Law & Order: SJ

19 05 2011

There are a lot of aspects of being a social worker that are annoying. Home visits. Mandated clients. Language barriers. But there’s one that I am very fortunate to miss out on.

I don’t have to go to court.

I’ll take a minute to let you deal with your jealousy. Everyone OK? OK.

It’s an agency policy. We are only allowed to go to court if subpoenaed. (That is a hard word to spell.) This is pretty rare, because it involves some work. If we are subpoenaed (seriously, is that Latin or something?) the agency lawyer has to accompany us. He’s rarely available, so this is another battle.

I’ve been at the agency for two years. Some of my coworkers have had to appear in court, but so far, I have not. I always feel pretty bad when a client asks me to be there to support them, and I have to explain that I can’t do this. At the same time, nothing gives me greater joy than when an ACS calls me the evening before a court date, telling me that I will be there, and I get to explain that, unfortunately, I’m unable to do so. It’s policy.

Suck on that.

In these situations, I send a letter, on agency letterhead, signed with all those letters after my name, explaining what the family has been working on, if they’ve been participating in services, the progress they’ve made, all that.

But somehow, court still tries to ruin my life.

I’m not a legal expert. I have a couple of lawyers on retainer (one used to babysat me, and one accompanied me to various Hanson concerts) but I don’t know more than the average person about how our legal system works. I do know, though, that judges have a lot of power.

A lot. I think they can do whatever they want. Like, I think they can fly.

They can also tell me what to do. Sometimes parents are referred for services by the court. At first, our services are voluntary. If the parent refuses services, and things in the home don’t improve, a judge can order them to participate in services in order to avoid losing custody of the children.

This makes sense. It’s not how you want to start a working relationship, but it can be necessary, to keep kids safe while preserving families. Sometimes that order from the judge is the “in” you need, and lets you get some actual work done.

But sometimes, these judges don’t know when to back off.

I work with some large families. One in particular consists of a mother, (sometimes) a father, a 20 year old son, a 19 year old son, his 18 year old girlfriend, their five month old son, 16 year old fraternal twins, a 14 year old boy, 11 year old girl, eight year old boy, and six year old girl. To make things more interesting, the six year old has cerebral palsy, is non-verbal, and is confined to a wheelchair.

The 14 year old in this scenario is the target child. But I’ll be the first to say that they entire family has things they need to work on.

However, that’s not where they are. Mom has had over twenty ACS cases in her life. The “these children will be removed!” threat does not hold water when it hasn’t happened in all of her experience. This woman is exhausted. Obviously. She is overwhelmed. All she wants is for these services to be out of her life, and all of these well meaning strangers to get out of her home.

She sends her 14 year old in for counseling every other week. And the kid is great about coming in and participating. She lets me come to the house every other week, and talks with me, tells me what’s going on, and asks for help with getting her disabled child services or making sure that all of the kids are in school.

The kids are safe. And the family is working on what they are ready to work on.

This was not enough for the judge. For the record, this judge was described to me by the ACS worker as, “very frightening. I was almost peeing on myself.”

And they say we’re not professionals.

The judge wanted family counseling. The entire family. At once. Every week.

First of all, I don’t have time to see one family six times a month. Second of all, a counseling session with eleven people, ages six to forty? One of whom has a serious disability? Eight of whom are marginally interested, at best? Your honor, I’m beginning to suspect that you hate me.

This judge doesn’t know what that counseling session would be like. She’s never been a social worker. An actual social worker would never suggest that kind of intervention. Because it is stupid.

Sorry, I’m a little cranky about it.

I also work with a woman who was arrested because a friend had a small amount of marijuana in her apartment. The woman’s drug test was clean, but she was still mandated to receive services. I have to get this woman enrolled in parenting classes, domestic violence counseling, and an anger management group.

Who couldn’t use those things? But it’s a bit much. It’s a little overwhelming to go from minding your own business to suddenly dealing with all of the bad things that have ever happened to you. And I guess an argument could be made that she shouldn’t have been hanging out with someone who had weed on them.

Certainly a parenting class and some DV counseling will help with this.

I don’t want to downplay the important role that the courts play in keeping kids safe. However, they are not, primarily, experts on child welfare or family dynamics. The idea that they some of them think they can tell me how to best do my job kind of pisses me off. If they’d like to try social working, they’re welcome to it.

And I’ll be happy to dole out some harsh sentences.

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11 responses

19 05 2011
Socialwrkr24/7

I actually love going to court – I’m a weird social worker. But court is where stuff HAPPENS in child welfare, so I love being part of it. I especially love where I get to make a recommendation and advocate for my families. Seriously the best.

20 05 2011
socialjerk

I’m glad that someone feels that way! You’re braver than I am, I think I’d be totally intimidated. Do you feel like your voice is usually heard in court? A lot of the complaints I hear from workers that do end up in court have to do with them feeling like they weren’t listened to, in addition to the logistics of being kept waiting all day and things like that.

Of my 13 families, only two have court involvement. Usually by the time they get to preventive services, the court case is closed or closing, and they just want to make sure clients are “being compliant.”

11 06 2011
Socialwrkr24/7

Sorry, just noticed you asked me a question here!

I do feel like my voice gets heard in court – usually. But I will say that it took me a year or two to really get “good” at testifying and advocating. I think it takes a lot of confidence (or at least ability to fake it) to get heard in court – otherwise, you are “just” the social worker. I also try to keep in close contact with the lawyers on my cases so that I can either get them on “my side” or at least know what kind of crazy antics they are going to try to pull at the next court date.

It is a HUGE time-suck most of the time – this week I spent about 7 hours of waiting for about 2 hours of time in front of the judge. Cause you know, I don’t have anything better to do… 😉

20 05 2011
m.

SJ, you are my favorite social worker ever (besides the ones who work at my office, of course). And, seriously, if it weren’t creepy (or perhaps pathetic), I’d ask you to be my friend. You rock.

20 05 2011
socialjerk

You are my favorite commenter, because anyone who has a list of favorite social workers is all right with me! Thanks!

(This definitely isn’t my mom….right?)

20 05 2011
Mozart

Judges do fly. I say they let social workers try to be judges. We are on the frontlines anyway and see a family from childhood to older adult.. bad times and good. Great, blog post… and I get most of my legal advice fromLaw&Order too!

…wait, so just because I follow you on twitter we aren’t friends. #fail

20 05 2011
socialjerk

I would be a terrible judge. “I understand that she was in possession of 8 lbs of marijuana, but take a moment to hear about her childhood! Anyway, hasn’t that happened to everyone?”

I do wish I had more leeway with the services I provide to court-involved families. Forcing people into services like drug treatment to fulfill a requirement when they aren’t ready for that doesn’t work. But it’s better than jail time…

Am I supposed to have friends outside of Twitter.

20 05 2011
Carlos

I am now wondering how my first time in court will go. Confusion shall probably ensue.

23 05 2011
socialjerk

Everything I do involves confusion. One must just accept it and carry on 🙂

21 05 2011
Rebecca

This makes my head explode. It’s almost too much to read after seeing the way services were package-slapped together for my foster daugther’s mom. Same irrelevant formula, DV, drugs and (relevant) parenting. If only she could have a social worker like you!

23 05 2011
socialjerk

It’s especially awful when the parent is being sent to three different agencies for all of these services–as if that’s going to happen.

Thanks for the nice comment. I hope things are going well for your foster daughter and her mom.

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