After a mid life career change from high school teaching to social work my sense of duty of care escalated. Social workers work with people who have, or are in danger of, falling through the cracks rending our increasingly unequal society. Most of the people I worked with as a drug and alcohol counselor were themselves running with scissors. Their erratic and willful or unconscious and difficult to control addictive behaviours left them unwell, increasingly disconnected from support structures and at times incarcerated. I remember feelings of running with scissors as I worked to respond to their many needs without making them dependent on me.
Moving to the north east 18 years ago I took a job as a social worker at Centrelink, another ‘running with scissors’ role. Centrelink’s social workers have an important role in assessing people for benefits such as youth homeless allowances and exemptions from seeking maintenance from abusive partners, decisions which require particular care. They also play an important role in accepting referrals from front line workers who are the first point of contact with customers whose issues at times need more time to explore and a deeper understanding of the social-economic-legal-political-health/mental health issues and the systems which need to be negotiated.
As a mature age social worker I seemed to be perceived as experienced, influencing the amount of support I received in learning about my new job. My supervisor, others suggested, may have felt I was in some way a rival. I certainly experienced very mixed support from her in transitioning into this very complex organization and role. With only my supervisor and myself in the social work team and with my supervisor often away at professional development or management meetings in the capital city, I experienced little mentoring.
I struggled in learning my new role; managing a very heavy workload and learning to cope with my unpredictable and often absent supervisor. But I tried. There were times when my lack of knowledge of Centrelink systems failed me. There were times when the stories of clients lives depressed me, and there was a time when someone pointed out to me that my looking so anxious was affecting others! From thenceforth I began to look more relaxed on the outside, even if I wasn’t on the inside!
There were times of policy change by governments running with scissors and policy making by government gangs running with razors. Policy changes could lead to highly emotional responses by the people affected. On one occasion the fortnightly payment to single mothers was virtually nil because a change to their allowance was applied retrospectively without warning. The wild eyed and assertive women who presented to front of house workers and were referred on to me for additional help were not only distressed – they were angry! They needed to feed their children and they were protecting them.
I worked at Centrelink for twelve months, never quite jelling with my supervisor or the job. I wasn’t a good fit in a role which involved ‘social control’ and continual assessments and became increasingly keen to move into preventative rather than ‘acute’ social work.
However I learnt much working alongside Aged, Youth, Employment, Disability, Children and Families, and other teams at Centrelink and in linking up with local community agencies – all of which would stand me in good stead in the work I moved in to in north east Victoria over coming years.
I always enjoyed working with the front of house staff and worked hard to respond constructively to their referrals, even though this invariably involved running with scissors. Almost two decades later I still have lunch with friends from the front of house staff. Calling ourselves 'The Occasional Munchers', we all remain interested in social policy and at times reminisce about 'running with scissors' at Centrelink.
I was reminded of my year of running with scissors at Centrelink this week at Christmas a party. A ‘front of house’ worker from my year at Centrelink almost twenty years ago remembered herself to me, saying that I was kind always prepared to go the extra mile for the people she referred to me.
Other people have said this over the years, and it was so good to hear it again.
It helped to remind me that my year of running with scissors at Centrelink wasn’t really all that bad!