Wednesday January 2, 2013
Accrediting good intentions
ONLY about 10% of Malaysia’s social workers have been professionally trained, according to a national survey conducted by the Malaysian Association of Social Workers (MASW) in 2005.
“Most of our social workers aren’t professionally trained in the field. Many go by instinct, the religious or moral beliefs they grew up with. They do not have theoretical knowledge, nor do they know about the research or professional methods about social work practice,” says United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) project coordinator Elsie Lee.
“We can’t let things go on like this. Social workers face a lot of challenges. We deal with vulnerable groups and need to be trained to handle these cases. Not anyone can do the job which is why we need competency standards to benchmark our service.
When Lee met Dr Pauline Meemeduma at a conference in Kuching, Sarawak in 2004, she seized the opportunity to invite the renowned child protection expert to train Malaysia’s social workers.
Since then, the Australian has been to Malaysia “more times than she can remember” and has gone on to play a crucial role in the country’s Social Worker’s Act (yet to be tabled) as well as the development of the National Social Work Competency Standards.
“One of the things I noticed in Malaysia was that anyone could call themselves a social worker here and this had some negative consequences. Although I was seeing good practice, I was also seeing very unprofessional practice.
“There is a lot of goodwill among the social workers and many who are desperate for professional training ... people who want to make a difference but lack te direction.
“So, I got involved in the development of the competency standards while also conducting child protection training to bring workers up to speed on the new approaches to child protection, particularly how they reason through a practice and arrive at decisions,” relates Meemeduma.
The Social Workers Act, which will require social workers to hold at least a basic degree in social work, is currently in the consultation stages (the committee is briefing the individual state governments on the Act) and MASW is hopeful that it will be implemented this year.
“There was some resistance to the Act initially. Many of our social workers are untrained but have been in the field for many years. They were concerned that once the Act came into place, they would no longer be able to practice. But our aim is not to edge anyone out.
“We will, of course, consider their years of experience as well as their work and figure out how to bring them into the service.
“But at the very least, they will have to go through a diploma course,” says MASW president Teoh Ai Hua.
At present, five Malaysian universities offer first degree programs in social work. MASW is in discussion with several private colleges on establishing accredited diploma level programmes within the year.
Train to change
In Malaysia, social workers aren’t generally perceived as professionals but rather “people who do volunteer work”. With the mandatory training requirement for social workers, MASW hopes to change public perception by first transforming the practice.
“People think that as long as you have a kind heart, you can be a social worker. But you need much more than a good heart or passion. That is why MASW is such a strong advocate for training. We need to improve the professionalism of our social workers.
“We need to ensure that the public has access to competent service. Only then will they have confidence in social workers and regard the service as a profession,” says Amy Bala, 64, a social worker of close to 40 years.
The former assistant director of the Welfare Department adds that apart from the lack of training, an acute shortage of qualified social workers has prevented the profession from playing its role in society. An on-going survey by MASW reveals the welfare department to be seriously overburdened with their case load.
“Based on our results so far, it is clear that the department can’t cope with the workload. We are talking of a ratio of one officer to 300 cases or so. Sometimes, they don’t even have time to see the client or to follow through. They just don’t have enough people. Competency is one issue, but capacity is another,” says Amy, who is presently the MASW treasurer.
Another area of concern, particularly for non-governmental organisations that employ the services of social workers, is funding.
“One of the points brought up by NGOs in relation to the competency standards was funding. How will they afford to not only send their workers for training but also pay graduate-level salaries for professional social workers once the Act comes into play,” says Teoh.
The process of change will take time, he acquiesces. But the introduction of competency standards and the implementation of the Social Workers Act is a good a place as any to start.
“It will take years. But at least we have a structure in place for the development of the profession and its services,” he says.
Championing the children