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Spring 2024 Issue

Forensic Social Work: A Storytelling Approach to Successful Forensic Social Work
By Lindsey Getz
Social Work Today
Vol. 24 No. 2 P. 8

We all have a story to tell—but not everyone feels empowered to share theirs. That’s often the case for incarcerated women. But there is power and healing that comes with sharing one’s story—something Ashley McSwain says can make a valuable difference in helping women with both reentry and healing. It’s a topic she presented at the National Organization of Forensic Social Work Annual Conference in 2022 when she was executive director for Community Family Life Services, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that serves women returning home following a period of incarceration. And it’s an approach she’s working to integrate at New Hope Housing, a shelter and housing program in Northern Virginia, where she’s the CEO. Using a storytelling approach, McSwain says, can be an effective social worker strategy in many circumstances.

“Storytelling creates a journey that you, as a practitioner, get to be a part of,” she explains. “When someone tells a story, they’re taking you along with them, and we become a lot more invested in the outcome. It’s very hard to demonstrate true empathy when we don’t have a good understanding or context of the client’s story. In other words, it’s hard to empathize when we don’t really understand what a client has experienced.”

This, McSwain says, is particularly true for incarcerated women, who have likely had many misunderstood experiences during their time in prison. And yet, the programs and services often designed for their reentry don’t necessarily take their real-life experiences into account. This can be a barrier to their success and rehabilitation.

“There’s quite a bit of stigma associated with going to prison, but so often the services designed for these individuals are not based on the actual experiences they’ve been through,” McSwain explains. “This is especially true for women as, in general, the prison system is designed for men. But when we listen to women’s stories, it’s quite clear that there are many unmet needs and circumstances that have not been factored into their healing journeys.”

This is where storytelling can make a difference, McSwain says. When social workers allow their clients to share their stories, they are able to incorporate interventions that are specific to their needs.

But the key is truly hearing those stories.

“For the social worker, the heart of storytelling is being an active listener,” McSwain says. “Social workers are often overwhelmed and have many clients. But when we are able to pause and hear their individual stories, we find that the answers are already there. They’re telling us the best way to help through their story.”

It Starts With ‘Self’
Becoming an active listener and effectively using storytelling comes back to understanding oneself, McSwain says. This is where social workers need to start.

“If you can understand yourself, then you can be open to someone else’s experience and story,” she says. “But that’s something typically lacking these days. We need social workers to spend more time and energy focused on self-awareness and understanding. We need to be able to say, let me move ‘my stuff’ out of the way so that I can hear someone else’s story and experience from their perspective.”

This must start at the academic level, and it’s something that she’s working on now. McSwain is in the midst of developing a curriculum focused on understanding “self” so that more social workers can be open to the stories and experiences of others.

“We need to train social workers to understand themselves before they even start working with clients,” she says. “Only once they understand the lens through which they are hearing the client’s story can they truly be active listeners.”

Her own understanding of “self” was sharpened in a two-year MS in Organization Development program she completed at American University. She learned to apply the intentional use of self in professional practice, and she came out of the program a “better social worker as a result.”

“It left me wondering why we aren’t more focused on ‘self’ from the very beginning of our careers,” McSwain continues. “And it’s been my mission to create a curriculum that requires social workers to look at themselves so that they can hear their clients more effectively.”

Telling a story is powerful, and social workers must first experience that for themselves, she adds. “The storyteller is empowered when they are openly able to share their experience and speak their truth. Once they have a better understanding of “self” and their own personal narrative, social workers can become better active listeners.

That opens the door for effective communication.

“It’s powerful to let someone tell their story by sharing their experiences,” McSwain says. “Allowing someone to speak their truth and truly hearing it is a vital first step to overcoming the assumptions and stigmas that might be in the way of ineffective systems and solutions.”

In other words, she says, this is a valuable step toward change.

The Stories of the Unheard
At the National Organization of Forensic Social Work Annual Conference in 2022, McSwain spoke on using storytelling to assist with women’s reentry and healing. The session was a response to the strong call for social workers to provide services that demonstrate an understanding of the lived experiences of previously incarcerated clients.

She brought with her a woman who shared her story at the conference—something that McSwain says was eye-opening for many who attended her session.

“Our speaker shared her story and experiences about what life was really like for her while her mother was in prison, and the audience was highly responsive,” McSwain recalls. “We were able to ask, ‘Does the criminal justice work that you’re doing align with what this woman’s story tells you?’ I think for many it was eye opening that some of the work we’re doing may not actually be responsive to the actual experiences our clients have had.”

In many ways, it really is about hearing the stories of the otherwise unheard. That applies to the homeless population, as well. In 2023, McSwain was named executive director of New Hope Housing, where, she says, there’s a need for storytelling. “It’s an approach we’re working to integrate,” she says. “There are so many areas of social work that could benefit from storytelling.”

According to McSwain, understanding people’s personal stories is what social work is all about. But somewhere along the way, it’s become less a focus. This, she observes, is a great opportunity to circle back.

“I do think our field in general has gotten away from hearing the stories of the people that we serve,” she says. “We have moved toward a very evidence based and even clinical way of doing social work. While that’s undeniably important, stories are at the base of how those theories are applied and it’s important that we don’t stray too far. We need to get back to being active listeners and hearing these stories.”

— Lindsey Getz is an award-winning writer in Royersford, Pennsylvania.