Judy Finlay

Recipient: February 2004

In the summer of 2003, Judy Finlay, Chief Advocate of the Office of Child and Family Service Advocacy in Ontario, made the headlines in major newspapers and newscasts across the country. While the autonomy of her Office was being undermined, she highlighted the importance of providing an independent voice together with and on behalf of children and youth in this province. Her strong defence of the role of her Office brought unprecedented support from the public, her peers, and most importantly the youth who benefit from the advocacy. This interview was conducted in advance of National Social Work Week which is being celebrated March 1-7, 2004 under the theme: "Social Justice: Social Work in Action".

Judy began her career in social services as a group home parent in a child welfare agency at the age of 19, and has worked with children ever since in a number of different organizations and positions. Having received her MSW degree in 1984, she is currently pursuing a doctorate in social work at Wilfrid Laurier University with a particular focus on peer violence. This latest course of study evolved out of the need to more effectively apply research methodology to her advocacy work. She has found the experience to be extremely valuable.

Judy Finlay has always been very involved in social action initiatives. She was one of the founders of Women's Community House, a transition house for women and children in London. As well, she taught social work practice with an emphasis on social action theory for two years at an Australian university. Furthermore, she developed a sexual abuse treatment program in the Far North to safely begin the conversation about an otherwise taboo subject. She has consulted to a coalition of agencies in rural communities to jointly confront the issue of family violence.

During her career, she has seen social work move from its community development roots to become more of a professional practice. She applauds an emphasis on clinical skills and uses this knowledge in every aspect of her day-to-day work. She cautions that, in some ways, social workers are at risk of becoming agents of the state in their work in child welfare, institutional care, education, income maintenance, hospitals and so on. To her, it is important to be cognizant of this development, so as not to suppress the profession's ability to exert influence in a pro-active way on behalf of clients and the community-at-large. We should never lose sight of who the client is, as we provide service in the context of large bureaucracies.

Judy stated that, with greater competition for fewer resources in human services, there appears to be the recent development of a mean-spirited attitude within society about the vulnerable, with a concomitant diminishing sense of community responsibility. It is social workers who have the ability to force those issues to the surface and help redefine what is meant by "community". In order for this to happen, she suggested that advocacy will need to become more of a focus in social work education. She noted that a gap in this area was observed in the sector study conducted across Canada two years ago. She indicated that another challenge for the profession is that there still exists a gender bias in social work: men disproportionately hold senior policy and administration positions, while women traditionally work in the frontline. She believes that this bias needs to be addressed in order for women to have greater opportunity for impact on the development and reconstruction of social policy.

When asked what makes a social work leader, Judy Finlay identified a number of key attributes, including passion for the issues; vision and the ability to articulate this vision; and role modeling. To her, social work and specifically, advocacy, is not a skill or tool but rather a lifestyle. She also underlined the importance of having courage of conviction to undertake change initiatives, particularly in the field of social justice. Shifting the status quo requires determination and personal strength. She explained that, at times, principles have to take precedence over personal interests. In her position, she stated that she has a limited peer group, which is why she was particularly moved by the response to her public battle for an independent Child Advocate. While she had no hesitation in strongly speaking out on behalf of children and their families, despite potential personal repercussions, she was struck by the great number of organizations and individuals who responded in support.

Judy remarked that the biggest challenge for social workers is to constantly remember who the client is. She stressed that it is vital for the profession to not lose sight of its value base and its roots in community development and social action. She urged social workers to have the courage to stand up to systems and bureaucracies around policy and practice initiatives that affect the vulnerable. Speaking from personal experience, she acknowledged that it is very hard to fight such causes single-handedly. Attempts may be made to target or diminish these efforts. This highlights the importance of identifying allies, nurturing alliances, forming coalitions and generating multiple voices.

It has not been difficult for Judy Finlay to remain passionate about her work. She credited the children with keeping her connected - she has found their passion infectious and talking with them has consistently kept her vision strong. Any time she feels discouraged or fearful, she gets out to speak with children and youth and their response always centres her. In addition, she emphasized the importance of being an historian and tallying successes to promote courage for the future and to maintain vibrancy and energy in one's work.

Judy Finlay is a social work leader who has a clear vision and a deep commitment to social work advocacy. Celebrate social workers who demonstrate social work in action through their pursuit of social justice, during National Social Work Week and throughout the year.