Social networks add layer of complexity to social work

Posted on March 11, 2014 in Child & Family Delivery System – Life – With digital connections like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, there’s more information easily available about people’s personal information than ever before. With risks as well as benefits, the technology is a double-edged sword.
Mar 11 2014.   By: Jennifer Hough

A woman tries to sell her child on Kijiji. A man stalks his ex-girlfriend though her phone’s GPS. A YouTube video depicts a child being physically assaulted.

These are all recent real-life examples of referrals made by the public toChildren’s Aid Society of Toronto citing social media or websites as evidence for the claims.

Never before has social work been so social. Front-line workers are up against a torrent of technology and Lisa Tomlinson, Child Welfare Supervisor at the CAS, says these kinds of referrals are increasing all the time.

“There’s a real spectrum of ways that information comes into us now. It’s growing and we’ve started talking about how to manage it. We’ve had a number of cases referred because of photos seen on Facebook, tweets sent out. We’ve had people report that youth are posting on Facebook they are going to kill themselves. We’ve been sent photos of weapons in the home with a child there. It could be YouTube — children being harmed, or at risk of harm. We have to try and see where it is, what’s happening; decide is this a valid child protection issue.”

David Fleming, director of intake at the CAS, recalls a particularly serious case.

“Someone sent an image from Facebook of a new mother posing with her baby. It turned out this was a woman who had seriously abused two infants, her own children, in another province. She had been charged and convicted of assault and should not have had a child in her care.”

Social media has not yet become part of normal protocol in investigating a case, says Rob Thompson, communications director at the CAS. There are other “tried and tested methods that have to be exhausted before these options are considered.”

Sometimes, though, there simply are no other options.

For example, says Tomlinson, in the case of tracking someone who can’t be found by traditional methods.

“We had a case this morning where a woman was about to deliver a baby that she wants to put up for adoption but she can’t find the father. She said he had a Facebook page and to check if he can be found on there. He has rights, so needs to be informed,” she says.

“We’ve used LinkedIn to try and find dads. They might not like that we’ve contacted them through that site, but we say, well it’s a public forum, it’s up there for anyone to see.”

When it comes to searching for kin of children in care, social media has been a “game changer,” says Fleming.

“When we have children in our care, we have an obligation to look for family. Social media has become a complete game changer in this respect because we can search all over the world. We’ve had two different cases where it was believed the children’s mothers were dead, but through social media, we found them. There was another example of two siblings in care who thought they had no family, but we found kin out west. Now they are getting reconnected. We used to go to Transport Ministry to look for licences. That was so limited. This is around the world and so easy to do.”

As the possibilities become apparent, some agencies are taking full advantage of digital tools that are bringing unprecedented leaps forward.

Take for example the “virtual tour” of a Violence Against Women refuge that’s available for domestic violence victims to view in a click. The video, which cannot be publicized for confidentiality reasons, shows women what to expect to help put their minds at ease.

Another new initiative launching in March is an app that allows workers in the field to put in a client’s postal code and pull up all the services he or she may need in that area, from food banks to support groups.

Technology is a double-edged sword for women in abusive relationships, though.

“We have huge problems with women being stalked and traced through Facebook,” says Tomlinson. We see women who are given phones by a spouse as a tracking device. Part of our safety plan is to show women how to disable that. It’s very problematic. We’ve had men who’ve opened up pages just to intimidate a woman and you think if they are doing that, what else are they doing?

“But all of this becomes great evidence, and helps us inform our work and build cases. In domestic violence cases, we tell women they need to save/print and have them bring it to police who will then decide.”

The uncharted territory around social media poses many challenges for workers, and led the Canadian Association of Social Workers to draw upSocial Media Guidelines, published in January this year.

It focuses on ethical concerns, which include how to handle “friend” requests from clients or former clients, deciding whether to search or follow a client on a social media platform and whether to post information related to work on a blog or personal Facebook page.

According to Fred Phelps, executive director of the CASW, the guidelines set out best practice, but it is really up to each agency/organization to develop and implement its own policies.

“Social media is a great platform, but when it comes to privacy and confidentiality there are huge issues. Social workers need to remember what they post is in the public domain and can be accessed by clients. They need to be careful and professional and be cognizant of who has access to their information. And where do you draw the line when it comes to tracking people? What a client might tell a social worker and what they post to Facebook could be two different things. We have to remember social work is not police work.”

Phelps says the issue will be discussed at an upcoming CASW conference.

“Independent social workers and agencies are looking for best ways to manage this — to uphold the right to privacy but to be able to interact with clients and move forward.”

The inevitable meeting of clients and workers in cyber space is a phenomenon Faye Mishna, dean and Professor, Factor-Inwentash faculty of social work, University of Toronto, labels the creep. She says cyber communication (email, text messages, and social networking sites) will creep into social work practice regardless of practitioner’s preference or agency policy.

A research paper she co-authored, published in 2012, and the first of its kind in Canada, found that cyber communication was a Pandora’s Box that had been opened and there was no going back.

The study found that maintaining client confidentiality and privacy was a major concern for social workers. For example a survey found that 7 out of 10 clients find personal information out about their therapist on the Internet, 60 per cent of it about family.

Mishna, who is currently updating the paper, says growth in mobile technology has made boundaries one of the biggest concerns since her initial research.

“People are now contactable all the time. That’s why it’s now an issue everyone is having to address. Two years ago it wasn’t talked about, but now they know they have to deal it.”

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