Post-unification Hong Kong has seen new demand for social services, which in turn has increased the responsibilities of a group of dedicated professionals whose work is closely linked with the heart of society.
"Social work is a demanding career," says Jessica Cheung, senior social work officer (youth), Social Welfare Department. "Change is constant. With challenges ahead, we are determined to become even more proactive and responsive in ensuring that the best possible assistance and services are at hand for the needy."
Social interaction, including cross-border marriages between Hong Kong residents and their mainland counterparts, is contributing to social welfare demands related to integration and adjustment issues stemming from cultural differences and different ways of life, Ms Cheung notes.
Over the years, Ms Cheung has worked at the forefront to assist those in need of social services. As a subject officer leading a team of four, she is now responsible for the administration of drug-treatment services and community development, while keeping a close watch on developments on the ground.
"We need to reach out to people so as to identify their needs, learn more about the challenges facing our frontline social workers, and try to allocate appropriate resources to meet social needs," Ms Cheung says, adding that her days are far from routine. "There are always unexpected incidents as well as ad hoc projects to handle."
Ms Cheung's tasks also include investigating the adequacy and effectiveness of current services, meetings with other stakeholders, advising her team members, answering enquiries and handling requests for funding.
Referring to an on-site anti-drug promotion organised by the Hong Kong Police at the Lo Wu and Lok Ma Chau border control points last month, she points out that such activities illustrate the close cooperation between the department, the Hong Kong Police Force, the Narcotics Division and other stakeholders in a concerted effort to fight drug abuse.
Ms Cheung, who has a degree in social policy from the University of London, UK, always maintained her drive to develop a meaningful career while helping to enhance other people's lives. She therefore welcomed the opportunity to sign up with the SWD and has never looked back.
"This is a dynamic profession that is not in the least desk-bound," she says. Working for the government also gives her the opportunity to perform statutory duties — the kind of work that is only available to the department's social work officers.
Ms Cheung has already had seven different job postings during her tenure with the department. "One of the things that attracted me to the SWD in the first place was the job rotation opportunities. I started as a social work officer at a community centre, before moving on to handling family cases at one of our family services centres."
A stint at the youth and corrections branch brought a change of pace. This was followed by a challenging position at the family and child protective services unit. Before taking up her current position, she was involved in yet another different field — staff development and training — where she was responsible for arranging placements for social work students and organising training programmes for frontline social workers. "Not many other jobs could give me this much exposure," she says. "Each posting has its own distinguishing features and challenges, but they all require specific attributes and job-related skills and knowledge."
As part of her career development over the past decade, Ms Cheung has participated in a number of national-level training programmes. These included a weeklong anti-drug training course in Guangdong province and a five-day management and administration programme in Beijing and Tianjin. She has also attended training on rehabilitation services for children in Japan.
The social welfare profession needs people who are energetic and willing to learn, Ms Cheung remarks. "A university degree is not enough. We must continuously learn as much as we can about society and the world," she stresses.
As Hong Kong is now part of China, proficiency in Mandarin is particularly important. "While working in training development, I had the opportunity to work with mainland officials and academics," she says. "Being able to speak some Mandarin helped during my four-and-a-half years' service at the family and child protective services unit, where immigrants from the mainland frequently seek assistance."
Other essential attributes include IT, leadership, people management, resources management and communications skills. "Working as part of a team has also enabled me to learn from others," Ms Cheung notes.
In Ms Cheung's experience, social work is all about people. "We never work alone," she says. Social workers on all levels should therefore be resourceful and knowledgeable. "Keep an open mind and don't pass judgement on others," she continues. "It is important to understand that people who are trapped in certain situations may not realise they have an alternative. We must be able to place things in perspective and help them see that they have options."