I never wrote about my field placement on this blog. Partly to protect confidentiality, partly because the themes that came up were generalizable. But the last one I end on will lean in a bit–not to open the curtains on my clients’ private stories, but to consider where they, you, and I are all headed. We are all in the same boat in ways too long to describe here, but I’ll touch upon it from the standpoint of a social work intern in the court system.
I could share how my internship related to my personal experiences and how it compared and what it therefore made me realize. Instead, I want to share how the way we look at things affects what those things become, both in our minds and in external reality. I can’t do, well, justice to the number of stories and the depth of what they taught me. Ideas are nothing like the daily application, but let’s start there because ideas orient and distill reality.
I want to reiterate that we, even those who are more critical minded, have a lot in common. No one wants to be judged. No one wants to be offended. Or worse yet, be one who offends. And that was what I was steeped in all year. Reality feels grim when we think of the word “courtroom” and see in our heads the pictures in the media of those depicted as “perps” emerge from the holding cells to fill those pewlike rows. The dark robes shrouding a person who judges the person now called an “offender”, or technically, since it is a criminal court, a “criminal”. We feel the tension, heavy in the room, as perception or perhaps expectation of certain perceptions color the glances and interactions. The confusion for the judged when they go to the social worker who now addresses them as “clients” and hears their stories and offers assistance.
Maybe there are some righteous (or self-righteous) people out there who will disagree, but I believe we are all “guilty” of crimes, even if only in our thoughts. The murderous ones, the callous ones, the ones that shut doors to all possibility of change and growth. And there are very real consequences for what we do, regardless of the differences in what we see as “right” and “wrong”. Even if it’s the poisoning of our own hearts when we can’t forgive, the things we turn to, conscious and unconscious, with our best intentions to be free–whether from the pain of relationships, poverty, even boredom, and worse yet, a lack of purpose and ability to see beyond the pain.
But that is the kicker. We are “guilty” when we guilt ourselves. Of the hundreds of clients I’ve seen sentenced as a “consequence”, if they viewed it as shameful and their interaction with law enforcement and the justice system was fearful, those become true shackles. Fearfulness and shame chain them to their “offenses” in a way that only the invisible can. The invisible is so powerful because it is created by the self, and it is constantly fed information that further proves their unwavering conclusion that they are fated to be invisible and lacking value.
When they feel invisible and lacking value, it seems like many things are fair game. That was the most heartbreaking conclusion I encountered in my client interactions. This belief that it was their fate, the pattern that they found themselves in. So nothing mattered, whether in that moment or during that ongoing harmful cycle they perpetuated. It came in the form of so many people from all walks of life, for a variety of reasons, all within this tiny and tightly packed geographic location. And what I tried to instill this whole year (without inserting myself) was the opposite: freedom. That the entire philosophy and premise behind social work is that change is possible and real. So fate is not this dark cloud of judgment shrouding them, and that if they have never seen any proof otherwise, that there is this thing called a leap of faith.
The interventions were sometimes one-on-one, but not simply through myself. In the group sessions we had, people heard other stories and relatable messages with different outcomes. We roleplayed different ways of coping, shared, identified, and strategized for the future. Under the auspices of this system of judgment and enforcement, we created a safe space for different outcomes. It made it so clear why change is possible–because the real problem is within, and the real solution is, also, within.
And so in conclusion, as people find that answers to the toughest things are truly within them, there will be less fear of avoiding the tough questions and more desire to know the truth. And the truth really will set us free.