You’re in big trouble, mister.

9 09 2013

Children are great. I mean, they are the future. They’re made of sugar and spice and shit. They give your life meaning. At least, that’s what people tell 29 year olds who haven’t gotten around to procreating yet.

Kids are delightful, and adorable. But they’re also difficult. You have to teach them eeeeeverything. They always get it wrong at first. This might sound harsh, but it’s true. Potty training, shoe tying, not leaving Lego on the floor…honestly it takes forever. But eventually they get it, and you both get to feel an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment that the childless can only dream of.

Then the kid smacks you in the face and laughs.

Discipline. It’s not easy. But there are ways to not be terrible at it.

There are more than two options, for starters. From what I hear from lots of people, you are either whipping your child with an extension cord while she kneels on rice (I’m sorry, I know it’s “cultural,” but that is sadistic and a waste of a good starch) or letting them run the streets, pick their own bedtime, and asking them if they need a timeout for doing heroin at the kitchen table.

You are allowed to discipline your kids. You’re even allowed to spank your kids. Parents have given their toddlers a swat on the butt while I was in the room, even. It’s ok. If you’re resorting to spanking when the kid is a teenager, something’s gone wrong, and you’ll find it not working and pretty weird, but still.

You are allowed to discipline your kids. You’re not allowed to beat your kids with objects. You’re not allowed to leave marks and bruises. I’ve said this before, but I’m saying it again because it never seems to get through and I will get at least one comment complaining about how you’re not allowed to discipline your kids. You’re allowed to discipline your kids.

A lot of the parents I work with got hit as kids. When they’re really honest, they acknowledge that it wasn’t a whole lot of fun, or particularly effective. But they usually say it was just what they needed. “I was running the streets at 14, fighting and getting arrested, so yeah my mother beat me.” Good point. But she’d been beating you since you were two, and this behavior didn’t stop until you were 23, so…

Parents we work with usually recognize that they need to stop hitting their kids. Because it’s gotten out of control, because the kids have outgrown it, because they don’t want another case, whatever. Learning new ways isn’t easy, though.

Before you ask, no, I don’t have kids. But outside perspective is valuable. Sometime you get so caught up in the day to day battles (we’re all picking those battles, right?) that you need a reminder. Also one taken groups of fifteen to twenty adolescents to the mall and the zoo, by myself, and never lost one. So I do know some things. And sometimes, people just have to be open to common sense.

I work with teenagers who have been “grounded” for months. It either starts out way too harsh–you came home at 4:15 instead of 4? No leaving the house for two months!–or it starts out reasonable and time gets added on. “Oh, you rolled your eyes at me? That’s three more weeks!” It gets to a point where the kid an the parent can’t remember what the kid did wrong. It’s just the status quo–this person is only allowed to go to school and come home. At that point, this is not an adolescent, it’s a maximum security prisoner with nothing left to lose. Parents ask me all the time, “well, she’s already not allowed to do anything, so what am I supposed to take away?” Hmmm…perhaps this is the problem?

Time outs and sticker charts get a shitty reputation. A time out is “soft.” It’s not real discipline! Who cares about sitting in a chair for a few minutes? People who say this, of course, have never seen a three year old attempt to sit for THREE WHOLE MINUTES.

The thing that really gets me, though, is that parents try to get too creative. There’s usually a reason you tell your kids to do something. Leave your sidewalk chalk outside? Yeah, it probably won’t be in good shape tomorrow. Insist on fighting sleep? Ok, you’re gone be hella tired when I still get you up on time for school tomorrow. Refuse your coat? Oh yeah, it IS cold out now that you mention it. You want to lay on the sidewalk and have a fit instead of walking with us? Ok, bye! My my my, but you caught up quick.

Obviously this doesn’t work with lessons like staying out of the street, or that Windex is not as delicious as it looks, but natural consequences go a long way.

So does treating kids like functioning humans. If you want to do something, you have to earn it. It’s a valuable skill to teach your kids. A friend at a 30th birthday said out loud, “I’m going to eat some salad, that way I can have chips.” Don’t you think it all the time? “I’ll clean the bathroom, then I can watch Orange is the New Black before everyone on Twitter reveals all.”

No, your social worker doesn’t know all. There’s no magic discipline cookbook, or everyone would follow it and we would bake a cake out of rainbows and smiles. You know your kid best. But if what you’re doing isn’t working, it’s best to at least be open to suggestion. Sometimes we make sense, even if we don’t have kids.





We Wilsh You A Merfy Christams*

21 12 2012

Confession time: I have Christmas spirit. Always have, and I hope I always will. I like the cheesy music, I like the gaudy lights, I like the predictable movies. Everything about it. As a kid, Santa was a big part of that.

Actually, Santa is still a big part of that. Twenty eight years young, people!

I believed in Santa until I was about eight. I had my suspicions earlier, but I persevered because I wanted to. It was fun. Sure, Santa had the same handwriting as my mom, and a lot of my Christmas gifts had tags from Sorrelli’s, her favorite discount store in Brooklyn that no self respecting elf would ever set foot in. I read Judy Blume books in which Peter and Fudge discussed the fact that there was no Santa. I heard my parents going in and out of the attic, where the presents were kept, when I was supposed to be asleep on Christmas Eve, and the only explanation I was offered was, “Oh, yeah, we…yeah.”

But I still believed. Why? Kids are stupid. Like I said, I wanted to. It was fun. I wasn’t particularly materialistic, but I had an innate understanding that believing in magic and preserving this ritual was a time limited thing.

I always thought it was sweet. Until I learned about the true horrors of this myth in this article.

JK, peeps. I’m pretty sure that article is the definition of “overthinking it,” and exactly what people worry I had to deal with when they find out my mother is a psychologist.

It’s something I’ve heard debated more and more. Should you support the Santa myth? Isn’t lying wrong? As almost always, I advocate for the middle ground. I think the real danger is when people fall into these “beliefs” or “schools” of parenting. It leaves little room for logic and dealing with things on a case by case basis.

Some people get all high and mighty about not “lying” to their children. Fine, I won’t lie to them either. I feel bad for the next child who hands me an art project! “Kid, you have zero sense of perspective and proportion. That picture of your grandmother looks more like a pineapple. It’s called shading.”

Not to mention, Santa is a cultural phenomenon. He’s everywhere. It’s not a damaging lie, like “that boy is teasing you because he likes you!” or even such an outright one as, “No, SJ, the toy store is closed.”

But some people go overboard. Remember what I said about the middle ground? If you are policing what your child reads and watches to make sure they don’t hear anyone expressing any doubt about my good buddy Kris Kringle, then maybe it’s time to relax. And if your kids are unholy terrors unless you threaten to call Santa, or because Shingles the Shelf Elf is watching, they probably need to have little more respect for your authority.

Side note: If my parents had an Elf on a Shelf when I was a kid, I too would have been on my best behavior. Because I would have thought it was waiting to murder me.

It seems like the more money people have, the more time they have to blow this out of proportion. Either they will protect the Santa myth to such an extreme that they have to sit Junior down before the grandchild’s first Christmas so he doesn’t expect reindeer to deliver the gifts, or they lay the smackdown on magic and provide strategies for investment banking while the child is still swaddled.

Most of my families have more of a relaxed approach. It makes me sad, though, that a lot of the kids stop believing so early, thanks to the harsh realities of life. Their parents don’t have the money to pull it off how they’d like and tell the kid not to be disappointed, mom asks for help setting up the Santa surprise for the younger kids as there is no older adult around…there’s just less time to be a child lost in a fantasy world.

So I like it when the kids are into it. Even if it will surely lead to distrust and incsecure attachment is super dorky.

A couple of years ago, I called a mother to let her know that the Christmas presents we had for her seven year old son just arrived. She came in with him, as there was no one available to babysit. She pulled me aside to say, “I told him that Santa was really busy, so he dropped the presents off here early.”

“SJ, my mom said Santa was here! Did you meet him?”
“I did. It was amazing. He shook my hand twice and he smells of peppermint. I’m so sorry you missed him!”

While I’m sure I did that child irrevecable psychological damage, it was pretty fun for the day.

Happy holidays, people!

 

*This is a joke that is only funny to my older brother and me. I hope this is a sufficient Christmas gift to him.





At best, our work is certifiable.

30 08 2012

I’ve mentioned that my job confuses people a bit. They often don’t really have a clue what we do, and assume that we’re some sort of borderline useless combination of caseworker and friendly visitor. I don’t really care if people on the street, or my Facebook feed (you know, the modern street) think this. Well, I kind of care, but I know it really doesn’t matter. However, when judges don’t get it, then we have an issue.

Family court doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of respect for what I do. Saying that a family has been working with us for the past year on addressing their history of domestic violence, and on empowering the mother to assert herself as a parental figure, is pretty much met with blank stares. “What have you actually done?” The implication being, of course, that we’ve been sitting around chatting. A ten week parenting class, though, often means a check mark and a case closed.

Family court loves things that they can tally up and tick off “attended nine out of twelve sessions.” It’s like you can determine how good a parent someone is by their attendance percentage. What I do, the longer term family counseling is too abstract.

I’ve figured it out. It’s the certificate.

Certificates are a powerful thing. I mean, I got up an hour early three days a week at Girl Scout camp to go swimming in a cold Long Island pond, just to get a “Polar Bear Club” certificate. (I assume it’s still in a large Tupperware bin in my parents’ basement.)

I use them for my girls’ group now. Kids are really excited to have something that they can show off and hang up that indicates their achievement. It’s printed on nice paper in fancy font. Parents who didn’t complete school, I find, are also particularly into them. The ones who are the happiest about them, though, are people who have been in “the system” for a long time. Their kids have been in and out of foster care, they’ve been mandated to attend drug counseling, parenting classes, domestic violence groups, healthy cooking class, Zumba and whatever else might have been slightly helpful. They know the power of a “certificate of completion” (fuck participation) and have a folder full of them.

I have worked with one family that could be featured in a social work textbook as the quintessential “multi-problem family.” After two looooong years of work, the one thing of value that the courts see is that one of the teenagers completed my girls’ group. Twelve sessions, 75% attendance, certificate sent home and hung on the wall. Yay. It’s the only certificate they’ve managed. Never mind the school meetings, the days spent in the hospital, the calls from the police (Scared Straight is a real thing. An ineffective, real thing), referrals for mentoring and psychiatric evaluations, emergency grocery shopping with mom and two toddlers (I’m never doing that again, and you can’t make me!) and weeks of family counseling sessions in whatever room I could cram nine people into. Those things don’t have a curriculum and a clear end point.

As a result of Certificate Focused Practice, we’re being driven to be shorter term and more “evidenced based.” I’m not against our work being evidenced based–if it’s working, we should be able to see evidence, now matter how much we dislike that. But they’re making us do work that only has a bit of evidence and could, in theory, be more evidenced based, which I think just misses the point. And it’s a little automaton-y. It feels like social work in a dystopian future. “Enter problem here. Beep boop beep. Your solution is being processed.”

I hope you read that last bit aloud, in a robot voice.

I’m not anti-certificate. Like I said, I use them in girls’ group. I just think that getting so focused on checking off classes can take away from helping families. Not everything can happen and be fixed in a time limited program. “All right, let’s go through your Lisa Frank folder with the rainbow dolphins on it. Yes, we’ve got paperwork to show you’re a good parent, you don’t drink anymore, and you’re over the abuse you suffered!” Parents always ask “how long is the program?” when first engaging in counseling. That’s really not how effecting meaningful change in a family works, but it’s what they’ve come to expect. If you could attend “family college” and then be great at everything, I’m fairly certain everyone would do it and I’d be out of a job. But families have individual needs and situations, and while classes and group can provide invaluable help, they’re not quite everything.

For now, let me present you with this. You’ve earned it.





They both pee where they’re not supposed to, and both need to be crated at times.

28 06 2012

I don’t have kids. I’ve said it here before, because, as we all know, it matters to some of our clients. I maintain that it doesn’t really matter. Not having kids doesn’t mean you don’t know kids. It doesn’t mean you’ve never taken care of a child, or have children in your life who you love dearly.

But there are some things you can’t entirely understand. One is the feeling of loving someone more than anything, knowing what’s best for them, and sending them out into the world to make mistakes. Another is everyone in the world thinking they know how to parent your child better than you do.

That last one, I can kind of relate to. Ever since I got a dog.

Now, I have no intention of becoming one of those lunatics who refers to myself as my dog’s mommy, or tells people I have a six month old, or requests maternity leave when I bring a pet home. But the fact remains that there are some similarities to life with a dog and life with a baby. I say things like “It’s not time for dinner yet” to someone who doesn’t speak English, my boyfriend and I regularly discuss the timing and location of poops, I feel guilty leaving him at day care, I show coworkers pictures of him doing cute things, I do way more laundry than I thought possible, and I have someone to blame all weird household smells on.

Also, everyone else is an expert.

I admit that I don’t know a whole lot. So I turn to the source of all modern knowledge, the great and powerful Oz Google. (It’s how Jenny McCarthy cured autism, you know.) And right away I’m confronted with guilt. “Your dog is exhibiting signs of separation anxiety. First of all, stop getting angry at him. Think of it from his perspective. He just wants to be with you.” What kind of an asshole do you think I am, Mr. Google? I already feel bad! That’s why I’m here. “If your dog has an accident in the house, do not rub his nose in it.” Yeah, I’m not the mean dad from The Wonder Years. I got it.

There’s also the confusion. To address separation anxiety, we must teach the dog that it’s ok to be away from us. Leave the room, and encourage him to stay behind. To ensure that your dog is entirely housebroken, DO NOT LEAVE HIM ALONE FOR A MOMENT! You must be right there to interrupt any and all accidents. If you miss one, you have no one but yourself to blame. But stop following him around, you’re making his anxiety worse!

There’s little consensus on what you should be doing to raise a happy, healthy dog. This person says you need a choke collar. That person says they’re damaging. Everyone has an Invisible Fence, so that seems like the way to go. Except this expert says that’s a move for lazy assholes. Apparently we should feed him fresh chicken once a week? Oh wait, only if we want terrible things to happen to him. Dog food or no food! Crating is good. I mean bad. I mean no more than six four hours?

Then there are people on the street with helpful advice. “You should praise him when he does something good. Give him a little treat.” Well, you should write a book. ” “Tap him on the nose with a newspaper.” Again, is it the 50s? Who has a newspaper? “It’s important for them to socialize.” With your yippy, feral, biting machine? No thanks. “He’s so skinny. Maybe you should feed him more.” Was that on Animal Planet?

I know that if I mention anything about how we train or care for the dog, someone will disagree and be able to tell me how I’m irrevocably harming him. I mean, his treats aren’t locally grown or organic, so they’re probably right.

This is a fraction of what new parents are faced with. If you’re single, a teenager, or a father, forget it. Obviously you know nothing.

Most people seem incapable of determining what a “safety issue” that requires intervention really is. Parents playing a round of Baby Tetherball is dangerous. An infant being bottle fed in public is not.

Other young parents have a million must-haves for an expectant mother. “How many Boppys do you have? You got the Bumbo as well, right? Those are amazing. Just don’t leave the kid unattended, or she will die instantly. Also get the vibrating chair. And a walker, but if you put her in it too soon she’ll become bowlegged and hate you forever. Which breast pump are you getting? Why are you getting all those bottles? You will be breastfeeding, right? Only breastfed humans have gone on to happiness and success, it’s scientifically proven. You also need the video monitor! Obviously you won’t have any blankets or anything in her crib, but you need this too, so you can make sure she’s breathing all night.”

OK, Babies R Us cashier. Can we just finish checking out and get back to being strangers?

The generation that raised us is great for making new parents feel stupid. “Ok, I didn’t have six special chairs for you before you could sit up, or a baby monitor, but sure, that’s a necessity” as the eyes roll. It’s true, but at some point things change and we need to deal with it. I don’t hear any of those grandmothers pining for the days of outhouses or maxi-pads with belts, so we need to accept some progress.

And some of those innovations are ridiculous, of course. Wipe warmers spring to mind. No baby has ever died of Chilly Tush Syndrome, so I think we would be fine without one. But we have to consider it from the point of view of someone who is excited to be expecting a child, and is then confronted with everything that will go wrong and kill your baby. SIDS is everywhere! You’re probably passing along pertussis through hugs! But vaccinations cause autism!

Everything a pregnant woman or a person with a baby does seems to be up for debate. Most of my clients don’t have the luxury of a million different items to make their lives more convenient, or even to make their child’s life a bit easier. But they certainly get to enjoy everyone on the planet telling them how they could be doing things better.

Many moms, especially young ones, get it from their mothers or grandmothers. Not that they don’t appreciate the help, but they want it to be clear who the parent is. They get it from their friends who have been through it. They hear it from politicians who talk about single and teenage mothers receiving welfare as the latest sign of the apocalypse.

And of course they get it from us.

We don’t want to be that way. We try really hard not to undermine parents, assume they don’t know basic, obvious stuff. We even get a bit defensive when it seems that clients assume that we’re like this. But the fact that they expect us to be hypercritical makes perfect sense. We need to remember that we’re the latest in a long line of people who seem to think that they know better, and how annoying and frustrating that is to deal with.

Because honestly, I know my dog is too skinny.





Father Knows Best (unless he disagrees with SJ)

14 06 2012

People sometimes complain that I don’t write enough about fathers. They don’t complain that I don’t write enough about giraffes, which is strange, as giraffes are another awesome creature that I only see very occasionally. As Father’s Day approaches, I’m considering it more.

There just aren’t many dads on my caseload. I am currently at an all time high with dads, as three out of my twelve families, 25%, have a father involved. My wacky director talked to us during one ritual suicide staff meeting about the “myth of the absentee father.” Her point was that even when the fathers aren’t there, their presence still matters. OK, I agree. Her other point was that we need to be seeking out dads more often. Easy to say when you aren’t in the field anymore. Believe me, I ask. So where are they?

Some are far far away-they’ve moved out of state, and contact is limited to an occasional phone call at most. The move is frequently accompanied by a new family, and that is kind of that.

A lot of our families have histories of domestic violence, meaning that the dads are often legally prohibited from seeing the mothers, and at times the children. (Definitely for the best when you’ve threatened to kill your children and their mother.)

And some dads are not too far away, but they’re just not around. They’re not interested, or they’re not consistent. Obviously plenty of the mothers I work with fall short of their parental responsibilities. But there’s a difference in how the men and women I see experience finding out that they’ll be having a baby. For the mother, it’s real in that moment. For the father, it’s hit or miss.

The thing is, most of the men I work with don’t have a better idea of how to be a father. If your own personal example of a father is someone who you see only occasionally, who breaks promises and doesn’t support you and your family, it’s a struggle to do something different. Even if you know it made you feel terrible.

But we all know that some people do the hard work of making changes and breaking cycles. My father’s example of a dad had a lot to do with supporting the family financially, and drinking in the basement. (The laundry was always done!) Yet my dad managed to be way better than every other dad. Including yours, sorry.

Yeah, let me pick up you and your friends from that ska show in Jersey at 1 am, no problem. Your little league team needs someone to pitch, because we don’t have a tee and five year olds can’t throw? Awesome, I’m in. The man genuinely enjoyed Girl Scout father-daughter dances. He had a true knack for making social studies interesting, and was by far the best at playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (Also, he reads my blog regularly. Hi, Dad!)

There are some dads who, like mine, didn’t have the best example of how to be a good father. Or had much worse. But something made them decide to go above and beyond, and be amazing dads.

  1. There is one single father on my caseload. He recently took his teenage daughter and her cousin to see “Think Like a Man” to facilitate a discussion on romantic relationships. Sure, that discussion contained the line, “most boys are just trying to get at your cookies,” but the man gets credit for trying.
  2. The father of an eight year old boy realized he wasn’t spending enough time with his kid, so he managed to secure an extra ticket to ComicCon. It was a surprise. The boy walked into a room full of superheroes and his head exploded.
  3. A proud, and I mean proud father of six told me about the family’s recent trip to the Botanical Gardens. And then showed me pictures…and pictures…and pictures. His wife was telling him, “SJ doesn’t want to see all of them!” while he scrolled through to the last one, because, “look, they’re so cute.” They were pretty cute.
  4. A father of seven who somehow managed to get our entire office, staff and clients alike, engaged in singing Christmas carols at the holiday party. (The moment was ruined when I attempted an “O Holy Night” solo.)
  5. During one home visit, the father of a three year old girl painstakingly painted his daughter’s nails throughout our conversation. He was also a really good sport when it was his turn. Sparkly pink was totally his color.

Fatherhood is tricky. It seems dads are either labeled idiots or saints. Single dads are cheered as heroes in a way single moms rarely get. But it’s also pretty insulting when people act like you couldn’t possibly know how to take care of your own child, or ask if you’re “babysitting.” (People apparently actually say that to fathers about their kids. Gross.)

We’re always analyzing what role fathers play in this work. Why aren’t there more involved fathers? What do we do to change this? How can we teach boys the importance of being an involved parent? Who is going to teach the next generation about cheesy jokes if they don’t have dads?! Sometimes, it’s nice to take a break from that and celebrate the good.

Happy Father’s Day!





Do we like boy bands again?

12 06 2012

Very often, families end up working with us when entirely normal developmental tasks go wrong. Essentially, kids are designed to be a pain in the ass in a variety of different ways throughout their lives. If parents aren’t ready for this, they might handle it badly enough that they need some outside help. Infants are supposed to scream. Toddlers are supposed to have tantrums and occasionally pee on the floor. Teens are supposed to test boundaries. Not understanding this contributes to shaken babies, toddlers smacked around during potty training, and mothers insisting that someone take their teenage daughters and return them when they’re back to normal.

Since I started this work, I’ve been particularly fascinated by the relationships between moms and their teenage daughters. Those are a writer’s goldmine. (Ask Judy Blume. Or whoever did “Thirteen.”) It’s a fascinating mess, almost every time. And almost every time, it catches us by surprise.

Every mother I work with is astonished by what an ungrateful little bitch her teenager has turned into, seemingly over night. As always, we look for patterns in the family. “What was your relationship with your mom like when you were 15?” Inevitably, it was terrible. The mother’s mother was unsupportive,didn’t listen, treated her daughter like a slave…the mothers I’m working with think they’re doing a better job, and can’t understand why this didn’t prevent nightmare teenagerdom. I mean, my daughter doesn’t have to do everyone’s laundry like I did, and I don’t beat her with an extension cord! What more do kids these days want?

I’m always struck by this. Don’t they ever think back on the dramatic thoughts and journal entries they kept as teenagers and cringe? Do they remember how seriously they took everything that came to their friends and popularity, or the stupid nonsense that made them laugh until they snorted? Didn’t they ever read Judy Blume?!

Working with teenagers, I spend a lot of time relating to them. I reflect on myself as a teenager more than “normal” adults–you know, those people who spend a majority of their time with people their own age. Not to mention the whole writer thing. Writers are notoriously weird and reclusive introspective and observant, so I wind up writing about teen characters a lot. The two kind of feed into each other. Not to mention the fact that I don’t have a teenager at this point. As much as my teenage cousins have put me through the ringer once or twice, it’s not quite the same.

So I remember, I think better than a lot of people, the turmoil and agony that accompanies mundane, normal stuff when you’re a teenager. Are my friends hanging out without me? Why did my “best friend” tell that guy that I liked him? Now I look like an idiot and I can never leave the house again! This is just the normal stuff. Throw in abuse, homelessness, mental illness, and shit gets real quite quickly.

I’m only telling you this because I feel this is a safe space. High school SJ had a journal entry that contained the line “we’re not allowed to be in love.” Ugh. Everything I did was so dramatic and flamboyant. It just makes me want to set myself on fire.

It sounds so silly now. But when you’re living it, it’s of the utmost importance, and the only thing that makes it worse is being told how ridiculous you’re being.

My mom and I had a rough relationship when I was a teenager. I was a nightmare, and she was personally insulted by what a nightmare I was being to her. Par for the course. Dr. Mom was aware of this, which helped, but that didn’t make it all that much easier when the kid who last year begged for you to play Clue with her all of a sudden is mortified by everything you do.

She picked me up from junior high one time, and rolled down the window and screamed from across the street, “SJ! Over here!” I must be the messiah, readers, because I died. Actually died. And rose again. What to her was a nice thing to do–not making me walk home when she had a day off, and letting me know she was there–caused me extreme mortification and probably led to a surly silent treatment.

My mother was also a bit distressed by my choice of idols. My undying love for Kurt Cobain said to her, “My child can’t get enough of a suicidal drug addict.” As an adult, I get it. As a kid…oh my. Why couldn’t she understand how much Nirvana spoke to me?

But the thing is, she tried. She really tried to get me. When I managed to obtain all nineteen episodes of My So-Called Life on VHS (you kids with your DVD collections, you have no idea how good you have it) she told me she wanted to watch it with me. And she actually did. When I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower on Christmas Day 1999, and proclaimed I had never related to something so much in my life (I said I was dramatic. I also really wanted to have grown up in the early ’90s) she asked to borrow it, and talked about it with me.

Despite the disapproval of the genuinely stupid things I did, I knew my mom liked me as a person and thought I was an interesting kid. She talked to me like a person, when I allowed it, and defended me to strangers who criticized my purple hair. That went a long way towards me being able to be one of those adults who is friends with my mother, and likes hanging out with my family.

So moms, social workers, countrymen, it’s going to suck. It just is. It comes with the territory. You can’t be your daughter’s friend (not until she’s through college and in her 20s) but you can find things that you genuinely like about her. Even if you have to wrack your brain, the kid has good qualities. The more specific the better. “You’re a good kid” doesn’t mean a whole lot, but “you’re creative and a good baker” does. Taking an interest in the things they like is incredibly important. Not to the point of being a weirdo who doesn’t give your child space and knocks other children out of the way for the last One Direction t-shirt, but in a way that lets your kid know that what matters to them matters to you. One of my chronically crabby thirteen year olds was the happiest girl in the world when her mother took her to see that god forsaken Justin Bieber movie, and actually had a nice time.

It’s worth a try. It really can only get better. And then maybe, when your child is a reflective grown-up, she’ll write a nice blog post about you.





When life gives you lemons, take its comments out of context and mock it on the internet.

15 05 2012

Most of my job is spent trying to meet my clients where they are. However, there are times when things get a little chaotic, crises occur, or a court date is coming up, and we need to meet where no one wants to be–the ACS office.

This office is a thrifty property flippers dream. If there are swamplands in the Bronx, picture them, and that’s where we are. Scenic, and far, far away from that pesky civilization. Inside, the place is rather cheery. Nicely spruced up with grey paint that all social service agencies buy in bulk, as well as many a plastic ficus.

There’s also the playroom, which is separated from the waiting room by plexiglass. It gives me flashbacks to watching the baby chimpanzees at the zoo. Look at him stacking the blocks! He thinks he’s people! Of course, instead of a tire swing, there’s a heavy metal file cabinet.

Kids love those.

I can’t judge, of course (well, I can, I’m really good at it, but I’ll try not to.) Our playroom is just to the left of atrocious. It’s hard. Kids destroy things, and everyone is short on cash.Most social service agencies leave something to be desired in terms of interior design. Anonymous Agency could use a visit from Ty Pennington. No, wait, he blows things up and his hair annoys me. Is that Queer Eye for the Straight Guy dude up to anything? Maybe him.

I get so familiar with the asthetics at this office because most of my time there is spent waiting. Clients often don’t show up. So we wait. We give them time. We’ll give them an hour if we can. I once got a phone call that my client had arrived three hours late, when  was back in the office, and was rather miffed that I hadn’t waited. After all, she had traveled all that way.

Hmm….

Waiting can be frustrating. It means your entire day can be thrown off. It might mean that you don’t get to see a family that is really in crisis, or get in a contact with them that you really need.

However, in the grand scheme of things, there are worse things than waiting. Technology certainly makes it easier. Having a smart phone means you don’t get to complain nearly as much. There are crossword puzzles to do, somethings to draw, and fruits to ninja. Oh, we can also type up notes, I guess. I also have a Kindle in my bag, meaning I can laugh inappropriately at Tina Fey if I’m feeling down, or if I just want those around me to think I’m strange. The city is also kind enough to have kids’ movies (like Despicable Me. HEAVEN) playing in the waiting room. Of course, I did once see the shadow of a man’s head, presumably going on a popcorn run, during one of those DVDs. That’s right. They’re a bunch of bootleggers.

There are lots of ways to pass the time. My number one favorite, though, is eavesdropping.

Overheard in the ACS waiting/playroom:

“Elmo, you don’t shape up, Imma punch you in the face.” – 3 y/o to a stuffed animal.
It’s almost like this kid is trying to tell me something. I mean, Elmo can be annoying…

“No, I don’t have to deal with you. We don’t have to talk. This does NOT go beyond today. Good bye!” – Receptionist to Chinese food delivery guy.
That was weird.

“I wear breakaway pants to these things now, so they can check my legs easy!” – 12 year old on the bruise-checking procedure.
Young man, you are depressingly savvy.

“Look! Look! I tied the Barbie’s legs to the bed!” – A random 9 year old, eager to show off his handiwork.
1. So glad you’re not mine.
2. We need to find who is responsible for you.

“I don’t care where we are, I’ll beat your ass.” – A mom I fortunately don’t work with to her five year old.
Come on, I’m sitting right here. Don’t do that.

“But I have to go now. I really do. Can I piss in the cup here and then take it over there?”
“We are taking the bus. What the hell is wrong with you? Wanting to get on public transportation with a cup full of pee. I’m about to let them have you.” – 15 year old and his mother debating the logistics of getting over to the urine drug testing facility.
I’m just going to say that you both have valid points.

“They have me in here like I’m smoking crack. I’m not smoking crack! I’m not a crackhead. At least I’m not smoking crack.” -A mother apparently feeling she was being treated unfairly.
I get this excuse all the time. Most often from people doing cocaine.

There we have it. We’ve got to wait, there’s just no way around it. We’re busy, and we need to scheduled things back to back, but at times we just have to let go and let clients. As long as there are conversations to eavesdrop on, I’ll be all right.





The monster at the end of this blog

2 03 2012

When I mention that I work in child welfare, there are a couple of questions that people instantly have. One is how I afford to live in New York on that pathetic salary. Well, I managed to afford not one, not two, but THREE awesome pairs of Chuck Ts, so there you go. The next is how I manage to work with those monstrous parents.

I think this is one of the greatest misconceptions of what we do. When I talk about working with parents, utilizing their strengths, and helping them to find their own solutions, people often get a bit tetchy. “Do you really think they deserve that?” “They’re abusive, their children should just be taken away!” Sometimes they throw in an eye roll and condescension, free of charge! “Yeah, I’m sure thinking about what they’ve done and getting in touch with their feelings will fix everything.”

I blame television.

The fact of the matter is, most people do not wake up and plot to torture their children throughout the day. It happens.  There are terrible people in the world. When it happens, you typically hear about it on the news. Years later, you see a special on Dr. Phil, now that Oprah is no longer with the daytime viewers. It’s a big deal because it’s so rare. Commonplace stuff we all deal with doesn’t make it to the box. “Today, you’ll see a family squabble momentarily over what cereal to buy, before realizing that Cap’n Crunch and Honey Nut Cheerios are actually both on sale.” Chilling.

Abusive monsters exist. So do serial killers. (I swear there’s a parallel, so bear with me.) If you get your information on the topic of crime from Law & Order, Criminal Minds, Bones, and their ilk, you would think that 90% of murders are committed by a brilliant, deranged longer who has a secret room wallpapered with pictures of women, with lots of pins in them, leading a team of equally brilliant, extremely good looking federal agents in a game of cat and mouse.

But when we look at what actually happens, that doesn’t reflect reality. Most people are killed by someone they know. It’s usually unplanned and involves that whole “heat of the moment” “in a rage” thing. Those criminal minds aren’t nearly so brilliant, as the initial defense is often something along the lines of, “she stabbed herself? I mean, she asked me to stab her!”

Child abuse is frequently similar. According to Law & Order: SVU and Lifetime movies, abuse often involves international intrigue, plots to sell babies, and kids being chained to radiators. The “chained to a radiator” thing just will not go away. For the amount of times I’ve heard that one, I would estimate that upwards of half of all American children have spent at least an hour of their day secured to a heating appliance.

That’s just not the case. Parents who hit their kids are most often people who were raised with physical discipline, and are using it excessively themselves, or are parents who have snapped. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Physical discipline is not illegal. You’re allowed to spank your kids. (Personally, I think it’s a bad idea, but that’s an entirely different…I won’t say “can of worms,” because that’s gross, but you know what I mean.) You’re not allowed to beat them with objects or leave marks or bruises on them. But when people are overwhelmed, stressed, don’t have realistic and developmentally appropriate expectations of their kids, and don’t have a lot of support, sometimes they lash out in an effort to make themselves feel better.

Before any righteous smartasses jump in, I’m not defending murder, child abuse, spandex, or any other horrors. As in the case of typical murderer vs. serial killer, losing one’s temper doesn’t make it OK. There are still consequences, and the injured parties are still equally hurt. But pretending that people are, in fact, monsters, just doesn’t help.

We can look at these parents as evil caricatures. It makes us feel really good about ourselves. I might make mistakes, but I’m not like those people! It often makes those who hear my touchy-feely social work talk feel quite righteous and superior to say, “Well, I think those parents should be in prison! Those children should be removed!”

Because that solves everything, right? It has to happen sometimes, of course. But it’s generally best for kids to not have to go through removal, and to not have parents in prison.

If there were some magical farm run by happy, plump grandmas, who spent the day baking cookies, reading aloud, and raising puppies, where we could send all of these children, it might be a bit different. Magical farm doesn’t exist. Believe me, I’ve checked.

When we acknowledge that these things–abuse and neglect, which unchecked and at their worse lead to the death of a child–are usually not the deliberate acts of evil individuals, they become much scarier.

I routinely have nightmares that I am somehow complicit in someone’s death. I see them drowning in Jell-O and do nothing, I drive a monster truck into a playground, I accidentally throw peanut butter at someone with a severe allergy on the bus. (Hey, I said they were dreams.) In those dream moments, I have these thoughts. “Holy shit, how did that happen?” I think it’s because I have seen, time and again, how things get out of hand.

Also, I’m addicted to Dateline.

It’s not about rationalizing or explaining away a parent’s behavior. Having the good intention of trying to potty train your toddler doesn’t mean that it’s OK that the child wound up with a dislocated shoulder. But it does make a difference in how we address it.

An evil monster doesn’t learn and change. A person with the right intentions, but few skills and poor self control, can. Often they want to. But they’re defensive. I hear it all the time. “I lost my temper and I hit her. I’m not one of those abusive parents you see on the news, though!”

I’m sure they’re not. And that’s why I got sent in, not Nancy Grace. Before we go any further, let’s all just agree that she’s bad for society. OK? Great.

Not everyone deserves a second chance. (I think we all know what singer/dancer’s direction I’m looking in.) But a lot of people do. From a practical standpoint, even if we think it’s not for the best, they’re very often getting their children back. So we need to work with them, because so often, things can get better.

And no one can work well with monsters.





Days like this (in a good way!)

21 02 2012

Is it me, or have things been depressing around here lately? A crappy awards show encouraging America to embrace an admitted domestic abuser, children being shot, three days of useless trainings…

That last one was just me.

My twelve year old, the victim of the shooting, deserves all sorts of awards for being an incredibly tough, resilient kid, and is doing amazingly well. He is home and recovering perfectly. We’ve discussed the fact that this college essay will be flawless. I greatly appreciate all the support from readers, and I know he would as well.

So I think it’s time for some happiness.

A couple of weeks ago, I got a frantic phone call from a school social worker demanding that I get over to the school, as there was an emergency with one of my thirteen year olds. She went so far as to insist that I give her my personal cell phone number, so she could be sure I was on my way.

I pride myself on my trustworthiness and punctuality. Doubting them is a really good way to get on my bad side.

I asked what was wrong with Jackie Roberts (obviously not her real name, as I am not an asshole) but the school social worker told me that there was no time to explain. Honestly, explaining would have taken less time than that dramatic, Jessie Spano style “THERE’S NO TIME!!!!!!!!”

I seem to have a different definition of the word “emergency” than many people. If it doesn’t warrant a call to 911, I wouldn’t call it an emergency. If it is a real emergency, don’t call me, as I get queasy easily and will just try to put ice on things.

When I got to the school, Jackie was crying in the office.. The AP was impressed that I had gotten there so quickly, so the school social worker assured her it was because she threatened to come get me if I didn’t get over there right away. I said, “I don’t know about that, I’m here for Jackie,” and reminded myself that this school social worker has been a positive influence in my girl’s life and that dropkicking her would be a poor example to set.

Jackie tearfully told me that her mother didn’t care about her. There may be a thirteen year old girl somewhere on the planet who hasn’t felt that way, I just haven’t met her. Jackie said that her mother favored her other siblings.

The school staff explained that they had called Mrs. Roberts because Jackie kept having problems with one particular girl in her class, and they wanted the parents to meet. Jackie’s mother got frustrated and refused, saying she wasn’t dealing with Jackie causing problems anymore.

Not ideal. But let’s remember–mom has nine kids, one of whom is severely disabled, she has been clean and sober for five years, didn’t make it beyond the seventh grade, and has a terminal illness.

“Overwhelmed” doesn’t quite scratch the surface.

Mrs. Roberts is an extremely tough woman. She loves her children fiercely, but her favorite word is “fuck,” and they communicate their love via sarcasm and humor. Obviously, I love them dearly, but I can see how other people might misinterpret the family’s intentions.

My dear school social worker also told me that mom had a problem with Jackie being a “tomboy” (translation: gay) and objected to her having a “little girlfriend” (translation: no, really gay.)

This, I couldn’t understand. I was at the home when one of the older girls brought her girlfriend home for the first time, and mom’s only question was, “OK, you gonna be nice to her?” Mom has also always let Jackie spend time with her aunt and aunt’s girlfriend.

The school social worker started talking about the feasibility of removing the children, and whether they could find a foster home for all of them together. I thought that this was the equivalent of showing a man wedding reception seating charts while speed dating–jumping the gun just a bit.

We determined that Jackie was not afraid to go home (safety first!) and formed a plan. I went over to the home a few hours later, shortly before Jackie got home from school. I was prepared for one of “those days.” I figured I would leave with a child safe, but unhappy and feeling unloved. I was ready for Jackie’s mom to tell me that she didn’t care what I or anyone else thought, that Jackie was just fine and the family would do what they wanted.

That’s not what I got.

Mrs. Roberts was, in her words, fucking pissed. She didn’t understand why Jackie couldn’t stay out of fights. We talked about Jackie’s need for her mother’s love, and the fact that mom could relate to Jackie’s difficulty in controlling her temper. Mrs. Roberts agreed that she wanted to spend more time with Jackie and talk more openly with her.

I asked about the gay issue, as I had to. Maybe I had completely misread this woman, and she was a violent homophobe who was damaging her daughter’s self esteem.

“I know she likes girls, I don’t give a shit. I worry about her getting teased at school but there ain’t shit I can do about that. That’s why I got to be friends with her girlfriend’s mother, because the two of them spend so much time together. You know I like gay people, Ms. SJ. All my kids can be gay.”

She turned to Jonathan, her eight year old. “Jonathan, you like boys? You can like boys, you know.” He looked mildly scandalized. “Ma, I like girls.” “I know, you’ve said that, I’m just saying you can like whoever you want.”

Her seventeen year old son Anthony walked in. “Anthony, you wanna like boys?” “Ma, for the last time I’m not gay! Thanks for the offer, though.”

I guess I can see how her feelings on the subject were misconstrued…

Jackie got home, and the three of us sat down in her bedroom. Jackie was still emotional, because she’s thirteen and it is therefore in her nature. She initially sat at the opposite side of the bed, but her mother put her arms out and told her to move closer.

That cold hearted bitch.

Mrs. Roberts spoke openly and from her heart, more so than I’ve ever heard her. She was still mom, of course. Her speech was still sprinkled with obscenities, but Jackie and I both knew how it was all meant.

Jackie tearfully told her mother that she felt that she got blamed for everything. Mrs. Roberts told Jackie that she was sorry, and needed to try to yell less. This was the first time I heard this woman acknowledge that she had something to work on.

They talked about how the children used to get hit, when mom drank. Mrs. Roberts told her that she’s working on yelling less as well, but that it was a process. She told Jackie that she wanted to have more “girls’ nights” with Jackie and her sisters. They talked about Jackie’s girlfriend. “I don’t know what you did to that little girl, but she’s obsessed with you. Did you kiss her? Did you touch her butt?”

Jackie giggled furiously. “Ma, that’s gay.”

At this point, I couldn’t help it, and laughed out loud. “Jackie, you did not just say that. You are ridiculous.” Jackie and her mother, tough women of the Bronx, giggled right along with me.

I saw Jackie at school the next week, and she cheerfully told me about the night before spent chatting and play fighting with her mom. We also discussed Valentine’s Day gifts, as it was time for serious business, and what could be more serious than that?

That session with Jackie and her mom was one of my favorites I’ve ever had. This mother wants to love her child, and just needs some support in showing it. This girl does not want to leave her home, though it’s imperfect. They are far from a sitcom family. If one were to hear half of the things they say out of context, that person would probably catch the vapors.

But they love each other, and they’re making it work. They crack each other, and their social worker, up. They’re exactly what we’re working for. Families face crises and bad days. They’re not fun, but sometimes great things can come from them.

And that can turn one of “those days” into one of these days.





The State of the SocialJerk

26 01 2012

As good, loyal Americans, I’m sure we all watched the State of the Union address. I know I did. The whole thing. Until just about twenty minutes before it was over, when we realized we were bored and had a stack of Modern Family DVDs. What? Speeches get repetitive.

Before I go on, let me say I like Obama. Like most east coast, liberal, college-educated, fake Americans, when I’m not meeting with my coven over brunch or cavorting with known homosexuals, I’m being inspired by our president. There are some things I wish he had done differently, or at all, but overall, I like him.

As a modern lady (I can be a lady if I want to) I watched the state of the union whilst Tweeting. And I saw that a lot of my fellow American social workers were struck by the same line that I was.

“When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better.  So tonight, I am proposing that every state — every state — requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18. “

This is an issue that affects my work directly. We work with kids who have effectively dropped out, whether or not it’s legal, all the time. It’s a problem we’re supposed to fix. I could just hear my teens’ reactions to the president’s proposal.

“Wait. I’m supposed to be in school? Heavens to Betsy, I had no idea! I’ll get myself over there post haste.”

I work with two sisters, ages 13 and 15. They’re in 7th and 9th grade, respectively. They have barely attended school all year. They see me for counseling (when I hunt them down.) ACS is involved. The school staff is shockingly dedicated, cares deeply about these kids, and have gone above and beyond to accomodate them.

But they refuse to attend school. They leave the house and go where they please. If they are walked to school, they hang out for an hour and then take off. School staff can tell them to stay, but they aren’t allowed to touch or restrain the kids. They head out to Flying-Spaghetti-Monster-knows-where until the end of the day. Their mother has no control, and has accepted the situation for what it is. They’ve been removed and placed in foster care and returned home more than once, and it made no difference.

They’re already not allowed to drop out, but they kind of have. If the age were raised to 18, would this behavior have been delayed for two years? Maybe. No wait, that’s stupid. Definitely not.

I have worked with other kids who gave up on school because they were so hopelessly far behind. I’m talking about 15, 16, and 17 year olds who were still in seventh grade, and could barely read. If they suddenly passed every year in a row, they would be 22 when graduating high school. And what are the odds that they’ll suddenly get on track academically?

There are some really good programs for kids who have missed a lot of school, are far behind, and want to graduate high school. Young Adult Borough Centers do a great job of accomodating these “overaged, under-credited” kids and getting them jobs and helping them to graduate. There are some wonderful GED programs as well. But the kids have to be in high school, and they have to be at least 17. Prior to that, they’re essentially told to wait it out.

Kids who are already truant in middle school are really lost in the shuffle. For years.

I don’t have all the answers, (it’s true, I know it’s upsetting to hear, but it’s true) but I have seen things work. Some kids have different learning needs and require an IEP, and somehow this goes unnoticed until they’re 13 and running the streets. It’s not ideal, but it’s not too late, and getting the kid in the right setting can make all the difference.

Some kids are afraid to go to school for some reason–threats of violence, fear of being arrested (one of my girls uses this excuse all the time. I think if she were really that afraid she’d stop jumping other students and stealing their stuff, but I digress.) At times this is legitimate, and needs to be addressed either by the school, or with a safety transfer.

A mentoring program or extracurricular activities that require a student to be attending school have made a huge difference in attendance for some kids I work with. One of my girls had zero interest in school, but was sufficiently excited about an afterschool dance program. It got her ass in her seat, which was my goal. Then she realized that class wasn’t quite as terrible as she thought. When kids get to an age where they’re offered, there are alternative schools that do excellent work. We need more of these programs. Desperately.

And we need more options for kids. We have over one million students in the New York City public school system. They’re not all going to graduate. I’m not talking about giving up on kids who are not succeeding academically, but we need to be realistic. There’s just no such thing as 100%. If a young person is really unable to do what is required to get an academic high school diploma, or is so disinterested that the alternative is them getting nothing and being half-heartedly chased by city officials until the age of 16 (or 18) we need another option.

Truancy is an extremely complicated, horribly frustrating problem to work on. There is not a simple solution.

Raising the dropout age, though? That’s just fucked.








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