After two previous columns on workforce, I have a few final thoughts on how we can recruit talented, committed team members. Though schools of social work were once a source of training and mentoring for aspiring child welfare professionals, some professors are encouraging their students to steer clear of what they perceive as the toxic work. 

Many of us have witnessed firsthand when students are told that choosing child welfare as an area of practice is immoral and helps to perpetuate a system that is unjust. It’s a concerning trend that makes it more difficult for agencies to identify and hire the next generation of leaders. 

It’s true. We have our baggage. But it doesn’t make us unique. 

There are few social service or health care systems that are not haunted by the ghosts of our shared history. Indigent senior citizens, individuals who are homeless, uninsured or underinsured people with Medicaid, mental health or substance misuse issues — all of them have been left behind. 

When social workers have a calling in those areas, does that make them complicit in marginalizing people? Should we discourage social work students from choosing any of this work? Isn’t ours a profession that runs toward, not from, the proverbial burning building? The central role for academics is to prepare students to fight the fires ignited by social imbalances. 

Social work educators, consultants and even agency leaders who are creating this negative buzz for emerging child welfare professionals also function within flawed systems that are ethically compromised. Universities, philanthropic endowments that were built on questionable business practices, state governments, all have shadows of imperfection. No one seems to be turning down salaries, hourly rates or honorariums, or retreating to monasteries. Yet, we want students to take the pristine path of righteousness. 

These students might think we are at the end of the child welfare profession, at least in the way that we managed it for decades. They are being told that we have cracked the code on child maltreatment and chronic neglect, even injury fatalities. The data they are hearing should lead them to shun an historically invasive approach to child protection. Even the people who have spent a career looking after children and supporting families are being told to reconsider their choices. 

It’s a moment of public confession and clarity over which child welfare’s critics are presiding. A fresh rite of passage that new entries into the profession, along with more tenured social workers, must admit that for years, we’ve had no idea what we’re doing. Or perhaps worse, that we have known and did nothing to correct ourselves.

Oddly, it reminds me of the scene in the last of “The Godfather” series when Michael Corleone asks a priest, “What good is confessing if I don’t repent?” If you’re going to ask for absolution, it’s important to know what preferred behavior will keep us from doing harm in the future. 

There is always something flawed about our role as helpers. In actual cases of neglect and abuse, we are inserting ourselves into situations that have varying levels of harm or impending risk if left unattended. When there is suspected or documented maltreatment or neglect, and we are the ones called to intervene, the power dynamic is out of balance. 

We do have a very mixed record of managing these interventions, which has alienated communities and sometimes harmed families. However, when done properly, the result can be enhanced child safety and families discovering a way back to equilibrium. To deny this imbalance and ambiguity is to deny that human beings — and the systems in place to keep them safe and healthy — are fragile, flawed, but remarkably persistent and adaptive in what they do to survive. It’s just the place for smart, young professionals. 

For a child welfare social worker, it isn’t about the lesser of two evils. The job is holding the center ground between terrible social and historical circumstances and the individual responsibility that parents have for their children. Denigrating social workers, and scaring off potential new ones, does nothing to alter that reality. It doesn’t make families any stronger. 

I’ve taught many graduate-level classes. There are plenty of opportunities to let students know the imperfections of this profession. Be honest with them that it’s a terribly compromised context into which we are sending new social workers. But because we are not likely to wake up to a transformed system tomorrow, what are the immediate alternatives for a young person who truly wants to be of service to others? 

We should stop framing the future of our profession in absolutes. Take the time to train and support them as best we can. Provide opportunities to keep building their skill sets. Keep exposing them to data and family narratives about what is working, and the systemic barriers that persist. Inspire and teach them the skills to be caring and compassionate decision-makers, not compliance officers. Impress on them the need to approach every situation with what philosophers call fear and trembling, but also with competence and concern. 

When an older voice of authority is obsessed with promoting cut and dried explanations and solutions, instead of options that respect the landscape of choices and behaviors of families, an impressionable new social worker becomes a follower of theory, but not a participant in the difficult work that the profession requires of us.

Discouraging potential recruits cuts short our ability to function in a less-than-perfect present while anticipating an ideal future. If we ask young people to wait until we get it right before entering the profession, we will have no one left to advance more effective and ethical policies and practices.

Paul DiLorenzo is a child welfare consultant and a senior fellow for the Child Welfare League of America