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Religion useful to social workers

(ran RP RC)

After decades of neglecting the religious needs of clients, social workers are beginning to see religion as an asset, a useful partner in their efforts to help people improve their lives.

A strong signal of the shift is a 2-year-old national organization, the Spirituality and Social Work Network. Its 250 members are social workers and professors who feel that understanding clients' spiritual needs fills an important gap.

The group's founder, Ed Canda, associate professor at the School of Social Welfare at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, said the new emphasis reflects a recent "upsurge of interest" in the wider culture in both traditional and non-traditional religion.

Concern with religion is evident in topics being discussed in workshops and conferences around the country, Canda said. Furthermore, he said, in the near future, a statement calling for attention to spiritual needs will be added to standards used for credentialing social workers, replacing one that was dropped in the early 1970s.

As an example of how the new emphasis affects practice, Anita Titone, a clinical social worker in Dallas and member of Canda's network, said she was counseling a man who told her he would often pray when he was unable to sleep.

"Many social workers and psychotherapists would not pay attention to the fact that this man prayed," she said. "But I found that listening to this man talk about his spirituality created a bond between us and speeded up therapy."

For social workers, concern with religion and spirituality is, in fact, a return to historical roots, said Canda, pointing out that the basis of the profession is 19th century charitable groups inspired by Christian and Jewish social principles.

But as it developed, the field took on a more secular and even an anti-religious flavor, particularly after Sigmund Freud and his theories of psychoanalysis began to play a large part in social workers' training. Gradually, they became uncomfortable talking about spirituality.

Canda, who was raised by Roman Catholic parents and earned a master's degree in religion from the University of Denver, said religious perspectives of today's social workers are quite different from those of the 19th century.

"Earlier social work was based on moral judgment," he said. "Many held that people were poor because of moral weakness and would preach to them."

Another difference is the wide variety of religious traditions that may be drawn upon today in efforts to affirm clients' beliefs. Members of the Spirituality and Social Work Network include Christians, Buddhists and New Age adherents, Canda said.

Many in the movement eschew traditional religious labels, preferring to describe themselves as simply "interested in spirituality," said network member Max Siporin, who teaches at the School of Social Work of the State University of New York at Albany.

Among reasons for the change, he said, is the need for people to talk about the meaning of life in "non-materialistic ways" as they struggle with increasing social problems.

"I have seen many students turn away from the strict psychoanalytic view and emphasize spirituality rather than unconscious drives and conflicts," he said.

Social workers always try to work within the framework of a client's beliefs and never proselytize, Siporin said. Any efforts in that direction would be unethical and, in the case of social workers employed by the state, a breach of church-state separation, he said.

Canda had one warning about religion. Its influence, he said, isn't always benign.

He said social workers sometimes find that fundamentalists use the Bible to rationalize child abuse, pointing, for example, to Proverbs 13:24, translated in the King James version as "He that spareth his rod hateth his son."

In such cases, social workers might explore the Bible with clients, pointing out passages that suggest a different approach, or work with clergy of the client's religious tradition to heal the parent-child relationship.