Richard T. Cass, Social Worker : What I learned from Him

By John Stein Date Posted: December 18 2013

John Stein is a generous contributor to the goodenoughcaring Journal and a member of our editorial group and has many of you will be aware long and wide experience of helping and supporting children, young adults and the adults who engage with them. He has written widely on his experiences. He and his wife Jean enjoy travelling are probably, at this very moment, preparing for Christmas in Andalucia. When we are young in our working life we are often helped by the good influence of an older colleague. Richard T. Cass, the subject of this article is one such.


Richard T. Cass, Social Worker : What I learned from Him

by John Stein

I first met Dick Cass in the summer of 1970. He was the first social worker I had ever known. It was not a memorable meeting. I was a young police officer in Bethlehem, PA, a small steel town of about 80,000 people. I had just been assigned as our department’s first community policing officer. I walked foot patrol in the city’s public housing projects (council housing) on the evening shift. I was supposed to get to know the residents and let them get to know me. Dick directed the neighborhood center in the city’s most notorious project of about 500 units on the south side. It was not a memorable meeting for me. I don’t remember anything about what we discussed. My next meeting with Dick a few months later was more memorable. I had left the police department, having failed to maintain my silence after witnessing a good number of my fellow officers and brass severely beat several of teenage boys, some of whom I was beginning to get to know. I was most anxious for a job. Dick had an opening for a street worker to work with the kids in his project. He met with me about the position. It was a brief meeting, perhaps about 15 minutes. He didn’t ask me any questions. He simply explained that the kids would have our resumes, conduct the interviews, and make the decision. They had to live with the decision, he said, so they should make it. They would also have the power to fire the worker later if they were not satisfied. He told me when the interview would be and that was it. I felt pretty confident about the interview. I was confident about my knowledge of psychology and sociology and human development. More, I knew some of the kids and they knew me. I had a reputation as a stand up guy, having stood up to the police department after they beat some of the kids.

It was the toughest interview I ever had, lasting about 45 minutes. They asked intelligent questions, for many of which I was unprepared. But I thought I did ok. I met the next applicant as I left the interview, a Japanese graduate student who was majoring in business and finance. Then I met the final applicant, a mature, outgoing, and energetic man in his fifties. He had been the past president of the local chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). I knew I couldn’t hold a candle to him. Dick called a little later and told me I had finished third, with the Japanese business student coming in second .

A few months later, I got a job directing neighborhood centers in four projects of over 1,200 units on the north side of the city. Dick called to congratulate me and suggested we get together. He offered to help me in anyway he could, but I didn’t think I needed any help. I felt pretty confident. For about two months, I was tied up writing job descriptions, and then rewriting the agency’s Federal funding application, which had been turned down for lack of specificity. We got refunded and I went to work in earnest. Although I didn’t think I needed any help, Dick needed help from me. You see, one of his goals was to organize tenants councils from each project to negotiate new and less restrictive tenant’s leases with the housing authority that governed the projects. Since I served four of the five projects to his one project, he needed me to get my tenants on board.

And that’s when I began to learn from him.

All I knew about social work up to that point was from a brief description in my high school history text about Jane Addams’ Hull House, a settlement house in Chicago founded in 1889 and modeled after London’s Toynbee Hall, founded in 1885. Settlement house workers lived in the settlement houses, located in poor communities, and worked with residents from the surrounding neighborhoods. Dick was a social worker in that tradition. Unable to live in the project he served because his income was too high, he bought a house right across the street and raised his family there, in the poorest and toughest part of Bethlehem. With an MSW in community organization, Dick styled himself as a community organizer. I have never known another social worker who called her or himself a community organizer, although Barrack Obama claims to have worked in community organization. I had visions of organizing large groups of people to demonstrate for social justice and such. Dick’s approach was far more sophisticated than that.

I think Dick, who came from Boston, had only been in town a little over a year at the time. During his first year, he had managed to find out who talked to the mayor and to whom the mayor listened. Then, Dick somehow managed to arrange for some of his residents to talk with these people. I don’t know how he did it. Perhaps charity events where wives would come and do good things and consequently be around people whom he had carefully chosen and coached. Eventually, these people would get to the mayor and perhaps get the mayor to meet with and listen to some of Dick’s people. And so, to bring me and my residents along, I saw Dick regularly. Occasionally, he would meet with me alone, often after work over a beer, to prepare for an upcoming meeting. During our meetings, attended by a few of his people and a few more of mine, usually held in a bar across the street from one of my projects and owned by the father of one of my residents. It had once been a restaurant. We met in the restaurant part, no longer in use, over a couple of pitchers of beer and a pitcher of root beer for those few who did not drink. After the meeting was over, he and I would review what had been accomplished and to plan for what remained to be done.

It was during these meetings with Dick that I first noticed a remarkable thing. When Dick talked about his residents, he never, ever had anything negative to say about them. Never mentioned a problem. Never the slightest shortcoming. He talked only about their efforts and accomplishments, often as if they were almost heroic. He admired these people. He was bragging about them. It was truly amazing and, quite frankly, I have never since had such an experience with anyone else with whom I worked.

During this time, I also had the opportunity to hire a street worker, I must confess at Dick’s prompting. Of course I used his approach of having the kids interview. I had only two applicants, a young man with an associate degree who was married to a young woman from the neighborhood, and the Japanese business student. I went around talking with some of the kids to line them up, then scheduled the interviews. The two applicants showed up…the kids didn’t. So I went looking for them and got enough to come for the interview. I was apprehensive–it seemed as if they didn’t take it seriously and I was afraid they would make a joke out of the process. They did not. They took about 45 minutes with each applicant, really liked the Japanese guy (what was it about him?), but chose Carl, the guy from the neighborhood.

Carl did some great things with them, finding a place for them to meet, having a fund raiser (getting families in the neighborhood to prepare a fried chicken dinners and getting the kids to sell tickets and deliver the dinners), then buying a stereo and pool and ping pong tables, and eventually organizing a Friday night dance with a DJ. I moved on about a year later. The executive director decided to go in a different direction and would no longer fund our street worker, and that pretty much finished it for me. Carl was probably the best thing we had going, and the tenants council stuff was running under its own power (with Dick’s support) and no longer needed me.

First Lesson Learned

I guess the first lesson I learned was about trusting people with the responsibility for things in which they have an interest, even kids. A few years after my work in the neighborhood center, I completed my M.Ed. in Social Restoration and was hired as acting director to open a small, secure treatment facility for hard core juvenile offenders sentenced to corrections by juvenile courts during Pennsylvania’s initiative to close the state reform school at Camp Hill. (The guy they wanted for director would not be available for about three months and they were anxious to get started). Hired on a Tuesday, I was given three resumes of men they said were qualified and could start immediately and told to be ready for our first kids by Friday. I knew two of the guys from graduate school and interviewed and hired them all the next day. We took our first kids that Friday. (It still amazes me how often I was hired to direct programs in which I had no experience and about which I knew little or nothing–first the neighbourhood center, now this).

When it came time to hire more staff, I considered using Dick’s technique of having the kids interview and decide whom to hire. I wasn’t sure. These staff would not only be in charge of supervising activities but also of supervising the kids and security. But I could think of no better alternatives and so assembled the kids. They weren’t enthusiastic. They said they would just be wasting their time because I would hire whomever I wanted. I assured them I would hire whom they chose. They didn’t believe me and countered with, “Just don’t hire no niggers.” One of the applicants was a white guy with an appropriate degree who met all the qualifications, but I was nervous about him. I sensed that he might be easily manipulated by the kids. The other applicant was Carl, the guy who worked with me in the neighborhood center. Carl was black. Now, a real dilemma. If I hired Carl, I would be going counter to their expressed ‘instructions.’ I told them one of the guys was black and I thought we ought to have some black staff because eventually we would have some black kids. The only way they could participate in the process was if they interviewed the applicants, in which case I would abide by their decision. They finally agreed. They spent about 45 minutes with each applicant and hired Carl.

A few months later, with different kids in the program, I had a similar experience, almost word for word. Again, there was a black guy with whom I had worked in graduate school. If I had chosen him…But, again, the kids had told me just don’t hire no ——-, well, they again hired the black candidate. I have used this approach in three other residential settings. It has never failed. When our executive director eventually took over, a graduate of my social restoration program a year before me, he chose to hire his own staff. One of the first he hired was the young man who interviewed with the kids and lost out to Carl. Eventually, manipulated a bit by the kids, he made some really bad decisions and had to be let go.

I think the kids know what they need. They will not hire anyone whom they do not respect. Nor will they hire anyone who does not respect them.


During this time, Jim, our most notorious escapee and runner, asked if we could take him to see his parents. He lived a couple of hundred miles away near the border with New York state. His parents did not have a phone, and he had had little communication with them during his years in care. He promised me repeatedly that he would not run. One of the goals of our program was to help our kids to reestablish their community ties, so I agreed to take him. We had a nice drive. Arriving at his house, a very poor home in a small, poor town of perhaps two hundred people, he greeted his parents perfunctorily and left to see his girl friend. I told him what time to be back and sat uncomfortably with his parents in their kitchen, drinking coffee and anxiously awaiting his return, wondering just what I had gotten myself into. As the time for his return approached and we had heard nothing, I began to wonder just how I would handle this. If he ran again, he could easily escape our jurisdiction into New York State. How would I report this? The time for his return came and went, and still no sign of him. I was beside myself…Then, less than five minutes late, he arrived, said goodbye to his parents, and returned with me in my car to his ‘incarceration.’ Again, my trust was not abused. I have never been disappointed when trusting kids with something that was important to them. On the other hand, when I have occasionally coerced them into agreements–you know, those behavioural contracts we sometime negotiate–well, that was a different matter.

Second Lesson Learned

The second lesson I learned from Dick was about the way he thought about people. He saw their strengths rather than their weaknesses or their problems. This lesson was much harder for me. After all, in residential treatment, or any other kind of treatment for that matter, people are there because of their problems, not their strengths. It is our job to help them to ‘fix’ their problems so they can leave care and return to the community. Nevertheless, they all have many strengths and good qualities. When our new executive director came on board at our treatment facility, he brought in a psychologist as a consultant. We had both had him as a professor in graduate school. He was most impressive. He spent several hours observing different shifts before conducting training sessions with the staff. In his first session with all of us, he opened by asking us to describe the children with whom we worked, writing responses on a flip chart. The list developed quickly. Things such as: Don’t respect authority,Lie, Steal, Can’t delay gratification, Aggressive. There were perhaps 20 items on the list, all negative. I held back. I was an administrator and did not want to interfere with this training, which was for our staff, but I couldn’t help thinking about all the positive qualities I had seen among these ‘criminal’ kids. We had kids who were honest. (I had taken my wallet out of my pocket while doing a repair and left it on the pool table. Fifteen minutes later, one of the boys brought it to me with all the money still there.)

I already wrote about how responsible they could be in hiring staff. Some had a great sense of humour. Some were remarkably curious or intelligent. Some were helpful, going out of their way to help staff with things without being asked, for example changing a tire for our secretary. Some were tenacious, refusing to quit until the job was done. Some were neat and tidy. Some, respectful. In fact, I can’t think of a quality that I would like to see in my own kids that was not present in that group of ‘delinquent’ boys. Much of the time, the kids were pleasant to be around. And yet, not one of our staff offered anything positive. (Please note, he did not ask the staff to tell him about the kids’ problems, he asked them to describe the kids. This was their description.) As I was about to break my silence and offer a positive quality, our consultant ended the discussion with, “No wonder you are depressed, being around kids like this all day.” Then he launched into a lecture about self-care. I have used this approach with parents on occasion in parenting classes: “Tell me about your kids.” The lists were much the same. I remember only one time when a parent offered something positive. And so I think to myself, if this is what the adults in their lives think of them, what must the children think of themselves? Doesn’t their (our) self-image depend at least to some extent on the people close to us? I have attended workshops about assessments and focusing on strengths. It is really difficult to do so when people come to us because of the problems in their lives. It’s only natural to focus on those problems. And so I see people trying to list strengths and coming up with a paltry list of things such as ‘well-groomed,’ ‘neatly dressed,’ ‘good hygiene,’ perhaps even ‘intelligent.’ But the length of lists of strengths rarely equal the length of the lists of problems. But, because of my experiences with Dick Cass, I have come to believe that all people have more positive qualities than negative. The challenge is to focus on the positives first.


About five years ago, I searched for Dick Cass on the NASW (National Association of Social Workers) website and could not find him. Whilst I was thinking about writing this article, I did a further search. Sadly, I found his obituary. He died in August of 2012 at the age of 77, still active and respected in his community. This is not an obituary for Dick Cass, nor a tribute. And it is not about what he taught me. He didn’t teach. Rather, it is an acknowledgment of what I learned from him, from being around him and watching him and listening to him talk about his people. I have known and worked with many great professionals in my time. Dick was unique in my experience. I have not lived up to the example he set, but I have tried.


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