Slaying the dragon

When I was in school for my bachelor's in social work, I had a wonderful professor who also happened to be the first Hmong American to earn a MSW. After a lengthy career as a child protection worker, he had gone back to school and studied law and earned a PhD in Education. I was fortunate to learn so much from Professor Thao.

I clearly remember the day in a Social Work Policy class when Prof. Thao shared with us this folk tale he had learned from his elders.

Once upon a time there was a village settled next to a flowing river. The people of this village were kind and brave. One day, one of the villagers saw a man in the river, being carried downstream by the rough currents. The villager called for help from his fellow friends and neighbors and together they managed to pull the man out of the river and saved his life.

The next day, to the surprise of the villagers, another man was spotted in the river, being pulled down stream. Again the villagers rallied together and pulled the second man out of the river. The next day, there were three people in the river, this time two women and a man. Again, the villagers worked together to save the lives of these people.

Every day for the next several weeks, the villagers found themselves pulling people out of the river. It was exhausting work and they met to try and figure out strategies for faster and safer ways of pulling people out of the river. It was hard for the villagers to get their work done when every day they were pulling people out of the river. Each of the villagers had different ideas. Each idea was attempted but still, each day, more and more people were being carried down the river. Sometimes there were too many people in the river and the villagers could not save them all.

Finally, one of the villagers said, "what's going on upstream?" The elders sent a band of villagers up to the mountains, to the source of the river. To their horror, they found a dragon at the mountain top. This dragon was taking people from the village at the top of the mountain and throwing them in the river. The villagers then realized that until they slayed the dragon, they would never be able to save all the people drowning in the river.

 I've never forgotten this story, and to say that it's been the paradigm for my view of the purpose of social work is pretty obvious. We cannot continue to only look at the person drowning in the river. Of course, that is where we act because it is immediate and it is critical. But if we are not able to focus as much of our attention to the dragon at the top of the mountain, then we will always be merely reacting to the immediate crisis instead of preventing the crisis from happening in the first place.

Prof. Thao used this folk tale to demonstrate how social workers must spend their focus on both the immediate needs of people but also to look at eliminating the causes (oppression, poverty, etc.).

In adoption, we have been way too focused on pulling people out of the river. In fact, we form committees on how best to pull people out of the river, faster and easier ways to pull people out of the river, and provide books and therapeutic services to address the aftermath for the victims that were pulled out of the river. We go to other rivers to look for ways to better pull people out of the river. We create laws about how to pull people out of the river.

When are we going to focus on slaying the dragon?

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

14 thoughts

  1. I wholeheartedly agree. While working in adoption for six years, I experienced the assumption of many that I was one of those adoption workers who believed that adoption was the greatest thing for kids. I don’t think that at all. I think that the best thing for kids is to stay with their birth families, as long as they are safe, and if they aren’t safe, we should spend at least as much time and energy as we do getting kids adopted figuring out who to make their family safe. Working in adoption only cemented that perspective for me.

  2. I hate to say it, but I fear this dragon can never be slayed. But, maybe we can teach it to stop throwing people in the river.

  3. I don’t think it’s possible for social workers to do anything to address root causes by themselves. Similarly, psychiatrists and psychologists are helpless to address the environmental factors of mental illness. Physicians cannot stop the increasing rate of cancer and diabetes.
    I think social workers are especially powerless to to create institutional change considering that pay, standards and job security are much lower than other healing professions.
    The only answer is meaningful political change, grassroots organizing, constant efforts in education and changing people’s minds to get them on board. This is the responsibility of every human being. In this respect, people in the healing professions can be powerful advocates (like you and your teacher).
    Right now we’re stuck in a political and economic system that exploits hate and fear of poor people, single mothers, minorities, people with mental illness, and so on. The system doesn’t really hate these people, it has no feelings at all… it just whips up and exploits this hate in order to blindly continue itself.

  4. I’m just going to echo papa2hapa and atlasien.
    There’s a lot of political change required, cultural mindset, social stigmas, and so forth.
    This dragon is a huge, monstrous beast that just won’t die.

  5. I have even herad the specific word, “upstream,” used in referring to the idea that we need to provide supports and services to families *before* things get so bad that their kids need to be placed in care.
    You may already be familiar with it, but I think this issue is what the Quality Improvement Center on Early Childhood is trying to address. My organization is tangentially involved (not a part of the QIC itself), so I’ll provide a link to more info, rather than tring to summarize it or provide comments about it:
    BTW they will be issuing an RFP for evaluations of demonstration programs in the fall.

  6. I guess I have a different perspective. I think social workers, differently than psychologists and psychiatrists, have an ethical professional responsibility to address the environmental causes. It’s in our code of ethics and the professional creed. We hold social justice and social reform as part of our professional roots. Grass roots organizing was and is a huge part of social work.
    But it’s true that no one profession alone can slay the dragon, and regardless of whether it is possible, I feel it is imperative that we, as a society, try.
    Otherwise, we are just shrugging our shoulders and accepting that nothing can be done.
    Or, is it that we’re just happier to let the dragon go, because there are some people that benefit from it?

  7. I don’t think this is a matter of just accepting that nothing can be done. However, in my estimation, it’s unrealistic to expect the type of change that the dragon requires.
    Look at what the Korean government did recently for the role of adoption rights. So what can we do but hope small changes will stifle the growth of this dragon.
    As someone who works with children and young adults, I know what it’s like to be realistic with what you can and can’t do. Yes, it’s different than being a social worker.
    But, in this case . . . the dragon is indestructible. A more realistic goal would be to start working towards limiting adoption, creating a better and more transparent system, and educating the public on those cultural mores.

  8. I also know what it’s like to be realistic with what you can and can’t do. I just disagree that being more realistic i.e. limiting adoption, creating a better and more transparent system and education the public on those aspects is enough. While those are good things, they just perpetuate the problem.
    It may be idealistic and naive to think that all the underlying causes that produce the need for adoption can be solved. I get that it’s “unrealistic” to think we’ll eliminate poverty, unemployment, government policies, oppression of women’s reproductive and parenting rights, domestic violence, abuse and neglect.
    But societies have changed, although change is slow. People change. Governments change. There is no such thing, perhaps, as a utopia. But I am going to work on the dragon problem anyway.

  9. The dragon is destructible. The effects of the dragon may persist, but the dragon itself is destructible. Look at how Korean adoption went from nearly 9,000 in 1985 to around 1,000 now. It’ll take time but it is possible. Just have to work together, take it one step at a time, and make sure we’re not sending the dragon to other rivers.

  10. I’m all for working on the dragon problem. I agree, it’s something worth doing.
    I’m not sure that just because the numbers have decreased means that the dragon problem is reduced. In fact, I get this sense that the fewer numbers means the more curious the act.
    Either way, if we do tackle this dragon, can I start by trimming its claws and brushing its teeth?

  11. I do think that we must all work to slay the dragon although I’m not even sure what the dragon is, nor am I convinced that orphaned/adopted children are the target of the dragon (I think they are more of a side effect and, to expand your analogy, I would say that they fall off the mountain while the dragon is breathing fire in a different direction).
    I do hope that we can continue to help out those already in the river (and those to come) while striving to understand and eliminate the forces that lead to war, poverty and inequality (especially in politics and access to health care). At this point, I don’t believe that any governmental restrictions on adoption mean anything more than increased institutionalization and foster care. A situation which, I believe, will only lead to more dragons in the future.

  12. I just happened to run across the reference in which I had previously read about the idea of “a better system that would target children further upstream… (p. 19)” It was in Jill Duerr Berrick’s _Take Me Home: Protecting America’s Vulnerable Children and Families_ (2009).

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