Imagine getting spat at while trying to help someone – not once, but twice. Or having to avoid the stairs because you aren’t sure if there is danger around the corner.
Ms Lee Yean Wun has seen all that. As a social worker of 30 years, she knows all about the highs and lows of the profession. An aggressive client once spat at her on the streets, and again at a Social Service Office.
Despite the unpleasant confrontation, Lee, 53, did not hold it against the man, as she explained to The Pride that she understood that there were “issues leading him to behave that way when certain things don’t happen”.
The executive director of Kampong Kapor Family Service Centre (KKFSC) also takes precautions for safety, even for something as regular as going to the office.
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“During normal office hours, I usually take the stairs to our office on the third floor. But when I come in at seven in the morning, I don’t take the stairs because it’s really quiet and you never know what can happen round the corner.”
According to Bavani Pillai, a senior social worker of six years who works on family violence cases, angry spouses have turned up unannounced at the FSC.
Pillai, 31, explained that the abusive spouse may show up demanding to see his wife’s social worker to explain his side of the story. While she’s usually able to diffuse the situation by reasoning with them, sometimes things can get violent.
Lee added that the police have been called in before – like when a visitor started thrashing and throwing things or issuing threats like, “I’ll see you downstairs”.
In order to protect themselves during such interactions, these social workers rely on a support system within the agency. Whether it’s buddying up for house visits or in Nel Lim’s case, opening up and sharing her feelings with her direct supervisor so the latter knows what’s going on, it’s safe to say that their bonds help them to deal with the emotional fallout.
“I think working as a team and getting support from one another is important,” said Lim, a 34-year-old assistant senior counsellor from KKFSC.
And this is especially true in times of crisis when their client encounters an emergency such as losing their homes, or if they go missing. When that happens, a social worker has to be fast enough to firstly, troubleshoot and secondly, find resources to help, explained Lim.
“Our relationship with our community and partners here is so important because when crisis comes, they can be your eyes on the ground, and help provide for the family and tide them through the difficult moments,” she added.
In fact, Lim relies on the residents of the area for information on her clients and attributes their “kampong spirit” for their willingness to stay in contact with one another.
“When things happen to a particular family, you realise that the neighbours will be very well-informed about what happened,” she observed.
“In a situation like when the mother goes missing or a child needs help, we actually work with the neighbours to provide food or (enlist their) help to take care of the children.”
According to Lee, one common misconception that people have of social workers is that they are miracle workers.
Lee told The Pride: “(They think that) problems can dissolve in front of us.”
Lim echoed similar sentiments as she observed that her friends think it’s easy to be a social worker because they are “just helping people with financial issues” and all they have to do is to “apply for financial assistance”.
“And I tell them, ‘You come in and you try’,” Lim quipped.
“They think that all we do is to fill in the gap. If you don’t have money, we give money. If you don’t have a house, we give a house. But they don’t know that it’s much more than that,” said Lim. And even that is an unrealistic expectation. “It’s really about being involved with the life of our clients, being there for them and walking through the difficult moments with them,” she added.
Yes, financial aid is a common problem their clients face, along with housing and family violence, but alleviating their situation isn’t as simple as submitting forms or sending out emails.
Some cases may be resolved in six to nine months, but as Lee revealed, there are pending cases with KKFSC that have stretched for as long as 10 years.
With a team of 23, the social workers of KKFSC are constantly on the move in this fast-paced profession. Besides heading out for house visits, they also accompany their clients to “navigate the systems”, said Lim, who incidentally had an appointment at the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) the day The Pride spoke to her.
And successfully helping clients to navigate the system is only one step in helping to solve a client’s problem, Lee pointed out, as she recalled a particularly rewarding case with a homeless man that finally saw some progress just last week.
She said: “We’ve been appealing to HDB since the start of last year and his application to co-rent a flat kept getting rejected despite numerous appeals. Eventually, I met him on the street (two weeks ago) and he told me that he received a letter from HDB to say that they finally accepted his application to rent a flat.”
It took almost two years of hard work just to get an application approved. It may not sound like much, but such small achievements are significant for both the clients and the social workers who fight their cause.
And while they may not be able to work miracles overnight, it is in these small victories that social workers find the satisfaction in their jobs and the motivation to keep going.
Pillai said: “We are not going to make their problems disappear. We don’t have that magic power although we wish we do. The outcome is not about having everything disappear but it’s about seeing if they can cope better. And if they’re coping better, if they have access to more resources than they did before, that to us, is an improvement.”
“Changes don’t come overnight and I think it’s the small things that make you appreciate your work a lot. It could be a very simple conversation and you hear your client talking about behaviours or beliefs that they want to work on. It’s the small changes that you see or the small awareness that your clients have about the situation. I think these are things that I find pretty rewarding,” added Lim.