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March 9, 2011

Death of a social work organization

Reuel S. Amdur

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The national social work professional organization is in the process of committing suicide.

Social work as a profession is relatively young. 

In the U.S., Britain, and Canada it began with Charity Organization Societies, which attempted to organize poor relief on a “scientific” basis and to develop coordination of services, settlement houses, which were community centres which focused on citizenship development and community involvement, and then on family service agencies.  Since then, the role has expanded in various directions.

In Canada, the University of Toronto opened the first school of social work in 1914, and the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW) was established in 1926.  In enlisted individual members.  Unfortunately, that structure was later changed.

A decision was made in 1975 to restructure CASW.  No longer would it have individual members.  Instead, the provincial associations would be the members and individual social workers would be members of the provincial associations.  Social workers in the Territories form a single association which is affiliated as a member of CASW.

This structure assumed sweetness and light all around, with no conflict among the provincial bodies, nor with the national. 

However, over the years there have been ongoing disputes over money, how much each member organization should be paying to CASW. 

When I was briefly on the board of CASW representing Ontario, Ontario was battling to keep from paying the same per capita as some of the other provincial bodies.  After all, we argued, we were a big province putting in big bucks already.

Then in 2003 CASW suffered a serious blow.  Quebec pulled out.  When the Quebec association was successful in getting legislation to control the use of the social work title and to regulate practice, the Quebec organization became that regulatory agency.  It then decided that it did not want to spend resources on support of the national organization, with CASW’s broader focus.  Some other provinces, Ontario for example, have both the regulatory body and the professional organization. 

Quebec’s pull-out hurt, but it should also have been a wake-up call.  CASW should have recognized the danger that the membership situation presented and moved to reinstate individual membership.  Unfortunately, that did not happen.

Because the provincial organizations are autonomous, they set their own fee structures.  They are not all the same in how they treat students, part-time workers, retirees, etc.  And their criteria are not all the same as the criteria of CASW for per capita charges to the provincial organizations.  Hence, a constant source of conflict.

Ontario and Alberta are pulling out of CASW at the end of March. 

The Ontario Board of Directors states that it is “suspending membership for a year”.  It explains the reason as that CASW is not providing value for fees, a back-handed way of saying that it is about the money.  What are the kinds of things that CASW is supposedly lax in providing?  Advocacy on behalf of the profession, provision of on-line practice information and resources, lobbying for social policy affecting social workers and their clients, and good national conferences.

The pull-out of two more provinces at this time presents a serious threat to the survival of CASW.  It occurs precisely when Eugenia Moreno, the Executive Director, is retiring.  Who would be prepared to take on the role of Executive Director of an organization on life support?  And how does the saintly figure who takes on the task quickly get up to snuff on the ins and outs of the organization at the same time undertake the provision of the kind of leadership needed to bring the provincial organizations to agreement on a new structure?  Incidentally, the need is for leadership which those who demand change failed themselves to provide. 

In the Ontario case, it is very clear that the drastic decision taken was made without the kind of thorough discussion within the provincial organization that should precede such a major decision.  It was simply brought, without warning, to a board meeting.  While the board did accept the proposal, it did so without any consultation with the branches of the organization and without study.  In short, the decision was railroaded.

It is likely that this move will result in the end of CASW, cut off at the pockets.  Will those who choked it to death then be prepared to take on the task of resurrecting it?  After all, those responsible for the likely demise of CASW have, in their reasons for suspending membership, listed just some of the things that a national organization is needed for. 

The demise of CASW will also deprive Canada of a progressive voice for sound social policy at the national level and in cooperation with other national bodies at the international level.

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