Group works to change human services dialogue

People generally don’t understand human and social services, says social worker Irv Katz, president emeritus of the National Human Services Assembly.

The Reframing Human Services Network — powered by the assembly — looks at how people think about these services and researches methods to bring about a better understanding.

Katz says it’s about developing a research-based industrywide movement to change the dialogue about human needs, human development and human services — because these services are currently not on the radar screen.

“As a social worker, I’m really excited to be involved,” Katz said. “It gives us the opportunity to redefine this field in a way that really interprets what we mean and what our intentions are by delivering services — that they are part of a greater developmental aspect of life.”

Over the last couple of years, the Reframing Human Services Network has worked with the Frameworks Institute to conduct webinars and meet with several social and human services organizations and coalitions.

The network presented information about reframing human services to NASW national office staff in April, fostering a discussion about the “understanding gap” between what the experts know to be true about human services, and what the public believes to be true.

“Social workers are the main workforce across human and social services,” said NASW Social Work Policy Institute Director Joan Levy Zlotnik. “It was a good conversation to think about how the network’s findings and research are relevant to NASW and its members.”

There is a challenge that social workers have in talking about the work they do, why it’s important, and why people should care, says Ilsa Flanagan, program director at the National Human Services Assembly.

“We want to bridge that gap, create new language and metaphors, and connect existing values so people can hear and think about human and social services differently,” she said.

According to the network, experts know that there can be a host of structural issues that may cause a young child to do poorly in school — including nutrition deficits, the neighborhood in which they live, and family income — and that improving those circumstances must be part of the solution.

But the public understanding of the problem is often limited, with a belief that individual choices are solely responsible for how a person fares in life, and that person is fully capable of changing those circumstances. Other misperceptions include the thought that welfare causes welfare, and human services organizations are funded by charity.

“When talking to people on the street, well-being is generally the default response when they are asked what social services means to them, and why people may seek help,” Flanagan said. “Then when we dig a little deeper, finances is the next. But there are several factors involved in life that impact whether you do well and thrive, including mental health. We are working to come up with new language to incorporate physical and mental health, and help people really understand.”

The network will have suggestions for talking about these services available this summer, Flanagan says, along with tools, templates, webinars and an online toolkit.

“We encourage social workers to take part in the webinars and training, and find ways to take the new frames and integrate them in work they do,” Flanagan said.