Separating a Meaningful Life from the Demands of a Career in Social Work

Interview with Dr. Raquel Warley, Forensic Social Worker and Associate Professor

Although Dr. Raquel Warley began her professional career as a researcher in the criminal justice field, she changed to social work when she realized she was much better suited to helping people escape a life of despair rather than simply recounting their downfall. Despite years of being a social worker and now a professor of social work, Warley is quick to counsel others contemplating a similar career, explaining that self-care is necessary for preventing being overwhelmed by the stress often associated with the job.

self-care advice from social worker Raquel Warley

Warley’s professional and academic background in the area of social work spans 20 years. It includes a Bachelor’s degree in forensic psychology from John Jay College, a Master of Art’s degree in criminal justice, an MS in social work and kinesiology, an M.Phil. in social welfare and a doctorate, also in social welfare. The many certifications she’s earned qualify her to work as a certified rape crisis counselor, a licensed clinical social worker, a certified field instructor and a certified domestic violence counselor. Warley is also a professional trainer for social service agencies and corporations and a private supervisor for social work and other mental health practitioners. 

Warley has a long list of publication credits and presentations to her name, often lending her expertise to a number of topics such as gender identity, chronic stress, prison reform, forensics and more. She is also a sought-after speaker having delivered presentations to organizations such as the National Organization of Forensic Social Workers, the Forensic Social Work Caucus for California State University and the Child & Family Studies Program at California State University, among others. Her study of social work and its ethical principles, her research activities, and her efforts to educate others about the field have earned her several academic awards—including a Graduate Studies Honor from California State University, the Jacob Goldfein Award for Scholarly & Creative Work from Hunter College School of Social Work and two grants from California State and the City University of New York Graduate Research Grant Program.

Enjoy our interview with Dr. Raquel Warley as she delves into the rewards and pitfalls that social workers face in today’s world.

GradSchools: What inspired you to be a social worker? Was there a particular experience that led you to the profession?

My interest in and decision to enter the social work profession came by way of my work in the criminal justice field. After graduating with a Master’s of Arts in criminal justice, I went to work at National Institutes of Research & Development in the Institute on Trauma & Violence. During my tenure, I was engaged in three investigations that involved adolescents in custody in New York or Maryland for one of three violent crimes: aggravated assault, robbery, or homicide. Suffice to say, although I did not condone these transgressions, I began to understand that, for these youth who were almost exclusively from socially and economically oppressed backgrounds, major structural arrangements within society were also culpable.  Besides, I was no longer content with enlightening the masses about why these youth engage in such destructive behaviors; I wanted my contribution to society to be more preventative. 

GradSchools: Please describe your work as a forensic examiner and how it applies to juvenile court. How does your background as a social worker play into it?

In my role as forensic examiner, I do biopsychosocial assessments and fitness evaluations for youth who are justice involved. These youth have been remanded to the care and custody of the Los Angeles Department of Probation and are either under the auspices of residential care or are being supervised in the community.

The process begins with an attorney (usually a public defender) contacting me to inquire about my availability for taking a case. Once I agree to take a case, the attorney files a petition with the court to request my appointment as a forensic examiner. After a judge makes the appointment and the attorney sends me official record data (i.e. the charge petition, the arrest report, the probation officer’s report, school records, psychological reports, etc.), I do a face-to-face interview with the minor. When possible, I also gather information from the legal guardian. If necessary, and with the minor’s/guardian’s consent and authorization, I might collect data from other significant sources. Next, I assemble the database then organize and analyze the information; therefrom, I make an assessment regarding predisposing, precipitating, and perpetuating factors that explain the youth, his/her lived experience, the instant offense, and his/her propensity for delinquency and crime. In addition, I present diagnoses, suggest a placement arrangement, and offer recommendations for ongoing mental/behavioral health treatment.

When asked to do a fitness evaluation, this means that the prosecutor wants the minor to be tried in adult court; therefore, I also offer my professional opinion regarding eligibility criteria for the youth’s case to be heard in juvenile court. 

Finally, I generate a confidential report of findings, which I submit to the defense attorney who makes a decision whether to present my assessment or evaluation to the court and, if so, to what extent that information will be presented. When deemed necessary by the defense, the prosecutor, or the judge, I will be subpoenaed to testify in court as an expert witness in a case. This scope of practice is called forensic social work; notwithstanding, the procedures, processes, and actions described herein are very similar to the extent of interventions that any licensed clinical social worker would and should be able to provide – outside of the legal context.

GradSchools: Your research demonstrates a wide range of topics—education in prison, adolescent pregnancy, workplace violence. How do you identify your research interests? Do they share a common thread?

The forthright answer is: I engage in work that either excites my curiosity or gives me satisfaction and enjoyment. That being said, my various research interests do share a common thread: They start with social work questions that entail a legal aspect. For instance, in the research concerning adolescent pregnancy, my particular contribution was to examine the correlation between teen pregnancy and matters of domestic violence, including history of child abuse, witnessing family violence, and being involved in an intimate partner abusive situation. 

GradSchools: Your career also shows a range of experience in different areas, such as teaching, research, and training social workers. How do you balance all these separate tasks?

Add to the list program administration; I just launched a non-profit, youth-based organization called F.I.T. Camp. In that capacity, I am involved in the day-to-day running of the agency. I am an active professional and my activities within the field of social work are diverse yet complementary. I am not forced to do any of these things; in fact, I have been encouraged to stick to one area of expertise. Again, I engage in work that excites, satisfies, and/or gives me enjoyment. I feel truly blessed to have the passion that I have for my work. 

Frankly, I am skilled in all these areas; I believe this makes me more marketable as a social work professional. Notwithstanding, it can be difficult to balance not just these different skill sets but the sundry tasks that I generally have to manage and negotiate within each of them. In short, time and stress management skills allow me to effectively survive my professional lifestyle! I have become proficient at prioritizing my duties, multi-tasking yet focusing my mental efforts on each activity in the moment, and being steadfast in achieving my goals and objectives. I truly believe I would be unable to accomplish these aims, and therefrom my purpose, if I did not continually look after my physical, mental, and spiritual health.   

GradSchools: Social workers often find themselves in extremely stressful or emotionally taxing situations. What would you advise as self-care tips for a social worker to prepare for this kind of work?

The premier professional organization in the field, the National Association of Social Workers, mandates, in its Code of Ethics, that budding and veteran professionals be responsible to five entities: clients, colleagues, employing agency, the profession, and society as a whole. I declare that budding and veteran professionals should also be responsible to themselves! By that, I wholeheartedly encourage social workers to regularly give attention and effort to caring for the self. Whether it is exercise, nutrition, prayer, reading a good book, or taking a long bubble bath, prospective social workers should learn how and be committed to engaging in deliberate, self-initiated activities that buffer inevitable job stress. This is extremely crucial inasmuch as workplace stress and dissatisfaction are associated with poor physical and mental health among social workers.   

GradSchools: Based on you and your colleagues’ experiences, what are some of the stresses and challenges of careers in social work? What are some methods for self-care in social work that you use to combat the affect those stresses have on you personally?

The particular environmental conditions of his/her agency setting will largely determine the stressors and challenges that any social workers is faced with. From my observation, the most universal aggravations are: high caseloads, unreasonable deadlines, a dearth of resources to do the work, poor leadership, low wages for the performance that is expected, and devaluation of the profession. While I cannot claim that these factors rule the world of social work, I cannot declare that the contrary is true either. 

Where any or all of these conditions exist, social work professionals are susceptible to experiencing a range of physical, psychological, emotional, and behavioral symptoms, including aches and pains, muscle tension, chronic fatigue, depression, low self-esteem and confidence, generalized anxiety, PTSD, irritability, explosive outburst of anger, and aggression. These effects come at a huge cost to practitioners and the human service organizations that employ them as well as their colleagues and the clients that they serve.

Preventive and ongoing self-care is INDISPENSIBLE in one’s practice as a means to staving off and dealing effectively with work stress. Effectual self-care is personal. There are many strategies that could be suggested; however, what is helpful for one person may not be for another. The point is to actively try various methods until you find the one(s) that works for you.  I regularly rely on exercise, spa therapy, nutrition, and invoking God in my life and the work that I do to keep me in sound mind and body.

GradSchools: How has the profession changed since you began your career? Where do you it see it going?

The field has changed in ways that are both advantageous and disadvantageous for the profession and the people that we serve. In my opinion, a beneficial change has been the inflow of individuals from non-dominant ethic backgrounds, in addition to an increasing number of people from previous occupations entering the field. Ideally, this means a growing diversity of thoughts, research agendas, and courses of action at the micro, meso, and macro levels of practice in championing the cause of social welfare.

On the other hand, social work is probably more de-professionalized than ever before. This is materializing in every type of human service setting through the reduction of practitioner discretion in the cases for which they are involved. This has implications for practitioners’ pride and confidence as professional social workers. Moreover, the one-size-fits-all approach to social services, especially mental health, that has precipitated the de-professionalization of social work, has seriously hindered positive treatment outcomes for individuals, families, and communities with highly complex needs. I am most concerned about this. 

GradSchools: How would someone interested in social work get started in the profession? What sort of self-care tips do you have for them?

Again, genuine self-care is personal; we each have to find what works best for us.  My advice in regards to someone interested in getting into the field is to actively try various self-care methods until you find the one(s) that works for you.  Having said that, I strongly recommend regular exercise as a staple strategy. 

The scholarly explanation arises from growing knowledge in the field of psychoneuroimmunology and wellness which indicates that the status of physical fitness can hinder or enhance capacity to respond effectively to stress. The basic concepts underlying this framework are allostasis, allostatic load, and allostatic buffering. In layperson terminology, structured exercise and other physical activity have immediate and long-term benefits for staving off and enhancing the quality of performance in the wake of chronic stress. 

GradSchools: How can social workers avoid burnout? Do you take part in any self-care group activities?

In addition to responsible assertiveness and advocating for yourself in the workplace, a likely means of avoiding burnout is instituting an ongoing, active, self-initiated, healthy self-care regime. My system includes several unaccompanied pursuits; however, I am involved in two self-care group activities.

Every other month I meet with a group of women of color as part of the Intervasity Christian Faculty Fellowship. This activity keeps me in touch with positive women who share a similar lived experience as non-dominant ethic females in academe. We share our experiences, we cry together, and we learn from each other how to overcome and be upwardly mobile given our individual and collective social environments. These meetings help me spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. The other self-care group activity is exercise-based. For the past four years, I have attended Zumba class almost every Tuesday. I reap physiological benefits, but most of all I have fun! Fun is always a pleasant distraction from work.

GradSchools: In addition to helping people, what is enjoyable about your job?

Social work is a second career for me and, aside from having my daughter, it is the best decision I have made in my life to this point. Although I get overwhelmed by my day-to-day work activities at times, there is no other job that would suit me. In my capacities as social work practitioner, educator, researcher, and administrator, I get to advocate for social change on the macro, meso, and micro practice levels. Better yet, I get to learn something new almost every day; usually, this is owing to my clients, students, and supervisees. Better still, what I appreciate about being a social worker is that applying the skills and techniques of the trade to myself and in my personal life has made me a better human being.  

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