Did you know the word “gullible” is not in the dictionary?

8 12 2011

Really. Look it up.

Being skeptical is an important part of our jobs. We can’t take things at face value.

Gullible Social Worker: “So, anyone beating the children here?”
Suave Child: “Nope. None of that.”
GSW: “Great! What’s up with that bruise?”
SC: “Um, I fell.”
GSW: “On your eye?”
SC: “I mean I crashed my skateboard into an eye-level table.”
GSW: “Ooh, bad luck. Well, good bye!”

I think we can all see why that doesn’t work.

At the same time, we need to have faith in our participants. Without faith and hope (and charity, why not) we wouldn’t be able to do this work. We would start to think that, because not everything gets better, nothing gets better. We should just give up, remove all the kids from all the parents, and close up shop.

That’s the danger–when necessary skepticism turns into unhelpful cynicism.

You can usually tell when someone has been doing this job for too long, or when they have gone way too long without a fake sick day mental health day. Some of my coworkers seem to really assume the worst in people.

A young girl was once talking about her mother taking in a foster child with a disability. A coworker instantly said, “Oh, she wants the money?” This girl seemed surprised, saying no, her mother loved kids. Coworker clearly wasn’t buying it.

Another coworker told me about a mother who was excited about the romantic relationship she had just begun. My coworker told her that this unkown guy was probably only interested in her to gain access to the client’s teenage daughter.

I’ve been accused of being cynical. Honestly. I don’t know why, but it’s happened. I’m not cynical. I’m sarcastic, I get angry, and sometimes I do a convincing impression of Eeyore, but I’m no cynic. I genuinely care about my participants and believe in their desire to improve their lives and the lives of their children.

Sometimes I’m wrong.

Recently, a family I’ve been working with for nearly a year came to see me. The mother, who had been more and more distant when speaking about her boyfriend, told me that she planned to ask him to leave the home.

I was ecstatic. I could barely contain my victory whoops. The boyfriend was, in technical terms, an abusive asshole. There was a long history of domestic violence, which the mother and children claimed hadn’t been a problem since we started working together. (My presence is magic, you see.)

The family missed their next office session, and I got a little worried. So I went to see the teenage girls at school. The fifteen year old, who I will hereby refer to as “Mom Jr.” showed me a picture on her cell phone.

Of the gigantic purple bruise on her mother’s arm.

“She said she fell down the stairs. But there’s no way. She does this all the time, saying she’s going to leave him. He hasn’t changed in six years, why is he going to change now? I told her: he goes, or we go. I talked to my grandma, she said we can stay with her. I don’t need my brother and sister thinking this is normal.”

Oh. OK. Looks like you’ve got it.

I’m torn between crying for this girl, who has less faith in her mother and the outside world than the most seasoned, cynical, social worker, and applauding her for having the strength, determination, and intelligence that she somehow does.

I’m also torn between wanting to hug her mother for all that she’s been through, and wanting to scream at her, for subjecting herself and her children to this.

Don’t even ask what I want done to the boyfriend. It’s shocking, even for the internet.

I also can’t help feeling kind of stupid. I know that it takes an average of seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship. I know that the period of time when a victim is attempting to leave is usually the most dangerous time. I know that victims cover up what goes on in the home. But it still feels like I should have known that this wasn’t going to be a real change. Like I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up quite so much.

We recently had to have a little conference with one of the girls in my group, and her worker, due to this girl talking about her mother’s boyfriend being in the home and making her uncomfortable. Of course it turns out that this is the very guy who molested her, and has supposedly had no contact with the family for two years.

The girl immediately started back peddling when we told her we were concerned for her safety and needed to talk to her worker. “Oh, he’s not in the house. My mom was just talking about him.” “But last week you said he grabbed your waist and you didn’t like it.” “Yeah…no never mind. My mom doesn’t want another case.”

It’s easy to become cynical. It’s easy to get pissed off at mothers who don’t protect their children, and grown men who prey on them, and forget that there is good in the world and more good to be done.

We get our hopes up every time it seems like someone is going to make a meaningful change or improvement. Most often, it doesn’t happen. And it hurts, both us and the participants. But sometimes, people surprise us, and they do make those changes. It’s not easy to keep going back for more, when it starts to seem like we get shot further down every day.

But it’s just one more part of the job.

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2 responses

8 12 2011
Nectarine

You weren’t being stupid. You were being your clients cheerleader, a role we often play in trying to support healthy changes. It didn’t work out this time, and often it won’t.
But one of the biggest barriers women face after being abused is that no one believes them when they tell their story, so we HAVE to. While also keeping a critical eye out for their safety.

9 12 2011
Lyndsey

It is easy to become cynical and, “forget that there is good in the world and more good to be done.” I view skepticism as being interconnected and very much related to critical thinking, which is a process of thinking that I wish more people were taught. A level of using logic and questioning assumptions in examining and reaching more “whole-picture” conclusions is wise. When we start to shift that process and begin to have a general lack of hope in the human race, etc we start to make blanket assumptions of hopelessness. It’s not difficult to get caught up in cynicism, especially with the work we do, and I can see how easily social workers could “burn out.”

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