Social workers and Catholic Social Teaching

For 12 years, I had the privilege of working as a pediatric oncology social worker. In this job I accompanied children and parents as they learned of the devastating and life-threatening illness of cancer and its effects on the entire family. The child and I would sort through all the myriad of emotions that went along with having cancer. I went to schools to teach students and faculty about how cancer would affect one of their classmates. I sat with children in intensive care units and was present at the deaths of more children than I want to remember. I counseled bereaved parents and helped them to see the strength they already had inside of themselves to survive the worst loss.

It was a tremendous social work job for I was graced to know so many wonderful children and families who made me stronger and more appreciative of life and life’s blessings.

One time I introduced myself to a family as the social worker and the teenager said to me, “But I don’t do drugs!” Another time the parent growled at me, “You are not going to take my child away.” And one time when the pediatric oncologist told the mother of a beautiful 2-year-old girl that I was the social worker, the mother said, “I don’t think I want him here. If he is here, you are telling me bad news.”

March is National Social Work Month. It’s a time to recognize social workers and the many differences they make in people’s lives. Social workers perform various roles. They are in hospitals and help with discharge planning. They toil for the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (formerly known as DYFS) and help families in the trauma of sexual and emotional abuse or neglect. They work in schools, counseling both students and families. They help victims of domestic abuse and even abusers. They are front line trauma crisis responders. They work with addicts to overcome their addictions to face healthier lives. They provide private mental health counseling at a much lower rate than psychologists or psychiatrists.

It’s one of the reasons I went to school for my master’s degree in social work – that I could select any variety of jobs available to me.

Social workers are bound by a code of six clearly defined ethical principles, four of which mirror Catholic Social Teaching. The first ethical principle is social workers’ primary goal is to help people in need and to address social problems. This has the value of service. Social workers are called to help those who struggle just to survive in our increasingly selfish and secular society.

The second is social workers challenge social injustice. This is analogous to the Catholic Social Teachings of “community and common good” and “option for the poor and vulnerable.” Social workers are called to work with and on behalf of the vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people. This second ethical principle calls social workers to focus on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination and other forms of social injustice.

The third ethical principle is social workers respect the inherent dignity and worth of the person. Catholic Social Teaching proclaims that human life is sacred and the dignity of the person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. This teaching is the foundation of the other Catholic principles. For me, this ethical principle applies to all human life, from the vulnerable unborn baby to the dying aged person and everyone else in between. Life is sacred and no one has the right to take away human life. The lives of immigrants and refugees, the lives of those on death row, the lives of the marginalized, the gay and lesbian population, the transgendered — all lives are sacred.

The fourth ethical principle is social workers recognize the central importance of human relationships. Social workers understand that relationships between and among people are important vehicles for change. Catholic Social Teaching proclaims solidarity, that we are in fact our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We are community.

A former professor of mine proclaimed, “Social work works!” In our Catholic Charities, social workers include the executive director Kevin Hickey, and director of clinical services Sylvia Loumeau to Aimee Brown, Camille Cuentas, Caitlyn Jones, John Marantuono, Colleen McCay and Mickey Steinitz.

March is national Social Work month. Let’s celebrate and appreciate the hard work of social workers, especially those committed to Catholic Social Teaching.

Rod J. Herrera, LCSW is director, Office of Child & Youth Protection, Diocese of Camden.

Categories: Columns

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