By: Christine Tappan, MSW, CAGS
My introduction to social work on the Silk Road started two years ago with a ceremonial toast of Bishkek Cognac and a slice of apple. Although not much of a drinker, as I partook of the cognac and fruit, a real and metaphorical warmth came over me as I imagined the vision to which we had all just committed: developing a more competent and confident generation of social workers in Kyrgyzstan. That toast set a plan in motion to train and educate social workers in the “land of the Tien Shan,” to move beyond theory toward cutting-edge technical skills for assessing and working with children and families with desperate needs. These social workers would have more skills and knowledge than their predecessors for dealing with the increasing challenges facing Kyrgyz society, and the burn-out that ends so many careers after just a year or two in the field.
Social work is a profession built on hope—hope for change, hope for a better life for abused and neglected children, the poor, the sick, the disabled, and the elderly. The sobering reality is that the values of freedom, justice, social responsibility, and human dignity drive a profession that often goes unrecognized and underappreciated, even pitied. Because of this, social workers worldwide face an uphill battle, striving to educate and retain a workforce that grapples with compassion fatigue while barely squeaking out a livable wage.
An entry-level social worker in Bishkek makes about $150 a month; in a village, half that salary is common. Even in the western world, the average pay for a social worker with a graduate degree is significantly less than others with a similar education. Most social workers will confess that making money is not what motivates them most. Helping to change the lives of others, to see children and families prosper—or just receiving a smile or words of thanks—is enough to keep them going. As Erkayim, a social work student at Bishkek Humanities University (BHU) said, “I want to be useful for society.” His peer Nestyn added, “I just want to be able to help people with special needs solve their problems.”
As the world economy grows increasingly complex, so do the needs of vulnerable children and families. The ever-expanding knowledge and technical skills a social worker must have to effectively support individuals in need is a global issue. However, in a budding democracy such as Kyrgyzstan, it is even more critical. And so I have come to know this country, many of its towns and villages, and a group of dreamers who believe as I do that a framework of child and family support is essential to every community in the world—and where this does not exist, it must be built.
Social work was founded as a profession in Kyrgyzstan in 1994. Many amazing individuals did “social work” prior to this time, but once the profession was legally recognized, they began to formally build the path toward a structured and credible educational system. Several universities in Kyrgyzstan educate about 400 social workers per year. The limit to this endeavor is that much of the curriculum in the typical five-year undergraduate program is theoretical in nature, without a means to experience the work firsthand.
To achieve proficiency in critical technical skills—including assessment, investigation, interviewing, case planning, and community development—training and education must be both didactic and practical in nature.
Social work takes place in high-stress, complex environments, in homes, hospitals, or on the streets. Workers are often independently responsible for assessing and addressing multi-faceted safety, health, and well-being needs of children, their parents, and the communities where they live. The ultimate goal is to address issues such as drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, and child abuse and neglect, all while enhancing family functioning, and improving child safety and family independence. Stamina and diplomacy are among the most important tools in the social worker’s professional kit.
Because of training gaps, low pay, and emotional stress, social workers—particularly those who work with high-risk families in which abuse or neglect has occurred—face high burn-out rates and alarming professional turnover. Research shows that this dilemma hits close to home around the globe. The negative impact on families is felt in many heart-wrenching scenarios, such as more children being placed in foster care or orphanages.
Recognizing these issues, the Kyrgyz Association of Social Workers and department leadership and faculty at BHU, in partnership with governmental and non-governmental organizations in Kyrgyzstan, began discussions more than four years ago to develop a social work specialization focused on children and families. After researching international program alternatives, BHU determined that a consultative partnership with a child protection specialist in the United States who had experience developing and working with competency-based training and educational programs for social workers would be the best option. That’s where I came in.
I was brought into this project in 2009 by one of the original group of dreamers, Ruby Johnston from the NGO International Learning and Development Center (ILDC Kyrgyzstan). She, along with Vera Usenovna, President of the Association of Social Workers of Kyrgyz Republic and Orozaliev Erick Sadyckovich, Dean of Faculty of Social Work and Psychology at BHU, had been planning the project for some time. The barriers to the dream were many, including expert time for consultation on curriculum development, teaching approaches, course materials, and practicum design. Access to technology that would support the use of slides and video “models” for social work students to follow was nonexistent. Approval by governmental ministries to authorize the specialization was another hurdle. Through persistence and united vision, the dreamers cleared many of these barriers. The final step was finding what they came to call an “on the ground champion” to bring the project to fruition.
Ruby and I met in the United States while she was conducting training for my state child welfare agency. She knew my passion for teaching and my belief that teachers—and the way they teach—can inspire and build confidence in young, developing social workers, coaching them through the technical skills required to be effective. As one student from BHU shared with me, “The faculty at BHU inspires us. They tell us that we are the generation to change our society.” But the faculty will tell you that despite their admirable efforts, they don’t possess all of the knowledge and tools needed. Many have never been social workers in the field. They understand the theory behind the practice, but don’t have teaching skills or resources necessary to help their students learn. For example, there are few or no current social work textbooks to give students. So they teach mostly through lecture. When a textbook is available, it must be shared among 20, 30, or 40 students, or photocopies can be made for two soms per page, which adds up quickly. There’s no access to technology. Faculty members consider themselves lucky if there’s a chalkboard in the classroom.
And so I applied for the Fulbright Specialist Program as a Child Protection Specialist. BHU asked me to replicate a highly successful program model used throughout the United States and Canada to prepare social work professionals for employment in the child welfare field at the university level. The specific focus is a specialization for working with at-risk families and maltreated children. Upon graduation, students are prepared to immediately assume job responsibilities in child welfare organizations, and NGOs, without requiring extensive training and preparation.
The curriculum is an adaptation of the Core Curriculum for Child Welfare Caseworkers, developed and published by the Institute for Human Services (IHS), used throughout North America in both in-service training and university education settings. It has been translated into Russian and adopted by child welfare organizations in the Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. The four-volume Field Guide to Child Welfare, circa 1998, is an internationally recognized practice resource. This social work bible-of-sorts authored by Judith S. Rycus and Ronald C. Hughes, Child Welfare League of America, serves as an essential companion to the core curriculum. The field guides have also been translated into Russian and are being shared in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania with much success.
My role was to help the university learn how best to teach the teachers and, most importantly, to do this within Kyrgyzstan’s educational and cultural contexts. I had a lot of learning to do myself. Maps and guidebooks were helpful in fixing my global bearings. But for me, the dream truly came alive when I came to this country to meet at length with faculty, students, NGO partners, and the Kyrgyz Association of Social Workers. Students and teachers helped me craft a program that would truly meet their learning needs and professional goals. Together, we determined that a one-year specialized course series with supervised work out in the real world best fit the needs of all.
Many students studying social work at BHU, pronounced in Russian “B’gu,” have made life choices with serious consequences. One of the 20 third-year students selected for the new Children and Families specialization in social work says that her family was very concerned when she chose this profession, because there is a general perception that “social workers are servants.”
“We have to prove how valuable our job is,” says this young woman, who like her peers has entered the profession because of a central belief that family is the foundation and the purpose of life. “The difficult social situations in the country bother me a lot. I want to take my part in changing it,” says Nurgul.
These eloquent, sincere, fledgling do-gooders told me that they wanted to be a part of something that might help to change their country in a way that makes lives better for all families. Several expressed a desire to maintain the unique culture of Kyrgyzstan while encouraging open and honest societal dialogue about real problems in Kyrgyz society—alcoholism, poverty, domestic violence, and mental illness.
And they saw the specialization at BHU, “as a way to increase the prestige of the social work profession.” These students, and students to come, are ready to check out of the “pity party” that plagues the social work profession and claim respect for the work they do.
When asked whether child abuse occurs in Kyrgyzstan, all the students I spoke with agree that it does and that few are open and willing to discuss why it occurs. It’s a universal travesty deeply felt here.
One female social work student from Osh, in a sharing session, admitted that the custom of bride stealing keeps her from visiting her village.
“I am afraid if I go home, I will never come back.”
This student and others who spoke to me on condition of anonymity said that this Kyrgyz tradition can be harmful to young girls and women, resulting in unwanted pregnancies and children who then are at high risk for abuse.
Child labor is another problem students expressed great concern about, even though they recognize that many parents must make their children work to bring enough money into the family for food and shelter.
“Parents don’t feel good about this, though,” one student shared. “They feel inadequate as a parent, have low self-esteem, and so they drink alcohol and sometimes beat or neglect their children.”
In one planning conversation with students, I asked the miracle question: If you woke up one year from now, and the children and families social work specialization was happening successfully, what would you be doing?
Their responses made me all the more grateful to be a part of this project.
“I would be thinking about the family I have been working with for the year and how they are doing. I’d be checking on their progress, seeing that they are doing better because of how I have built trust with them and showed them new ways to be a family.” “I would feel comfortable and confident about the family I am working with and would feel I can work with them and help them because I have the best knowledge and skills. As a social worker I hope for this the most.” “We [the students] wouldn’t be strangers to the NGOs—we would be the type of specialists they want and need to help children and families.”
These students believe social work could add value to Kyrgyz society, both in terms of reducing the costs of social problems and as working, educated professionals contributing economically.
I have been asked more times than I can count why I want to come to Kyrgyzstan to work with social work students and faculty. My response is always the same: I see hope in Kyrgyzstan. I see commitment, possibilities, and desire in the eyes of all the other dreamers who have been a part of this project. It’s a practical magic.
As one student stated quite simply on the first day of class, “The difficult social situations in the country bother me a lot. I want to take my part in changing it—and this specialization can help me to do that.” That’s the spirit that has brought me to love Kyrgyzstan and the many social workers who will help to power the energy for change.
The project remains in need of funds to support teaching materials, such as textbooks, a laptop computer, and an LCD projector. Donations would be greatly appreciated and can be made through a U.S. and Canadian tax deductible nonprofit organization at the following address: http://www.lambinternational.org/donations.htm
Christine Tappan, MSW, CAGS, is driven by the power of education and its ability to strengthen families and communities in every culture throughout the world. She earned her master’s degree in social work at the University of Michigan and Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study in Special Education & Leadership at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. Christine and her sister Cyndi Boschard Perkins, freelance writer, columnist, and editor, are in the process of collecting a series of stories about social workers and their experiences in Kyrgyzstan for their forthcoming book, Social Work on the Silk Road.
This article appeared in The New Social Worker, Summer 2012, Vol. 19, No. 2. All rights reserved. Please contact Linda Grobman for permission to reprint.