Despite this unflappable faith in the capacity of our clients to change, there is a disconnect in the treatment of our peers and prospective peers.
This is especially true in the practice area of addiction and recovery. The best part of this work is witnessing stunning transformations in our clients. We see them come to detox facing seemingly insurmountable barriers to recovery—trauma, mental health issues that may or may not be drug-induced, homelessness, legal problems, health problems, family estrangement, domestic violence, etc. We often meet them at one of the lowest moments of their lives. Our joke is that a year later they come back driving a nicer car than their social worker. By this time, most of them have been working (often getting promoted quickly), parenting, paying taxes, doing community service, enjoying healed (or healing) family relationships, supporting others on the same journey, and much more.
Many people in recovery decide to enroll in school and pursue a career that they previously hadn’t dreamed of. A portion of those returning students decide to become professional helpers—to “give back”—and social work is a common choice. It’s not an easy journey. They enroll in community college, apply for financial aid, face that scary first day, make it through that terrifying pre-req (often math), all while figuring out how to juggle work, parenting, recovery and school. It’s pretty amazing so many make it through. Most of them make it to the end and have little trouble finding a field placement, finding a job, and getting their license. However, there’s one group that runs this gauntlet only to find more obstacles and uncertainty waiting for them.
Many of these people were formerly incarcerated. For formerly incarcerated people, finding welcoming housing and employment are not their only barriers. Returning to higher education is a significant challenge as well. Right away, they are faced with often intimidating interviews with admissions staff. This is if they even get past the apprehension to apply in the first place based on the application asking about their criminal background. They may learn right away that depending on their prior convictions, they may not qualify for financial aid. Should they make it into the program, and many do, the next barrier is finding a field placement that will accept them. Depending on the prior conviction, there are likely certain placements that just aren’t allowed based on the nature of their past crimes. Some organizations cite liability as a concern. Field placement coordinators often struggle finding a placement in an already limited pool. Finally, if they’ve successfully completed this gauntlet, they may do it all over again if they decide to continue on to graduate school.
Should they make it to the end of their academic program, all the while facing many barriers in their communities and in their academic careers, many will face the biggest challenge of all. That comes when they face the State of Michigan Board of Social Work when applying for a license to legally become a social worker. For many, it is unclear what the process is or what the decision will be based on. It seems to be made on a case-by-case basis. Many of us in the recovery and the formerly incarcerated communities hear stories of people getting accepted with minimal resistance. Others have struggled for years to no avail, with no apparent consistency in reasoning. Sometimes people have to contact their state legislators to get assistance.
Social workers have a sacred trust to care for society's most vulnerable members. They deserve safety and high standards. We would never advocate lowering the bar. Yet, many of these are people who have never committed an offense involving violence or exploitation and have had no offenses in years—often more than 10 years. It’s not just about saying yes to more people. It’s also about letting them know what to expect before they begin this journey. They ought to know whether they can expect to be granted a license before they invest tens of thousands of dollars and years of their lives.
Furthermore, social work needs these people. For example, addiction treatment has a long standing tradition of “wounded healers”—recovering treatment professionals whose lived experience has helped the profession maintain a recovery orientation in the face of stigma and professional pessimism. Others want to “give back” in other ways and their past experiences contribute greatly to their success as social workers. Unfortunately, the criminalization of addiction has led to very large numbers of people entering recovery with prior convictions and with that comes an added layer of stigma. As a profession, we’ve done too much to combat injustice to let this injustice continue in our own house.
Some actions that could be taken quickly include:
- Sharing (or developing, if they don’t exist) licensing agencies’ guidelines or process for determining licensing eligibility in cases with past convictions;
- Schools of social work can make their related policies transparent and discuss potential barriers for field placements and licensing at admission;
- NASW and other related professional associations should consider offering guidance for policies and hiring decisions to their constituencies.
These steps can accomplish two important goals. First, they can help people with past convictions make informed educational and career decisions. Second, they can provide a starting point for discussing the varied ethical issues and developing frameworks for decision-making.
Jason Schwartz, LMSW, ACSW - Clinical Director, Dawn Farm
Matt Statman, LMSW, CAADC - Collegiate Recovery Program Manager, University of Michigan Health Service
Allan Wachendorfer, LLMSW - Director of Public Policy, NASW-Michigan