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Social Work and the Law - Three Years On

in Social Work by Olga Gountras on

When someone has been in a serious incident or is diagnosed with an asbestos related disease they will most likely become patients of an acute hospital, many will need rehabilitation and some will need on-going services and supports in the community.

A number of these people will get ‘lost’ in the community as they deal with the significant chronic impact of  the incident, unable to navigate through systems to access assistance. Slater and Gordon recognised this unmet need amongst their client group and established a social work service.

When I started in May 2009, I was in the daunting, yet enviable, position of being presented with a ‘blank canvas’ and told to create a vision, service model and program of free social work delivery that would best meet the needs of our clients. As this was the first social work position of its kind in an Australian private law firm I had no point of reference.

Our vision espouses that psychosocial issues should not be a barrier to clients accessing appropriate legal assistance to ensure their rights are protected and their maximum entitlements are received.

The service has expanded to a permanent team of three assisting clients in Victoria, NSW and the ACT. Due to geography, much of our intervention is by telephone. To date, more than 500 clients have been referred to the Service. The reason for referral covers a broad spectrum of issues and complex situations. Typically, our clients have a significant debility or terminal illness. Layered upon this, can be pre-existing factors such as socio-economic status; language and cultural differences; and, mental health and disability issues. The next layer is the emotional, physical, functional, social and economic impact of the incident or illness and the circumstances surrounding these. As we are typically working with clients months or years post the event, many of these issues have become chronic problems.

The most common reason for referral remains emotional distress which is often linked to financial, housing and homelessness issues; and, then difficulties accessing appropriate care and treatment services.  One of my clients, who I will call Sarah, was in her 50’s and living in her car for 8 weeks with her dog and cat. Her pets meant she was ineligible for crisis accommodation. She had significant mental health issues related to her incident and was under the care of a psychiatrist and psychologist. Psychologically, she could not face shared accommodation. She was in receipt of WorkCover weekly payments, however, was receiving these ad hoc which led to her homeless status. She felt unable to communicate with the insurer regarding this. I was able to advocate with the insurer to ensure regular payments were made and that she was reimbursed for medication and travel expenses. I was also able to assist Sarah to find affordable private rental. Removal of these stressors helped reduce Sarah’s anxiety and she was also able to attend the medico-legal assessment appointments necessary to progress her WorkCover claim.

In considering the future, our team needs to think about how we best meet the increasing demand for our services and whether we can continue to expand the service interstate. We need to review whether there are service gaps in meeting the needs of our clients and how we can identify clients that would benefit from early intervention. How do the social work needs of a family with a child with cerebral palsy vary from the needs of an debilitated worker or a person with mesothelioma? Can we address them all?

As the pioneers of social work services in a private law firm, I believe we are progressing the field of social work practice and adding value to the social work profession. We are making lawyers and the law more accessible to social workers through fielding enquiries and our AASW accredited free legal education programs.

The social work service is now embedded in the organisation. It is highly regarded and its future is secure. Three years on, I can confidently say that the social work service has made a difference in the lives of many and it is hard to imagine what would have happened to our clients if the service did not exist.

This entry originally appeared in the Summer 2012-13 edition of the AASW National Bulletin.

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