Paradise Challenged?

Karl Goodison reflects on the challenges faced by social workers in the Caribbean…

Recently I was reflecting on the field of social work and some experiences I have encountered. While pursuing a course in public administration at The University of The West Indies (UWI), I was intrigued by a much-debated topic in an introduction to sociology dealing with the issue of whether or not sociology was a science.

In a scientific situation, one is able to prove certain measurable factors, such as 1+1=2, but social indicators are not as precise because of the many variables in determining social behaviour. It was established, however, that certain social factors would eventually lead to a specific behaviour, for example high unemployment can engender social explosion.

Social work, like a number of other professions, has been invaded by non-practitioners, who tend not to recognise the training needed for the discipline. Journalism, for one, is also affected by a number of talk-show hosts who only seem to have the ‘gift of the gab’.

Likewise, there are many people who see social workers as do-gooders – merely collecting old clothes for distribution to the poor and holding treats at a particular time of the year. The skill involved in motivating and trying to get people to take charge of their lives is not recognised.

After my training in Canada, my first job was as a children’s officer. From the 70s to the present, the main problem has been the breakdown or absence of a stable family relationship. At intake, I was avoided by parents (almost all mothers), as I would not recommend removal from home to government care for some spurious reasons, for example, a child being ‘too bad’. {mospagebreak}

I’ve always felt that if you bring a child into the world, it is your responsibility to struggle with the child’s problems and arrive at an amicable solution. Sending children to government care sometimes gives only a breathing space for a year or two, as ultimately the child will have to return home (although I experienced cases where parents moved and left no forwarding address).

It has been obvious from that time that there will never be enough children’s homes to keep all the children in need of care and protection. The new law to get the country (Jamaica) involved in monitoring the care of children is laudable, but the people guilty of these offences will fill the prisons because a $250,000 fine is astronomical. Many of the guilty parties are in the ‘unemployed’ category and if they work, they earn only just about the minimum wage.

In the inner city, there are many women in their mid-thirties age group who are fondly called ‘glamour grannies’, refusing to be burdened with problems of their offspring.

Recently, I was informed that there is a story going around about three popular entertainers who have sired about 100 children. We have a problem.

Social workers need to be more proactive, get from behind the computers (enough stats), and do real interfacing with the people and problems in the communities so as to bring about changes in values and attitudes.{mospagebreak}

Away from the office, you may encounter some challenging experiences in the field – and I will share a few…

On one occasion after my secondment at Boys’ Town, I was confronted and threatened by four community leaders if I could not prove that the 87 SDC Youth Club questionnaire I was conducting was not sanctioned by the (local) MP.

In the 70s, when I was a youth club leader in Jones Town, four men on bikes visited our meeting on three occasions and demanded our constitution, as the MP was unhappy with our independence.
Then there was the time another expressed amazement at the amount of community support garnered without material endorsement for an SDC home economics project. I was also told by a famous MP that he usually crosses his bridge when he reaches it.

Social workers are seen as complementing the community programmes and not as a threat by some local MPs.

In Canada, there are far more government resources to conduct programmes, so there is little reliance on the private sector.

All in all, social work is a noble profession, with many challenges and chances to work with people for their empowerment.