Hollywood needs to look to social workers for heroes

IT HAPPENED 40 years ago this September and was, perhaps, network television's only stab at a drama show featuring social workers as the main characters.

"This dramatic series," says The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows: 1946-Present, "starred George C. Scott as Neil Brock, a young social worker in the New York slums. The stories involved child abuse, the welfare syndrome, problems of aging, drug addiction, and crime, situations all too familiar to Neil Brock in his daily routine."


A young Cicely Tyson starred as Jane Foster, the secretary for the welfare office where Neil Brock worked. The show was called East Side, West Side. It premiered Sept. 23, 1963, and made its last broadcast on Sept. 14, 1964. Thus did one of the most brilliant, well-written and superbly acted television series come to an end after one glorious, albeit Nielsen-ratings-starved, year. In 1963, as in 2003, television executives didn't want shows that were good. They wanted shows that got ratings.

Few, if any, television shows have had social workers as the main characters since. One of the exceptions is CBS' Judging Amy, where Tyne Daly stars in a supporting role as a character who's a social worker. Perhaps social workers should be grateful for the paucity of attention. Given Hollywood's stereotyping of social workers -- staid, stiff and arrogant in the 1964 movie comedy A Thousand Clowns and obtrusive to the point of obnoxiousness in the 1974 film Claudine -- it's hard to figure why any social worker would want Tinseltown's attention.


Still, the subject was broached at last weekend's meeting of the Maryland chapter of the National Association of Social Workers in Easton. Hollywood big brains -- executives, producers, directors and writers -- seem to recognize only three occupations when they develop dramatic television series: doctors, lawyers and police officers. When there is a change, it's either for the weird -- undertakers in HBO's Six Feet Under -- or the stereotypical, as in the Italian-American mob family of The Sopranos.

Even corrupt, brutal, racist cops -- like those on FX's The Shield -- get more love from Hollywood muckety-mucks than do social workers. It'd be enough to make the lot of them scream, if they weren't more dignified.

"I haven't figured it out," said Judith Schagrin of Hollywood's virtual blacklisting of topics, themes and shows related to social workers. Schagrin is a 49-year-old social worker with the Baltimore County Department of Social Services.

"One of the problems might be we're a women's profession," Schagrin theorized. "Cops, gangsters, lawyers and doctors get their shows. Not nurses or social workers. Hollywood doesn't see how interesting our work is. Social workers can be found in hospices, hospitals, private practice and child welfare. Speaking of child welfare, since that's my part of the world, we have some interesting stories to tell."

Schagrin said her day-to-day work finds her helping children and families "with serious social problems: domestic violence, drug abuse, poverty." In short, Schagrin's job sounds much like the things Neil Brock encountered in his fictional television world. Some observers have suggested that it was the gritty realism of East Side, West Side that led to its early departure from the airwaves.

Margarete Parrish is on the faculty of the University of Maryland's School of Social Work. She has a bone to pick with Hollywood honchos about the topics on weekly television shows.

"I'd like to see a positive focus on social work and an authentic reflection of social work," said Parrish, who didn't give her age but suggested she graduated high school one year after a particular Sun columnist noted for curmudgeonly conservatism. "Social work serves a lot of people our society doesn't see as glamorous or sexy. Poor people are neither glamorous nor sexy. We see things about corrupt cops but nothing about dedicated social workers. We're not sexy."

The job of social work may not be sexy, but the tales are compelling. They range from the one Parrish tells -- of an 11-year-old sexually active Baltimore girl whose mother had five children by five different men, all now dead -- to Schagrin's story with a happy ending: a girl raised in foster care who went on to college and a steady career.


"The media's ignorant and oblivious to our profession," Parrish lamented.

And in this case, ignorance isn't bliss.