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Systems Navigation in Social Work - Social Workology

Systems Navigation in Social Work

Why do they make it so complicated?

Day in and day out, social workers navigate systems. Systems navigation is a special kind expected. Social workers have the answers, know the people, the agencies, and all around get sh*t done. I’ve had clients who flat out refuse go to agencies. They will procrastinate or come back and tell me that they were turned away or directed somewhere else. I couldn’t understand for the life of me. Yes, it is absolutely frustrating but they needed SNAP, Medicaid, Rental Assistance, Housing… Why weren’t they just doing it??????

I’ll tell you why… It’s exhausting and frustrating. Add in layers of mental health, limited transportation, and it’s a perfect storm. When navigating complicated systems becomes a part of your life, you realize just how bad it is. A lot of the clients I’ve worked with are involved in multiple systems. The redirection to different people, all the different forms, the bureaucracy! It begins to feel hopeless. Many of us are effected by the Covid-19 closures, being furloughed, or completely unrelated circumstances (like me) that are allowing us to have experiences in systems that me never expected to need support from.

My personal systems navigation battle

Several months ago, tragedy struck my family. I went from being a single parent of a 2 year old to being the sole provider for my child. My family lost a friend, a co-parent, and my little lost his Mama. While that is for another day, this experience highlighted the endless systems matrix we ask out clients to keep plugging through Honestly, as an outsider, an unburdened person in the process, I found it so easy to just sit and wait. I my clients life in another professionals hands and trust the system. It wasn’t really until I started navigating the VA system that I realized how different it is when it becomes personal.

My resume says I am an expert systems navigator, I can wait on the phone for hours with patience and a good attitude. Calmly speaking to customer services and services providers with the best of them. I always ask the right questions and get answer or guidance to the next step on the journey. I make great small talk; connecting with the person on the other end of the phone. Where the heck did that master systems navigator go????? I have no clue where she is but what I can tell you is that the closer to home it gets, the harder it becomes.

It’s different when it’s something YOU need

While I have always taken pride in being empathetic to my client’s experiences, can we really understand if we haven’t been through a similar experience? Endless training’s, school, a Masters, my LCSW, child welfare, medical social work… none of it prepared my for this battle. This experience has challenged me to step outside of my professional self and put myself in the shoes of the people I work with.

I have a deeper understanding of how this process can break you even the most skilled systems navigators. Having buy-in makes it different. Are they making it more challenging for people just give up? It’s so frustrating; endless redirection to different people within the agencies who then make you repeat your situation over and over. I have asked individuals to do this countless times without really understanding how bad it can be.

Those seeking assistance are already in a vulnerable situation they don’t need more barrier to getting what they need. Our clients deserve social workers who want to help and are skilled in walking with them through their challenging time. Maybe vulnerable clients will always needs someone to walk with them through systems but maybe we are just helping to create confidence in navigating systems and giving those who feel powerless, their power back.

What can we do?

  1. Know the current research!
  2. Use a systems navigation model to help reduce barriers. The more specific to your agencies needs, the better.
  3. Find empathy for those sitting across from you.
  4. Take a deep breath when things get challenging. Their frustration is probably not about you, it’s the situation.


As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I often view the world through this lens. Social work shapes how I interact and understand every part of my life. Through social justice, policy, and even my own parenting, I am guided to view the world as a social worker.

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