Mary-Margaret Sweeney

Mary-Margaret Sweeney

Social Justice Solutions | Staff Writer
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Chronicling an MSW Internship: Client/Worker Boundaries

Recently, a part-time case manager and a part-time interpreter began work at my agency. They are meant to work as a team, as the case manager did not have the necessary language skills, and the interpreter did not have the necessary social work skills. The interpreter’s job description was what one would expect: accompany case manager and clients to appointments and provide interpretation.

It said nothing about plumbing.

Something that shocks and inspires me each day at my agency is the after-hours time staff spends with clients, the in-kind donations like clothing and toiletries they make, and the constant availability they commit to, whether or not their job description demands it. I share my office space with a woman who has for all intents and purposes become a part-time caretaker for a former client and her disabled son, on her off time. She fell in love with them and feels a responsibility for their well-being. My supervisor fields phone calls from clients she has not been mandated to serve in years, but they know she will help them navigate a sticky issue with their landlord. She spent a Saturday morning taking one of our clients to a job fair–and when I asked if she would file those hours as “comp time,” taking 5 hours off at some later point, she shrugged and said, “Maybe. We had a great time and I had been wanting to hang out with her anyway.”
The new interpreter fit right into this model of care. And while his efforts are appreciated by the agency, no one is shocked by them either. It’s a culture here. And, as a Somali community outreach worker put it, with a shrug, “Well, he’s African!”
I’m all too aware that positive stereotypes can also work to uphold harmful and racist systems of oppression. So I tread lightly here when I say that I have learned more about love and compassion in my 720 hour internship than I have anywhere else, due to the African community in which I often find myself.
This new part-time interpreter came to the Youth Program, asking after a child he had interpreted for earlier in the week. When it became clear that he had spent many hours with them, we asked if he had in fact been hired as an interpreter and case manager. “No,” he said, looking confused. “They needed help” The family had called him with a plumbing emergency, unable to contact the landlord on a Saturday. And he went over and fixed it himself. When we told him to claim these hours to his supervisor he said, “But they are my fellow Africans. Of course I will help.”
In the African communities I have observed, extended families live together, taking people in when they need help. People from the same clan who have never met loan one another money and feed one another. When my supervisor introduced a struggling teenage Burundian client to another Burundian family in the city, the family called the next day, offering to adopt the teenager and care for her. What I continue to find remarkable is that none of this is remarkable at all. It is duty. And it is love.
When I entered my MSW program, I was dismayed when one of my foundational courses outlined strict, and in my opinion, harsh boundaries with clients. Sure, some of the NASW Code of Ethics make sense–sleeping with your client is surely never advised. But most of the boundaries seemed unnatural, and I questioned if social work was the right fit for me. Landing in refugee resettlement showed me that more than one model exists. In fact, rigid boundaries would be unethical with a client population as communal and laid back as mine. Without overstating my love for this field placement, it is exactly what I wanted social work to be.
SJS Community: How do you negotiate client boundaries? How does your specific client population change the way you practice?

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