By Steven Olender
At CASA, we don’t have a social work training or licensure requirement to be a volunteer or staff member. Still, the principles of social work inform the work that we do with children and families every single day. While it isn’t necessary to be a social worker, gaining a grounding in some of these principles can help volunteers better advocate for the children on their cases.
A basic tenant of social work is to approach families where they are, valuing their inherent worth and seeing them as full human beings. Without training, it can be difficult to look past behaviors that seem irrational, but it is important to see people in their entirety, including their broader social context. People are complex and understanding all the myriad factors in their lives, instead of jumping to judgment, allows us to find explanations for why people behave the way that they do. In essence, this is the work of a CASA volunteer, to truly get to know a child, their family and their situation, so that they can make informed recommendations in a child’s best interests.
To effectively gain a clear perspective on a child’s context and their needs, another social work principle, that of self-awareness and self-reflection, is critical. Because we work with a wide array of diverse families, it is important to always be on patrol for our own biases. When we understand how our own experiences shape the way we view others, we can approach them from a place of assessment, instead of judgment. Starting where the family is and going from there lets us practice empathy. “Acting with empathy is vital to treating a family with dignity and respect,” says Catherine Jones, CASA’s Volunteer Management & Retention Specialist. “That, in turn, is vital to building rapport, without which we cannot create change for these families.”
Here is some advice from some of the social workers on staff for volunteers without a background in social work.
“As social workers, empowerment is key. As volunteers, we want to save the day, but empowering people is a much more precious gift than just doing things for them.” – Tess Gillespie, LMSW
“Ask yourself what is beyond a parent or child’s poor behavior. You’ve never been in their situation, so you can’t know how you would react. Start where a family is and go from there.” – Michelle Miles, MSSW
“Learn to look at people in a bigger context. Understand that there are large forces at play in a person’s small system.” – Audrey Sherman, LMSW
“You might have training – whether through CASA, Continuing Education, articles or books – so you may believe you know what the child needs. Families don’t necessarily have your training. Meet them where they are currently.” – Rushmi Karim-Paris, MSSW
“Volunteers often come from different backgrounds than the families on our cases. There is a difference between awareness of difference and guilt. It is great that you understand that divide, but feeling guilty about it doesn’t fix the problem. You are doing the work, which is what you can do.” – Catherine Jones, LCSW
March Advocacy 2017