When I worked at Anonymous Youth Center, I was a stranger in a strange land. A young lady living alone in the frozen tundra of upstate New York. When it turned out that my landlady was, in fact, a deranged old woman, a coworker kindly took me in. This brought a variety of benefits. I didn’t have to pay rent anymore, (I know!) I had my friend to hang out with more often, and I lived within walking distance from my job.
Living very close to where you work is a little strange, especially when you work with kids. I found this out when I was enjoying a beer on the front steps one summer evening.
“Miss SJ! Hey guys that’s Miss SJ!”
“Oh Jesus. Hi kids.”
“Want to take us to the park?”
“Not now, guys.”
“You live here? Do you live by yourself? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you have a girlfriend? Where does your mom live? What are you hiding behind your back? It smells like my grandma.”
Social workers tend to have a head start on awkward, and running into clients in public, unexpectedly, really kicks it into gear. We started preparing for for this back in
Comedy Central Presents social work school. It was always an ethical question. If you run into a client in public, how do you handle it? You don’t want to “out” someone as a person working with social services, and violate confidentiality. But you also don’t want them to think they’re ignoring you.
The rule of thumb was always to let the client approach you. If they want to say hi, that’s fine. If not,
you cry in a corner and question everything you might have done wrong that is also cool. It’s their call.
It can be tempting to throw ethics out the window when you have requirements and quotas to meet.
I found this out when I was reading through notes as an intern. We were required to see all families at least twice per month. Apparently this worker had been struggling to see a particular child, as her note read, “SW saw the child across the street. SW waved to child, she waved back.” That was it.
I have been informed by my supervisor that such a note would be met with a “nice try.” Dammit.
There are some that work. I bumped into a thirteen year old client one day, out walking her dog and her brother. Walking the dog was this girl’s mother’s big request. She was at a loss as to why her daughter could not do this simple thing without being asked seven to ten times. I got to say, “Oh my goodness, are you walking the dog? Without your mom chasing you down the street?” And she was able to tell me, proudly, that she had remembered herself. Also, please notice that she was being nice to her brother. It was pretty much an impromptu, organic session. The thing we all dream of.
Other times, it’s not quite as clear. I heard my name being called while I was walking to the bus. I looked around, but didn’t see anyone. It seemed to be coming from above…and then a tiny ninja dropped down before me. Actually, it was an eight year old boy climbing on the scaffolding on his building. He just dropped in (see what I did there?) to say hi.
We didn’t discuss anything related to the case. But is dangling from a precarious structure with no adult in sight a safety concern, and therefore worthy of a note? Which box do I check for that one?
Then there are the times that you might have been able to count it as a contact, but you never find out. Because you go out of your way to hide. One chatty mother who lived down the block from the agency. She was the kind of client you can hardly get out the door. You let her know time is up, you stand to leave, your coworkers turn the lights off and lock the door, and she shares another anecdote. We’ve all had one.
I’m not proud of getting off the bus a stop early to avoid getting trapped. Or crossing the street, pretending to be more zoned out than I actually was. But I had to. I had other visits to get to in the next several hours.
This goes both ways. I’m sure a mom did this to me when she was out trick or treating with her kids. The casual “I’m going to stare across the street instead of in front of me for no reason!” It’s cool. We’ve all got places to go.
Sometimes, we run into people whose cases we had closed, who we thought we might never see again. This can be bittersweet. It’s almost always nice to see someone, with one or two notable exceptions. But people aren’t always doing well once we close.
I ran into a boy about a year after we closed his case. He approached me, which was nice. His main issue had been his constant marijuana use.
16 y/o: “Hey, SJ.”
SJ: “Hi! How are you guys doing?”
16 y/o: “We’re good. Mom’s good. In school.”
SJ: “That’s great. All right, good to see you. Nice shirt.”
16 y/o: “Huh? Oh, ha, thanks.”
If you guessed this, you win!
They’re not all bad. I ran into an eight year old who could barely sit still when we started working together, who showed me the candy he’d gotten as a reward (side note: probably not the best choice) for his good behavior in school. Of course that was soon after running into a mother at the bodega who happily showed me pictures of her newborn son, then mentioned that her teen daughter was at Rikers Island.
The absolute best, though, my ultimate grand victory, happened quite recently. A fourteen year old girl I had worked with last year came to visit me while on her way home from a half day of school. No reason, just wanted to say hi. I told her how awesome her uniform was, and she was so proud to tell me how well she’s doing in Catholic high school. (Did I mention she’s on a full scholarship? She’s on a full scholarship.) She and her mom were getting along, and she was on the student council. Apparently that exists outside of Happy Days. She gave me a hug and went on her way, probably not aware that she was just responsible for one of my favorite moments of my career.
Social work is a weird field. Our best work often gets done outside the office. In a school, in the home, you just kind of go where it takes you. Even if that’s while someone is dangling from some scaffolding.