The duty is to help people
Stories about social workers
There are many stereotypes about social work. For some reason, not much is usually written about it. This profession does engender the same interest as teaching or medicine. But a social worker saves lives and teaches about life at the same time, and arrives like a guardian angels at the most difficult moments of life. Social workers remember the names and even the dates of birth of their wards. Sometimes they have to face serious challenges, but they do not lose their love and optimism, and are ready to give their time, even spending their nights dictating cooking recipes to clients.
We spoke with social workers in the “Jointly. Social Services for Families in the Community” project implemented by UNICEF with support from the Government of Germany. This project is helping to build a new social protection system in Eastern Ukraine.
Svitlana Bykova is the Acting Director of the Druzhkivka City Centre for Social Services for Family, Children and Youth (CSSFCY). At the beginning of our conversation she is slightly indignant: why are we just interviewing her when she has two more employees? She insists that we take a photo of the entire team.
Svitlana started her career as a teacher, so she has solid experience of working with children of all ages. When asked how she got into the social sphere, she simply says: “I was invited and I accepted the invitation. And I have no regrets. To be honest, I can’t even imagine myself in another role any more.” We asked Svitlana what it is like to be a social worker.
“The hardest thing is that you can't always help out. Some things are simply out of your control. For example, if children are severely sick and the parents do not have enough money for quality treatment. Or if children are taken from their biological families despite all our efforts. You try to reach out to those parents, use all the tools you have, but they don’t listen to you. And then the baby is taken to a foster family or, even worse, to an orphanage. This is very painful.
For me, I am just as comfortable working with children or adults. With children I just try to remember how it was with my own children, think what I would say to my child. With adults you are a peer, you are partners in overcoming this crisis. But that person is just confused and needs support. And the best part is seeing the results of your work. When, for example, clients quit drinking, start caring about their families, and walk holding hands with a small child... And you know that you played a part in this. This is happiness.
I am often called out off hours. Recently, a girl called me late at night and asked how to cook borscht [a traditional Ukrainian soup]. And I dictated her the recipe because she did not have a mother who could teach her this. She should be supported no matter what time it is.
A person in need of social support is our neighbour. The happier people are around, the better our lives are. I do not have a simple remedy for burnout. For me, it’s my own family. I go home and rest there. When you have to face human pain over and over again, you begin to appreciate more what you have. And your own troubles begin to seem less serious.”
Vira Reshevska, Director of Bakhmut City CSSFCY. She has organized work to prevent orphanhood so well that no mother has left her child under Vira’s professional watch. Vira comments on this: “I’ve faced all kinds of cases, such as clients with nowhere to stay with their children. But everything can be resolved! Some were allocated accommodation in a dormitory, another one found a job, and for another we collected donations for a ticket to travel to the Mother and Child Centre".
Vira is a psychologist who used to work for the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and then entered the social sector. "I remember visiting families in need, and my colleagues watched to see if I was scared, but after police service nothing could scare me," Vera shares.
“I consider myself to be an altruist, and so I work to keep my soul at rest for a family requiring care. Sometimes, it can be dangerous for me. I remember a case when we saved a pregnant woman and her older child from a relationship with her aggressive husband. He used to beat his wife and gave his young son alcohol to stop him crying. Eventually, there was real danger that he could murder them. We took the woman to a Mother and Child Centre in another city where she gave birth to her second baby. Now they live happily there. Afterwards, the children’s father called us with threats and even submitted a complaint of ‘kidnapping a child’ to the police. But somehow everything always ends up well. It seems it always does if you have good intentions.”
The biggest challenge in our work is understaffing. We just lack the hands. Every social worker works with about ten families though, in my opinion, there should be no more than five. After all, there are families you can help in their situations, whereas others may return to their old habits again and again.
My own family prevent me from burning out. No matter what, I know they are waiting for me at home, and listen to me. My husband accepts my work, and even helps me with it.”
Maryna Pogorelova, a social work specialist from Bakhmut, jokes that a person cannot become a social worker but has to be born as one. They must be good listeners and kind-hearted and have a great desire to help people. She has 10 years of experience in the social sphere. “On my first working day, I came home and cried on my pillow, I was so sorry for all the children and families I saw,” says Marina. Later she learned how to control her emotions and cope with stress.
"I think the best reward is sincere appreciation from a family you help. I always say that gratitude is better than a bonus [laughs].
I support quite a number of foster families. I think this is the best alternative to institutions, where children are not socialized properly. Unfortunately, there are few families in Ukraine prepared to bring up a child, especially a child with a disability. We must make sure families know that no foster family will be left alone, that there are always social workers and psychologists ready to help. Sometimes people simply have noone to share their concerns with. Yesterday, a foster mum called me for no reason, just to chat a little, because her mother doesn't want to listen to her problems and she has no friends to support her.
Sometimes, people see social work to be about helping some “risky” population groups. And so they do not want to seek help so as not to admit they have problems. Thus someone, for example, could keep living without a passport, or parents who are raising a child with disabilities may be depressed because they do not want to seek social support.
Stereotypes should be overcome. It is not shameful to ask for help, but a shame to ignore opportunities to receive help."
Sergiy Petrov, Director of the Centre for Social Services in Novopskovska local community, made the Centre fully operational in just a year: from purchasing the furniture to recruiting employees.
Sergiy outlines the last stage as the most difficult: “I wanted to find people who would not be temporary, who understood the positions they would hold, and who applied because of a call of the heart. Many people can't stand it: it is very difficult to work with vulnerable families. In rural areas, there are few trained professionals willing to be social workers. But I succeeded in bringing together a very good team. Some of them were not experienced, so we sent them for training. Yet, even now we encourage employees to go to various training events."
Sergiy also shares other challenges of his work. “Initially, people saw us as enemies who would take away their children. But this is a very false idea of what social work really is, because we work to help families save their children from losing their biological parents. So, now we do a lot of outreach work aimed at either clients themselves or the general population in the community. It is vital that neighbours do not turn away from them, but rather lend a helping hand.
This year, we made significant progress in informing the public and establishing cooperation with other institutions. After all, our main task is to identify problems at early stages and preventing situations in which it is no longer possible to help. So we require local authorities and even neighbours to tell us about families in need. So far, we have good connections. We are informed if a child plays truant from school for a long time or dresses unseasonably.
Most of all, I am proud of the cases in which we can exclude families from our registries. I remember a family where both parents had alcohol dependency and their child lived in horrific conditions. We managed to get them out of crisis, both parents are now employed, and the child goes to kindergarten. It is very nice that this family now calls us almost every day, simply to share their plans. This is when you understand what you are working for.
What complicates our work most is the shortage of resources. For example, if a family raising a child with disabilities, we can help them receive all the social payments, we can help by providing clothes and toys people donate to our charity fund, but sometimes that is not enough. There are cases where I would like to support them more.
I think it is great that social services are now located in hromadas [local administrations] and, therefore, are becoming more accessible for the public. First, we are closer to the problems in our neighbourhoods, as remote villages used to have poor prevention and social service coverage because regional authorities simply did not see what is going on out there, while we know each and every one in hromada.
We are now planning to expand our functions. For example, we want to set up a day-care centre for children with disabilities so parents can resolve their issues and even just breathe, to avoid burnout. In general, we want to provide the public with the services they need. So they always know that there is somewhere they can come."
Iryna Luskova, the Head of the Social Work Unit at the Centre for Social Services in Novopskovska hromada, considers social work to be her calling. She thinks that the most difficult thing in her work is seeing children without proper care.
“I am pleased that many families who have received our support have begun to realize their mistakes. In fact, many families who have problems with violence or alcohol just don't know another life, as they have no better example to follow. Very often, they come from orphanages with no social skills and remember example of their parents that they take as a model for behaviour. This is such a vicious circle. Now, without investment in the social sphere or proper socialization for orphans, they grow up with an inherent need for social assistance. This is why prevention is so important: we must use our human resources to work with families, with children, to break this circle.
Sometimes there are minutes of despair when you are ready to give up and leave to work in another sector. Because you look at children suffering for various reasons – illness, disability or family problems – and you want to do more, but you have already reached your limits. And so it seems that you will not make it through, but then you look for other solutions, get support from colleagues, and eventually realize that there are problems which cannot be solved are not going away. Someone must support these children. And efforts must be made to help them as much as you can.
The best way to help families is to praise them. For
a the tiniest step towards improvement. Indeed, they are very much waiting for someone to come and help them, ti believe in them. And if you believe in them, they begin to believe in themselves.”