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Social Work: Compassion and Competence

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Social work is commonly associated with relief-giving, charity, and volunteerism; all of which relating to kindness as a foundation. However, social work goes beyond just kindness. Social work is a profession of not only compassion, but also competence.

Social work started with kindness; with religious people viewing welfare as an act of charity and moral obligation, to people (usually women who belong to the upperclass) who empathized with the poor condition of their fellowmen, and then to the use of scientific methods.

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During the period of the spread of Christianity, social welfare was mostly viewed as dependent to charity work done out of devotion to religious teachings. In the 17th century, the Elizabethan Poor Law was enacted to cater to the able-bodied poor, impotent poor, and the dependent poor in England. After the industrial revolution in the 18th century, “do-gooders” and hospital almoners were recruited to help in the treatment of patients, tend to the poor, and those who struggled with social alienation and homesickness brought by the mass migration from rural areas to cities. Later on, scientific approach to ‘helping’ was introduced with Mary Richmond’s book called Social Diagnosis (1917) pioneering the standardization and professionalization of social work. Settlement houses like the Toynbee Hall and the Hull House in Chicago were established, and environment reforms were pushed to influence social policies, campaign for labor rights, and conduct training programs for social welfare and later on professional social work (Mendoza, 1981).

Social work is a profession involved with problems in social interactions, biopsychosocial and spiritual functioning of an individual, protection of human rights, and in social transformation advocacy (Mendoza, 1981). Through RA 4373, social work is declared as a profession through the Constitution. In addition, the attributes of a profession according to Greenwood (1965) are satisfied by social work. These attributes are: 1) systematic body of theory 2) authority 3) community sanction 4) Code of Ethics and 5) professional culture.

Social work aossimilated its systematic body of knowledge with theories from various disciplines such as psychology, political science, law, and sociology. Most of these disciplines are concerned with human behavior and social environment. Besides theories, social work also includes knowledge on the profession, or the practice knowledge (e.g. legal procedures, laws) and methods in social work (e.g. counselling, casework, community organizing, crisis intervention, narrative therapy).

Authority as an attribute is also satisfied by social work. This authority is recognized both in the client-worker relationship and among other professions. For example, during court hearings wherein the involved or the accused are minors, the judge recognizes the professional authority of social workers by referring his/her actions greatly on the reports and assessment of the assigned social worker. There is also authority that is enabled by the license to practice by passing a board exam administered in the Philippines by the Professional Regulation Commission (PRC).

Social work is also given community sanction through licensure exams and formal degree programs that serve as foundation to standard professional performance. Social workers also have a written Code of Conduct to regulate the behaviors of social workers, prevent malpractice and maintain competence. Along with the Code of Ethics, social workers also share common beliefs, values and language that is embedded as their professional culture.

With these justifications that provide support to the claim that social work is a profession are roles (and required skills) of social workers that are not limited to kindness. One of these roles is conducting assessments. Assessment is a vital process not only in case studies but also in other social work practices such as community organizing. Social workers, with application of their practice and technical skills, process the condition of the client/s by identifying the presenting and underlying problem, analyzing its causes and effects, weighing priority problems or issues, partnering with the client to formulate possible courses of action, and identifying the clients’ strengths.

Another part of being a social worker, in the macro level, is being involved in influencing policies and evaluating programs in relation to its effectivity in championing the protection of human rights not only in the provision of basic services such as access to healthcare but also in other types of human rights (civil, political, economic, social, and cultural). Social workers are also involved in action and outcome research that study strategies and interventions, probing on program aspects which may need reform or discontinuation, and researching on social protection services with the goal of increasing the people’s quality of life without creating a culture of dependency.

With these goals and functions, social workers, therefore, are also engaged in advocacy, activism and mobilization. This kind of social engagement requires critical thinking, research skills, and active participation in social movements.

Kindness alone is not enough to be a social worker because anyone could be kind, but practicing social work warrants more than just kindness. Besides having a degree of passion to serve the people, social workers are also required to be competent with technical skills, knowledge base, and critical thinking applied in the professional social work practice. As much as other professions in medicine, law, engineering, and education, social work also requires mastery of the theories and skills particular to social welfare.

Practicing social work with mere kindness entails the equation of social welfare with charity. Kindness can serve as a head start, a positive motivation to pursue social work, and as a fuel to continue with it. However, it is not enough. A social worker is more than just a relief-giver, or a ‘worker of charity.’ A social worker is instead a partner, a worker and advocate of human rights. A social worker takes part in changing the system that perpetuates the root causes of social injustice in the society and is not limited to just direct services, to band-aid solutions, and to residual approaches.

Social work started with kindness, and continues with kindness. But it does not settle there. To do social work is to work with the head and the heart, with compassion and with competence.

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