By Michael Murney
When Christy Stewart’s client called her in the midst of being assaulted by her boyfriend, she begged Stewart not to call the police.
Stewart, 31, a fifth-year social worker who recently earned her Master of Social Work from the University of Illinois at Chicago, felt paralyzed. Both she and her client feared that involving the police would endanger the lives of her client and her client’s boyfriend.
When she consulted her supervisor, however, they told her she had no choice but to call the police.
Stewart said scenarios like this are why she and other current and former students at the university’s Jane Addams College of Social Work are pushing to end mandatory collaborations between social services and law enforcement.
University students are not alone in this effort. At a recent meeting of Social Service Workers United – Chicago, a social workers’ advocacy group in Chicago, members voted to endorse the Black Abolitionist Network’s campaign to defund the Chicago Police Department.
An open letter published July 13 by members of Social Service Workers United – Chicago called for an end to the integration of police and social services, and gained nearly 2,000 signatures within weeks.
Despite its national visibility and momentum, however, university students are often silenced when they attempt to discuss the police abolition movement within social work.
Elena Gormley, 30, said, “What happens when you challenge these carceral practices is that it pisses them off. In my classes, they pretty much just say, you can’t write about abolishing police and prisons in social work.”
In a June 15, 2020 op.-ed. in the Wall Street Journal, Angelo McClain, CEO of the National Association of Social Workers, wrote that “strengthening social worker and police partnerships can be an effective strategy in addressing behavioral health, mental health, substance use, homelessness, family disputes, and other similar calls to 911 emergency lines.”
The next day, the National Association of Social Workers Twitter account tweeted in apparent support of an executive order issued by President Donald Trump. The order, which called for more police training nationwide, also called for increased integration of social services and law enforcement, stating, “This is what they [social workers] have trained for all their lives. We will have the best of them put in our police departments.”
The tweet and McClain’s op.-ed. sparked a backlash from social workers like Stewart and Gormley, eventually resulting in the July 13 publication of the open letter, “The NASW is failing us. Either it changes, or we will change it ourselves.”
Gormley says that she and other social work students are still told not to bring police abolition discussions into their classwork, however.
“The framework is, they provide a veneer of, this is why it’s important to advocate for social justice, but just in ways that we are comfortable with,” she said. “Don’t challenge anything too much.”
For example, Gormley says when she proposed a project exploring abolition of the child welfare system, which some social workers identify as often forcing police and social services to collaborate in ways that harm poor communities of color, she was required by her professor to pick another topic.
“I was told, ‘Look, you can’t look at abolishing the child welfare system.’ Even though there are many academics in social work doing work around abolishing the child welfare system,” she said.
Without such discussions of sweeping change in social services, Stewart said, social workers’ relationships with their clients will always be fundamentally compromised.
“How can I maintain the integrity of the therapeutic relationship when I’m required to increase the likelihood of them being incarcerated by telling cops when they’ve messed up?” she lamented. “There’s really no way to maintain the integrity of that relationship within this carceral system.”
Michael is an investigative reporter at Medill. You can follow him at @MurneyMichael.
Correction: An earlier version of this story listed Stewart as a first-year social worker; she is a fifth-year social worker.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to SSWU-Chicago as a labor union. This was a mischaracterization, as they do not collectively bargain or represent workers at their worksite.