The headlines left me wondering how Rae Tucker Rambally would have reacted. A judge in Saskatchewan had given a conditional sentence to a 24-year-old man who had been found guilty of sexual assault on a 12-year-old girl. The judge's reasoning was that, because the girl might have come from an abusive family, she was possibly the aggressor.
Presumably, anyone who has ever worked with troubled children and their families would react with incredulity to the judge's suggestion that the child was the author of her own misfortune. Which leads to Rambally, who managed to dedicate forty years to families in need without ever suggesting that her clients had earned what life dealt out to them. As her career wound down, Rambally was able to reflect on her life in social services and on the clients and systems she encountered along the way. The resulting book reveals a woman with plenty to say.
Rambally's forty years of work took place in three very different societies. Raised in Trinidad, she studied in Montreal and London, and worked in London, Montreal, and Barbados. She encountered social service systems where salaries absorbed 85 per cent of the budget, leaving the rest for programs that might help the clients; young black clients served by white workers who didn't understand the important little issues of skin and hair care; and heavy caseloads that created a burden of job dissatisfaction. Somehow she survived those forty years without burning out, and without adopting either an all-pervasive desperation or an all-knowing arrogance. Most amazingly, after years of maintaining client files, Rambally has written a story, not a jargon-riddled case conference report.
Practice Imperfect tells the stories of Julia, a young girl who had suffered through so many foster families that she had learned not to care; of Sylvie, who was too burdened by life to find energy for change; and of 14-year-old Myrna, who took on the system and won. These are real people, though Rambally has changed names and identifying locations to protect the confidentiality of her clients. Practice Imperfect is also the story of a worker who had always known that her destiny was to work with people. Finally, it is the story of systems that sag under the weight of bureaucracy, arbitrary rules, and impressive theories of human behaviour which, too often, bear little resemblance to real people and their lives.
Rambally worked in post-World War II London, and in Montreal from 1969 to 1990, the years when the Pill had a direct impact on adoption, and a time when the Youth Protection Act, designed to protect kids from abuse, presented as many problems as solutions.
Although Practice Imperfect is not a social work treatise, it could serve as both an inspiration and a warning to social work students, a reality check to staff, and a how-to manual for clients and groups working with the system.
I spent 26 years as a childcare worker in Montreal. While Rambally was a social worker with foster and adoption services, I delivered front line, day-to-day services to kids in a residential treatment centre. Though we saw the same situations from different perspectives, she still manages to speak to my concerns. To her credit, she has also made us care about the system, which is often as dysfunctional as the clients it attempts to serve. Rambally's picture is painted with a masterly hand.
Joan Eyolfson Cadham is a former Montreal child care worker who now writes full-time in Foam Lake, Saskatchewan.