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Pro's corner : Roberta McLaren

– Interview with an expert in medico-social intervention in designated centers –

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Roberta McLaren has been a social worker with the Montreal Sexual Assault Centre (MSAC) for over 15 years. She began her professional career with a diploma in sociology and worked as an administrative assistant in a drop-in centre for close to 12 years.

Why did you want to become a social worker?

I developed an interest in this field when I was an employee at the drop-in centre and saw the work being done by the professionals at the centre. It made me want to study social work. I got accepted into a 14-month program at McGill University, which allowed me to earn my diploma quickly. I did an internship at Batshaw (an organization for youth protection services). After my studies, I applied to the MSAC, where I’ve been working since 2004. My goal was to find a job that allowed me to help people. 

Could you tell us about one of the professional challenges you had to face while working with designated centres?


I’ve been doing this job for a while now, and the biggest challenges are related to collaboration with other professionals (doctors, nurses and other social workers). We have the impression that we’re all partners, that we’re working together, that we’re part of the same team… and that’s how we want things to be, but unfortunately it’s not always the case. We encounter victims who are facing enormous obstacles and challenges. For a social worker, having the feeling that you’re supported by a team is very important.

A few years ago, I did an intervention with an Indigenous woman that didn’t go well. She had been brought to the centre by other white social workers who had not explained the services offered. This situation made me very nervous and I myself had difficulty explaining the services to the victim. Because of my stress, I was talking very loudly and quickly. So we fell into a vicious circle – the victim was getting increasingly upset and so was I. We weren’t able to complete the intervention. 

After that intervention, we contacted the organization Module du Nord québécois to ask for support and information so that we could improve the services we offer to Indigenous people. That really helped me gain confidence in my interventions with this population. It was a great collaboration.

After conducting a difficult medico-social intervention with a victim of sexual assault, what is your favourite way to decompress and clear your head?

After a difficult intervention, I like to go back and meet with my colleagues to discuss it. Once I’ve decompressed with my co-workers, I like to go home and watch TV.

What is it that motivates you to keep working with sexual assault victims?


Our work meets an urgent need! During an intervention, it’s a big challenge to make sure the victim has access to basic services, to medical services as well, and that we provide them with the support they need. With every intervention, we realize the importance of this work. Despite the increased awareness of sexual violence, there will always be victims who need this service, so we have to make sure it continues to be accessible.

I have never thought of changing jobs and the atmosphere at the centre [MSAC] helps make me want to continue. I have a lot of support from our director Deby Trent.


What advice would you give someone who was just starting to do medico-social intervention at a designated centre?

When we do job interviews, we ask the applicant if they are bothered by blood or dirt, or by receiving calls in the middle of the night when they’re on duty. We also ask them how they would manage a situation in which a police officer or doctor doesn’t believe a victim. If the person passes this test during the interview, it’s a good start. This is a very demanding job both physically and mentally, and there is no glory in it. That’s something you have to realize from the start. 

Being a sexual assault social worker might seem like an exotic job – “being in the hospital and working with doctors can seem exciting, stimulating and fulfilling,” but in reality it’s not like that. It’s not glamourous at all. You have to be prepared for the real nature of the job.

On a more personal note …

Latest good books Roberta has read: 
•    I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
•    So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
•    Reckless: My Life as a Pretender by Chrissie Hynde


Books she’s currently reading: 
•    One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston
•    The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad 


A book she tried to read, but abandoned (twice!):
Ulysses by James Joyce

Last good movie she saw:
The Graduate (1967) and Doctor Zhivago (1965)


Her favourite song:

The song playing on the radio in the car

Her favourite quote:
“I try not to judge people, because if I did I wouldn’t have any friends” – Ed Wood, 1994. 


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