I’ve wanted to be a social worker since I was 15. I was always interested in the child welfare system. This led to some delightful books as Christmas gifts–about the damage the NYC foster care system does, families struggling to survive welfare reform, the cycle of poverty. All sorts of fun fare.
I learned a lot from this early reading material. The main thing I learned was the kind of social worker I did not want to be.
There were so many examples of bad social workers. Workers bogged down by bureaucracy, cynical about their clients, working for the weekend. Social workers just trying to close cases because their caseload was too large, whether it was in the client’s best interest or not.
I always planned to be the good social worker. I wanted to be available to my clients, to care deeply about them, and not to close a case until everyone was absolutely ready. I wanted to rise above the bureaucracy, and the system, so my families would know that I was genuine and that they could call on me for anything. I wanted to change people’s lives by going above and beyond.
Seriously…how cute is that?
When I get down about my job (I know you’d never guess, but it does happen) my friends and family tell me that I’m helping people. Sometimes I get a little sarcastic and dramatic (again, hard to believe, but I swear it’s true) and say that we don’t really help anyone.
Realistically, I know that’s not accurate. I don’t know that I’ve pulled anyone off the edge of a proverbial cliff single-handedly, but there are families that have gotten better in their time here.
But then there are those that have gotten worse. Those are the ones who make me feel like the worker I never wanted to be.
I have a teenage girl who recently entered a diagnostic reception center, and is being referred to a residential treatment center.
This kid drives me nuts.
I have infinite sympathy and patience for kids, I really do. Most kids I work with have been through so much trauma that it’s easy to understand their acting out behaviors. Yes, they’re obnoxious, they’re skeptical, they skip school, do drugs, and fight. But in the context of their life experience, the fact that they’re still alive and functioning is all you can ask for.
This particular teen girl has an absentee father. Not ideal, I’ll admit. But her behavior is ten times worse than children I know who were born to drug addicts, abandoned repeatedly, or brought up in foster care.
You don’t want to get so jaded by the horrible things that you see that you lose sympathy for mundane horrible things, like deadbeat dads. Because that is a perfectly valid, horrible thing to deal with.
But it’s hard to help. There are those times that I find myself thinking, “Dad’s not around? Boo-frickin-hoo. Get your ass to school and stop doing drugs.”
This particular case is one that got eaten up by the system. This girl was sent to family court, ran away, got placed in foster care, ran away, got sent to a DRC, AWOLed repeatedly, and ran around staying with friends until her mother was able to get a warrant.
All of these different people and agencies involved meant that no one thought they were responsible for the case. Mom had an impossible time figuring out who to go to.
I include myself in that as well. I found myself wanting to close the case as soon as possible, having little sympathy or patience for this family, and wishing someone else would come to take responsibility. There was information I couldn’t get, there were times that I couldn’t find this child.
I closed that case this past week. The child is finally getting the help that she needs, and I know it’s for the best. As difficult and frustrating as this case has been for me, I know I’ll keep worrying about this girl for years. It already kept me up plenty of nights, wondering where she was and what she was doing. And it still rips my heart out to think that there was more that I could have done. To think that maybe I didn’t do my best.
I re-read those books sometimes. Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care, by Nina Bernstein, and Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc are my two favorites. They remind me of why I went into this field, how I want to practice, and what dick moves symptoms of burnout I’d like to avoid.
It’s hard to be a good social worker all the time, and it’s hard not to beat yourself up when you fall short. But in an effort to not become complacent, I guess this is a situation where feeling bad is a good thing.