Social workers 'feel ill-equipped to deal with LGBT clients'

Participants forming a shimmering, giant pink dot with the word "love" in the centre using torches, cellphones and light sticks at the seventh Pink Dot event held at Hong Lim Park.
Participants forming a shimmering, giant pink dot with the word "love" in the centre using torches, cellphones and light sticks at the seventh Pink Dot event held at Hong Lim Park. PHOTO: ST FILE

Social workers in Singapore feel ill-equipped to attend to clients from sexual minorities, with three-quarters saying they have not had training on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues.

This is according to two reports from separate researchers.

The first study was published in the International Social Work journal last November by six authors from universities and voluntary welfare organisations, including the National University of Singapore and Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centre.

It collected data from 89 registered social workers in 2007 and found that 77 per cent felt they did not have adequate skills to attend to LGBT issues. Nine in 10 also felt they did not have enough training.

The second study, carried out by Singapore LGBT counselling group Oogachaga in 2011, found that 78 per cent of 91 social workers had not received training in this regard. This is despite 40 per cent having dealt with LGBT clients.

  • LGBT group has trained 1,500 counsellors

  • Since 2009, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) counselling group Oogachaga has conducted more than 50 training sessions and workshops for close to 1,500 counselling professionals in the social work, general healthcare and mental healthcare sectors.

    Attendees are taught sexuality orientation and gender identity, how to work with young LGBT adults and parents of LGBT children, and how to help clients cope with minority stress, homophobia, transphobia and their sexuality.

    Oogachaga also provides sensitivity and awareness training, so that the professionals can connect better with LGBT clients.

    It is conducting a training session next Friday.

    Its executive director, Mr Leow Yangfa, said: "Our public workshops have been very well received by the voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) and professional organisations. There are VWOs who send their staff annually for our training."

    Talks and workshops have also been conducted for social service organisations, tertiary education institutions and healthcare agencies in their offices, Mr Leow added.

    Information on the workshops is available on the counselling group's website.

Some social workers also struggle with their personal beliefs, with 16 out of 89 in the study, published in International Social Work, feeling a conflict with their religion or being unsure what their stance was. The same number also highlighted discomfort in handling LGBT clients.

Nearly 70 per cent of the 89 respondents in the first study said there was no struggle between their professional values and handling LGBT clients.

Yet, there are consequences to untrained social workers handling LGBT clients, the researchers said.

"An untrained professional might not be able to support the client adequately. A client can sense that and may not feel safe to disclose more," said Mr Leow Yangfa, 40, executive director of Oogachaga and a registered social worker. "Or the social worker could provide wrong information or advice, which will further stigmatise an LGBT client already struggling with sexuality issues."

Ms Petrine Lim, principal social worker at Fei Yue Family Service Centre, said: "If there is added training or conferences about this, then we can increase our knowledge and our empathy for them, especially for social workers who have never been exposed to such cases," she said.

Nevertheless, she felt that social workers can still handle LGBT clients if they apply the basic skills and philosophies, such as being sensitive to them and accepting them on a professional level.

The paper published in International Social Work also highlighted differences in ethical codes for counsellors and psychologists.

The social workers' code of ethics holds a non-discriminatory position, while the psychologists' code states the professional should show "sensible regard for the social codes and moral expectations of the host community".

Study author Teh Yang Yang, a registered social worker now working in London, found this worrying.

He said: "Without clear ethical codes, social workers and psychologists may rely on personal or organisational principles to implement or recommend sexual orientation change efforts, which have been found by many countries to be harmful and unethical practice."

Apart from sending social workers for LGBT training, Mr Teh and Mr Leow recommend professional bodies here align their code of ethics with those abroad such as the British Psychological Society, which has stated its position against any psychological, psychotherapeutic or counselling treatment that views same-sex sexual orientations as pathological.

Ms June Chua, founder of transgender shelter The T Project, speaks regularly to social workers about the transgender community.

She said: "It's about sensitivity training and understanding the community, and not saying things like, 'Since your gender orientation is causing so much unhappiness to your family, can't you change it?'".

Ms Ranjana Tanggaraju, 26, who is transgender, said she did not receive adequate support from a counsellor when she was 15 and thus dropped out of school at Secondary Three. "The counsellor told me to stay as a boy and go to national service, and then everything would be fine," she said. "He didn't address my issues. If he did, if they had let me wear a blouse and a skirt, I might have stayed in school."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2016, with the headline 'Social workers 'feel ill-equipped to deal with LGBT clients''. Print Edition | Subscribe