Abstract: "Putting the Client First": Tensions in Interdisciplinary Advocacy for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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"Putting the Client First": Tensions in Interdisciplinary Advocacy for Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Thursday, January 12, 2023
Valley of the Sun B, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Cherra Mathis, MSW, Doctoral Student, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ
David Androff, PhD, Associate Director for Doctoral Education; Associate Professor, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ
Social work and law are interrelated, particularly in areas of legal aid and poverty law (Scott & Aronson, 2021). Despite the shared orientation of these professions to client advocacy and successful outcomes, fundamental differences in training, roles, communication styles, expectations, status, and goals can undermine the success of interdisciplinary collaboration and the efficacy of this partnership (Walsh, 2012; Zajac, 2011). In the high-stakes field of immigration advocacy, zealous lawyers and social workers navigating the criminalization of their clients face tensions in determining how to meet their clients’ legal, social, physical, and emotional needs.

This study used an exploratory qualitative design to investigate experiences of legal services staff (n=27). Snowball sampling was used to identify and recruit key informants from a legal service organization that provides free legal and social services to asylum-seekers in immigration detention, producing a sample of 12 social workers, 9 legal professionals, and 6 administrators. Five discipline-specific semi-structured focus groups were organized, with the option for individual interviews; two focus groups were conducted with social workers, two with legal professionals, one with administrators and one social worker chose an interview. Participants were asked to describe both positive and negative experiences working with the other professions, as well as what they wish the other professions knew about them and how each saw social work fitting into the legal services organization. These groups were conducted, audio-recorded, and transcribed on Zoom. Thematic codes developed inductively and from the literature were applied using qualitative analysis software Dedoose.

Findings highlighted the importance of delineating the role of social workers, both in the organization’s incorporation of their skills, and legal staff’s perception of the value in client work and case development. Another key theme emphasized the difference in social work and legal education, with both seen as a vocational calling, but social work assigned a lower value in the organization and interdisciplinary teamwork, feeding into the hierarchical orientation of lawyers and discontent about disparate pay. Paradoxically, social work was seen as simple, with hidden work “behind the scenes” often ignored, while social workers were dubbed “miracle workers” by legal professionals blind to the training, expertise, relationships and effort needed to produce results in resource-poor contexts. Discipline-specific approaches to advocacy caused tension: social workers preferred “big picture” approaches, and lawyers zeroed in on legal outcomes; each profession reported frustration with the others’ priorities, despite gratitude for their support. The theme of faulty communication threaded through each other theme.

Articulating areas of inter-professional friction point to where proactive steps may be taken to strengthen the powerfully creative interdisciplinary partnership. Organizational buy-in to further integrating social services into legal service-oriented organization would improve communication, knowledge about the scope and capacity of fellow professionals, clarify expectation for each role in cases and the wider organization, and build the sense of team rather than hierarchy. Implications for legal and social work education include content on how these professions have historically worked together and cross-discipline field work and training, to anchor and reimagine their future joint advocacy power.