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Social Workers Are Rejecting Calls For Them to Replace Police

Some say their roles are already too close to those of law enforcement and are organizing for a radical rethinking of the profession.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown.

Jon, a social worker in New York City, began to fully understand the relationship between social services and law enforcement during the years they spent working with formerly homeless people at a single-room occupancy building in the South Bronx. In one case, officers arrived in response to a mental health call involving an older woman with severe schizophrenia. As officers escorted her off the premises, Jon said, a staff member of the building who had gone out to smoke a cigarette saw police punching the woman in the head repeatedly. 

“That was when I first started to really see, complete blinders off, how the police fit into this,” Jon said. (The Appeal is withholding Jon’s full name because of Jon’s concerns about professional repercussions.) 

Since the police killings this year of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people, more people have begun to confront the harms of policing, and many are imagining for the first time how police might be abolished altogether. One palatable alternative has emerged: Social workers should collaborate with—or replace—police officers.

But many social workers across the country, including Jon, a member of Social Service Workers Uprising Now-NYC, disagree. Networks of radical social workers in New York, Michigan, Illinois, Massachusetts, and elsewhere are organizing in opposition to increased cooperation between their field and police. Social work, they say, already involves law enforcement and can embrace punitive practices that disproportionately harm communities of color. Some in the field wonder what society might look like if, like police, social work in its current form is also dismantled.

“You have to understand all of the systems that fail people,” Jon said. “The conversations about how to divest [from the current system] are very complicated because there are those of us who understand what needs to be done and there are those of us who clamp down tighter.”

Calls for social workers to work more with police have come from the public, the president, and from within the profession, including in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by National Association of Social Workers (NASW) chief executive officer Angelo McClain. 

But some in the profession are demanding that NASW embrace abolitionist goals instead. In July, Social Service Workers United-Chicago created a petition that was signed by more than 1,700 social workers, students, and clients, and endorsed by groups across the country and internationally. The petition called on NASW to adopt eight demands, including aligning with the 8 to Abolition movement and changing the social work code of ethics to allow for free dissent and criticism of the field. 

Greg Wright, NASW’s public relations manager, declined to comment but directed The Appeal to a video message from McClain. Wright also noted the NASW’s support of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and the organization’s critiques of President Trump’s executive order in which he called to expand social workers’ collaboration with law enforcement.

In an open letter accompanying the petition, SSWU-Chicago wrote that it is time for “a reckoning on how [social work] has created, upheld, and strengthened oppressive systems.” The letter mentions past backlash to dissent within the field, highlighting the case of a Binghamton University student who faced disciplinary action after he put up posters that were critical of the social work department. The SSWU-Chicago criticized social workers’ collaboration with police—an institution it described as racist and violent—and with prisons, jails, court-ordered drug treatment programs, and other systems that they say are in conflict with social work itself.  

“If all we do is replace police with social workers without eliminating these carceral aspects of social work, we will simply subject vulnerable people to cops by a different name,” the letter reads.

Elena Gormley, a social work student at the University of Illinois-Chicago and one of the authors of the letter, echoed this concern to The Appeal. She said she understands the impulse to want more social workers in situations where police are present: They are seen as caring and compassionate, and have training in de-escalation or responding to domestic disputes. But “we have to radically rethink social work,” she said.

Some social workers say leaders in the field have failed to adequately reflect on the role they play in institutional racism and police violence. Kim Young, a social worker and organizer in Richmond, Virginia, challenged the NASW on its stances around police collaboration through an earlier petition and is outspoken on social media about how she believes the field must change. Young was briefly blocked by the professional group on Instagram in July, when the NASW said users were trolling its page. She was later unblocked after community outcry.

“It’s disheartening to see that leadership is leaning in the direction of wanting to be pleasing, and accommodating systems that do not have the best interests of those that we fight for on a daily basis,” Young said.

Social workers already work closely with law enforcement. They regularly treat clients who are being held in prisons and jails, at inpatient psychiatric facilities, and in detention centers. They are also often required by law to collect and report clients’ personal health information, which, in some cases, winds up harming their clients. Reporting in Vox has detailed how migrant children may be encouraged to open up to doctors or social workers, only for those medical and psychological records to be used as evidence in immigration court.

Some social workers believe working in these settings and under these constraints contradicts their code of ethics mandate to respect clients’ right to self-determination. “There are tons of rules about not harming clients but the field actively ignores them a lot,” Gormley said.

Though social work can assist and provide resources to people in need of support, it can also be a punitive system that, like policing, negatively affects people of color and poor people. Jessica Kant, a member of the Boston Liberation Health Group, which endorsed SSWU-Chicago’s open letter to the NASW, uses the example of a child wearing the same clothes every day, and how some social workers may read that as neglect rather than a lack of resources—and report the situation as such. 

“It is a far cry between a family not being fit to take care of someone and not having money,” Kant said. “Those have nothing to do with each other. When a family doesn’t have money, that’s a societal failing. The idea that we have a punitive response is preposterous.”

Social workers also point to the child welfare system, a significant employer of social workers, as deeply problematic. For years, Native children were taken from their families and enrolled in boarding schools, where they were forced to give up their languages, clothing, and cultures in an “assimilation” effort. The system also plays an outsize role in Black communities: Black children are overrepresented in foster care and Black parents’ parental rights are terminated at higher rates than their white counterparts. 

Social work as a field is also predominantly white, and researchers have pointed to an “empathy gap” between providers and their clients who are people of color. Research by Terence Fitzgerald, a clinical associate professor at the University of Southern California, found that white social workers are often not as empathetic toward people of color as they think they are.

Also missing from the conversation, radical social workers say, is discussion of how the collective organizing power of practitioners is interconnected with serving their clients—that abolition work goes hand-in-hand with labor organizing. Supporting union representation, fair wages, and manageable caseloads is a way to stand with the clients social workers seek to serve, they say. Many social workers are themselves clients of social services and struggle financially or with mental health issues, or are victims of violence. 

“I know what it is to experience all of this violence from the police because I experienced it alongside [my clients],” Jon said. The police are “all up in my communities, too,” they  added.

Kant said the national discussion around race in America has forced social workers to examine their own role in policing, and what place they can have in their community, removed from such systems. This moment—and the conversation around abolition now happening at-large in the profession—has pushed social workers to think about how they can support existing community efforts, Kant said.

“If there is any place for us in systems of safety and addressing harm, it is in partnership with the people who are directly going through it,” Kant said.  

Social workers say they are critiquing the system and challenging leadership out of a desire to build a better version of the field, and to make up for lost time and harm done.

“Right now is the time to do it,” Kant said, “Because we are way too late anyway.”