By Rural Girl
I’m a country kid and recently lived in a remote, very small tight-knit community 180 km from the nearest ‘big’ town, which with a population of 13000 is the same size as my Auckland suburb. I hope to return to a regional locality, which leads me to the field of rural social work. If you have not lived rurally your initial thought may be ‘how different can it be?’ Michael Daley states “social work with rural populations has enough unique characteristics to be viewed as a distinct field of professional practice” (2010, p. 1).
Rural social work is often discussed as being generalist. The worker must be ‘a fountain of all knowledge’ and be adept at pulling limited resources together to find creative ways to support their clients, as structured support services may not exist. Rural social workers are often quite involved in their community, which can be a very fulfilling aspect of their role. However, this embeddedness means it is inevitable that they will be challenged by dual relationships, as they do not have the anonymity of their city counterparts. This leads to a heightened awareness of their visibility, they regularly meet clients/family of clients in social situations be it the school sports field, the supermarket or the weekly pub quiz. Such relationships should usually be avoided in social work, but in the rural environment with skill and care they can be a way of building trust (Brownlee, Halverson & Chassie, 2012).
The challenges of rural social work are many and varied, Kristin Battista-Frazee provides a great overview of these challenges here in NASW News. The article ‘Who wants to do rural social work? Student perceptions of rural social work practice’ reinforces the reality that the strengths of rural social work can also be its challenges. How aspects of practice are perceived depends on the value base of the social worker and their personal life stage, in many instances the worker may oscillate between viewing certain aspects as a strength or a challenge. For example, the opportunities for career advancement in rural areas can be limited and for those with partners, does the area have suitable work for them? These may not be considerations for a recent graduate or for someone who is single and has no dependents.
One of the biggest challenges of rural social work is the availability of services. In the United States technology is increasingly used to fill the gaps in rural service provision using online tools. Here in New Zealand similar tools are used in general healthcare and hopefully one day will extend to rural social work.
The use of technology is a also a valuable tool for social workers competency, access to supervision in rural environments can be challenging, Amanda Nickson’s research indicates that a high percentage of rural Australian social workers do not have adequate supervision (Nickson, 2014). Lack of supervision is a huge issue for registered social workers, as attending supervision is a core competency of the Social Workers Registration Board expectations of registered social workers. And for members of ANZASW they need to be able to fulfil the requirements of the ANZASW supervision policy . Nickson’s study indicated that a solution to this problem is ‘virtual’ supervision. Supervision by teleconferencing (due to internet connectivity being unreliable in some rural areas) was found to be a reliable and positive experience for rural social workers. Technology in its many forms is proving to be a positive tool for social workers and their clients. It opens the doors for a stronger social worker presence in rural communities, when population does not allow for physical face to face services. For those willing and able to make the comprises that rural social work and rural life entails it can be a fulfilling area of practice and a fantastic lifestyle.
Brownlee, K., Halverson, G., & Chassie, A. (2012). Multiple relationships: maintaining professional identity in rural social work practice. Journal of comparative social work 2012 (1), 3-11. Retrieved from http://journal.uia.no/index.php/JCSW/article/view/246
Daley, M. (2010). A conceptual model for rural social work. Contemporary Rural Social Work 2010 (2), 1-7. Retrieved from http://journal.minotstateu.edu/crsw/article/view/392
Nickson, A. , Gair, S.,& Miles, D. (2016). Supporting isolated workers in their work with families in rural and remote Australia: exploring peer group supervision. Children Australia, 41 (4). pp. 265-274 Read here