Civic Matters

A Catalyst for Community Dialogue

Issue 1, October 2007

Reflections on the Social Worker-Client Relationship

Paula Arboleda

Initially, I was unsure whether exploring the social worker-client relationship necessarily constituted civic engagement. At the same time, I realized that being civically engaged is about direct participation in service-learning activities that promote individual as well as community growth. Civic engagement is the process through which we complement, expand and challenge our academic knowledge base. As social work students, we engage in civically oriented activities and internships so that we may view what we do through a social work framework and form our own professional identity. Civic engagement in this context is a process by which we collaborate with agencies, educational institutions, clients and colleagues.

Hence, I begin a discussion of the social worker-client relationship and the terms in which we engage with a story from my field placement at a social service agency. For two years I have been working with formerly homeless, low-income, single-parent families. Although I enjoy my daily interactions with my clients and the relationships I have built with them, I often struggle with the messages that organizations and other social service delivery systems communicate to clients.

One day my client had an interview outside of Philadelphia. She had to miss her tutoring appointment with me in order to attend the interview. I had asked her to bring verification (a business card) indicating that she had attended the interview. The request made me uncomfortable: I certainly believed that she would go to the interview, but unstated agency policy indicated that such verification was needed. I would not be doing my job and serving my clients if I did not ask for this piece of information. Later that day, as I was waiting for the bus, I ran into this client and asked her about the interview. She told me that she was just coming back and had not found the place. She indicated that she had asked the bus driver and could not locate it. She asked me, “Will I get in trouble?” I did not know what to say. I certainly thought that we would not believe her side of the story. I also felt that her question was telling of how we treated our clients and the messages clients derive from this treatment. We treated her like a child who might be sent to the principal’s office for misbehaving. 

At times the interactions between service delivery systems and clients can feel like a visit to the principal’s office. There is no way the principal (person in authority) is going to believe the child (our clients or any vulnerable person). The power imbalance noted in the anecdote is indicative of what vulnerable and oppressed populations often experience in American institutions — schools, social service agencies, social welfare programs, etc. Oppressed people engage with various institutions and are made to feel exposed, powerless, and disrespected. In many ways, some programs and services intended to “help” vulnerable populations re-victimize the clients they aim to help. Revictimization is the process through which all these institutions legitimize white, heterosexual, male, middle-class values, disregard clients’ experiences and cultures, and expect them to function rationally within systems that don’t represent them. This is reflected in their policies, program structure, treatment of clients and definitions of outcomes. Furthermore, it is a process whereby clients are acculturated to these standards and values and through which client “success” is measured. If, in fact, oppressed populations experience such re-victimization daily, how can social workers negotiate different terms of engagement for their clients? Although I am relatively new to the field of social work, it seems to me that there are vast opportunities to engage clients in dignified and respectful ways and to form relationships that are empowering and mutually transformative. 

First, social workers must recognize that we inhabit positions of power relative to our clients. This power can be used to advocate for our clients and voice their needs within the organization and to other service providers. We must give clients the opportunity to express their needs, wants and struggles. Clients, for the most part, understand the agency’s bottom line, but social workers must be creative so that clients can get the services that they need within the constraints of the agency’s policies.

In addition, every interaction and conversation is an opportunity to engage the clients therapeutically, to learn more about what they have been through and to serve them better. We must understand where clients are coming from in order to understand their current needs. There are situations and relationships in our clients’ lives that continue to affect them. We must acknowledge that this is true and create spaces for clients to talk about them if they wish, both with us and with others in similar situations. All people benefit from working in groups. We must be instrumental in creating opportunities for group work if they don’t already exist at the agency. It is essential that clients form relationships with other clients, because this lessens their isolation and provides opportunities for clients to engage each other and share resources.

Social workers are human beings, and at times we make mistakes, take our frustrations out on clients, and may even treat clients unfairly. We need to be forthcoming about our mistakes and acknowledge them to our clients. We must be willing to be humbled.

Furthermore, agency policies and program structures can oppress the clients we serve. It is important that social workers challenge these policies and work with other staff members and clients in order to change them. Collaboration is key when seeking changes to internal agency policies and procedures.

Lastly, and most importantly, we cannot stay at an agency solely because of our clients. Despite the rewarding relationships we have formed, dissatisfaction with work conditions and agency policies and procedures will inevitably affect our relationships with and treatment of our clients. My field supervisor has told me several times that people leave their jobs psychologically much sooner than they do physically. In doing so, even unconsciously, we under-serve our clients.

To ensure that service delivery systems do not strip clients of dignity and respect, we need to work diligently. It is our responsibility to evaluate our organizations’ practices and policies — and ourselves — continuously in order to improve our performance and empower clients.

“Will I get in trouble?”  This question still resonates with me. I might have been able to work with my client more positively if policies recognized clients’ strengths and not just their weaknesses. We have to challenge agency policies whenever possible (at staff meetings, with management and with each other) and propose ones that are client centered and that see clients as trustworthy, respectful and competent. That alone may not be enough, but it is a good starting point.

Paula Arboleda ’05 earned her A.B. in political science and is currently pursuing a dual degree in social work and law and social policy from Bryn Mawr’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. Her undergraduate work with student leaders on campus and with Spanish-speaking communities in Norristown shaped her decision to become a social worker. She is currently a West Philadelphia resident working with formerly homeless women and their children and has accepted a part-time field coordinator position at the Civic Engagement Office.