Year after year, Candace Talley demonstrates her dedication to her blossoming career in the social work profession. Her zeal and apparent effort were evidence of her belief in what she was doing. Like many social workers, her style was somewhat idiosyncratic. But she was not boisterous, and her habits were never off-putting and could never have hidden her warmth, honesty, authenticity, openness, courage, hopefulness, humility, or sensitivity.
The 27-year-old social worker’s mission was to fight for social justice while teaching the meaning of self-empowerment to clients.
Then, how did Talley’s news coverage go from articles celebrating her accomplishments to upsetting revelations about a disgraced woman? Her name smeared over the internet for taking advantage of a former client?
In the US News and World Report article, Social Worker Charged With Coercing Client Into Prostitution. The AP provides grim details of Talley’s behavior, describing a situation in which she engaged in despicable actions while receiving 25% of her former client’s money. Her client provided the money, and in exchange, Talley promised to give her client glowing reports at court hearings. It was certainly not the same approach to social work that had earned her such a positive reputation early in her career.
The debate about social work status as a profession is not recent, as far back as 1915. Abraham Flexner asserted that social work was not a true profession. It suggested that the field did not have standards or expectations that were clear enough or rigorous enough to earn that title. Since Flexner’s time, of course, the area has evolved. And the consensus now is that social work is a legitimate profession, with associated expectations of education, licensing, and professional standards.
But at the same time, social work is notorious for creating a division between workers’ credentials and effectiveness. This foolish assumption is that the credentialed worker brings certain wisdom, skill-set. And the level of expertise that a non-credentialed worker does not have. In movies and crime novels, credentials indicate experience and knowledge and immediately earn the character the viewer’s trust. Movies are movies, and certificates could mean zilch when it comes to quality service to clients in the real world.
Better Suited To Treat Clients
Assuming that a “clinical” social worker is better suited to treat clients is tricky; sure, they get paid more, have better offices at times. And impressive letters are printed after their names on their business cards. But this does not guarantee practical skills for working with high-risk populations. Such as communities dealing with gangs and drug addiction.
And when organizations make problematic assumptions about licensed social workers having more talent and skill. (And many do make those assumptions), their opinions set up an emotionally fraught environment filled with jealously, bitterness, and competition. They are turning a workplace into a dysfunctional family.
Irvin Yalom, the author of The Gift of Therapy, says about working with clients. “The object is to target one of the four cells, with the most work centered on cell two. When the client isn’t aware that they have an issue, but others can see the destructiveness of the client blind spot.”
When the client’s perception of life is disorganized, the social worker or mental health provider’s job is to strategize a plan. That will help the client make positive changes; the client’s improved sense of self leads to positive behavioral changes.
But what if the social worker has the same blindness in their cell two. The consequences will be disastrous for the client’s overall mental health when social workers have experienced trauma in their childhood. But refuse to seek treatment or to acknowledge or intellectualize their “issues.” The social worker’s maladaptive behaviors run rampant, causing unnecessary harm to at-risk families.
Ryan J. Foley
An article by Ryan J. Foley entitled Iowa Social Worker Charged with Lying in Child Removal Case outlines how social worker Chelsie Gray demonstrated such poor judgment that she caused terrible harm to her clients. According to Foley, Gray gave false testimony, giving a judge grounds to remove four children from Gray’s client’s home. In court, Gray (who must herself have been under the supervision of someone exhibiting poor judgment) informed the judge that terminating her clients’ parental rights was the only option. “When it comes right down to it, all forms of therapy involve manipulation, power, and control,” writes Bruce Hamstra in his book How Therapists Diagnose. And his assessment also applies to social workers.
Another issue interfering with the quality of service that a social worker provides their clients is their denial of clients’ countertransference. A client’s transference, or expression of linked feelings toward the social worker, is exhausting. It is excepted in the early treatment stages. It’s the social worker’s responsibility to curb and monitor countertransference. The social worker may have issues with his children and may find that he is harsh with a teenage client who is out of proportion to the treatment. It could be a sign of countertransference, and it is the social worker’s responsibility to recognize it and respond professionally.
In another example, an African-American professional may have grown up in a home where higher education was uncommon. That professional might display irritation at what he perceives as a client’s laziness—although that client is making small gains. That professional might be experiencing countertransference and should address his feelings about hard work and education.
Revelations of a Psychoanalyst
In his book Behind the Couch: Revelations of a Psychoanalyst, Herbert Strean writes about a female client he found attractive, invoking mixed feelings. “Realized her long silences had aroused memories of my youth,” he writes, “when attractive young women did not want to have anything to do with me… I would ask a pretty girl to dance only to be turned down. I was trying to cope with my feelings of rejection yet at the same time empathize with [my client’s] fears.”
Stream says every professional needs to ask themselves: “Who does the patient remind? What emotion or wish or fantasy am I bring to this analysis that does not belong. But is present because it is a conflictual part of my life?”
There isn’t a credible screening tool to sift out the Grays and Talleys in the field of social work. Nearly anyone can become a social worker if they know how to read, pass tests, and perform strongly during the interview. Many social workers are very good at their jobs. However, organizations have not always done an excellent job of acknowledging their efforts. So the question becomes: how do we find the people who will do the job the right way. And how do we help them keep doing it even when it is hard?
John Bradshaw writes
In Reclaiming Virtue, John Bradshaw writes, “Self-honesty is an ethical challenge because it involves recognizing and owning our failures, weakness, and wrongdoing, along with the deceptions that make up our false self.” He adds, “In doing so, we will discover that there are also many positive and unrealized parts of ourselves in the shadow. Parts of our true self and our natural talents that we have repressed.”