Abstract: When Helping Hands Hurt: Anti-Oppressive Practice in Social Service Organizations (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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When Helping Hands Hurt: Anti-Oppressive Practice in Social Service Organizations

Friday, January 13, 2023
Camelback B, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Susan Ramsundarsingh, MSW, MBA, Director of Research and Operations, University of Toronto - Factor Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, Scarborough, ON, Canada
Micheal Shier, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Background and Purpose: Individuals and families seeking support from social service organization (SSO) often experience oppression. Oppression can include: discrimination, marginalization, exploitation, violence and disempowerment. When service users experience oppression it creates barriers to access as service users discontinue service or become dependent due to feelings of disempowerment and inadequacy. Service user experiences of oppression can contribute to negative social outcomes such as loss of housing or employment, and poor physical and mental health.

This study explores service user experiences of oppression from an organizational perspective. It evaluates how organizational policy and practice contribute to service user oppression both indirectly through its impact of on staff behaviour, which contributes to interpersonal oppression, and directly through institutional oppression such as policies that make programs inaccessible or marginalize individuals. The following organizational characteristics were identified in a systematic review in relation to service user oppression: organizational values, workplace culture, human resources practices, leadership, and cultural competency. Using anti-oppressive practice and socio-technical systems theory, this study hypothesizes that the identified organizational characteristics are correlated with the types and frequency of oppression experienced by service users.

Methods: This mixed method study used survey data to assess the relationship between organizational characteristics and service user oppression and qualitative focus groups to provide descriptive data to support the findings as well as gather recommendations from service users to eliminate such experiences. The survey tools were developed from a systematic review. They included the anti-oppressive practice organizational scale and the service user oppression scale. Confirmatory factor analysis using principal axis factoring was used to test the construct validity of both scales and internal consistency reliability was tested using the Chronbach Alpha measure. Survey data was collected online and in-person with focus groups held in-person. The survey was completed by 382 service users at 13 different SSOs serving in the areas of: homelessness, addictions, seniors, resource centres, children and youth, disability supports, and family services. Structural equation modeling was used to identity causal relationships between organizational characteristics and service user experiences of oppression and thematic coding was used to analyze focus group transcripts.

Results: The results showed that services user oppression is wide spread with 63% of participants experiencing at least one form of oppression. The most common form of oppression was exploitation followed by powerlessness, and cultural imperialism. Experiences of oppression were more common amongst Indigenous Peoples, persons with disabilities, refugees, youth, females, unemployed individuals, and renters. Organizational characteristics that were visible to service users were found to be related to service user expression including human resources, staff retention, service user participation, and the staff relationship with service user.

Conclusions and Implications: These findings highlight the alarming extent of service user oppression in SSOs and indicate patterns of discrimination. It is an important contribution to shifting anti-oppressive practice from a predominantly theoretical concept to one that can be implemented to improve service user outcomes. The study amplifies the voice of service users allowing them to share their experiences and inform changes to SSO policy and practice.