Angela DeShields’ middle child had a stormy early childhood.
“When he was smaller,” said the single mother of three, “he was really aggressive. I was told ‘he’s a boy, boys are behind,’ but I knew that was wrong.” DeShields took her son to Rockville, Md., where he was diagnosed with autism.
Jostyn, who is 13 now, is still a handful, according to his mother, but he and his family are learning to cope with his autism. He still has social difficulties, his mother said. Loud noises and deviation from regular routines and schedules are problematic.
“He doesn’t really like dealing with being in public or with other kids,” she said. “He tends to like adults more. But thanks to counseling, he’s doing much better.”
Jostyn was 5 when he and his mother first met Angela Blake, who is still his therapist. Blake is almost like a member of her family now, she said.
“I know it would have been a lot different if I hadn’t had her to help and support us,” said DeShields, who is a single mother raising three boys. Blake has helped her learn to discipline Jostyn more effectively, how to tell him what he should or should not be doing and how to offer him incentives to help with behavioral issues.
“We look forward to seeing her,” DeShields said.
The pandemic has thrown the world into a tailspin, and for a child who clings to routines and schedules to maintain composure and make sense of the world, the effect has been amplified.
“He was afraid of Covid, and all his routines were off,” said DeShields. “We’ve gotten him back into school one day a week now. Even though he enjoys being at home, he struggles with online learning. His grades are the worst ever, but now he’s getting one-on-one help at school.”
March was Social Work Month in the United States. According to the National Association of Social Workers, throughout U.S. history, social workers have fought for civil and voting rights for people of color, protested American intervention in wars, helped enact minimum wage and safe workplace regulations for poor people, expanded reproductive and employment rights for American women, supported marriage and employment protections for LGBTQ people, advocated for sensible gun laws and anti-violence initiatives, raised awareness about HIV/AIDS prevention and treatments and fought for client privacy and mental health services.
Social work is the only helping profession that requires social justice advocacy as part of its professional code of ethics, according to a statement released for Social Work Month in 2021. The theme this year is “Social Workers are Essential.”
Macro social work
Jennifer Schermerhorn is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at Salisbury University. A former nursing home social worker, she now helps prepare students to serve in a variety of settings – health departments, schools, prisons, libraries, police departments and in private practice as clinical social workers.
“Social workers also function as watchdogs,” Schermerhorn said. “We are mandated to report suspected abuse to appropriate authorities. Social workers lobby for policy and engage in community organizing; they work in mental health settings, and some social workers even hold elected public office.
“Angela (Blake) serving on Salisbury’s City Council is a good example of that,” said Schermerhorn. “Advocacy is a huge part of what social work is about, whether it’s individual help for a client policy that can work up to the state or federal level. Social work is about helping people in many different ways.”
Blake sees her dual roles as City Council member and clinical social worker as two sides of a single profession – micro and macro versions of work that’s done on behalf of others.
“Being a clinical social worker and seeing clients in a private practice is a micro practice of the profession,” said Blake. “It’s meeting with individuals, families and small groups to help them identify and manage mental, emotional, social, behavioral and financial challenges that negatively impact their happiness and quality of life.”
Being an elected official is, Blake explained, considered macro social work, a broad field that centers on investigating larger-scale social problems and developing and implementing social interventions to make positive change at a community, state or national level.
“The two are similar in that they are rooted in helping people throughout their lifespan,” said Blake. “It’s a primary duty to be aware of any conflict of interest in both the macro and micro fields. If I come across a conflict, I hand off the task to another social worker. Social workers are a team of professionals who can pass the baton smoothly if necessary.”
Licensure, Schermerhorn said, can take many forms. Licensed Clinical Social Workers, for example, work in mental health therapy at the clinical level. Graduate students at Salisbury University can become certified at the Licensed Master Social Worker level, but must work up to clinical level through employment and clinical supervision.
Social workers deal with people at all stages of life, from infancy to old age.
“We connect people with resources and counsel them through mental health issues,” Schermerhorn said. “We teach parenting and life skills, advocate for human rights and respond in crisis intervention situations. At Salisbury University, we talk a lot with our students about reporting because we are mandated reporters of abuse and neglect. Our students are placed in family service settings, where they are seeing fewer than the normal number of reports.”
Schermerhorn attributes this to the disruptions in the reporting process because children are not being seen in the school system.
“Cases are not being reported,” she said, “and some children may be more at risk.”
Much like the nursing profession, social workers in Maryland must be licensed. And, Schermerhorn pointed out, much like nurses are in high demand during the pandemic, licensed social workers will be needed more than ever as we come out of the pandemic era.
Blake has helped clients like DeShields and her sons adapt to the multiple stresses of pandemic, Jostyn’s autism and his mom’s single parenthood.
Blake has come up with ways to keep Jostyn off medications, at the request of his mother.
“I don’t like medicating,” said DeShields, “so Angela does things like play games to help him focus, gives him memory activities to keep him focused, teaches him coping techniques and does little yoga activities with him. Medicating children is like just trying to keep them out of your hair so you don’t have to deal with them. Angela has come up with all kinds of things so that doesn’t happen.”
Blake has helped the entire family, DeShields said.
“Jostyn is a handful, but I don’t want the others to feel left out,” she said. “She’s helped me, too. As a single parent, sometimes I need that extra encouragement and support. It does get overwhelming working a full-time job and raising an autistic child and two other children. Angela has visited us at home, attended Jostyn’s school meetings with me and taught me to advocate for my child in the correct way. She’s gone to speak for us when we didn’t know what to say.”
Jostyn’s siblings are 10 and 18.
“They are protective of him,” said DeShields. “His older brother tends to fuss at him for not trying his best. They squabble over homework. But the 10-year-old, the two of them are on a development kind of thing, it’s almost like they are the same age in terms of maturity.”
“Social work has shifted rapidly in the 21st century,” said Blake. “Not only with crisis management, international human conditions and in the medical field, but empowering individuals and groups for social change.”