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Hopelessness and Hope in Human Services

Updated: May 10, 2021

On July 20, 2020, Richard Wexler from the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform wrote an opinion piece published in the York Daily Record. In it, he talked about the mandatory reporting of child abuse, and the systemic racism present in our child welfare system. In the 1980’s one of my roles was to investigate allegations abuse and neglect specifically towards individuals affected by intellectual challenges, and in the fast majority of cases, I found that the issues at hand were reflections of hopelessness stemming from ecological neglect and abuse rather than individual neglect and abuse.

In this ecological model by Ellis and Dietz, called The Pair of Aces, Adverse Childhood Experiences grow in the soil of Adverse Community Environments. A system that only focuses on individual experiences of abuse and neglect cases will be destined to become a supported employment program for well-meaning social workers and administrators, with a pipeline from foster care to prison. In a PsychCentral Blog, Whitney Cummings described a system in which over half the children in foster care will have experienced an arrest, or conviction, or at least an overnight stay in a correctional facility. 90% of children with 5 or more foster placements end up in the correctional system according to the data.

When all we do is focus on Adverse Childhood Experiences in an individualized view, we lose sight of opportunities to prevent future ACE’s. It is in tilling the soil, enriching the roots, addressing the factors which result in marginalization that we can find the ways to do 2 things:

  1. Respond to individual cases with an understanding of the ecological supports necessary to provide a high quality of life.

  2. Collaborate across the boundaries of human services to coordinate supports from educational, justice, welfare, housing, employment and NGO’s in a way that makes us, to use the title of a book by Patricia O’Brien and Martin Sullivan, Allies in Emancipation.

Please note the word choice here – supports, rather than services. When we offer services, those of us who work in the “social service system” have been taught to provide services to people. O’Brien and Sullivan, in their book Allies in Emancipation, write eloquently about the need to provide supports, not services. The authors discuss the slippery slope in which services become coercive, as the funding sources expect compliance reports from the professionals providing services. Compliance is a coercive word, and results in conversations such as “you need to” or “I need you to”, or “I think it’s best if . . .” The emancipation option gives people the power and the responsibility to make their decisions for their lives, once supports are offered to address the soil identified by Ellis and Dietz - Poverty, Discrimination, Community Disruption, Violence, Poor Housing Quality and Affordability, m iof Opportunity, Lack of Economic Mobility, and Lack of Social Capital.

In my work, I have been able to respond to individual cases within an ecological framework of supports to till the soil and enrich the roots of the lives of the people I support. It has required a transdisciplinary, not just an interdisciplinary approach. By transcending the normal barriers different disciplines erect in order to protect their knowledge base, we are able to do away with the titles and trappings of power and ask the simple question “how can we support you?”

By focusing on long term systemic supports for families, rather than short term individualized responses that are often disruptive and destructive to their social fabric, we can empower people to survive and thrive. There have been times, in situations of severe abuse and neglect, where I initiated immediate removal of the child. But more times than not I have found that a non-coercive approach in which I am an ally in the emancipation of people trapped by ecological forces beyond their control is the most effective way to empower people to live their lives and thrive in the ecology of hope.


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