A message from the social work Terminator: I won’t be back.

Termination is not the most agreeable topic among social workers, to say the least.

There are people who despise the term with a passion, people who spend their careers researching and writing about it, therapists and clients who own/embrace it, and social work students who discuss it like it’s an overrated Hollywood Blockbuster.

If my memory serves me correctly, social work students at my particular School of Social Work spent many a break between classes distraught over the unfairness of termination in social work field placements. I think it went something like: What a disservice it is to our clients! How terrible that we should float in and out of their lives with no thought to their well-being! What awful, terrible people must have decided this was an ethical thing to do!

I exaggerate, of course, and I do want to disclose that there were times where I joined my peers in their concerns. Perhaps in some instances it was a disservice, especially to the most vulnerable of our clients (or especially with those social work students who were not as dedicated… or studious… or passionate as others?). I still don’t know.

What I do know is that with hindsight, my perspective on termination at the end of a social work field placement has changed greatly. Although I have not written much about my current social work position (yet?), those of you who follow me on twitter know that it has been a fine but not great experience and that I hope to move on to another position soon. Given that I plan to leave, I have been thinking a lot about termination with my clients and more specifically, the absence of any termination process.

Ambivalent: that is how I feel about “termination” as a term. But as a concept, I feel that paying attention to the ending process of a therapeutic relationship is worthwhile and important.

On one hand… Ending a therapeutic relationship is difficult and there are always times that it must happen when it is not in the best interest of the client. If you meet a client at the start of your field placement, you have eight months (ish) to work toward their goals and to prepare for saying goodbye/ending/termination (words I often use interchangeably). But social work interns frequently begin working with new clients in the middle or towards the end of their field placements and it can be more difficult to see how such truncated relationships benefit clients.

During my first year as a social work intern, I spoke with my supervisor about my concerns when he tried to refer a new client to me less than two months before the end of my field placement. Did I have room on my caseload? Yes. Was it the perfect client for me to take on given my interests and gaps in my learning? Yes. Did her case file lead me to believe she needed someone who could stay with her longer than two months? Yes. Ultimately, he agreed with me and she was referred to a full-time staff member. I worked with a client looking for more short-term services instead.

On the other hand… I find myself reflecting on the alarmist nature of the concerns expressed by my peers and I during social work school (though they were not as dramatic, perhaps, as I made them seem at the start of this post) and finding it somewhat absurd. In the “real world” (whatever that means) of social work, termination dates are generally no more determined by clients’ needs than the arbitrary length of a social work field placement. The dates are most often decided by factors out of the client or worker’s control. A client may age out of a program, a program may only allow a certain window of time for workers to meet with clients, insurance may restrict the number of sessions covered for a specific diagnosis, etc.

In the programs I currently work with, the ideal/expected end date is when clients graduate from high school (they “graduate” from the program whenever they are supposed to graduate from their school, regardless of whether or not they do… classy, right?). The program is also voluntary, so clients can and do leave the program whenever they feel like it. Most of the time, they stick around unless they transfer to a school we don’t partner with, move away, etc.

None of my clients are slated to graduate this year. And since the program coincides with the school year, I have “terminated” with most of my clients for the summer already and will have my last group meetings over the next couple of weeks. After our last meetings, most of my clients said things like “See you next year!” as they left, which of course left my brain drowning in guilt-overload.

I won’t be the first. This Non-Profit Organization does very little to retain staff (forgive me if you’ve heard me say that before), so many social workers in my position leave after only a year (or less!). Some have told me the clients are used to it even. But it hurts my heart to give vague responses to my clients when they ask me about next year. I don’t plan to be here next Fall, sure, but I have no job lined up and haven’t given notice yet/told my supervisor. By the time I have a job offer, I’ll have to tell them by phone, email, snail mail…

So what do I believe about termination? I believe that when given time and attention, an ending can be a really valuable and even positive experience. How often in our lives do we know ahead of time that a relationship is ending? Most of the time, goodbyes are reluctant, ambiguous, abrupt: break-ups, deaths, relocation. A planned experience with the opportunity to reflect on the relationship and time to review the enduring supports that have been established outside of the relationship sounds great to me. (Well, for therapy anyway – maybe not for a break-up; sometimes things just need to end.) It’s not always pretty and sometimes it doesn’t happen (ie: you’re leaving? Then I’m not coming back next week – or ever!), but most of the time, I believe the effort is really worth it.

I realize now that I am shit out of luck if I had any fantasy of giving my current clients this kind of goodbye. And that defined field placement time period is looking pretty fantastic right now. I suppose I should feel better knowing that this is not a very clinical position and I do not have a traditional “therapeutic relationship” with my clients. And sometimes it helps to think that way. But other times I still feel like a shitty social worker.

My thoughts return to countertransference. I remind myself: I am not here to be a hero. I am not their savior. I am not the only one who can help.

But when it comes down to it, I just want to run after my clients who say See you next year! and say I won’t be back! I can’t help feeling like they should know… I won’t be back.

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3 thoughts on “A message from the social work Terminator: I won’t be back.

  1. blubtrflygrl says:

    Used to feel similarly. Now my caseload is super short-term and I love it! I work with clients to bring them onto the program, getting them settled into the community, then pass them onto someone else. I am always joking that I don’t have to stick around for when all the problems happen. Whether it’s short-term or long-term work with clients, I stil feel we make a huge impact by doing what we do.

  2. Jane says:

    can’t we just adopt them all?!
    –This is my typical reaction to the teacher’s version of a termination session ie: summer break and/or graduation. As unhealthy as that line of thinking is (How could i possibly adopt 300 teenagers?), I completely empathize with the mixed emotions of letting go.

  3. EB says:

    I work with process recorded, and it should also be noted that the volunteers have just as hard a time with the constant dosido of social workers. Anyone who has ever formed a professional working relationship with another adult has at least a tenuous grasp on how important it is to remain consistent. In my experience, I have also noticed that the discrepancy in social workers’ style of managing volunteers certainly is a detriment to programs as well. Thoguht that was worth mentioning Oh, and also, I am guilt-ridden about leaving as well! So, there’s that.

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