Pregnant with Possibility

web-mother-and-daughter

Purpose

In Dr. Weinberg’s dissertation she questioned how practitioners construct what is “ethical” in their work, especially when they are positioned at the intersection of two opposing responsibilities in society: namely, to care but also to control others from being agents of harm to others. She asked:

  • Given that social workers are positioned in society as both agents of care and control, how, if at all, can they practice ethically?
  • What constituted ethics in practice for on-the-ground practitioners?
  • What impact did the institutional settings have on the workers’ understanding of their work and of ethics?

Theoretical Foundations

Utilizing feminist post-structural theoretical concepts, she explored issues of power, knowledge, resistance, surveillance, and paradox.

Method

This was an exploratory study of five front-line, white, middle-class workers whose practice was with young, single, impoverished mothers in both urban and rural settings in Ontario. Four of the five participants were members of agencies recruited through an umbrella organization whose primary focus was social services for young parents. The fifth participant was from an organization with a broader health mandate. Participants did not all have social work degrees but were identified as “social workers” in their respective organizations. They had a range of educational backgrounds from Early Childhood Education to a Masters in Social Work. All had been in the field for a significant length of time, working in multiple settings. They were approximately between 30 and 40 years of age at the point of the interviews. In-depth open-ended interviews occurred over a two-year period with these participants. The number of interviews ranged from five to seven per participant. One worker brought in audio-tapes of two sessions with a client. This material was additional data utilized in analysis.

Key Findings

The Service Users

The young mothers who were the clients were under horrific and at times impossible constraints to be evaluated as “adequate” mothers. Often they were individually pathologized, while the structural problems under which they were operating (such as poverty) were ignored or minimized as essential ingredients in providing ethical practice.

I’m finding women are losing their babies because they’re poor, they don’t have stable housing, they’re in the shelter system themselves.

The Workers

The practitioners in her study were found to be highly self-reflexive. They were conflicted about the power that they wielded. Often they felt quite isolated and perceived their struggles as outside the norm, when in fact this was usually not the case. There were moments when they recognized the pathologizing of their clients.

We are not deciding the interior colour of a car; we’re deciding about people’s ability to parent or not, or the safety of their children.

Paradoxes in Practice

Helping Professionals are caught in a range of paradoxical dilemmas. Those identified included:

  • Being bound by the principles of codes of ethics vs. the institutional pressures that might contradict enacting those very principles.
  • Having more than one client in a “case” with conflicting needs and interests.
  • Needing to be non-judgmental to engage clients vs. needing to make judgments for assessment.
  • Setting societal norms about acceptable behaviour vs. working towards client self-empowerment.
  • Self-disclosure as necessary but dangerous for clients.
  • Acting with consistency vs. responding to the unique needs of individuals in group settings.

in some ways they [clients] don’t really have a choice. They either meet our expectations or we do have the power to be able to say we’re not sure if we can support it [a particular behaviour] within our agency. So you’re trying to encourage somebody … without making them feel as if you… have all this power over them.

Means to Resist

Despite the challenges, the participants found many means of resisting unfair or harmful practices. These strategies included (but were not limited to) the following:

  • Changing perceptions from the dominant perspectives of normalcy and pathology.
  • Recognizing, accepting and utilizing professional privilege for the advantage of clients.
  • Using confrontation, advocacy, activism and solidarity with likeminded individuals to further social transformation and the needs of service users.
  • Limiting one’s use of power.
  • Doing and not telling or engaging in subversive activities.
  • Sharing formal power with service users through education, especially about how the system worked.
  • Consistently finding explanations of “problematic” behaviour that interpreted these behaviours as coping mechanisms and the strengths of service users.
  • Including a political analysis about the underlying context that might be contributing to the difficulties that service users were experiencing.
  • Attempting to reduce the power hierarchy between the worker and client.
  • Coming to the helping relationship with humility and openness.

I guess that’s my little bit of rebellion… she [the client] asked me for them [condoms in a Catholic agency].  There’s no other way she can get them and, bloody hell, she wants them and I can get them for her.

web-from-impossible-to-the-possible

Conclusion

Social conditions need to change and the broader contexts in which practice occurs must be part of the lens with which ethics is viewed.  Dr. Weinberg argued that the traditional treatment of ethics in the social services has failed to provide schemas that adequately address these issues. New analytical tools that would be useful that Dr. Weinberg utilized were: discursive fields, moral distress, preferred and actualized selves, and ethical trespass.

 

Other areas of research:
Ethics in Social Work Practice
Structural Barriers The Impact on Ethics for Social Work Practice