By David S. Prescott, LICSW
A few years ago, my son and I went to see a Star Wars movie. I’m not a very good fan and can barely keep the characters straight. In a dramatic scene, one central figure kills his own father. My son, who had studied stand-up comedy, turned to me and whispered, “Dad I promise I’ll try not to do that to you.” Deciding that I must have done something right to raise such a funny kid, I then thought about the people in the field(s) of abuse prevention. Why is it that the Jedi knights and other characters who fight the wrongdoers are thought of as “superheroes” but the real people who prevent real violence and abuse aren’t? This is offered with lighthearted humor, of course, but many a truth is told in jest.
It's true that some ATSA members spend a lot of time sitting in offices catching up on documentation instead of saving galaxies with light sabers. On the other hand, those skilled in assessment and treatment have better evidence of the effectiveness of their work than the Jedi knights do, and do it in the real world. ATSA members and others in the field do work that many, many people couldn’t do if they tried and while they are far from perfect, the world seems to be a little bit safer for their efforts. Comparing them to superheroes might sound a bit silly, but it is an opportunity to reflect for a few moments on the results of their work.
In the USA, last month was Social Work Month. This month is Sexual Assault Awareness Month as well as National Child Abuse Prevention Month. These are compelling reminders of the importance of the work done by professionals in the field. It seems worth mentioning all of this because the people who benefit most from these efforts will never know to express gratitude because they won’t have been abused to begin with.
Meanwhile, professionals often do this work against a difficult backdrop. Budgets and grant funding seem to be cut ever more frequently, while inflation continues to affect everyone. Clients are rarely happy to be in treatment. The multi-agency collaboration that prevention efforts require can be discouraging when it goes off the rails. Professionals often live in communities beside neighbors who don’t always understand or respect this work; many professionals even find themselves the objects of “courtesy stigma.” Discussion of concepts like “burnout,” “compassion fatigue,” and “moral injury,” shouldn’t have to happen as often as they do. Many see the direct results of policies that don’t make communities safer and produce worse outcomes for clients. Professionals can even develop senses of humor that can be shocking if they’re not careful and use them in the wrong context.
At the same time, there were many excellent presentations at the MASOC-MATSA conference this week that illustrate the specialized and important work that ATSA members do. Keynote speaker Sharon Cooper, focusing on the experiences of young women of color, reminded us of how badly misunderstood children and teens can be. Patrick Lussier described the shifting contexts in which sexual abuse by adolescents has occurred and the different effects that public policies have had. Jim Worling described many approaches of working with adolescents that never did bear fruit. Kevin Creeden described the frustration and despair that parents and caregivers experience when their child enters the child welfare or juvenile justice systems. Kevin has also observed that professionals in the field need to be ready for anything when they arrive at the workplace. He says that “To really do this this work, you need to bring your dancing shoes.” He’s absolutely right.
In all, it can be easy to lose sight of how important – and difficult – this work can be. It’s often surprising to see how long many professionals last doing it. Many have found that serving this side of the cause of public safety can be intensely rewarding. Many feel called to do it. Speaking for myself, I’ve often felt that doing this work has enabled me to become a better citizen, neighbor, friend, husband, father, and man.
As the USA takes note of sexual assault awareness month and child abuse prevention month, the people in this field may not be Jedi knights; but that does not mean that there is no heroism among us.