Chester, this is the last time I’m gonna tell you…

1 09 2011

There’s a very awkward, complicated problem that comes with being an adult who works with children. I bet a lot of you can already guess what it is.

My parents tell stories about growing up in the 1950s and 60s. A nice guy in their neighborhood who used to take them to the World’s Fair for the afternoon, helping adult neighbors who didn’t have children around their houses, that kind of thing. No one batted an eye.

There was the one creepy guy on the corner, who all the children were instructed to run past, but other than that, sexual abuse wasn’t really a thought. Fortunately it worked out all right for them. The well-meaning adults in their lives were just that. But of course, as awareness of sexual abuse rose, it became apparent that a lot of people aren’t to be trusted with children, and they are not always the people you think.

We’ve kind of swung the other way in our culture. From, “You want to take my kid to the movies? And  you’re buying? Hell yeah, do whatever he says, kiddo” to “Don’t post photos of my child on Facebook, the pedophiles are in the computer and they’re tracking her!”

It’s worst for men…what kind of guy wants to work with kids? I mean, there must be something going on. That’s so often the first reaction, and it’s repulsive. Plenty of men want to work with kids for the same reasons women want to work with kids–kids are funny, they’re cute, and it’s nice to think that you can make an impact on someone who is still impressionable.

But this is still a part of the job. It starts at the very beginning. (A very good place to start.) When I was hired at Anonymous Agency, I was required to undergo a background check and get fingerprinted. Curiously, I did not have to do this when I was an intern. At my previous job, at a neighborhood youth center, we required this of interns and all employees. Good thing, because we did once have a convicted sex offender come in looking for work.

Dude, your picture is on the internet. Are you kidding me?

Given that scare, I’m on board with the policy. This is what we do. They’re also not just looking for sex offenders, there are a lot of restrictions, including a history with child protective services, that could make on ineligible for certain jobs with kids.

Then there are the discussions in staff meetings. Is it ever OK to be in a room alone with a child? What about during a home visit? Do you go into a child’s bedroom? What if a teenager is home alone when you show up for a visit?

The assumption isn’t that anyone we work with would want to hurt a child. It’s that you want to avoid the appearance of anything that could possibly be “misinterpreted.” And that’s all anyone will say. Because people get uncomfortable.

I’ve had it happen, on numerous occasions, that I’ve gone to a home and found a teenager there alone. The kids are usually polite and welcoming. There’s no hard and fast rule, so we’re always told to use our judgment. Recently, I went to an apartment and found a sixteen year old girl at home with her twelve year old sister. I stood in the doorway, we talked for a few minutes, and I left a note for their mother. Last Christmas, I tried to do a home visit and found a sixteen year old boy, who seemed to be permanently leering, at home alone. In his eagerness to answer the door, he neglected to put on a shirt. When he asked if I wanted to come in, despite his mother being out, I politely declined.

Actually, I shouted, “NO I DO NOT WISH TO COME IN, WITNESSES, CAN YOU HEAR ME?” and put an SJ-shaped hole in the front door.

That neighborhood youth center that I started at was actually a Catholic organization, which meant that they had to meet certain requirements set by the diocese. One of these was a rather strange day long training that involved videos and discussion. (I won’t say the name here, but I’m sure some people are familiar with it.)

It was well-intended, I thought, given the Catholic church’s history ongoing bullshit on the subject. (I came to feel that they were primarily trying to cover the church’s ass, and to point out that just because there was an epidemic of child abuse and a cover-up of epic proportions within the church, doesn’t mean that all pedophiles are priests. Because that’s what’s important.) The videos were designed to teach us how to spot sexual abuse, and how to avoid doing anything that might lead to false accusations.

Some of the suggestions made sense. Avoid being alone with one child. Meet with kids in rooms with windows.

Some of them seemed to have been written by someone who had never met a child.

“Don’t touch the kids.”
OK, when I have to pull a splinter out of a crying five year old’s foot, I’ll just pat her on the head with a roll of paper towels. And I’ll tell them all that I’m made of hot lava.

“Don’t help the kids change.”
If I could avoid it, I would, but we had 1.) low-functioning autistic children who were not yet toilet trained and 2.) a pre-k program. Parents, I know those little belts, suspenders, and overalls are just adorable, but if you don’t want your child’s pre-k teacher having anything to do with their pants, stick to elastic waistbands.

“Don’t have favorites.”
Well, I can’t help it if some kids are way more awesome than others.

Then there was the “spotting child abusers,” which supposedly contained stories from actual victims of sexual abuse. Interestingly enough, they hadn’t managed to find one child who had been abused by a priest. Strange, because I know many who are willing to say quite a lot about the church. They went through all the usual hullabaloo, informing us that child molesters are not “strangers,” lurking in the bushes, waiting to snatch your children. They’re people you know, people you trust. (Like…priests?)

They then showed a video of a concerned mother watching a greasy-haired man, dressed like a longshoreman, approaching her children in a playground, next to some shrubbery.

I really recommend these videos for home entertainment.

I’m glad that we’re vigilant about child abuse, of course. But it makes me sad to see what a part of my job it’s become. Not assessing for abuse in families I work with, but making sure no one thinks that my coworkers or I am up to no good.

Paranoia doesn’t help anyone. It leads to panic, and good people, men especially, being afraid to work with children because they don’t want the suspicion and hassle. And that doesn’t make anyone safer.

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9 responses

1 09 2011
Carolyn

I had to constantly remind my husband on our holidays that he was not allowed to talk to the cute little children on the beach ‘cuz the parents wouldn’t like it. I know he is perfectly harmless, but the parents don’t and I don’t want to cope with some mum freaking out about the strange old man talking to her children and doing God knows what when the strange old man is my husband! Of course, I had constantly remind myself as well. But I could do that quietly in my head.

1 09 2011
socialjerk

It’s sad that you guys even have to think that way, because little kids can be super cute and fun, and especially if they’re somewhere like the beach, they love to say hi.

Sometimes I feel like I can’t win–if I interact with your kid, I’m a weirdo on the bus, if I don’t I’m the mean lady who wouldn’t say hi.

1 09 2011
social over worker

We have these warnings too. I’m supposed to be able to take the kids out for day trips in order to ascertain their wishes/feelings & generally talk to them away from the foster home. But foster Carers hate it… and I’m a woman!

Had an incident last year where a male social worker was asking to go into the children’s bedrooms to carry out stat checks. The foster carer wanted to know if he was a paedophile…

1 09 2011
socialjerk

As though you might have known that this guy was a pedophile, but be holding out on them? That’s like the time that I asked a guy that my friend was going home with if he was a rapist or murderer. I mean, I felt good that he said no, but I kind of had to consider the source.

4 09 2011
Weekly Social Work Links 30 « Fighting Monsters

[…] SocialJerk has some fine posts as always including this one about the paranoias that exist about adults working with children and some of the… […]

4 09 2011
Dougal

I’m a bloke about to start training to be a social worker and this is definitely something that worries me. How to balance the fact that you read time and again that time alone with a child is important to establishing what is happening and what the best course of action is whilst knowing the sort of position that could put me in for accusations to be made.

6 09 2011
socialjerk

It’s really unfortunate, because we so desperately need good men in this profession–however connected I am with my boys, they need positive male role models, and guys to talk to. I hate the idea that men such as yourself might be discouraged or made nervous about this profession.

Also, bonus points for use of the word “bloke.” 🙂

4 09 2011
SocialWrkr247 (@SWrkr247)

I refuse to let the fear of “what could be said” dictate how I do my job. I’m obviously aware of it – but honestly feel that by allowing it to change how I interact with clients, I’m just reinforcing those attitudes. I realize its one of the few “priveledges” that I have as a woman – but I generally think the risk of being accused of something is pretty low.

I worked in a daycare with a number of male employees – some of the parents were initially suspicious, but the kids thought it was the greatest thing ever! Free-range kids (www.freerangekids.com) all the way.

6 09 2011
socialjerk

I agree to some extent, but especially for men, I can understand the fear. And working in a Catholic agency, it got brought up all the time. It was constantly on all the workers’ minds. Though, as I mentioned, it didn’t seem to be discussed too much with the people who actually needed to hear it…

I am also a fan of the free-ranging. I wrote about it a while back:

https://socialjerk.wordpress.com/2010/12/14/free-range-kids-delicious/

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