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Broken or unsupportive office teams?

2010

I work for a company as a social worker licensing foster parents and placing youth and children with high needs in those homes and helping to maintain them there in good health and with therapeutic growth. We bill ourselves as treatment foster care or therapeutic foster care. I have worked here for two years. Many of the foster parents I work with are good people who may not be "therapeutically inclined" foster parents. They are good people who care but some do not have the skills to live and support and nurture youth with the significant trauma and attachment histories they come with,  so it is my job to support, educate and nurture the parents to address the behaviors and attachment needs for consistency, predictability etc. I am on call 24hours a day 7 days a week. Probably not the best schedule for a young dad or a person in the first years of his career but I am committed to my families and the kids we work with.
 
I "home office" in an office with no other social workers. I can call my supervisor who lives and works 80 miles from me. Or I could call any of the other social workers who work for my office who live farther. I do this sometimes but especially with my supervisor I get feedback and support that to me is not very helpful to the problems I face. He gives me answers to process questions of how to work with a client and a family (a single foster mom who has weak and marginal skills) but the kid doesn't want to move and the team that works with the kid is supporting her decision of self determination. So I come to him for support and he turns it into a licensing question and tells me to write the mom a licensing violation. I am looking for feedback on how to talk to her and what to say to her to help he understand the need to empathize and listen to what kids are saying, you know process stuff, THERAPEUTIC stuff. But his answers are licensing answers.
 
Now we come to staff meetings and I bring up a situation where the child calls me and says she is wanting to re-engage her foster mom and work to communicate with her rather than hibernate and isolate in her room because the foster mom does not empathize or support her in her sadness. I bring this up as a positive change in the therapeutic relationship, a very damaged therapeutic relationship but one we are trying to manage based on the work that the county worker, therapist and myself are trying to do to support this child's self determination and growth as a person. I am sure my office team is concerned with the viability of this foster parent to care for kids, as am I. But in the meeting I am criticized and confronted on the decision I am making to keep the kid in the home. I am told I need to do things differently. I am told I am doing things wrong.
 
I get defensive I feel attacked and jumped on, not respected. I communicate these feelings in the team meeting and they go nowhere. No one says, "Oh we are sorry we made you feel that way." or attended to my feelings at all. My supervisor never checked in with me after the meeting and in fact I called him on my way home because I felt so sick and beat up and tried to get feedback and he said we'd talk about it next week, five days later. So I have to go home with my anger and my resentment and feelings of not being listened to not supported not nurtured but blamed and accused of being unprofessional, wrong, etc.
 
Now nobody here was there but what is killing me that this is a common experience for me in this company. I am a man, a white male. I am the only male except the supervisor and everyone else is a woman. I often feel that when I present a case my feelings about it are not to be presented, or if folks want to give me feedback about what I am doing wrong and what i should change I get defensive.  IT is not that I am against feedback, its just that I don't feel safe receiving it. IT feels so accusatory and combative. I have worked in the field for years and the only times I feel this way is when I feel unsupported.
 
The climate of this team is caustic. I am committed to my families and to the kids I work with, but I am intimidated and frankly scared of my team and my co-workers. I guess I am a crybaby and a ninny. I try to give feedback in supportive and constructive manner into a shaming manner. Why do I feel so shamed? Have others felt this way and how did you deal with it? I try to give feedback to the workers who are so aggressive and they accuse me of being aggressive and I ask them to please tell me when I am because I do not want to be and I don't want to treat them that way but I never hear from them on it.  It feels like they throw the "well you are aggressive and combative too" at me because they don't want to take responsibility for how I feel in these meetings. Maybe I need to man up? Maybe I need to be more professional and strong and emotionally stoic. IT is just not how I am.
 
Any feedback would be helpful.
 
Peter DeLong
...

Peter,
I just want to say that your letter is great and it sounds like you work very hard.  First and foremost I want to say that male or female we can only block out so much, this job is not suppose to be personal but sometimes it overflows into our thoughts and morals. I find, for myself anyway, in this field that although we are suppose to care and be respectful and all that, we sometimes take our stress out on those we work with.  I guess better than taking it home with you but either way I am certain it does not feel nice at all.

 I have seen this where I work also.  I think what it comes down to is that everyone wants to be right, they too want their opinion to matter and this makes it difficult to hear or rather LISTEN to others.  when it comes to dealing with co workers and para-professionals we have skill sets that we sometimes ignore or do not use because that person is not a client, resident etc.  but it is still important to be kind to everyone. You do not come off as a crybaby or ninny to me.... I think you are surrounded by heartless people who maybe are starting to burn out or worst case, have been like this their whole lives! keep up the good work and continue to put yourself out there.  try again to put it out to your team where you are at and be specific about what you are looking for as far as results and the manner in which people deal with each other.  
 
Bekki Durling
Nova Scotia
___
 
Hi Peter, 
I am a 4th year CYC student with only a bit of work experience through my two practicums so please keep this in mind as you read my reply.
 
I have been studying the work of Dr. Gordon Neufeld http://www.gordonneufeld.com/ and wanted to encourage you to seek out some information on him and his theory. The reason I suggest this is that your comments about the foster child who wants to re-engage her foster mom and work to communicate with her. From what I have learned about Dr. Neufeld it is that for maturation to develop there need to be attachments to a caring a adult in the life of a child. There appears to be a level of attachment here with your foster child. It's not clear who it is but I believe that someone is nurturing this child's attachment needs. Additionally, nurturing sadness and allowing space for this feeling is a huge benefit to helping a child mature so something is definitely going right here in my opinion. For this foster child to recognize this is what she needs is truly a wonderful thing!!
 
Maybe in seeking out some information on Dr. Neufeld and your own intuitive sense that this foster child stay with this family can be validated through Neufeld's work and the Neufeld Institute (that if you become a part of can give you the support you need).
 
I wish you all the best and admire your reaching out in here in order to work through some of these difficult things in your professional life.
 
Kind regards,
Julie Clarke
...
 
Hi Peter
 
I have worked in the same kind of position you describe and it is very challenging indeed. Fortunately I had a wonderful team and an adequate supervisor. I have however worked in situations with a team that was relatively toxic and the impact is traumatic and damaging over time. I will pass along a couple pieces of advice given to me by colleagues that I found very useful:
 
1) Don't stay where you are not loved
2) Don't imagine that your commitment to the young people and/or families you work with will sustain you in the face of a hostile work environment. Over time your conflicts with co-workers and supervisor will color your work and it is a heavy burden for the people you work with to be the reason you stay.
3) If you can't leave then build a support network with like minded professionals outside of your workplace (this has been a life saver in my own work). Organize a consulting group or seek outside supervision. 
(I did this and found it very useful)
4) Don't expect that you will suddenly get what you are asking for from your workplace. It has preceded you, very likely in this fashion, and it will go on after you leave.
5) I had two people I respect very much who told me that the best way to survive if your work is a bit outside the cultural norms of your workplace is to keep your work off to the side and out of the team spotlight. Do your work quietly and well. Seek your support elsewhere.
 
Just some thoughts and best wishes
 
Hans Skott-Myhre
...
 
Peter it takes a lot of courage to search for the "truth" and to try to get to the bottom of things especially in social work where "use of self"  and self reflection can contribute so much to our work but at the same time, demands that we look honestly at situations and to seek support when we are unsure, which certainly is a sign of professionalism and a willingness to take responsibility for our part in the construction-conconstruction of our work.  Asking for support and seeking clarification is a sign of health. Just make sure you have your sights pointed in the right direction, ie. from people who can be honest and have integrity, otherwise you will continue to be demoralized. 
 
In my 20+ years of experience I've found that "truth" is subjective and everyone has their own take on it...so the feedback your getting is a reflection of this as well as many other contributing factors that you may never completely understand. I once worked for an agency dedicated to abused women and the Executive Director was abusive to staff, everyone knew it and nothing was ever done, in fact, years after leaving the agency, I talked to people in the community who I never worked with and without my saying a word, shared that they knew about the toxic nature of this work environment.

This person's abusive behaviour was tolerated even though it went against everything we stood for and it  became an acceptable norm and no one wanted to challenge this reality because of course, there would be a consequence. Doesn't that sound like an abusive relationship where fear, intimidation, power and control govern behaviour? Scary isn't it?

 When others fail to reflect the qualities that we so desperately need to help confirm and reflect our search for answers, it is not because you are lacking something...it is because they simply can't give you what you need.  No one's fault...look elsewhere.
 
Only you know what your threshold is Peter, no one else can decide this for you but my suggestion would be to be true to yourself and find supports from outside the agency to help you cope with these challenges and to gain a fresh perspective on the situation. Social work is  hard work and even harder if we feel we are not valued or worse, our intentions misunderstood.

It sounds like you are trying to focus on what's best for the youth and likewise would like to see the rights supports in place to create change and growth.  You are one person, you can only do so much...create a healthy boundary for yourself and seek out supports who value your insights and contributions.
 
All the very best Peter,

Joe Christiaans
BMG
MSW Intern
... 

Hi Peter,
 
I was very sad to hear of your high level of frustration in working with your "team".  It is very hard work to be an effective team member at best and even another added challenge when you are not easily accessible on a daily basis, face to face.  Do you have regularly scheduled meetings?  A time where you can present your cases and work through the short and long term goals?  Your description of the present meetings" sounds like' they are more "reactionary" to situations rather than more responsive, therapeutic planning work times.
 
If in fact you do have regularly scheduled meetings or not, it is important to feel you are being heard and to understand where others are coming from in their thinking.  I work within a multi- discipline team, everyone from Child and Youth workers, social workers, psychologists, teachers, school administrators.  Everyone has their own perception of what is best, believe me!  One of the most important things I have learned to ask others is "Help me understand your thinking."  This approach is not an attack nor judgement but rather an opportunity for you to give another to further explain their thinking process.  After hearing them, then you can paraphrase into your words what you think you have heard.  Nobody can attack your attempts to empathize, empathize, empathize.  It is part of the effective communication process.  After this has been thoroughly processed you can then offer your concerns, questions in response.  This way the judgement and attack is removed.
 
Our team is currently having some team members attend a conference on "Collaborative Problem Solving" by Dr. Ross Greene.  Not sure of the exact conference name but it is being held in Bar Harbour, Maine this month.  He teaches and writes on what we think is a very worthwhile skill set, no matter if you are dealing with a child, youth or team member!!!   His book Lost at school describes this skill set specifically in the school setting but also emphasizes it can adapt to any situation.
 
Lastly, I would like to share another consideration for you on the matter of dealing with your "unheard feelings".  I commend you for looking elsewhere for resource and feedback.  This clearly shows you are a willing spirit to learn from others.  And more importantly, it shows a willing and open spirit to look within.  The greater we know ourselves, the better we can be for others, is my motto. 
 
When feeling attacked, this is your great opportunity to look at what this is about.  When your ideas are not accepted, where does your "fire" come from.  Is this taken as an attack on you personally? professionally?  Why? Do you feel insecure in this area?  Does the other team member possibly feel insecure?  Where is your opportunity to build in confidence?

 Don't fool yourself, these are very difficult questions, not to be answered lightly, I promise.  Our ideas and thoughts will never be acceptable to everyone.  This is a fact of life.  After truly hearing the other person's perspective, your response can come from the place of concern for your client only.  Your personal heart and feelings do not need to be affected.  You can remain more professional and be better for yourself and others.
 
I always try to remember that the presence of conflict is the opportunity for change and growth.  We just have to be the willing spirit from within.
 
Take care.
Jane Lunney
...
 
There are many jobs that people feel no support. I'm sure some of your foster parents have that feeling many times. I could say it is not about you it is about the kids but it seems the kids are running the show. Why are the kids deciding whether they live there or here? Are the decisions they make correct in your mind or are they just comfortable or getting away with things there?
 
Sounds like you need to use the "system" to your advantage instead of complaining the system is broken. All systems are broken if you individualize it. A system is put in place for the general population.
 
Many people in the "system" don't fit it. You have only been at this job for a short time. AND I can tell you care. These are not the issues. Place the issues on a piece of paper and solve them. If you want to be friends with your co-workers than that is an issue and needs a solution. If you want to be respected in your field asking for it is not the solution. Respect is earned. Go out and earn it.
 
Work at your job and get these youth through the toughest part of their life. Give them a future.            
 
When you do that you will feel better about yourself and your job. Maybe you need a mentor program for the parents to help them work with the youth. I cannot tell much from your letter. But I do know telling people they are not good at their job and telling them you can do better only get you more work. 
 
I don't want to give you more things to complain about but it seems that you have now stepped out of the team and want to run the show. Wish you luck.
 
Donna Wilson
...

Hi Peter,
 
You sound very dedicated, committed, and genuine. I hear from you that you love your work and believe that you are making a difference to the people you work with.  Incorporating therapeutic care ideologies for foster families and their kids is a long, often unmeasurable, road.  I applaud you for continuing to fight for these kids and their families.  You are clearly proud of your accomplishments.
 
You also sound very tired.  I can hear your frustration with feeling unsupported in your role as a social worker.  It seems you provide much support and guidance for others with little to no support offered to you.
 
I strongly urge you to seek guidance and support from a solid source; perhaps counselling.   The need to vent and feel validated is a basic human need.  However, often we seek this from those who are unable or unqualified to give it, like our families.  You are needed by so many.  Please take care of yourself so you can continue to give to others.
 
With kindest regards,
Laura.
...
 
Peter
On first read you are in a difficult position. I question the ethics of having someone with your responsibility working 24/7 with only phone support, and the weight you carry.
 
It sounds like anyone would be hired as a Therapeutic Foster Parent if they are good and kind people. Does the agency have a philosophical belief, what training do they receive, and other than you what is their clinical support?
 
I don't think it's about manning up. I don't think you can do the work you want to do with the supports you have. It's a recipe for burn out then we will all lose someone who is dedicated to our field.
 
I have one suggestion that might clarify your job. When I am given an overwhelming responsibility, I focus on specific cases one by one. Is it possible to get weekly supervision with your Supervisor? I would request it happen in a foster home where you can get support for the home's specific needs. Collaborate with the FP, and Supervisor so that goals or plans are not "yours" but the team's with your supervisors stamp. Develop contingency plans that do not require your sole intervention, share the therapeutic responsibility. If you are constantly being second guessed you won't last long.
 
Hope some of this rings true for you. Good luck
 
Peter Hoag
...

Peter,
 
I am an investigator on a child protection team in BC Canada.  I have been working here for 4 years, hired as soon as I graduated with my BA CYC from Malaspina.
 
The team that I am on is very tight and inclusive, I can always count on any of my team members for support any time I need it.  My team leader is a big reason for this support we all give each other, she is amazing.  Her door is always open and she is always there to vent to or consult with, whatever is needed.
 
The office environment (2 other teams share the same space as us) has not always been healthy though; there has been times when there has been bullying, human rights violations, and unethical behaviour.  The most important thing that got us through all the crap was being honest about what was going on.  The worst thing you can do is pretend nothing is happening; that is agreement by silence or tacit agreement (remember law?) and is unhealthy for all involved.  If you are not being heard by your team or your  
supervisor first let them know how you feel in plain language.  Let them know that you would be open to feedback that is constructive to the situation but that you will not be attacked for your decisions.
 
Next if they do not receive your request favourably go to the supervisor and higher if necessary.  The process is important so that you cannot be accused of complaining to get what you want.  If you are not getting what you want from you supervisor he may not be qualified to give that kind of clinical supervision; find out who is in your company and open communication with them.  If your supervisor is intimidated by this let them know why you had to do that.  If they are an employee with any integrity at all they will understand and support you in your decision.
 
If you still are not being heard remember that  no one can make you feel any way ... you choose how you respond to any situation Peter, not those others.  If you are still feeling persecuted for trying to do a good job make a formal complaint through the appropriate channels and possibly the Human Rights Tribunal.  Just a thought  ...
 
Also though, you should not be working 24/7.  We need time off work to be able to do the very emotionally demanding jobs that we do and being on call all the time is too much to ask.  Try to find a solution to that problem like job sharing or something.  If you burn out early from overwork the families and children you are trying to support will be left to fend for themselves as will your own family ... think about it.
 
Cheers,
 
Tanis Wiersma
British Columbia

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