Harm from Helping

I read the headlines of the “sixty’s scoop’ hearing in Ontario and the judge ruling in favour of the plaintiffs and it felt like a win for the journey of reconciliation in child welfare. The headlines soon faded in my stream of Facebook news and posts, and the editorials and articles online were hard to find amongst news of President Trump’s latest antics and the winter storm in Atlantic Canada.

But the news has remained with me. Today, I spent some time reading the articles and googling related discussions; its seems like a victory for the survivors of the colonial child welfare legacy, it seems like recognition of the role of the government and social work in the traumatizing history of the field but it is also a drop in the bucket. There have been discussions of reconciliation in child welfare for the last decade; papers and conferences but really I still feel that there is so much to be done both at the macro level and on the level of individual social workers and the families we work with.

I feel passionate about this. I feel the weight and importance of truth and reconciliation, of the self identity of Canadian aboriginal peoples, of the touchstones of the reconciliation process. As a non aboriginal social worker I have felt drawn to do my part, and try and be part of the change needed in the field and in society in general.

But have also felt overwhelmed. What can I do, as a practising child protection worker? One gets lost in the busyness of day to day work in one’s receptive agency. Although there may be token discussions, teachings, and attempts at alternative interventions, it seems like on the whole, its marginally discussed and never follow through on.

And now, i again ask myself, where do I go from here. How to push my field and my colleagues into a real painful discussion of the realities of our professions’ history and how going forward it needs to be more than court cases and compensation. It has to be a clear understanding of the harm that can come from helping. What we have done, what we continue to do.

Yes, we, social workers have defined our selves as helpers. The helping profession. But as helpers one can do harm, and understanding this, will make us stronger and more open to better service in the future.

This fact or struggle is not new to me. I have felt it before. I worked and studied in the field of international development. I have traveled to learn and work with people in lands and cultures different than my own, and seen the good, bad and ugly there.

The maybe simplistic but nevertheless less true story still always holds true for me. We must beware of the good we try to do and what people really need.

You may think a village needs a well, and you are solving all the problems by giving them one all paid for. But what happens when you leave and the well breaks, and no one there has the skills to fix it, or you never thought of the polluted river as proving other services to people and how by just giving a well you have not addressed any of the other issues people are dealing with.

With development work, there are still ongoing debates on types of aid, development that really work. On the dangers of voluntourism, trying to help out and doing more damage than good.

I feel such a similar struggle here. Social workers are often quick to feel attacked when we try to address the history of our profession and the harmful outcomes of our helping ways.

But we must be able to face this, and engage in discussions with survivors and those healing from the generational trauma of these realities to understand and move on in better ways.

Where do I start? I have asked my self this. I must start with where I am now.

And my journey is shaped by the people I have met and who have changed me and showed me their strength and determination.

Last year, in my temporary role researching child welfare records and helping people understand their individual history with their local child protection agency I worked with an aboriginal man. It was a humbling and profound experience meeting with him in a coffee shop and sharing his painful youth in bits and pieces of facts I had been able to locate, a few dates, names, places, clippings of adoption attempts…
He shared his own journey, trying to now write down some of his past, having finally reached a time in his life where he felt proud, and confident in who he was, going through his own reconciliation journey. This history was necessary for himself, to understand his own past and own child welfare journey, for good or bad it had shaped his life forever. This meeting felt like important work to me. I knew it then and still feel it now. Barely a blip in the busyness of daily child welfare urgency it was real and had pain and hope and childhood all mixed up together. Reconciliation.

I also remember a women I met my first year as a child protection worker. A client, an aboriginal women, a mother struggling with generational trauma, addictions, abuse, so many things but through it all wanting to do right by her daughter and herself. I spoke to her and her partner once or twice over the years, She reconnected with her daughter went back to school, became a social worker with a MSW and works in the field now I believe. Wanting to change and challenge the system from within. Living the pain, seeing the unfairness she still wanted to be a helper, a change maker and do something. I think of her often and feel such strength from her journey.

I do take pride in my own journey to becoming a social worker, my own journey as a listener, facilitator of change and yes hopefully in some ways a helper too. But I try to balance this with the harm individually or collectively we can do and have done. This reconciliation journey needs to remain in the forefront of child welfare work and hopefully this hearing is the beginning.




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