“Anonymous Agency” is not our real name

23 01 2012

I don’t mean to brag (I do intend to boast, though) but Anonymous Agency tends to do pretty well in audits. We’re on top of our paperwork, children’s safety is sufficiently monitored and documented, and if you want to learn OSHA standards or how to perform CPR, we have many helpful placards posted.

Of course, we know that can’t be enough for the people conducting the audit. They kind of have to find something. If Indiana Jones kept saying, “Nope, no artifacts of note here!” we probably would have dropped him pretty quickly, and other employers are similar.

One thing we got some points off for (they actually score you with points. I’m requesting that they hold cards with a 1 through 10, a la Dancing With the Stars, when I walk in) was respecting confidentiality.

The main reason for this? We have two sign-in books. One is for anyone who comes into the office. It’s just a marble notebook, in which you write your name and the name of your worker. Another is for Metrocards. If you request one, you sign your name and write where you are going. (So we can determine if you really need it. Budget cuts, I say!) The auditors pointed out that clients could see one another’s names when signing in. The higher ups had meetings that seriously weighed the feasibility of having each family sign in on an individual sheet of paper. That would add up, cost-wise–could we cut the paper into strips? How small would they be? We don’t want people to think that we are handing out streamers, and therefore making light of the difficulties that led them to seek services.

I was confused, because the clients can see one another in the waiting room. They can hear their names being called. They live in the same neighborhood, and often encounter people they know at the office.

“Confidentiality” seems to be confused with “anonymity.” I respect my clients’ right to confidentiality. I don’t approach them on the street if I run into them. (I’m usually buying candy, so this is partially from my own embarrassment.) I don’t relate hilarious stories about them using their names or other identifying features. When actually discussing cases, I am with my supervisor, in a room with a closed door.

I do not, though, encourage them to sneak in and out of the office without being seen. If you pull on the copy of the DSM-IV on my bookshelf, a secret passage does not open that leads to you safely to the giraffe enclosure at the Bronx Zoo. (Note to self: look into this.) I don’t have an invisibility cloak on hand that families can huddle under to have rock cakes with Hagrid make their way back home. I suppose I could have them make masks, like Michael Jackson used to make his kids wear, for privacy when at a museum or being dangled from a balcony. Ooh, or a cone of shame!

Ah yes, that’s what I was getting to. Shame.

For all our talk of there being no shame in seeking help through counseling, we don’t always act like it. Particularly considering how the clients typically react.

Like I said, I don’t approach clients if I run into them in the street. You never know who they’re with, or what they might be thinking. Sometimes, we just walk past each other, and I don’t know if the other person noticed me or not. It doesn’t matter to me. Usually, though, I hear an astonished, “SJ?!” from a child who assumes that I live in my office. Once I was shouted to from a nine year old who was eight feet above my head, playing on the scaffolding. (I’m sure it was perfectly safe.) Moms have grabbed me and gone for the cheek kiss when we unexpectedly run into each other in the bodega, which is always extra awkward.

When I’ve gone to see children at school, I have heard their friends inquire about why I was visiting. Younger kids often explain that I am their SJ,who comes to play with them, doesn’t everyone have one? Older kids almost always say I’m their social worker or counselor. Many have offered this information. “Oh, I get out of math for a minute, my worker’s here!”

Someone might be embarrassed to be seen by someone they know in the office, and I understand that. I’m not saying they need to announce it or put it on a t-shirt. But the irony is never lost on me–you know you’re both in the same place, right? Who has the right to judge?

Digression Example- I met  my boyfriend in a bar. Apparently I’m supposed to be embarrassed about this. When I was single, people were always telling me not to try to meet anyone out at a bar. I mean, what kind of person are you going to meet there? (…) You need to do things you like, so you meet someone who likes the same things!

I realize that some adults now find it acceptable to join kickball teams, but I just can’t be one of them. What do I like to do? Um, I like going to bars. I’ve accepted that.

A girl I know told me she met a guy she really liked, but “too bad it was at a bar!” I asked what she meant–was it a gay bar, and he was with his boyfriend? No, she just wasn’t looking to date an alcoholic. Her words. I was confused. She was at the bar too, right?

It’s kind of the same with our clients. They might be embarrassed, sometimes, to be in the exact same place as everyone else. People are good at separating themselves from others who are doing the exact same thing as them. They might think that they’re worse than everyone else. Often then think that they don’t really belong. One of my aunts always says how her sister was horrified to drop her off at rehab. “We’re going to leave her here with all these drug addicts?!” Yeah. Guess why?

If you’re seeing a social worker, you have a right to tell only people you trust, when you’re ready. But things happen. You might not expect to run into someone you know walking in our door, but it’s a possibility we would all do well to be prepared for. Instead of scrambling to make an excuse, or attempting to shield our clients from the imaginary paparazzi, we can remember that we’re all in the same place, and support one another.

Because that secret passageway is really not working out.

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2 responses

26 01 2012
sarahk

Hmm… I understand what you’re saying, but I actually do think there’s a big difference between being able to see who else is in the waiting room vs. being able to see a long list of who has been there recently. My agency has the receptionist log people in.

We would occasionally have someone wander in (a client’s drug dealer, say) looking for them (I’m sure there might be some equivalent for you guys – a non-custodial parent with an ax to grind?). If they can glance at a book and see if they’ve signed, that’s not good. Just, you know, devil’s advocate.

I don’t see it as shameful to go to the pharmacy but I do like that they remove the sticker with my signature after I sign the list. I don’t want every random person going to walgreens for the next week to see my name.

27 01 2012
socialjerk

Logistically, the problem is that we’re required to have the client’s signature. Having someone else sign them in is unacceptable to some board that oversees us (who knows which one at this point.) The book has to be requested from the receptionist, so if someone came in who didn’t have a case (this hasn’t happened since I’ve been here, but there was an incident about five years ago where there was a confrontation in the office because a woman’s ex was following her) they would not be given access. And with the way traffic flows, the only other signatures visible are generally other people in the office, or those who just left.

I do see your point, and I agree that there’s a difference. This was just one example of how I saw “confidentiality” being turned into something that it really isn’t in our office.

I’m impressed by your Walgreen’s! I finally left CVS after the tech yelled across two aisles to me, “Do you know which kind of birth control this is?”

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