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Social work and software

OSCaR is one of those things that’s hard to write about. It’s a social work case management and database software package. It doesn’t tug at your heartstrings like rehabilitating drug users, or rescuing people from trafficking, or reuniting children with their families. It’s certainly not what I had in mind when our family left Australia for Cambodia in 2014.

In my life before Cambodia, I was a case management social worker in a high school, working directly with disengaged young people. I also had some experience supervising social work students through their university placements. Coming here, I knew that I probably wouldn’t be doing the same thing – social work in a second language is really tough – and I assumed I would fit into a support role at an NGO.

Social work is a fledgling discipline in Cambodia.The Royal University of Phnom Penh started offering the Bachelor of Social Work in 2008, and the number of qualified social workers in the country is low. While there are many Cambodians at NGOs with a lot of life experience, the lack of formal education often results in people making things up as they go. It goes without saying that social work like that often doesn’t lead to the best outcomes for vulnerable people. Unfortunately, there is also a history of some missionaries obtaining visas as social workers despite being unqualified, contributing to the perception that social work is not a real discipline. But now work is in progress to address these issues.

I now work at Children in Families (CIF), a local NGO dedicated to providing family-based care for vulnerable children. When I started here in 2015, I was asked to conduct a social work audit. We had some good practice strengths, but weaknesses in client assessment and record-keeping. Those administrative things don’t sound particularly exciting, but they have knock-on effects for the quality of social work generally. How can you make a good plan for someone if you haven’t assessed and understood their situation? How can you keep the details of 20 people fresh in your mind and provide high quality follow-up every single day, if you never adequately write down the things you’re doing with them? And how can you ever hope to report on your work to your donors (and so keep on doing that work in the future!) if you haven’t got records of what you’ve done?

I’m not a computer programmer, but I grew up comfortable with computers. And our office already did most of its work digitally, so it felt natural to look at supporting our work with better software. We applied for (and won!) a grant to develop a case management system in late 2015. The system has continued to be more and more widely adopted, but it’s tempting to ask, so what?

I’ve been really excited to see how OSCaR has contributed to the development of social work practice at CIF. Our assessment structure is now more relevant and lets us track long-term whether the work we do is improving the lives of the kids we support. We keep records in Khmer, with processes in place to let managers supervise their staff. We track all the things we need to in order to report on our work to our donors, and our managers are beginning to understand how they can be involved in monitoring and evaluation processes themselves. As I’ve helped other organisations integrate OSCaR into their practice, I’ve seen how they also wrestle more with their own work and consider how best to serve their beneficiaries.

I believe that God wants to see Christians not only reach out to the vulnerable, but reach out in ways that are helpful, relevant and competent. And while OSCaR by itself does not work with vulnerable people, it is supporting hundreds of social workers, in Cambodia and in other countries, to do so more effectively. This isn’t the work I expected to do, when I left Australia five years ago. But I’ve seen God bring things in line, and I’m grateful to have been put where I am.

Chris and his wife Stacie advocate for family-based care for children. Their family lives in Cambodia.