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The Real Poop

Alicia pulled her coat tightly around her as she knocked on the dilapidated townhouse's faded wooden door. She didn't like this part of town, but at least it was daylight, with people passing the house as they walked to the small corner store. Still, she would feel better once she was back in familiar territory. Alicia knocked again, and then a third time.

Suddenly, a boy about eight years old opened the door halfway. "My mom's not home," he whispered, glancing around nervously. Alicia noticed his thin, drawn face, like he hadn't had a good meal in weeks. "She had seen too many kids like him lately," she thought. The only good meal they got was in school. Unfortunately, this boy hadn't been to school in a couple of weeks; that was why she was here.

During the brief conversation that followed, Alicia learned the boy's mother was working two jobs so they could keep their rundown apartment. Alicia thanked the child and returned to her car, driving quickly back to her social work agency's office. "This boy needs help," Alicia said to her officemate Rosie, and shook her head in frustration.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we'd like to announce the winner of our weekly referral sweepstakes. It was a tough rematch, with three of our social workers topping the 3,000 mark for the third week in a row. However, the final tally shows that Susie Socialworker nabbed the top spot with a stunning 3,506 referrals for her five-day work week. That means Susie connected lots of clients with other human services, medical, or job-related professionals who can help these clients resolve personal challenges. Keep in mind that each client can receive more than one referral, depending on their specific needs. Susie receives the latest smartphone appointment app as her prize."

Okay, now back to reality. Can one person realistically make 3,506 client referrals a week? Even if she cuts out eating, sleeping, and playing Candy Crush? Of course not. However, Susie's job, and the jobs of thousands of other social workers throughout the United States, involves making client referrals pretty much every day of the week.

Here's how it works. Putting it simply, social workers help people handle tough situations that may negatively impact the client's quality of life. Examples include a domestic violence victim who needs a support network so she can restructure her life; or perhaps a young mother who wants to get her GED, but who lacks child care resources or a reliable vehicle. Clients often represent the general population, with people of all ages and backgrounds visiting a social worker's office during any given week. One social worker may see young mothers, suddenly unemployed factory workers, wounded veterans, and the elderly walk through her doors.

How does our social worker help these clients? First of all, she listens compassionately to each client's story, assessing their strong points and pinpointing areas where they might need support. Our social worker finds community resources to assist the client in her present situation. These resources might include food stamps, child care, and crisis counseling services. The social worker also develops a plan to help the client improve their long-term quality of life. Finally, the social worker maintains contact with the client, meeting with them periodically and making changes to the plan as needed.

In addition to a social worker's client case load, she might be asked to respond to a crisis situation such as a natural disaster. She would help connect victims to resources that could help them, and arrange for crisis counseling services for victims who needed that support. In the case of a child's abuse-related death, the social worker might be called to coordinate counseling services for other children at that school.

If you're thinking that this social worker structure sounds way too organized to have come along in the last decade or so, you'd be right. (It's like we can read your mind.) In fact, the concept of social work originated in the mid-to-late 19th century. This time period was marked by the end of the Civil War, by industrial expansion, and by a lot of social upheaval (got all that?). Charitable organizations were the real social work pioneers, with governments not becoming involved until the World War I era. The Great Depression brought social workers to the forefront of American society, as clients' needs skyrocketed while the economy tanked. Since then, social workers' roles have been modified as Americans' economic needs and social mores have changed.

You might be wondering where these social workers are employed. Do they hang out in coffee shops with their smartphones, just waiting for client calls to roll in? Do the social workers all congregate in one large office, sort of like telemarketers but with little cubicles for client meetings? No—on both counts. You'll find social workers in settings that include local and state governments, hospitals, schools, substance abuse treatment facilities, and military installations. Some social workers may focus on one type of client, such as a gerontological social worker who works with elderly residents at a nursing home or assisted living facility. Health care social workers, child and family social workers, and mental health social workers also work with defined client groups.

Now let's throw in another type of social worker. A clinical social worker handles all the standard social worker tasks such as performing client assessments and facilitating services as needed. However, a clinical social worker also diagnoses clients' emotional, mental, and behavioral disorders. She also provides therapy for individual clients, couples, families, and small groups.

Question: How can the clinical social worker legally provide all these diagnostic and treatment services? Answer: She has completed a Master's degree in Social Work, a program that includes extensive counseling theory and practice work (more about that later). She frequently works in private practice, often in conjunction with other social workers or health care professionals. Since she works for herself, she is also responsible for administrative functions such as office maintenance, business expenses, insurance company paperwork, and anything else that might fall through the cracks. Finally, if she doesn't take the time to market her consulting practice, she won't have enough clients to pay the bills.

Taking a minute to recap: We've got an idea of the functions a social worker performs and the types of environments in which she works. You might be wondering if your personality could easily mesh with this career path. Well, consider that social workers must be able to relate to all types of people, whether or not they match your demographic or cultural background.

As a social work professional, you must be compassionate as you listen to your clients, but detached enough so you don't get personally involved with their problems (e.g., having a drink with an attractive male client is a really bad idea). You need a good supply of patience so you can cope with your clients' sometimes-slow progress; as well as the snail's pace of insurance company reimbursements.

Finally, here's a dirty little social work secret or two. As a social work professional, you absolutely cannot make judgments about your clients. With that said, you may encounter a client who seems to be milking the social services system for all she's worth. You are convinced she is physically capable of working, and you can find her child care, but she throws up one roadblock after another to stop the employment train from going down the tracks.

You might also face a situation with no optimal solution; this means you might have to choose the lesser of two (or more) evils. Perhaps you work with a child whose mother is a drug addict, and has clearly demonstrated she is unable to care for her daughter. Unfortunately, the child's father is in jail, so she can't go live with him. The girl's grandmother is an alcoholic and a hoarder, so that's not the best option, either. Finally, there's a foster home, which could provide the best solution right now, although you'll need to closely follow the child's progress there. Now you see that there's no easy answer.

After reading all this, you might conclude that you really enjoy helping people, but a social worker career just isn't right for you. You can easily adapt your mindset and helping skills to a rehab or mental health counselor job; or perhaps a health educator or school counselor position within a school system.

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