors of oppression. In their resistance, they challenge ‘populist notions of individual life-planning, the personalisation of welfare, and a growing tendency to psychologize human problems or see them in psychological terms and negate their societal basis’ (Gray et al., 2015, p. 270, cited in Beddoe and Kettel, 2016, p. 150). Our case studies illustrate how social workers use moral entrepreneurship on a regular basis to engage in principled resistance in the furtherance of social work values. Translating social justice values into action is hard work. Indeed, one of the virtues of social work is that we attempt to do so, despite the lack of clear guidance in a social context that is fraught with ambiguity and resource constraints. The dilemmas that the social workers profiled here face also highlight the contradictions, inadequacies and unfairness of current policies and systems. These stories can help inform policy makers about how policies play out on the ground and what it is like to work with (or around) them. More importantly, these case studies situate the everyday work and practices of social workers in the messy and difficult places that they exist. Dolores, WCRP and Brigit show how exemplary social workers and social work agencies can and do follow their social work obligations to utilize whatever resources they have to create better opportunities and outcomes for individuals and communities they serve. Acknowledgements The first author wishes to acknowledge Irene Ota and Judith L. M. McCoyd. This manuscript grew out of conversations with them and an invitational presentation as part of the University of Utah’s Social Justice Series: Allies for Equity Lecture. References Banks S. ( 2012) ‘Global ethics for social work? A case-based approach’, in Banks S., Nohr K. (eds), Practising Social Work Ethics around the World , Oxon, Routledge. Banks S. 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( 2015) ‘Fulfilling the promise of professionalism in street-level practice’, in Hupe P., Hill M., Buffat A. (eds), Understanding Street-Level Bureaucracy , Bristol, Policy Press. Weinberg, M. (2009) ‘Moral distress: A missing but relevant concept for ethics in social work', Canadian Social Work Review/Revue canadienne de service social, 26(2), pp. 139–51. Yin R. K. ( 1994) Case Study Research , 2nd edn, Thousand Oaks, Sage Publications. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The British Journal of Social Work Oxford University Press

Social Workers’ Use of Moral Entrepreneurship to Enact Professional Ethics in the Field: Case Studies from the Social Justice Profession

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Oxford University Press
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© The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved.
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0045-3102
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Abstract

Abstract Social workers must manoeuvre within the challenging landscape of service delivery to achieve better outcomes for clients. We apply the concepts of moral entrepreneurship and street-level bureaucracy to three case studies to illustrate how social workers meet organisational mandates while maintaining personal and professional integrity. Dolores, a child-protective services worker, refuses to separate a family rendered homeless due to intimate partner violence despite the difficulty of finding appropriate housing. The Women’s Community Revitalization Project, a Philadelphia non-profit, works collaboratively with constituents and researchers to leverage power, hold city agencies accountable and garner resources for the low-income communities it serves. Brigit works in a court-affiliated prostitution diversion programme; she is critical of existing social systems and resources that limit her clients’ choices, and strives to deliver non-judgemental and practical assistance while desiring broader change. These case studies demonstrate how social workers can and should utilise discretion to further the interests of clients, to resist structures that undercut these interests when necessary and to act in accordance with their professional ethics. Discretion, moral entrepreneurship, professional ethics, resistance, social work practice, street-level bureaucrats Ethical decision making within the constraints of day-to-day social work practice Drawing on the work of Jerome Wakefield, Carol Swenson (1998) describes an organising value as the ‘defining function or primary purpose of a profession’. Social work’s organising values include social justice, human dignity, and advocacy for and with oppressed people and communities (National Association for Social Workers (NASW), 2008; Canadian Association of Social Workers, 2005; International Federation of Social Workers, 2016; British Association of Social Workers (BASW), 2012). While national and international social work codes of ethics outline the values embraced by the social work profession, it is not always clear how they are to be put into practice. No code provides guidance for every practice situation that may arise, and many of the concepts embodied in the code are themselves contested. Even when an ethical path may seem clear, social workers often lack the resources to act in accordance with their professional conscience. Social work practice is further complicated by the fact that many social workers are ‘nested’ within systems with priorities that are in tension with social work values, such as prisons (Buser, 2015), criminal courts (Leon and Shdaimah, 2012) and social service agencies charged with surveillance, social control and individual responsibilisation (Carey and Foster, 2011; Fronek and Chester, 2016). Social workers’ inability to practise in accordance with their professional and/or personal ethics and values over time may give rise to what has been called ‘moral distress’, which emerges when the gap between ideal practice and what is possible becomes untenable (Weinberg, 2009). Studies from a variety of national contexts report such concerns (Lynch and Forde, 2016). According to Sarah Banks (2012), despite the ubiquity of ethical challenges across national and international contexts and the growing interest in professional ethics, there is a dearth of real-life examples in the literature. Proponents of reflective practice claim that professionals learn best from understanding and analysing their own and others’ experiences in the field (McCoyd and Kerson, 2013; Schön, 1983). Practising social workers regularly make decisions that influence clients’ lives and their ability to achieve their goals. Even when they are not made explicit, ethical stances are implicated in social workers’ decision making. Reflective practice allows social workers to identify and think critically about how different ethical stances inform their work. Lynch and Forde (2016) argue that reflective practice can improve social workers’ management of moral distress by enhancing their ability to change the circumstances that give rise to value conflicts and identify spaces for resistance. Highlighting social workers who utilise discretion in the service of social work values such as social justice, equity and self-determination can help us learn from and celebrate such practice. In this article, we use the concepts of ‘street-level bureaucracy’ and ‘moral entrepreneurship’ as lenses through which to view the challenging landscape of social work practice. In 1980, Michael Lipsky developed the concept of ‘street-level bureaucracy’ to describe front line social service agencies. Street-level bureaucracies are the ‘schools, police and welfare departments, lower courts, legal services offices, and other agencies whose workers interact with and have wide discretion over the dispensation of benefits or the allocation of public sanctions’ (p. xi). These agencies are characterised by insufficient resources, high caseloads, conflicting or impossible top-down mandates and hierarchical supervisory structures (Lipsky, 1980). Public policy is constituted through the interpretations of workers (street-level bureaucrats) acting within the constraints of street-level bureaucracies. Most social workers function as street-level bureaucrats as defined by Lipsky, whether they are cognisant of this role or not. Given that most street-level bureaucrats operate with insufficient resources and conflicting mandates, their ability to practise in accordance with professional ethical standards may be compromised. As Evelyn Brodkin (2012) notes of public service employees, the work of street-level bureaucrats is characterised by ‘the daily struggle … to perform their jobs well and, in the process, to do good for their communities and society’ (p. 941). While extremely constrained by their work in street-level bureaucracies, street-level bureaucrats in fact have high levels of discretion and autonomy vis-á-vis the people they serve (Lipsky, 1980; Brodkin, 2012). The amount and type of discretionary room that is afforded to street-level bureaucrats depends on the agency culture and organisational dynamics (Rutz et al., 2015). Within this discretionary room, street-level bureaucrats have discretion over or on behalf of clients, as well as to interpret for themselves which of several possibly conflicting mandates to pursue (Brodkin, 2012). Ambiguity and contradiction present challenges when street-level bureaucrats are required to carry out policy goals that are ‘contradictory or … cannot be implemented’ into ‘actual front-line policy’ (Kriz and Skivenes, 2014, p. 76). When workers resolve these challenges by exercising discretion, ‘their resulting actions and decisions may be contradictory to the original policy aims’ (Kriz and Skivenes, 2014, p. 71). Since Lipsky’s work was first published, the autonomy of front line workers to utilise discretion has become widely accepted by scholars of social services. While some recent scholarship questions the survival of professional discretion in the neo-liberal welfare state, most scholars believe it remains an integral component of social work practice for direct service providers and managers alike (Evans, 2010). In some cases, discretion prevails as a way to build clients’ trust by acting in their interest. Conversely, some street-level bureaucrats employ discretion to evade responsibility or as a means to prioritise the many limitations on their time and resources (Savi, 2014). The periodic successes that use of discretion affords street-level bureaucrats allows them to retain some of the vision that they hold for their work in human services and ‘promotes workers’ self-regard’ (Lipsky, 1980, p. 15). Discretion is a key aspect of social work practice, as social workers are not only required to apply an established framework and body of knowledge, but also to provide individualised services (van der Aa and van Berkel, 2015). Yeheskel Hasenfeld (2000) has used the term ‘moral entrepreneurship’ to conceptualise how street-level bureaucrats use discretionary power to resist the limiting structures facing clients and communities. Street-level bureaucrats’ moral and value-based understandings of social problems or a client group shape policy implementation within organisations through the decision-making process—a process that can also be informed by the agency values and mission (Maynard-Moody and Musheno, 2003; Müller et al., 2016). For example, street-level bureaucrats may assess a client as ‘deserving’ and, therefore, work harder to advocate for that client or they may allocate ‘blame’ and save scarce resources for clients whom they view with sympathy. Moral entrepreneurship should be given serious attention as an element of policy provision and a space for creating social change. This article extends the moral entrepreneurship literature by applying this concept to case studies that describe how three social workers maximise their ability to meet professional ethical obligations by choosing actions that were informed by, and compatible with, social work values. We purposefully chose quotidian examples or what Banks (2016) calls ‘everyday ethics’ rather than more dramatic ethical dilemmas, as the former are much more common and, often, more difficult for social workers to identify and work through (p. 36). Case studies as a tool for professional reflection Case studies, which provide an in-depth picture of a person, agency, case or phenomenon (Flyvbjerg, 2011; Yin, 1994), have long been important tools for professional education. The situated nature of the case study allows us to examine the interaction of multiple factors (Floersch et al., 2010). Because they convey what life or work or practice is actually like for the people or phenomena that we study (Toulmin, 2001), case studies provide opportunities for professionals to see themselves in the story as it unfolds. Gary Thomas and Kevin Myers note the value of case studies for enabling: … what Flyvbjerg (2001: 132) calls ‘getting close to reality’. By this he means thinking with your own experience and your own intelligence—[which the] case study is particularly good at encouraging, for it … endorses and stimulates a critical, creative approach to problem solving (Thomas and Myers, 2015, p. 8). In this article, we use case studies from three different social work practice settings to describe how social workers utilise discretion as it is theorised by Lipsky and Hasenfeld to further social work values. The social workers described here come from the fields of child welfare, community organising and forensic social work. These case studies are drawn from the first author’s research, for which necessary ethical approval was granted and all participants gave written or verbal informed consent which was obtained in a private setting (Leon and Shdaimah, 2012; Shdaimah, 2009; Shdaimah et al., 2011). All respondents were provided with confidentiality and any names used are pseudonyms. We did not seek identifying information for anonymous clients whose stories were provided by our respondents in order to consent them; extra precautions were taken to protect their anonymity by changing minor details. We do not claim that these examples are either representative or out of the ordinary, nor is this a traditional report of research findings. Instead we provide these case studies of social work practice as a reflective tool to show how social workers can and do use discretion to employ moral entrepreneurship. Child welfare, conflicting agency mandates and doing the right thing Dolores worked at Northeast City’s child-protective services (CPS) for twenty-one years. After holding a wide variety of positions, she moved to a unit specialising in domestic violence-related child welfare cases. When she worked with a housing unit in the past, Northeast City’s Housing Authority (NCHA) set aside housing slots for CPS-involved families. However, Dolores explained that NCHA had cancelled the set-asides and ceased co-operating with CPS. This means that CPS clients must fit into specified criteria. Even families that are eligible are placed on lengthy waitlists, which are incompatible with CPS timelines for family reunification. The difficulty of carrying out her job due to lack of resources, failed coordination among city agencies and mismatch between bureaucratic rules and clients’ needs is a typical burden faced by street-level bureaucrats. Dolores describes how she and her clients are affected by these burdens: Now the problem with that is, all of our clients here at CPS don’t necessarily have drug and alcohol problems or [are] physically disabled or any of those things, so we only meet a very small criteria. We only address a very small amount of people with those particular problems. We need housing when we need housing. When we have families that, especially where I’m in now, I’m in the Domestic Violence Unit at CPS, women who are being completely abused; we need to get them out. We have nowhere for them to go. Many CPS clients face practical dilemmas: choosing between homelessness or domestic violence, food or medicine, working with inappropriate childcare or risking loss of public benefits upon which they depend to meet their basic needs. Her clients’ dilemmas pose personal and professional ethical concerns for Dolores, who often finds herself in conflict with agency policies and practice. For example, Dolores believes that separating families and removing children due to poverty are unjust. She described her work with a twenty-eight-year-old pregnant mother of two who came onto her caseload that morning as an example of her routine frustration: The man literally beat her in the head with a pistol, threw a sheet over her head, tied her neck. The only way she got away was her friends were there, two girlfriends, and they pulled him off of her and she ran. So she came to us. Well, she has two options—we can take her kids and place them and she can sleep on somebody’s couch from place to place, you know, pillar to post as they say, or she can sit all day at the shelter and hope that she gets a place. Although there are shelters that take women with children, there were no immediately available spaces for this family: This woman should have been on bed rest, she should not have even been out. She’s seven months pregnant and has been a high risk pregnancy the whole time. Even when I was down there [sitting] with her, she was having problems; and I’m thinking, ‘Do you need to go to the emergency room?’ She’s like, ‘I might’. Dolores’ moral outrage on behalf of her client fuelled her frustration with the limited tools at her disposal. She sat with the woman all morning, repeatedly calling a housing counsellor, who suggested that the woman shuttle around with her eight-year-old (whom Dolores noted must be pulled out of school for the move) and her toddler. Rather than giving up, Dolores was motivated by the woman’s dire straits and her professional ethical obligations to find her client a secure placement despite the initial refusals she faced: ‘So I went back to the counselor and I said, “This woman needs ... somewhere to go right now.” And it’s like, “I don’t have any place for her to go”.’ If Dolores’s client voluntarily signed her children over to the CPS, she would be forced to exit the family preservation unit, removing her from Dolores’s caseload. This would place her on a track where fewer efforts would be made to keep her family together. It would also likely lead to what has been called ‘concurrent planning’, where efforts to identify an alternative to a children’s current parents are pursued as a dual (potentially conflicting) mandate, even if the primary goal for the family is reunification. Dolores found a placement, describing her client as one of the ‘lucky ones’. Dolores pointed out how limited this luck was; although the family remained together, they were placed at the farthest end of the geographically sprawling Northeast City relative to their existing medical and social support system. When Dolores complained to the housing counsellor, explaining that ‘this girl may even need an ambulance just to get across the street’, he agreed to arrange transportation. While Dolores was grateful and relieved, her moral distress over this client nearly losing her children as well as the less than optimal ‘resolution’ of the case was palpable. Dolores toggles between clients’ individual concerns and the broader factors that impact people’s choices. These include loss of affordable housing to gentrification, low-wage jobs, difficulty finding affordable and appropriate childcare, and transportation. As to her work with this particular client, Dolores indignantly explained her actions in the face of hurdles, closed doors and limited resources in her own bureaucracy and its partner agencies: This woman didn’t do anything to her children; she had a home, she was chased out of the home because of this abusive relationship. She’s petrified of the man, he terrorises the neighborhood. So now you think I should place her children? To me that’s really just penalising her for being abused; so I’m gonna take her kids away? I don’t think so! Dolores’s handling of this case and her understanding of it are grounded in social work values of social justice, the importance of human relationships and advocating for marginalised clients. Dolores’s framing of the situation illustrates how social workers use moral entrepreneurship in exercising discretion within street-level bureaucracies. She resists agency mandates and resource limitations, taking action on behalf of her client and pushing others to do so. Her actions are grounded in social work values and her internalised standards for professional practice. Dolores’s acts of resistance come at a cost: she spends more time on her cases than some of her colleagues, finds herself in conflict with others at the agency and partner agencies, and worries about her inability to do more for clients. On the other hand, Dolores’s enactment of moral entrepreneurship allows her to manage her moral distress and helps her navigate a system in ways that are compatible with her professional ethical standards and values. As Lipsky suggests, periodic successes such as these also allow Dolores to continue to work in child welfare under the difficult constraints her work presents. Organising for change within a limiting political and funding context Philadelphia’s Women’s Community Revitalization Project is committed to social and economic justice for low-income women and their families. We develop housing and neighborhood facilities; provide supportive services; advocate for policy change; and honor leadership, dignity, and equity in our communities (Women’s Community Revitalization Project (WCRP), n.d.). In addition to concrete housing services, leadership development and advocacy are core mission areas. The non-profit organisation was started over twenty years ago by social workers and social workers fill key positions from leadership to community organisers. WCRP sees the health and nurturance of individual women and their families as intertwined with neighbourhood sustainability. In addition to rental housing and other assistance, particularly to women leaving abusive relationships, their projects have included neighbourhood initiatives such as community gardens and anti-violence projects. WCRP’s constituents have very little political power or traditional resources. Their executive director recognises that WCRP can use its organisational credibility and political savvy (that comes, in part, from their training and skills as social workers) to leverage power for their constituents: ‘… if you’re someone who’s kind of in the middle and you’re an ally of people who don’t have privilege, by your association with them, you give up some of your privilege.’ In 2003, WCRP received funding from the Philadelphia-based William Penn Foundation to address home-repair needs of low-income Philadelphia homeowners. Very much in line with WCRP’s belief in sharing control of projects by involving constituents in decision-making processes, the home-repair project involved community members. Initially, WCRP conducted a door-knocking survey to understand residents’ home-repair concerns and what they would like to gain from WCRP’s advocacy efforts. Constituents helped shape the political advocacy strategies and testified before City Council. WCRP read the political environment and understood that they would need research expertise to convince City Council members to modify policies. In a reversal of traditional research–community partner relationships, WCRP hired researchers for the purpose of bringing academic legitimacy to their claims. The executive director told us: ‘I want … powerful pieces of information … to shift policy.’ WCRP sees information gathering as a tool that comes from and should be used for the community. Rather than distancing service provision and policy from research, they use data in the service of political action that brings about change. Although WCRP and its constituents often relied on city-funded programmes, it carefully constructs advocacy activities so as to remain critical outsiders and avoid co-optation—a problem often encountered by non-profits. In the early 2000s, homeownership was touted as a route out of poverty whereby individuals could build assets that would help them enter and remain in the middle class. WCRP sought to expose the hardships that homeownership placed upon low-income families due to old and damaged housing stock. WCRP used the research—rather than allowing the researchers to pursue their own agenda—in two innovative ways to reach this goal. The first was as a political tool: research activities were intended to put agency decision makers and policy makers on notice. Much of the information that WCRP sought was publicly available. Interviews with high level supervisors, programme directors and city councilmember staff sent a message to these actors that WCRP was investigating their responses to home repair, with the intent of disseminating this information in a politically powerful way. In many cases, these decision makers were grateful for WCRP’s research that, in turn, supported expansion of their budgets in economically challenging times. WCRP’s second use of the research was to combine a macro perspective of home repair with a fine-grained spotlight on homeowners’ experiences. WCRP’s researchers analysed data from the American Housing Survey and the US Census Bureau together with qualitative data derived from interviews and ‘walk-throughs’ with homeowners. The walk-throughs exposed disrepair that existed prior to, or as a result of, city interventions. Walk-throughs were also conducted with homeowners to learn about trying to apply for home-repair assistance and the obstacles that they faced at each turn in the process, exposing long waitlists, problems with contractors and challenges establishing eligibility. WCRP’s successful political campaign, waged with other local organisations and agencies, resulted in the addition of millions of dollars to the city budget through the funding of a newly created Housing Trust Fund. One of the chief recipients of funding from this campaign was the Basic Systems Repair Program, the primary home-repair assistance programme for low-income Philadelphia homeowners, often referred to as a ‘homelessness prevention’ programme. The description we draw on here is from research with WCRP social workers with whom the first author worked in the home-repair research collaboration (Shdaimah et al., 2011). Prior experience had taught WCRP that ceding control to researchers might mean the researchers would take over the entire process. One of the WCRP organisers explained how and why WCRP retained power in the researcher–advocate partnership: I think the main reason I feel like it’s in the interest of activists to raise the money and to hire the researcher is because I think the power dynamic can be skewed all too often. And so that balances the power a little bit more. WCRP used research to increase social justice and power for their constituents. Having control over the research meant that they could require the researchers to explain their assumptions, methods and analysis. It also meant that the researchers had to listen to alternatives they raised: [Having power means that we] really can think critically about research design. Knowing that we’re not knowledgeable about a lot of it, but knowing that there are things we are knowledgeable about and that [you have] the responsibility to listen to us because we really do hold you accountable to your scope of services and make sure that that scope of services is one that we’re satisfied with. WCRP’s demand for a fully collaborative approach also required the researchers to consider how the research would be used in the political arena and its direct impact on WCRP’s constituents. Although the WCRP social workers’ attitudes towards research (and researchers) are strategic, they also view collaborations with researchers as a larger investment in long-term relationships, as recommended by the NASW Code of Ethics. The lead organiser believes that relationships are central to all of his work. He tries never to treat people as a means to an end; in choosing working partners, WCRP looks for ‘good communication and a willingness to work through disagreement and differences of viewpoints’ to ensure that ongoing dialogue. Collaboration, relationship building and holding stakeholders accountable can be resource-intensive and risky, particularly in constrained funding climates. Nevertheless, WCRP considers it an ethical imperative to factor power, fairness and sustainability into all of its relationships: with constituents, researchers, political allies and policy makers. Are punishment and rehabilitation compatible with dignity and support? Brigit, who began her social work career in the 1970s, worked in the mental health and court systems for many years. She was part of a group of Baltimore stakeholders who shared the goal of creating an alternative criminal justice response to prostitution. Despite persistence and goodwill, the stakeholder group encountered technical, agency and political hurdles that delayed the programme. Brigit’s emerging role was referred to informally by stakeholders as a ‘traffic cop’, meaning that she would be the lynchpin of the programme. Charged with coordinating services and liaising with stakeholders, Brigit acted as case manager, therapist and diplomat. Brigit embraced her role with a can-do attitude, drawing on her knowledge, connections and diplomatic skills to move the process forward: We were just trying to write up the [court] process. They were very—[chuckle] they were very [cleared throat] adversarial. But, to make a long story short, I just came and I just sat here and I watched the process, and I thought we could do this, and when I found out we had the drug assessors, which I also knew about because … . I had sat on the [mental health court] board for a while … and I had done consultation for the drug court when they developed their case management program … I thought ‘we could do this’. Brigit was initially leery about what became the Specialized Pretrial Diversion Program (SPD), which she adamantly emphasised was not a problem-solving court. She considers problem-solving courts risky for participants and worries about the consequences for those who try but fail. She firmly allies herself with the most vulnerable and advocates for their protection and well-being: The one thing I love about [the programme that emerged]—that’s really important to me, is that it’s a no-penalty opportunity. And that’s what’s right about it. I tell them that [the prostitution diversion programme] is the only thing the court does that I know of that you get an opportunity to do something for yourself and there’s no penalty if you fail. Brigit tries not to be judgemental about her clients’ past or current activities, instead rooting her work in the inherent dignity and value of the person before her. She also prefers not to pry where she does not need to, although she invites participants to share with her as they see fit: And I don’t ask them why they do it. My role as I see it is simply to say ‘ok, things are not going well for you, how can we make it better?’ That’s it. And, I can’t fix everything in their lives. Brigit sees the most important components of her professional role as caring and treating people respectfully. Indeed, this was corroborated in interviews with SPD participants who indicated that the caring exhibited by Brigit and other programme staff make this programme unique. Brigit explains: And I also think that if anybody cares, that it’s enough to make a difference with this population. I don’t think we have to be the greatest geniuses in the world. I think the simple fact that we give hugs for people who want them, and we treat people with respect, and we really do care [laugh] about what happens to them. Although it might sound like Brigit is naïve, her empathy does not preclude hard-nosed realism. Brigit discourages SPD participants who tell her that they will come to visit or that they want to continue to meet with her. She reminds them that they see her because they are in a coercive system with high levels of surveillance: I tell everybody ‘I’m not your therapist,’ I may be a therapist but I’m not your therapist. I say at the end of 90 days, no matter how good I am or how much you like me, or how much I help you, you don’t want to come back to the basement on North Avenue courthouse [laughs]. You don’t want to do that [laughs)]. And I know that, and they look at me like ‘yeah, you’re right I don’t wanna do that’. In her realistic assessment of the SPD, Brigit sees her job as connecting people to the services that they think can improve their situation. Warning clients not to return to the courthouse to see her once they have completed the programme shows that Brigit understands the limitations placed on her in the context of the criminal justice system. Brigit recognises her limited power to change structural barriers and communicates that reality to her clients. In an ideal world, Brigit would prefer not to be nested within the criminal justice system at all: I’d have me a van. And, I’d be at the locations on a regular basis. These ladies most of them, many of them know each other. They offer support to one another. They tell each other about stuff. They come in and tell me ‘I heard about your program’. Brigit dreams of ‘do[ing] what we’re doing’ where people are, rather than having the criminal justice system serve as a gateway to services. Brigit also wants more time to educate agency staff in the community. Because the SPD refers clients to outside services, Brigit’s options are limited. People in the SPD, particularly cisgender women, who make up 89 per cent of the clientele, are often in need of gender-specific, trauma-informed and dual-diagnosis services. In Brigit’s experience, unsuitable programmes may do more harm than good: The other thing I would do is I would really like to have more of an opportunity to get out with staff, more time to work with the programs and see where they’re going with [our clients] … [for example] people in mental health care, I don’t think therapists are paying a bit of attention to the fact that they’re using cocaine. It’s like we all have this little narrow vision. Even after thirty years as a social worker, Brigit is surprised at her clients’ dire poverty and the hurdles to finding legal employment that they face. Despite her official role as an SPD social worker, Brigit understands why people engage in prostitution. She disapproves of punishing people for the sale and purchase of sex unless and until people have viable economic alternatives: And, if you mean beyond, I don’t think we are going to stop prostitution. Ok. That doesn’t seem to be [chuckles] on the agenda anywhere. But I think what we have to do is to reduce the need for it. Yeah, now, if you want to do something about the Johns, that’s fine too, but until we are doing something on the other side, the Johns at least are paying, keeping these people in rent [chuckles] I mean [sighs] And … many [SPD participants] stay [with family], and they are also contributing. So, I don’t want to get rid of the Johns until we have an alternative for the gals and guys. Brigit believes that many people engaged in prostitution do their best to survive and support others who depend on them. Her chief critique is levelled not at her clients, but at the society that limits and constrains their opportunities, in keeping with the social work values of social justice. Discussion and conclusion The features of the case studies presented above are typical of social work settings: limited resources, low-income clients, clients in crisis, competing or impossible mandates (Lipsky, 1980). Dolores, WCRP and Brigit reject the range of options offered to them, seeking alternatives and changes with, and on behalf of, their clients that challenge the systems in/with which they work. They integrate social work and push back against an unjust system. These strategies are what Roni Strier and Orit Breshtling (2016) have described as resistance—a concept with a venerable history in social work that leans on the twin pillars of opposition and verbal or physical action with a venerable history in social work. Dolores, WCRP and Brigit draw on social work values to shape their actions and attitudes. Informed by these values, they identify what is wrong or missing in their fields of practice, and collaborate with clients and constituents to create alternatives where they do not exist. The social workers described above are aware that they serve individuals and communities with unique needs and stories. They remain open to these needs, even when they do not fit into the eligibility categories. Dolores, WCRP and Brigit recognise the injustice of policies that harm the people and communities that they serve. They maintain political awareness to practise resistance on behalf of their clients by using their discretion to push for services or to influence political and agency decision makers rather than blindly following policy and procedure. They remain true to their social work ethical obligations even when their practice arenas limit them. Dolores persistently challenges obstacles placed by her agency and their partners’ limited resources and practice boundaries; WRCP works to build relationships as a strategy to better exercise their power to demand more resources and accountability from city agencies and from researchers (Jarldorn, 2014); Brigit pushes her own role beyond provision of individualised assistance to shape the programme and the stance of partner agencies. She adopts a non-judgemental and empathic stance in contrast to the punitive system in which her programme is nested. All of these case studies, whether in the context of relationships with individual clients, pushing back against agency policies or in larger political systems, show social workers resisting prevailing discourse that unjustly places responsibility upon the shoulders of marginalised people and groups while obscuring systemic factors of oppression. In their resistance, they challenge ‘populist notions of individual life-planning, the personalisation of welfare, and a growing tendency to psychologize human problems or see them in psychological terms and negate their societal basis’ (Gray et al., 2015, p. 270, cited in Beddoe and Kettel, 2016, p. 150). Our case studies illustrate how social workers use moral entrepreneurship on a regular basis to engage in principled resistance in the furtherance of social work values. Translating social justice values into action is hard work. Indeed, one of the virtues of social work is that we attempt to do so, despite the lack of clear guidance in a social context that is fraught with ambiguity and resource constraints. The dilemmas that the social workers profiled here face also highlight the contradictions, inadequacies and unfairness of current policies and systems. 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The British Journal of Social WorkOxford University Press

Published: Jan 1, 2018

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