Wednesday January 2, 2013
Championing the children
Stories by S. INDRAMALAR
Good social work services can turn the tide for troubled families.
SHE has been punched in the head, attacked with a knife and yelled at more times than she could remember, but if Dr Pauline Meemeduma had to do it all again, she’d still choose to be a social worker.
“It can be tough, sometimes. I think it’s one of the toughest jobs. But it’s never boring. I wake up every morning and wonder what’s going to happen next. I don’t regret my decision to become a social worker and I would choose it again in another life because it does make a difference in people’s lives. Families that get good social work services can turn around ... knowing that someone cares for them and is on their side. It makes a difference,” says Meemeduma, 58.
It is this conviction that has driven her in her 37 years as a social worker.
Meemeduma has worked extensively in managing and designing child and family welfare and child protection services not only in Australia but also in the United States, Britain, Singapore, Vietnam, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Malaysia.
She is a consultant for the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) as well as many governments in the Asia Pacific region on child protection and welfare issues.
In Malaysia, Meemeduma has played a crucial role in the development of the national competency standards for social work practice and education, as well as the formulation of the Social Workers Act, which has yet to be tabled in Parliament.
All about children
Born in Scotland, Meemeduma moved to Australia with her family when she was 12. Even at that age, Meemeduma knew that she wanted to work with children.
“As a young girl, I was very aware that many children did not have the life that I had. I had seen children who didn’t have the opportunity to go to school and those who were not fed properly and I wanted to do something ... either in teaching or social work,” she shares.
Meemeduma graduated with a degree in social work from the University of Sydney in 1976. Her first job was at a children’s home for boys run by the Catholic Church in Sydney.
After eight years, Meemeduma won the Winston Churchill fellowship to Britain where she studied the methods employed by homes there to maintain contact between children and their families.
Upon her return to Australia, she continued her work in child protection, particularly with disabled children and those in low income families.
“I was one of the first social workers appointed at the home for boys, and my job was to get the children back with their families. Many of them had been in long-term care and I had to try to get them home and make sure they had their families’ support.
“The answer (in child protective services) isn’t always the removal of children from their home. That’s often a quick and easy answer, but it isn’t something I recommend unless there really is no other avenue. Removal is such a serious decision that can create even more problems in a child’s life later on. The job of a social worker is to come up with protective strategies that don’t require the removal of a child.
“In extreme cases when removal is the only option, the first thing a social worker has to think about is how to get them back with their families,” she says.
“My desire was to work with children but it hasn’t quite worked out the way I envisioned. I actually spend 90% of my time with adults. You realise very quickly in social work that if you cannot help adults and change the way they operate, it will be the children who pay a very high price.
“I’ve seen how a child who is harmed ends up as a very damaged adult. And this damage is very hard to reverse. That is why I work in child protection ... the early years are so critical. We have to make sure that children are loved and nurtured and grow up with a sense of worth,” she says.
Trained to help
Social work practitioners deal with complex situations that require not only empathy and compassion, but also analytical and problem solving skills.
The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) describes social work practice as a profession that “addresses the barriers, inequities and injustices that exist in society. (Social work) responds to crises and emergencies as well as to everyday personal and social problems.”
The nature of problems that social workers are faced with every day has become increasingly challenging making it detrimental for social workers to go into the field untrained, opines Meemeduma.
“All over the world, social work practice has become very complex. It’s not at all what it was like when I started out in 1976 when the main problem I dealt with was alcohol abuse.
“We now have what’s called ‘multiple fields of problems’. In one family, you will have drug and alcohol problems, (criminal) offending problems and child protection problems. And often, because of the drug and alcohol problems, there will also be mental health problems.
“Social workers must have the competencies, the knowledge and the skills for handling these multiple problems in one family situation, irrespective of their speciality (social workers can specialise in child protection, mental health, substance abuse or medical health).
“My job is child protection. I should be paying attention to children, but I spend most of my time trying to figure out the adults who may be offending, have mental illness problems and drug and alcohol problems. Drugs are a big problem in child protection services, making the work a lot more dangerous and complex,” she says.
Professional training prepares practitioners for such complex situations, says Meemeduma.
“Social work is an incredibly skilled professional job. You need training to be able to assess and reason through a case. The reality is people will refuse to talk to you and they will get angry with you, but a skilled social worker must be able to engage people who don’t want help.
“Adults are afraid the social worker will take their children away or break up their family.
“When I am faced with such a situation, I tell the adults, ‘I want your child to remain at home but it is not acceptable that you beat your child or throw them against the wall or not feed them properly’.
“A social worker has to be both outreaching in their care and also assertive in saying that abusive behaviour is simply not acceptable.
“The ability to assess a situation and act appropriately is all part of professional training,” she says.
According to the IFSW, the job of a social worker includes counselling, clinical social work, group work, social pedagogical work as well as family treatment and therapy.
Social workers also help people obtain services and resources in the community. Interventions also include agency administration, community organisation and engaging in social and political action to impact social policy and economic development.
“The end goal of social work practice is to get the individual to function well in their environment. We are not encouraging people to be dependent, but empowering them to take control of their own lives,” says Teoh Ai Hua, president of the Malaysian Assocation of Social Workers.
The lack of training programmes is particularly evident in Asia, observes Meemeduma.
“In many Asian countries, social workers aren’t being trained enough. Governments need to really invest in the competency in social workers so that they have the proper professional skills and the confidence to engage with parents.”
Accrediting good intentions