Marty McFly, and Other Social Work Pioneers

26 07 2011

I wouldn’t expect most of you to know this, but I’m a bit of a time travel nerd. I think it started with my dad’s love of Rocky and Bullwinkle when I was a kid–I was pretty jealous that Sherman got to do all that traveling in the WABAC Machine with Mr. Peabody. Then of course there was Back to the Future (I’m sorry, it’s pretty much the greatest trilogy of all time, Lord of the Rings be damned.) When I got a bit older took physics, read “A Brief History of Time,” and momentarily dedicated myself to turning my aunt’s Ford Tempo into Doc’s DeLoreon.

Somehow, I never quite mastered it. Hence turning to social work. As convenient as time travel would be, as we get older, we realize that it’s not likely to happen any time soon. (Or, according to these assholes psysicists, not at all.)

At least, that’s what I thought. The more people I talk to about my job, or hear talk about the issues I face every day, the more I realize that some people believe that Back to the Future was, in fact, a documentary.

That’s the only conclusion I can draw when I’m constantly being told what people should have done to avoid their current situations, and how they don’t deserve assistance if they’re not willing to go back and undo their terrible decisions.

I hear this all the time, and it blows my mind. Especially when it comes to people who have children.

SocialJerk:              “One of my clients is facing eviction, I’m really worried.”
Compassionate Soul:”Well, maybe she should have paid her rent.”
SJ:         “That will be a great comfort to her four year old.”
CS:        “Maybe she shouldn’t have had kids she couldn’t afford.”
SJ:         “She was only 16 and in an abusive relationship when she got pregnant.”
CS:        “Maybe she should have picked a better boyfriend and kept her legs closed.”
SJ:         “Maybe you should duck, because I’m throwing a flower pot at you.”
CS:        “What?” *thud*

That’s not to say my clients haven’t made preventable mistakes, or bad choices. I think most humans have. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I have clients I wish I could throttle. (Metaphorically.) People who miss their kids’ appointments, pay for cable before buying groceries, or refuse to attend school meetings. And there’s certainly something to be said for dealing with consequences. There are changes that the families I work with need to make. Some of them need to learn to budget to prevent future eviction. Some need to learn non-physical discipline to avoid traumatizing their children. Some need to understand that cursing at a teacher or boss because you feel “disrespected” will not, in fact, warrant you the positive outcome that you’re seeking.

But to simply point out that someone shouldn’t have had a child, or shouldn’t have dropped out of school, or shouldn’t have stayed with an abusive partner does nothing for the present situation.

The person who most often suffers when we punish people for poor choices and mistakes is not the person who made the decision.

It’s their child.

Compassionate suggestions that we reduce benefits for people who have children while on public assistance, as some sort of deterrent, are really punishing that new baby. The idea that teen parents need to be shamed for being “promiscuous,” as some kind of example, actually shames their child. Cutting off WIC or Medicaid due to a missed appointment might teach a parent the importance of being punctual. But more likely, it will make their child miss out on a nutritious meal or a check up.

Not only that, it will teach that parent to be distrustful, and to learn ways to “work” the system, that is clearly working against them.

Do we want to learn from our mistakes? Of course. Is it important to identify cycles of destructive behavior so that they can be broken, and not crop up in the next generation? Absolutely. But sitting around pointing out everything that should have been done, telling someone what foresight they should have had at age fourteen, blaming people who aren’t even available to the family, does nothing for the current situation. All it does it make things seem hopeless. Well, I can’t change those things that happened, so…I guess I might as well just keep doing them? Because at least they’re fun, and comfortable? Or maybe just throw in the towel.

My Ford Tempo caught fire on the side of the highway*, so I’m even further behind in perfecting time travel. But I will make it happen, no matter what those scientists say. However, until I do that, perhaps we can chill out on the blame, in favor of doing something constructive.

*True Story.

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7 responses

26 07 2011
mjfrombuffalo

awesome. And I, too, am a big Back to the Future fan. Coincidentally, my NYS driver license road test was October 25, 1985. Coincidental, but I loved it. No, I didn’t drive 88mph and yes, I passed 😀

28 07 2011
socialjerk

That’s awesome! You’ll have to come to the EPIC party I have planned on October 21, 2015.

26 07 2011
Carolyn

Okay, first of all, are you okay (after the Ford Tempo fire)? Second of all, I’ve said it before and I will say it again, client self-determination is not all it’s cracked up to be. However, it is a cornerstone of our profession and so we are stuck with it. We are not allowed to stand over our clients with a bull whip until they sign up for that benefit/course/whatever that they need to obtain. And we must (and sometimes it is very, very difficult) allow them to make their mistakes while we pick up the pieces after them.

28 07 2011
socialjerk

Yeah, I’m fine. Unfortunately that happened while I was moving in for my senior year of college. Had to wait on the side of the rode for my parents…it really set the tone for the rest of my life.

Self-determination can be a frustrating nightmare. Ethically, there’s no other option (except of course for the safety of the children) but there are times when I feel like I’m watching someone about to get hit by a car and doing nothing about it.

26 07 2011
AJ

And the other things that those Compassionate Souls would do well to realize is the power of money. We all make mistakes and make poor choices. The difference is, if you have money/resources, or access to them, then not paying your rent = an uncomfortable conversation with mom. It means paying the cable AND buying the groceries. It means going to the school meetings and not feeling judged by the teacher. It means education. It means so many things that make life a hell of a lot easier. And it means you don’t even notice those choices/mistakes, so of course it feels like you’re make much better decisions.

28 07 2011
socialjerk

Excellent point. People love to talk about what they would do if they were in this or that situation–easy to say if you aren’t in it!

30 07 2011
Weekly Social Work Links 26 « Fighting Monsters

[…] SocialJerk looks at dealing with the present rather than trying to fix the past. For me, that’s one of the keys of my work and the difference in the way I work and the way a psychologist might work with someone. I deal with the ‘now what?’. […]

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