Bilingual Jobs: How Social Workers Provide Support Across Languages

We spoke with a social worker who uses her fluency in English and Spanish to make a difference in children’s lives.
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Social workers are in high demand in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were nearly 700,000 social work jobs in 2016, and that number is growing fast. Employment for social workers in the U.S. is projected to grow 16 percent from 2016 to 2026, which is significantly larger than the average profession.

Demand aside, social workers play a vital role in the function of our society. They help individuals and families cope with social problems, including poverty, abuse, addiction and mental illness. But in order to help their clients effectively, they must be able to communicate with them fully and openly. Non-English speakers can make up a significant portion of those in need of assistance, making bilingual (and multilingual) social workers all the more valuable.

We spoke with Gloria Mendez, a social worker from Morris County, New Jersey. She works with children in both a juvenile detention center and a youth shelter. Mendez speaks English and Spanish fluently and explains why she thinks speaking another language is a crucial skill for social workers to have.

Here’s How It Works

Mendez’s work takes her back and forth between a juvenile detention center populated by kids convicted of crimes, and a youth shelter that provides a temporary home for children in the custody of New Jersey’s Child Protection and Permanency division due to abuse, neglect or some other family issue. At both facilities, Mendez completes paperwork, files court reports and, most importantly, holds daily check-ins with the children.

“I meet with the kids and see what they need, what has to be done,” Mendez said. “You don’t want them to be in the facility for a long time. That shouldn’t be the goal. The goal is either to reunify them with the parents or put them in a different kind of program.”

Mendez says she gets a number of cases in which the parents, the children or both only speak Spanish. Fortunately, she’s bilingual in English and Spanish, and she believes it’s extremely important for these kids to have support in their native language.

“It allows them to express themselves more freely and allows them to feel more comfortable and speak more and open up,” Mendez says. “And that’s exactly what we want them to do.”

In cases where social workers and their clients don’t speak the same language, often an automated telephone translation system (or sometimes an in-person interpreter) will be used to allow the parties to communicate. But according to Mendez, this system is flawed. She says it can be difficult to know how accurate the translations are, because it’s a challenge to interpret complex situations and emotions exactly as they’re said. This is compounded by the reality that kids may be reluctant to share personal details or emotions when a third party is present.

Mendez said that’s why social workers should try to learn additional languages, if possible. It can mean the difference between a successful meeting with a client, and one that is completely unproductive.

“They have trauma. They’re troubled kids,” Mendez explained. “Their family dynamic is not well. They have a lot of social problems and just by speaking their language, it opens up a connection between the two of you. Between the social worker and the child.”

What’s The Most Challenging Part Of The Job?

For Mendez, the challenges are twofold: first, she says with so many people who have a hand in each case — from state caseworkers to judges to probation officers — it can be hard to reach a consensus on what’s best for a particular child. She often finds herself disagreeing with other case managers or authority figures in the kid’s life on how to provide the best solution for them.

Another challenge is one that’s inherent in this kind of work. Mendez says working with kids in these horrible situations and hearing their tragic stories is heartbreaking.

“You feel very sympathetic and just want to be their best friend, but you have to be professional and always keep your boundaries,” Mendez said. “These kids suffer so much, and you just feel so bad for them. But you always have to remember that you’re the social worker and they’re the child. It’s very hard in this field.”

And The Most Rewarding Part?

Mendez knew she wanted to go into social work from a pretty young age. She’s been aware of issues plaguing society throughout her life, and she’s always had an urge to help people deal with them.

The most rewarding part of the job for Mendez is being able to provide a support system for children who need it most. The kids she works with have gotten the short end of the stick in life again and again, and she loves that she can help them cope with these hurdles and overcome them.

“Sometimes these children don’t even have parents, so being there for them is amazing and so rewarding,” Mendez said. “And also seeing what they become in the future, that they’re trying to become a better version of themselves.”

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