• Podsoc #60

Social work in disasters:

In conversation with Desley Hargreaves

[Transcript for this podcast is found in the Reference tab below]

There is no argument from the experts - climate change is here. Disasters are more intense and affect vulnerable and not so vulnerable populations everywhere. So what role do social workers have in disasters? Desley Hargreaves brings her considerable experience in this work to the Podsocs conversation.

Desley Hargreaves PSM is a social work graduate of the University of Queensland Australia. Desley retired from full time work in April 2013 after a lengthy career. Desley worked in the federal and state government as well as the non-government sector. During the last 10 years of her career she headed up the National Social Work Service in the federal Department of Human Services, with responsibility for approximately 700 social workers delivering a range of services to vulnerable clients across Australia. Desley has had extensive experience in disaster recovery including establishing with her team an offshore service to Australians impacted by terrorism or natural disasters in other countries, starting in 2003 with the trials of the Bali Bombers in Indonesia. Desley was awarded the Public Service Medal in the Bali Honours for the work she and her team undertook with the First Anniversary of the bombings. In retirement Desley has maintained an active involvement in research and consultancy on disaster work.

Recommended citation – APA6th

Fronek, P. (Host). (2013, November 19). Social work in disasters: In conversation with Desley Hargreaves [Episode 60]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/social-work-in-disasters/.

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Transcription Podsocs 60: Social Work in Disasters

Thank you to Krystal Commandeur for this transcription

[musical intro to 00.10]

Hello, and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia.
I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch, and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening.
This morning on Podsocs we are talking about Social Work in disasters, welcome to Podsocs Desley Hargreaves.

Desley: Thank you Tricia.

Tricia: Now, Desley. Let’s start, tell us about yourself and your involvement with disaster?

Desley: Okay, well I’m a social worker by profession and I’ve recently retired from full time work after many years, probably about forty years as a social work practitioner and also manager and leader. And during that time I’ve had quite extensive involvement, particularly over the last twenty years or so in community and disaster recovery both within Australia and in the last ten years offshore as well. So it’s something I’m very passionate about, it’s something I think social workers have a very strong role to play in but my experience is it’s often unrecognised.

Tricia: So what role does social work role play in a disaster scenario?

Desley: Well I think there are many roles a social worker can play but one of the most important roles they play I believe is connecting with individuals, families, groups and communities to actually support them in the recovery process. I think that one of the strengths of social work is that social workers come from a strengths based perspective, they understand that it’s important to work with the strengths that people have and encourage them to use those and maximise those so that those affected start to gain control because one of the things that happens in disasters is that people lose control. They lose control of their environment because of the impact of the disaster. They lose control of their accommodation quite often if that’s been damaged or destroyed. They lose control of their normal family life particularly in circumstances where death or severe injury occurs for members of the family and in many disasters the community itself is severely impacted and so people lose control of what’s familiar to them and a sense of safety, security and connectedness and I think social workers have particular skill sets that enable them to actually support people to um, move into a recovery process and help to develop their own strengths which then enable them to take control of their lives.

Tricia: Because it’s a very fine line between going in and taking over, and supporting communities to recover.

Desley: Absolutely, one of the criticisms that I hear regularly in the you know follow up to disaster involvement by all people who are involved in both the response and the recovery is that community members are excluded in the sense that there is this view that people are so traumatised that they’ve got no capacity to be able to input into decision making about what’s going around them or actually play a role in the recovery process and I think we need to be very careful in making those assumptions, because I guess over many years I’ve seen the amazing strength and resilience and I use that word advisedly, as I know there is a lot of controversy around that, but a resilience of the human spirit and if we don’t encourage and support people to use what they’ve got, we really risk the development of dysfunction, both at an individual and family level but so at the community level and I have seen the evidence of that over the years.

Tricia: I imagine that’s particularly important if you go offshore into another culture and an entirely different setting. I imagine there are more issues to consider there.

Desley: Absolutely, I need to be really clear when I talk about offshore, the context of which I am speaking work that I call the family support team, a group of social workers who were highly skilled and had additional training to deliver services to Australians who were impacted by terrorist of natural disaster events offshore and that really started with the Bali bombings in 2002 and a request from the Australian Government that social workers from the department, the federal department that I worked in, which was an income maintenance plus other services department, back then called Centrelink were asked to travel to Bali to actually provide a support service to families of the victims and also the survivors who the government funded to attend the trial of the Bali bombers.

So in May 2003 we sent our first social workers over there and that resulted in seven months of offshore delivery of support services to those families for a week at a time, or seven days basically that the government was funding. And that was the period of time that our social workers had to work with those families, so you can appreciate the value that the social workers placed on their knowledge and skills around starting where the client is, their knowledge of crisis intervention, and their understanding of grief and loss and traumatic grief. So that was sort of, you know some months after the disaster happened.
But subsequent to that there were deployments. We were deployed after the Asian tsunami for example, on boxing day 2004 and went to places like Phuket, Bangkok and Sri Lanka and you know there the crisis that was facing Australians at that time was around the identification of their loved ones and because of the number the people, the vast number of people who died and the state of the bodies as they were retrieved, you know the identification process took a long time but the cultural context in which that occurred was incredibly important and one of the roles that social workers needed to play was to not only you know familiarise themselves and understand the cultural context of death and dying in various countries but also to help bring an understanding to the people that we were working with, that they were operating in a very different jurisdiction and that Australia has no say in the way they were operating they didn’t have a say over how processes went the way that processes went um, again the different cultural context of death and dying and disaster victim identification and the work that Australian Federal Police needed to do when ensuring that national standards around DVI were met.

It was a really important role for social workers to play in supporting people to come to a decision about how long they stay and whether it was appropriate for them in fact to go home. That was a very difficult thing for people to come to an understanding of having gone for a holiday with their loved one and feeling like they were walking away and leaving them behind in a very anonymous situation. We haven’t worked in context that I know a lot of social workers have done in the humanitarian aid area and I know there are other speakers that you’ve had that have focused on that. But quite recently I’m aware that Professor Lena Dominelli has issued some standards I guess for practice, and those standards for practice, and these standards are consistent with the sort of standards that we set in terms of our offshore work with Australians. So it was heartening for me to see the similarity that sat there that as a social work profession were understanding the importance of the same things.

I guess one of the things that where you practice social work to me is the most important social work principle, apart from the part where you act ethically and with integrity is actually, starting where the client is. It’s so easy, as I said before to assume certain things about people and you might be trying the problem that you think is important but for the client that’s not the most important thing for them in that point in time. I think social work is very uniquely placed. My experience of some other professions that are involved in disaster and emergency response and do play an important role is that they don’t have that understanding and sometimes clients can become very frustrated because helpers are trying to move ahead of where the client is and social work brings that unique ability of how important that is and to feel okay about starting with the practical because quite often that’s what is important for the client, and starting with the practical provides an opportunity to build rapport and trust and trust is absolutely important if you are going to do anything that’s helpful for people that you are working with. You need to build that trust and you know I said in the seven days that was quite challenging offshore but social workers were very skilful at doing that and I think part of that comes down to is the varying understanding we need to understand where the client’s at and use that as our starting point.

Tricia: Yes and I was certainly taught about the four ‘p’s – people, pets, purse and pills.

Desley: Yes, indeed, and pets, sometimes people think that’s not a very important area to focus on and yet we know increasingly the importance that pets play in people’s lives. Many years ago there was a really dreadful flood in the west of Queensland at a place called Charleville which was totally cut off and people were evacuated to the flying doctors aircraft hangar and the issue of pets became a real problem because, because there was no fancy communication technology in those days and we were just and we were just starting to get satellite communication, it wasn’t easy. There was no electricity, it wasn’t easy for those in charge to actually, you know spread messages to the 4000 people who were evacuated at the time and um rumours started up about a pound that I guess the Council had set up to try and bring in all the pets that they had found into one place so that they would be safe. And the rumour was that the Council was bringing them all together so that they could kill, kill the pets and you can imagine this created great distress and so social workers played a role in identifying that there was a problem there and being able to feed that information back to those who were in charge so that correct messaging could be put out about why that pound had been set up.

But my own experience of that was that after the waters had receded I was accompanying a very elderly lady back to her home and as we walked along there was red mud everywhere and her home had actually been inundated to the ceilings so everything was plastered in red mud, and her biggest concern was that she thought she had lost her cat and she was really distressed about it because it had obviously been a real companion for her. And um as we had approached her house we were climbing up the stairs really there was this very faint meowing and it turned out that her cat had actually survived and the joy on her face as we walked in to, you know for me it was a pretty awful situation, you know if it was my home and I walked into it and saw how badly it had been destroyed, that paled into insignificance to her because the most important, what’s the term, the most important thing for her was that her companion cat was actually safe. And so despite the destruction that had occurred there was something that gave her hope and hope I think just plays such an important role in people’s ability to recover from tragedy and disaster and that was a real light bulb moment for me in my developing knowledge I guess experience of disasters.

Tricia: So how do people cope Desley? I imagine there’s lots of influences on that in terms of the sort of community, how prepared the community was, ah how people were coping before.

Desley: Absolutely, I think there’s sometimes a mistaken belief that because that after a disaster people come together in what Beverley Raphael termed the ‘honeymoon phase’, um that everything is going to be hunky doorey but communities are made up of individuals, families and groups, and not all of them got on before the disaster. You know there are always different groups, some are groups that are excluded from things, some hold very different opinions on how things should happen and so they don’t talk to each other very much and so expect that a disaster would actually change that in the long term I think is a mistaken belief. But if people have experienced adversity in the past and they have gained skills in coping as a result of that you’ll often find that they are able to, with support, find their way through this particular tragedy that we might be working with them on. There are people that have had pre-existing circumstances that may have been to do with marital disharmony. It may have been a mental health problem. It may have been unemployment, a range of circumstances, people who were homeless before the disaster are further disadvantaged because if the disaster destroys housing as it did for example in the Victorian bush fires in 2009 or in the floods in Queensland in 2011 or Cyclone Yasi in that same year, um there is a high need for accommodation and people who were already disadvantaged because they didn’t have any to start with can move further down the path of eligibility I suppose and be further disadvantaged as a result of that. So it’s really quite variable, communities that despite differences were able to function quite well, may have had good decision making processes in place for things that happened generally in the community anyway, usually have a mechanism for being able to pull together again with support, you know they’ve got structures and frameworks in place to enable them to do that. Communities that were quite divided or disparate prior to a disaster can really struggle to get back on top again and I have certainly seen that happen with some communities for some of those disasters that I just mentioned before.

Tricia: And certainly in terms of social work and climate change what we need to expect is that disasters are going to be more intense and I think there has been some debate about frequency, but certainly more intense and we’ve just seen the storm in the Philippines and Vietnam and yeah, there’s going to be a lot of work for us I imagine.

Desley: Well I believe there is and I guess it depends on how we think about that, you know a terrible tragedy in the Philippines still evolving and the challenge of very poor people living in areas very exposed to the elements, very exposed to tidal surges, we’ve seen that happen in Sri Lanka and India and Thailand, the past. We’ve seen the earthquake tsunami that happened in Japan as well, and it often occurs, the worst damage occurs in those areas where people congregate because they can’t afford to live anywhere else and their livelihood has been built around, for example, the ocean. So people whose livelihood was in fishing are having that destroyed as a result of that happening and how people can be supported back into being able to be responsible for their own employment and income is very challenging.

Social work is not the only profession obviously that has an involvement in but I believe you are right that we have witnessed an increase in the severity of disasters and we should plan for that being the case for the future and in that context and I think it is very important that we better educate all social workers about what climate change can mean but importantly, what is a disaster, what’s the impact of a disaster, what sort of management frameworks sit around disaster recovery in their community, their country, and what sort of skills and knowledge they need to draw upon to be able to work effectively if they are asked to be involved in a disaster. Now it’s really complex I know here in Australia that the curriculum for undergraduate social workers is already very crowded but I believe we should at least be able to draw some threads together from some of the basic social work and other input that they’re having in their studies to bring people’s awareness to disasters and how you might respond and then perhaps how you might develop some, I know some universities have done this already, but to develop some post graduate work where people can really focus on further honing their skills.

In the department that I worked in I actually developed some training for social workers back in the 90s because it was really clear to me that we needed to understand more about the human response to disaster and to ensure that our social workers had an understanding of that recovery and management frameworks because you do need to understand the boundaries of which you operate. You really need to be really clear on your role and where that fits in with everyone else and in Australia there is a lot of planning that goes on and has done for some years so there is some quite specific plans on the local, the state and the federal government level that get activated during a disaster and I know that happens in other countries as well. So being really clear around what your role might be and that is really important because there’s not much clarity about anything else and one of the things that I think we have a responsibility to do in a disaster is help to bring some certainty I guess out of the chaos um that exists.

Disasters are naturally chaotic and for some social workers they don’t feel comfortable working in that environment and that’s fine because I think that those social workers play a very important role in that being able to ensure that business as usual continues. You know we can’t devote all of our social work contingent to emergency recovery when we’ve also got an everyday job to do and so those social workers also take on an extra load when they maintaining the business as usual to free up social workers who might go and be involved in the emergency response where ever that is. And I guess it’s also important to think about as Social Workers that while the emergency goes on and people feel a bit in a bubble I guess around that, that life goes on for everyone else outside of that bubble but people also continue to live their lives after the disaster and that people may have seemed to have coped really well at the time of the disaster those clients of many agencies can turn up some years down the track, some months down the track presenting with an issue that could in fact be disaster related but it’s not presenting in that way. So for social workers to have that broader understanding of how disasters can impact not just immediately, but down the track and to have that as a bit of a clue, similar to a sense. You know at the moment there is a lot of focus as there should be on, institutional child abuse and from that learnings about how that impacts people for the rest of their lives and just having an understanding for the social workers that may be something that may be, may not be necessary, but it’s something that people shouldn’t lose sight of I think.

Tricia: The importance of a good assessment.

Desley: Absolutely.

Tricia: Desley I imagine we have a strong role to play in disaster preparedness as well because it is the poor, the disabled, the elderly and the very young who are actually most affected so it’s not only after a disaster but it would be great to see social workers in there before.

Desley: Well I think social workers yes, in their everyday work but also at a more strategic level and I know that social workers do become involved in some of those high level community recovery activities but sometimes they are quite sort of generic and we have moved for example in Australia to a prep plan, but just recently I was reading about some research that’s been done in New York about how well or not prepared the emergency response was and therefore community recovery for people with a disability. And it cited examples – it was a storm that happened prior to hurricane Sandy where people who were disabled were living in social housing but in multi-story units and one particular lady I think was on the twelfth floor and she was not mobile and when the lifts weren’t working she had no way of getting out. And the communications were down so it really brings home I think and I know that disability groups have been bringing focus to this as well, it really brings home the importance of understanding the demographics of the population and in the planning social workers have a role in ensuring that the needs of various vulnerable groups are catered for in the emergency response.
Tricia: And Desley, one last question, about self-care. How do social workers look after themselves during this?

Desley: I think it’s absolutely critical to survival - self-care, and in the work that we were doing professional supervision was maintained although it might be from a distance. We ensured that people were well briefed prior to their deployment. We had daily morning briefings and debriefings in the afternoon. I used debriefing, not in terms of CISD, but in terms of talking about what’s happened through the day, the learnings, what’s it been like, can be do anything differently and better to support you and to ensure that our service is delivered appropriately because needs change constantly throughout a disaster, so that ongoing assessment through the feedback were getting through staff who were deployed is really important. With the people who go offshore, apart from that daily morning and afternoon debriefing the person who’s a team captain is debriefed by someone who is back in Australia, everyone is debriefed by the team captain before they leave to come back to Australia.

With our onshore emergencies we put that same process in place and there is follow up through their usual professional supervisor, through our workplace health and safety team and through the team leader where that’s appropriate that there would be follow up to make sure that people are tracking okay. It’s really challenging work, there’s no doubt about that but people who are deployed to a disaster need to be fairly resilient beings. It’s really unhelpful for them and for their clients if we deploy people who really need much more structure, who aren’t confident in their skills and abilities to work in that context because the work is very long, it’s very tiring, it goes at a rate of knots in a sense, and so ensuring that you choose the right people but also that you put good supports around them while they’re deployed, follow them up when they come back and also not lose sight of the really valuable work that I mentioned before of the people who are keeping the business as usual going is acknowledged and there is a real risk in a sense that all the attention goes in a sense goes to those people who were deployed yet they couldn’t have done their work if the others that stayed behind weren’t able to keep that business as usual going at a cost to them as it meant extra work, it meant doing work differently. And I think one of the important things I think as a social worker where we had 700 Social Workers spread across Australia delivering every day work there are only a small number of those relatively speaking who become involved in disaster work in local areas or larger numbers when we have a big event as we did when we had the Victorian bush fires and the floods and cyclone Yasi is that we are all one team and while people might be playing different roles that concept of one team is really, really important because ultimately what we are there for is to deliver the best possible service we can to people who are in very difficult circumstances, are very vulnerable and as you mentioned before for some of those people are incredibly poor and very few resources to support them to move from the position that they found themselves in as a result of the disaster.

Tricia: Desley I did think of you last night, we had a horrific hail storm in the suburb where I live and it looked like it snowed on the ground afterwards

Desley: Yes, we just had little bits here, yes, it was like get the blanket, cover the car.

Tricia: Desley, thank you so much for being on Podsocs and thanks to your mowerman for providing a bit of background music. So thank you for being on Podsocs Desley.

Desley: You’re welcome, Thanks Tricia bye bye.

[Musical outro 30.44 to END]
Interview ENDS: 31.05