Magazine article Public Welfare

Book Review - Unfaithful Angels: How Social Work Has Abando

Magazine article Public Welfare

Book Review - Unfaithful Angels: How Social Work Has Abando

Article excerpt

By Harry Specht and Mark E. Courtney. New York: The Free Press, 1994. 221 pp., $22.95.

Reviewed by Kenneth W. Watson, assistant director of the Chicago Child Care Society, Chicago, Illinois.

This stimulating, well-written book invites both quotation and response. The authors' central premise is that the social work profession has lost its way, that it has all but abandoned its commitment to the poor, neglected children, the frail elderly, the homeless, and others in dire need. Rather than helping such people solve their problems and improve the lives of the communities in which they live, social workers in increasing numbers have fled to the private practice of psychotherapy. Most are now working with white, middle-class clients between the ages of 20 and 40. Those workers who have remained in social agencies also have lost sight of their mission and function. They have been rendered ineffective by agency practice and public policy shaped largely by the mystique of individual therapy, which views public issues as private troubles, and because their professional education has reinforced this position.

The debate between social workers in clinical practice and those in community-based social work did not, of course, begin with this book. What may be surprising to many readers, however, is the vast increase in the number of social workers now practicing in mental health settings. According to Specht and Courtney, social workers represent the single largest group of professionals now employed in the field of mental health--about 38 percent--and nearly twice as many social workers are employed in mental health settings as are employed in any other practice area. As alarming to the authors is that psychotherapy by social workers in private practice is growing at an accelerated rate. In 1985 five times as many social workers were in fulltime private practice as in 1975, and more than one-third of the members of the National Association of Social Workers were engaged in private practice.

Early in their book, Specht and Courtney clearly delineate their perceptions of the difference between social work and psychotherapy:

The major function of social work is concerned with helping people perform their normal life tasks by providing information and knowledge, social support, social skills, and' social opportunities; it is also concerned with helping people deal with interference and abuse from other individuals and groups, with physical and mental disabilities, and with overburdening responsibilities they have for others. Most important, social work's objective is to strengthen the community's capacities to solve problems through development of groups and organizations, community education, and community systems of governance and control over systems of social care. The concern of psychotherapy is with helping people to deal with feelings, perceptions, and emotions that prevent them from performing their normal life tasks because of impairment or insufficient development of emotional and cognitive functions that are intimately related to the self. Social workers help people make use of and develop community and social resources to build connections with others and reduce alienation and isolation; psychotherapists help people to alter, reconstruct, and improve the self.

The authors do not think very highly of the efficacy of psychotherapy, regardless of who is practicing it. They devote many page--perhaps too many-to documenting psychotherapy's lack of success including a well-deserved attack upon the recent focus on improved self-esteem as a cure-all for America's ills. They also are justly critical of the deemphasis on "feeling responsible" for other people and the labeling of any such feelings of responsibility as s codependency. They write, "Thus, it appears that the virtues of caring for others, family obligations, and developing commitments are not only out of style but now are defined as pathological! …

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