The Fearless Advocate

by Marc Herstand, MSW, CISW

About a month ago I received a phone call from a member practicing in the greater Milwaukee metropolitan area.  In her position she works with low income mentally ill clients.  As part of her job she helps them find housing.  She reported to me that the location where her agency has asked her to place these clients is very dangerous for her and her clients.  There are numerous gangs in the apartment complex, prostitution, drug dealing and physical attacks.  Her clients have expressed fears about their safety.  She has spoken to the police who cannot understand why they are placing clients in that location.  As a woman she is scared to go out to the site to place and visit her clients.  Her supervisor has insisted that she continue placing clients at this location and that because of staff shortages go out alone on visits.   She has only been on the job three months and could lose her job if she continues complaining.  However to protect her clients, herself and her coworkers she decided, after speaking with me to set up a meeting with the “Big Boss” the Chief Executive Officer of her large agency.  I explained to her the ethical issues if she did nothing and also told her about possible legal help from the national NASW Legal Defense Fund.

 This member exhibits what I am calling the “Fearless Advocate” characteristic of social workers.  Despite risks to her career and job as a social workers she knows it is her duty to protect her clients.  There are numerous examples of this behavior on both a “micro and macro) level in our Association and in the social work profession in general.   The members of the Social Workers Section, led by Chair Nick Smiar, despite intense pressure from the Department of Safety and Professional Services staff, refused to agree to a rule change that they thought would undermine consumer protection and social work licensure.  Unfortunately they were overruled by the Professional Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapist on the Examining Board, who lacked the ‘backbone” of the Section members. The previous Social Workers Section Chair, Eric Alvin, fought against extreme pressure from the Department that could have affected his employment in order to support the profession on several contentious issues.  Our last year’s Distinguished Social Worker Mike Wallace, has repeatedly spoken out at Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare public meetings and to the press about serious problems affecting the welfare of children under the Bureau’s jurisdiction.  Mary Sella and other members of our NASW WI South Central Branch Medicaid Access Task Force has been advocating strongly with the State of Wisconsin, Dane County and two local HMO’s about the extremely poor access to mental health services for Medicaid clients in Dane County.

 At the state office here in Madison we endeavor to be your “fearless advocate” whether it be issues of reimbursement, safety on the job, hiring standards at state and county agencies for social work positions, protection for victims of child sexual abuse, huge college repayment bills or other issues.

 I am very proud of the strong advocacy so many of you conduct all the time on behalf of your clients.  We are society’s “fearless advocates” that is so necessary with all the challenges facing our clients and our communities today.