Be half that you can be

2 04 2012

I can’t speak for all social workers (never mind, I will) but my job is very cyclical. When I started, I inherited about six cases from another worker. In an inappropriately short period of time, I had signed another six. As a result, a lot of my cases are on a similar time frame. And for some reason that can never be known, everyone falls into crisis at the same time. Oh, you’ve been evicted? That means someone else is going to be hospitalized, someone is going to have a new CPS case called in, and I’m going to hear from a school that one of my kids is setting fires.

This month, four of my cases are ready to close. We say “ready.” The city gives us a twelve month window to work with families. When I started as an intern, we had up to two years. Following this logic, you’ll want to stay tuned for the development of our social work time machine, in which we go into the past to prevent the problems from ever happening, saving the government millions.

Of course, a case being open for a year is not an acceptable reason to close. A family isn’t sent on their merry way on their one year anniversary with Anonymous Agency. We can keep cases open longer, and we do, we just get penalized for it. Never mind that it’s very hard to do meaningful work with resistant, unmotivated families in less than a year. So sometimes, we take what we can get.

I’m really happy about two of these cases that are closing. “Really happy” might not be exactly the right term. I’m sad because I love these families and I’ll miss them, but I’m thrilled that they’ve made so much progress and done so much work that they are really, genuinely, ready to move on from having services.

Two out of four. Fifty percent. I’ll be honest, I’m kind of elated with those numbers. Doing it right half the time is really only a moment for celebration in New York Mets baseball, and social work. If your dentist told you that half of the time he doesn’t pull out healthy teeth, or your mechanic bragged that 50% of the oil changes she performed didn’t result in the car catching fire, you’d probably be looking for another professional. In social work, though, there are so many variables (new crises, family’s involvement, personalities of everyone involved, other helpful services in the family’s life…) in addition to the fact that we’re dealing with things as fluid, unpredictable, and subjective as mental health, family relationships, and parenting skills.

One family that is having their case closed was referred by ACS, due to excessive corporal punishment. The case was called in by the school, and while the parents didn’t totally agree with the call, they wholeheartedly accepted the help. “No one wants to hear that someone is worried about them being a good parent, and you get defensive. But then we thought, yeah, maybe we are hitting and yelling too much, and things can be better.”

I love them. Don’t take them from me.

This family is my crowning achievement. Except they’re not, of course. They’re awesome, but they’re not my creation. They did the word, because they wanted to and they wanted better for their kids. That meant that I could really do my job. We worked together beautifully. If only I could produce a video of us all holding hands and skipping into a meadow. (I should probably ask my friends where they’re all taking their engagement photos they keep putting on Facebook.)

The next family that is closing and actually ready for it came in of their own volition. They had been referred by ACS in the past, but returned voluntarily when the oldest daughter turned 13 and the family members thought she might be possessed by demonic beings.

This family is in the unfortunately common position of sliding back a bit into old habits, particularly acting out behaviors for the now 14 year old hellspawn daughter, just as the case is closing. They’re hesitant, but they can recognize that they’ve done a lot of work. The teenager who wasn’t doing a thing around the house now gets her baby sister ready in the morning and walks the dog twice a day. The mother who could barely look at her child without speaking cruelly, now laughs with her and plans activities for the two of them.

Another family is moving on to foster care services. This is often considered our greatest possible failure, as we are in the business of prevention, but this scenario is a bit different. The children are moving into their grandmother’s care, the person they stayed with almost exclusively as it was, and still have their mother in their life regularly. Foster care was something that needed to happen. But it doesn’t create much of a change for these two young girls. It does give their grandmother, who I would like to submit to the Vatican for sainthood (that’s how it works, right?) or at least send flowers, a bit of money and a major headache. Grandma asked if I could remain with the family, as she’s not connecting well with her foster care worker and she and I had a good working relationship. (Note: this is due to the fact that the family is delightful.) She needs some support, especially now that her daughter is pregnant with a third child, and is still mentally ill and on drugs. Bureaucratically speaking, though, this can’t happen. So we’re done.

The last family has been a roller coaster, and not the fun kind. They’re a great family, but the violent boyfriend is still in the home. He’s on his best behavior for the moment and has never hit the children, so all of the people who have any power in this situation (I’ll take ‘people that aren’t SocialJerk for $500,’ Alex!) have decided that it’s fine for him to stay. Because domestic violence is a total mindfuck, mom doesn’t want to leave him, even though she’s afraid he’ll go back to his old ways as soon as the case is closed. We can’t keep it open to babysit forever. That’s just not how anything works. All I can do is safety play, safety plan, safety plan with mom and the kids, talk with mom about the importance of continuing her individual counseling, and make sure that they know that they can always come back if they need to.

Fifty percent success this month. Maybe a bit more or a bit less, depending on how you look at it. Some months are better, and some months are worse. Realizing that you can’t help everyone, and that some families will leave your life the same way they came in, or maybe even worse, is a frustratingly important thing to understand about social work. We are in the business of helping people, and, at the risk absolute certainty of sounding painfully cliché, helping them to help themselves. As much as we want to, we can’t fix people. I can’t stay with that 14 year old and her mother until things are perfect, because I don’t know if I’ll be at this job until 2026. I can’t move in with another mother to protect her and her children from a potentially violent man. I can only care about my families as much as I can, and work as hard and as well as I can to make sure that they get the best I can give. If that’s fifty percent, then that’s what it is.

At least I’m still better than the Mets.

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4 responses

3 04 2012
Kelly

I have been a social worker for ten years and I think if half of your clientload is successful is FANTASTIC!!!!! WOOOHOOOO!!!!

8 04 2012
socialjerk

Thank you! And congrats on ten years, hope I make it that long.

4 04 2012
ckhayek

As a (former) case worker on the other end of the spectrum — working with children & families after abuse or neglect has occurred — I would be ecstatic with 50%. [Sad but true.]
I find it refreshing that you acknowledge what many social workers don’t admit: the attachment that develops with families and sadness in separating after the arduous work of supporting them in the change process.

8 04 2012
socialjerk

I actually often am working with families after abuse or neglect has occurred, but hasn’t warranted the children being removed. Or I’m working with them returning from foster care. I wish we had more time to dedicate to studying how to get those numbers up…

I wish we could all talk about it more. Whenever I say I’ll miss a family, coworkers say, “Well that’s not a good reason to keep a case open.” Of course it’s not, but pretending not to get attached after being so intensely involved in someone’s life is kind of crazy.

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