Friend having relationships with homeless clients.
September 4, 2011 12:35 PM   Subscribe

My friend works with the homeless and keeps having relationships with her clients. What can I do, or should I not do?

My friend of many years works re-housing homeless people, and often works with single guys.

She had a relationship with one of them earlier this year when she had just closed the case. I didn't think it was that cool, but tried to refrain from judging. I met him, he was nice, and they did seem into each other. However, he was still involved (more or less by proxy only) in crime and the drug scene, and I worried a lot for them both and their safety. They broke up after a few months - I don't think he was right for her but he also was pretty heavily dependent on her - as you might expect as she was the first person to show him love since he'd been in prison. It left him really down and he threatened suicide, although I think that was a heat of the moment type thing.

Anyway, I thought that would be the end of it and she'd be well warned off client relationships, but a month later and she's in another one, this time with a client who she is still supposed to be supporting professionally. This one also has kids, from a previous relationship.

The thing is, I've watched her struggle with various destructive tendencies before - drink, drugs, promiscuity (as well as dabbled in them myself so I'm not some sort of paragon, but she tends to go further than me by quite some way). I tend to try and have a word if she asks for my opinion, but mostly stand back and try to be there for her when she needs help pulling herself back together again. I love her dearly and we've both supported each other a lot with all kinds of things over the years.

However, this time she's involving other people in her shit. Vulnerable people, who don't need the added complication of a relationship with someone who seems destined to enjoy it for a while then move on. I feel like she's taking advantage of the fact that they are in thrall to her, and using them for their affection, not to mention getting a thrill from the taboo of seeing a client.

So first of all - tell me if I need to chill out and let her get on with it. I do worry about her too much sometimes. I may just be projecting my own shit onto her relationships. Maybe this is just like any relationship, the statistics say it will probably fail, but it's worth a chance.

If not though... how do I talk to her about what she's doing? To herself, and to her clients?

Sorry for length, and thanks to any who took the time to read this far.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This is thoroughly unprofessional, as she is in some ways in a position of power over these men. I think it's worth mentioning your feelings about it to her, but I wouldn't try to go through official channels, as she would almost certainly lose her job.
Be aware that she's probably going to be defensive and possibly angry with you. Just try to kindly, and compassionately, explain that no good can really come of this sort of behavior, and that you're only bringing it up because you want good things for her.
posted by Gilbert at 12:46 PM on September 4, 2011 [4 favorites]

You're right, this is really predatory, using ones job and the power imbalances inherent to it to find vulnerable people who arn't in a place to adequately judge her shit is deeply wrong. Her job ought to have policies written to prevent dudes from pulling this shit, but it is just as applicable here. She should lose her job, please be sure to communicate that fact to her, and if she doesn't get that message please make sure she does. This is deeply not ok.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:48 PM on September 4, 2011 [13 favorites]

What others have said, and you might want to evaluate the wisdom of remaining friends with her.
posted by tomswift at 12:58 PM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Depending on various factors, this is at the least unprofessional, but at the worst a firing offense or a risk of license loss if there is any social worker certification. I assume she does not do this on her own, but as an employee (paid or not) of an agency. The agency needs to know about her behavior before it becomes a problem. Exposure of her actions could result in the agency being defunded or otherwise blackballed.
posted by dhartung at 1:06 PM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

What can I do, or should I not do?

You can do nothing to change your friends behavior. As others have said it's predatory and in my opinion it cries out for therapy . Don't get involved. If your friend if hanging out with people involved in crime and drugs (as you mention) than it's only a matter of time before that crap touches you . You need to think about that a lot before that happens and it will happen as long as you are close to her.

You can't talk to her . You can't talk her out of this. You can't get her to see the error of your ways. You can however keep yourself away from it.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 1:17 PM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

You're not overreacting; you are correct in thinking this is very wrong behaviour on her part. I would bet good money that it contravenes her workplace and/or professional code of ethics. Unfortunately, I think this has gone beyond something you can counsel her on as a friend. There is a power imbalance in her relationships of the sort that makes it not OK for professors to date their students, doctors to date their patients, or lawyers to date their clients.

I agree with dhartung that the agency she works for needs to know, because it could lose its funding if she keeps doing this. In the long run, this could hurt exponentially more vulnerable people than the one person who will be hurt if your friend loses her job. And, to be frank, your friend doesn't sound like someone who is in a healthy enough place to be an effective social worker right now.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:22 PM on September 4, 2011 [4 favorites]

Your friend's behavior sets off all kinds of icky alarms for me. And it sounds like she has a pattern of self destructive behavior. Hopefully one day, she'll see it and learn to modify her behavior. Maybe not.

If she was my friend I'd probably have already built up boundaries to prevent getting involved in situations like this. But if I hadn't, and our relationship was such that it was my responsibility to hold up a mirror for her, I'd tell her how disturbed I was to see her using others, risking her job, and making crap choices. I'd only tell her once, though. And it would probably piss her off. Given my personal and unprofessional conclusions regarding your friends current mental status, I'd wager her negative reaction will be intense and incongruent to the situation.

In reality, you can't do anything to help or protect her from doing herself harm from this type of self destruction. She needs to see it for herself and get help.
posted by dchrssyr at 2:06 PM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you feel obliged, I guess you could report her behavior to the agency, while first warning her you are going to do so, to give her the chance to amend her behavior. If she's fired, are you going to be ok with having brought her behavior to their attention? To me, that would be a greater wrong that what she's doing, but your ethics may vary.

I would be very, very careful if I were you to make sure that the problem you are concerned about is the one at hand, that you discussed in this post. Make sure you aren't punishing her for other issues you have with her, or distracting yourself from issues in your own life (you seem VERY involved in the details of her life, and I wonder what you might find if you turned some of that critical attention toward your own life). How would you react if this wasn't your friend, but just some random person who you found out was having relationships with her clients?

I don't agree that this is such a huge ethics violation as everyone else is making it out to be. These homeless people are still adults capable of making their own decisions. To assume that she's unilaterally responsible for the relationships is to take a very paternalistic view towards the homeless. It DOES take two to tango, as lampshade says.
posted by parrot_person at 2:13 PM on September 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Just reading your question brings up so many bad memories it is difficult to contain myself.

Chill out and let her get on with it. You probably won’t change her.
She has crossed a professional and moral line and probably won’t come back to reality until after it gets really bad. Don’t let her take you down too. Sure give her a talking to, but don’t expect much. This is a train wreck in progress and probably the best you can do is wait for the cars to dig into the earth and come to a stop.

Ok, that is harsh, but the reason I say it is because I have been in the exact situation before, in the exact type of environment and with the exact same type of people (both counselors and clients). I worked in a very large homeless shelter for a few years and this same issue was rampant with the female caseworkers and the male clients. There were children born, guys who abandoned them (as expected) and a continual stream of domestic abuse stories and evidence (like bruising and scars on the females) not to mention lives ruined by a decent into the drug world. It was like a bad Hollywood movie playing out in front of my eyes. So strange was it that it took me many months to actually believe it was as bad as all that. But it was. Your average homeless guy has a multitude of issues to deal with and letting down that professional assistance wall to allow him into a personal relationship will almost always end badly.

(Disclosure: this was in NY State, dealing with NYC homeless males.)

I also speak from the other side too. As a person who also was a client who clawed my way out, I found the practice disgusting, irresponsible, selfish and any number of other horrible adjectives you can think of to add here. I never engaged in any relationship other than a professional on with my counselors, but I know many guys who did. In the end, the women almost always lost their jobs, the guys went back to the streets and everybody lost, especially when there were children who were conceived in the relationship.

Basically, your friend needs help herself and in a big way. She should absolutely not be in the job she has now and either should quit, be fired or somehow just shrink from sight. If she is so enamored with dating homeless guys, there are plenty of street corners with plenty of available suitors.

Finally, as far as who is to blame – it is on both of them. They both share in the blame. Certainly, she should know better but it take two to tango. I would not doubt that her lovers played her like a deck of cards too.
posted by lampshade at 2:39 PM on September 4, 2011 [13 favorites]

There's no loss in having a this-really-has-to-stop conversation with this person and (if you haven't) offering to help her get professional help, which seems the good-friend thing to do at this point, rather than "chill out."

How to talk to her? Relating that you are concerned that this is part of her broader tendency to act against her best interests and there is a severe need to address the big-picture stuff?

Focusing on the fact that these relationships are imperiling her employment may be fuel for her self-destructive, low-self-esteem side.

If she keeps doing this, reporting her or not reporting her would be a mighty big decision one hopes you would think through as very best you can.
posted by ambient2 at 3:00 PM on September 4, 2011

I don't agree that this is such a huge ethics violation as everyone else is making it out to be. These homeless people are still adults capable of making their own decisions. To assume that she's unilaterally responsible for the relationships is to take a very paternalistic view towards the homeless. It DOES take two to tango, as lampshade says.

This is an ethics violation because it involves potential abuse of power. Through her job, the OP's friend controls access to resources for the men she's dating.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:01 PM on September 4, 2011 [14 favorites]

As far as the behavior goes, it's certainly unethical. It might even be illegal depending on a variety of factors (where she is, if licensed, etc.).

It's certainly possible your friend is being predatory, but when I've learned about this kind of exploitation, it's always been the case that the social service worker is highly needy and having some kind of big problems that they're having a hard time coping with. They find their clients to be appreciative and ego-boosting, so the worker feels wanted, needed, appreciated, and is able to rationalize her actions and convince herself that no one is being harmed and some good is being done.

How involved do you want to become? As a friend, you could certainly approach her with the intent of supporting her to get real help with her problems, rather than masking her problem by screwing with vulnerable folks in need. As a concerned citizen, you could report her actions (anonymously) to the agency is in your area that is charged with protecting vulnerable adults from exploitation (adult protective services in California).

These are tough things to do, but a lot worse things could occur if your friend continues as she is. It's very unlikely that this will end well if it continues, so you could look at your interventions as a way to avert jail, heartbreak, disease, or even death.
posted by jasper411 at 4:48 PM on September 4, 2011

Previously, Today.

You might not think it is applicable, but I find a curious correlation between these posts.
posted by jbenben at 8:15 PM on September 4, 2011

Extract from the link (via Nickel Pickle's great response about folks who rescue abused animals...)

"I'm a vet, and I've done extensive work over the years with rescues. I have found that some people *NEED* to feel like their animal was abused in order to put themselves in the role of supreme benevolent rescuer. This is fucked up, but you simply cannot change it. These people are attracted to what a colleague calls 'abuse p0rn', where they proliferate information showing the worst abuse. Steer clear of these people, their need to focus on such darkness is usually a precursor to minor dishonesty and a generally flaky standard of care."

Emphasis mine.

Not calling the homeless animals!

Just pointing out the dominant-submissive-abuse dynamic that might be at play.

The OP's friend wants to believe these men are abused an oppressed, takes on "hero complex".....

posted by jbenben at 8:25 PM on September 4, 2011

I don't agree that this is such a huge ethics violation as everyone else is making it out to be. These homeless people are still adults capable of making their own decisions. To assume that she's unilaterally responsible for the relationships is to take a very paternalistic view towards the homeless. It DOES take two to tango, as lampshade says.

A 40-year-old resuming college student is an adult capable of making his or her own decisions, yet it is still considered an ethical violation for a professor to become romantically or sexually involved with said student.

A relationship can have fundamentally exploitative elements even when both parties are legally adults.
posted by Lexica at 9:09 PM on September 4, 2011 [3 favorites] a small qualifier to what I said earlier. The organization providing the homeless services that I and the other people worked for in that situation was also clearly aware of what was going on and made no attempt to stop the multiple incidents that occurred.

This is still not an excuse for the other two parties, but just a statement that there was a third dynamic in play.

Also, I did report it once and never heard anything back from the workplace issues reporting agency (or whatever the hell they billed themselves as). On all fronts, it seemed that it was some weird job benefit for less than scrupulous people. I am so glad I have nothing to do with that anymore.

So to the OP, expect that your efforts may go any number of ways if you take on trying to assist your friend. I wish you the best as it is clear your heart is in the right place.
posted by lampshade at 1:15 AM on September 5, 2011

I work in this particular field and what she is doing is wildly wildly unethical. Stay away from her because when this is discovered her professional life is completely over. Not ever ever ever under any circumstances have sex with one's clients is one of the first and most stressed ethical standards of social workers. She isn't just putting herself and her clients at risk, she is risking the place she works. Funding and liscencea can be lost by her awful ethical violation.

Do not enable her. Do me a favor, do her poor clients a favor, and do the field of social work a favor and report her to her supervisors. This is a really bad situation. It is more likely that your friend and her clients wil get the help the need if this situation is intervened in.

Again, speaking as someone who works in this exact field, she is doing The Worst Thing and putting everyone in danger. Either intervene or stay away from her for your own safety. When she is discovered, everyone connected with her will be professionally destroyed. Her agency can lose funders and legitimacy. The best case scenario for her is when this is discovered she looses her job, liscence and is a pariah.

If you are in the helping or public health field you may be dragged down with her because you knew about this gross ethics violation and you allowed it to continue.

Gosh, I'm so upset by this question. This is a more widespread problem that people like to admit and it's really harmful to a lot of people. Your friend needs to help.
posted by fuq at 7:47 AM on September 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Late to the party, but yes, this, 1000 times:

Again, speaking as someone who works in this exact field, she is doing The Worst Thing and putting everyone in danger. Either intervene or stay away from her for your own safety. When she is discovered, everyone connected with her will be professionally destroyed. Her agency can lose funders and legitimacy. The best case scenario for her is when this is discovered she looses her job, liscence and is a pariah.

With this economy, grantors are being VERY careful about who they give their money to. Even the best, most ethical and most needed nonprofits are losing grants they've previously received because there are too many agencies chasing too little money. Grantors are going over every client with a fine-tooth comb, making them submit reams of paperwork, glowing testimonials from clients and the community, etc. If it EVER gets out that your friend's agency is a place where the staff has "inappropriate sexual relations" with clients - and given the respective power positions it IS unethical if not illegal - they can kiss any future funding good-bye.

And whereas in days gone by there were only muckraking newspaper reporters to contend with, now there is Facebook and Twitter. And since libraries have computers, homeless people have Facebook and Twitter accounts as well as blogs. All it would take is one of your friend's paramours saying "Guess what, I had hot sex with my caseworker Nina yesterday!" on Twitter or whatever, and next thing you know it goes viral, and the NEXT thing you know your friend and her agency are well and truly in the soup.

You should warn her about all this, about the horrible consequences, AND how you won't be bailing her out or giving her a reference or helping her with rent money if she loses her job.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 6:53 AM on September 7, 2011

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