By: Addison Cooper, LCSW
It will probably catch you by surprise. Movie studios don’t mention it in their advertising, but they do it. And it can catch you off-guard. One evening, you’ll be sitting in the middle seat a few rows back at your favorite theater, sipping a $6 Coca-Cola and munching on some of the most expensive carbs you’ll ever buy, and it will happen. There, right in front of you—and in front of the world—a social worker will appear on the big screen.
Why are social workers in movies? Well, films mirror real life, and social workers are a part of “real life” for lots of people. Families involved with child protective services, hospital patients, prospective adopters, and many others engage with social workers in their own lives, so it makes sense that social workers would also be depicted on the silver screen.
What are the cinematic social workers like? Here are some that I’ve encountered lately:
Moonrise Kingdom, “Social Services”—Tilda Swinton’s character obviously cares for her young client, but she seems given to inflexibility. She’s also so identified with her position that she doesn’t even have her own name.
Beasts of the Southern Wild, various helpers—Hushpuppy and her father live in an unsafe environment. When they are discovered, they are forcibly relocated to a safer but sterile and cramped area. The offered help comes across as unwanted, forcible, and chaotic.
The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Homestudy Social Workers—Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton’s characters are interviewed by social workers who obviously disbelieve their story, but are disinterested enough in their work to tell the family, in effect, “I’m going to listen to you for 60 minutes, but I don’t care what you say.”
Not every movie social worker is portrayed negatively.
Admission, “Woman in Social Service Agency”—Tina Fey’s character visits an agency to contact the son she relinquished for adoption. The social worker is kind and caring.
Meet the Robinsons, “Mildred”—The director of the orphanage is caring and patient. She encourages her charges to keep up their hope while she tirelessly works to find them families.
Lilo and Stitch, “Cobra Bubbles”—The social worker takes his job seriously and is prepared to remove Lilo from what appears to be an unsafe living environment with her sister. He appears to remain involved in Lilo’s life, and obviously develops positive regard for her family. He also saves the world from an alien invasion, which might make him the most superhero-esque on-screen social worker.
So, wait—which of these caricatures is supposed to be us? Are we the officious, uncommunicative professionals on power trips, or the caring, tireless, sensitive people doing heroic and sometimes heartbreaking work? Maybe both caricatures reflect the way we’re perceived at different times, by different people.
What can we do about it? Here are a few ideas:
1) Just as movies portray social workers with contrasting caricatures, we’re viewed in contrasting ways. Social workers are in positions of power, which can lead clients to view the position rather than the person—with grateful dependence or fearful antagonism. The best way to combat this is to connect with clients on a human level. Take time to listen, understand, and engage with your clients. Reflective listening is a great way to demonstrate your understanding and to clarify misunderstandings. Appropriate self-disclosure can help you seem more approachable.
2) Clients usually encounter social workers during difficult seasons in their lives. In painful situations, people often speak and think from their emotions, in terms that have the potential to sensationalize and polarize. Social workers—with training in therapeutic skills and human services—are ideally positioned to elevate diatribes into dialogue. By understanding why clients might be angry, we can be the voices that tactfully help create thoughtful, effective discussions.
3) Pay attention to the intangibles. A social worker’s assignments might be to complete twenty home visits this week, or five reports, or to respond to a tiring series of crisis calls. The way we complete our assignments might be even more important than the fact that we complete them. By taking five extra minutes at a foster home, a social worker making a home visit can ask about the well-being of the people in the home besides the identified client, or even just talk about a shared interest with the foster parent. This conveys warmth and caring. A social worker cranking out a series of reports on a client’s progress can build trust with a three-minute phone call to verify some facts with the client. A social worker welcoming a client to the office can remove some anxiety by offering a cup of hot chocolate. These small actions show that we care—not just as professionals caring for our charges, but as people caring for people. And really, that’s how we want to be seen.
Addison Cooper, LCSW, operates the adoption movie review website, “Adoption at the Movies” at www.adoptionlcsw.com . He worked as a foster care/adoption social worker in Southern California for seven years and is now a therapist in private practice in Springfield, Missouri. Find him on Twitter @AddisonCooper.
This article appeared in THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER, Summer 2013, Vol. 20, No. 3. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 White Hat Communications.