One of the major tenets of social work is starting where the client is. I might recognize that a mother needs counseling for domestic violence. If she’s not ready, though, insisting isn’t going to do much good. I need to start with what she feels she needs most, like getting the kids into day care, to build a relationship and work up to what the real problem is.
As a result, it can be kind of hard to explain exactly what my job is. I do a lot of things. I do what my families need, with a few notable exceptions.
It’s always interesting to hear other people’s interpretations.
Now, remember-I went to college for four years. I worked for two years in a related field. I put myself into debt to get a Master’s in social work, while interning three days a week and working to support myself. It may seem snobby, but I fancy myself a professional.
ACS workers, who refer a majority of our clients, very often have no clue what it is we do. (Take a moment to wonder how that’s possible.)
At one home visit to meet a new family for the first time, I asked if the mom and the worker had discussed the referral. “Sure,” mom said. “You’re going to be my advocate.”
I hope so. But 1) that’s not really a profession and 2) that’s far from everything.
There are also the times that I ask the referrer what they were hoping to come out of preventive services. “Monitoring” is almost always brought up.
Yes, there’s value in having someone poke their head in once a week to make sure the kids are eating, going to school, and not getting smacked around too much. Routinely assessing for safety is, of course, something that I do with families I work with. But I don’t do a job that could be easily fulfilled by Gladys, the nosy neighbor on Bewitched.
It wouldn’t be so bad if the ACS workers would accept it when I explain what I actually do.
PotentialClient: “So what is counseling with you like?”
ACS: “I’m sorry, SJ wouldn’t be actually doing the counseling.”
SJ: “No, I would.”
ACS: “Well, she’d be referring you for counseling.”
SJ: “No I wouldn’t.”
ACS: “You can do counseling?
SJ: “I’m a licensed social worker. Why are you referring them to me?”
PotentialClient: “Do you two need counseling?”
This even comes up when I’ve been involved for a while. The following exchange took place at a six month planning conference, shortly before I ripped lots of hair out of my head.
ACS: “Mom still isn’t acting like a parent.”
Mom: “I’m working on it with SJ.”
ACS. “Maybe family counseling would help.”
SJ: “Well, we are doing that.”
SJ: “Um, here? At the office?”
ACS: “Can you refer them somewhere for family counseling?”
SJ: “I can refer you for a foot in your ass.”*
Then there are the interpretations of people I’ve been working with for an extended period of time. You know, the people with whom I’ve developed a relationship and understanding?
Mom: “SJ, I need you to take my daughter back to school shopping to make sure she buys appropriate clothes.”
SJ: “I’m not going to do that. Why aren’t you able to take her?”
Mom: “You know we’ll just fight. Why wouldn’t you take her, you’re her worker!”
Somehow, despite all of the family sessions and advocating for special ed services, the term “worker” was closely linked to “servant” in this mother’s mind.
Mom: “His teacher wants to refer us for family counseling.”
SJ: “Did you tell her you’re already doing that?”
Mom: “…we are?”
SJ: “You know how we meet every week and do all that work together?”
Mom: “Oh! I thought she meant like, with a couch.”
That fucking couch. It’s an image that’s got quite a hold on people.
Mom: “I’m busy tomorrow, so I need you to take him to register for school.”
We need to talk about how we ask for things.
8 y/o: “But SJ is our very good friend!”
Said upon finding out services were being terminated, causing my heart to fall out of my butt.
8 y/o: “This is SJ. She is my therapist. We do play-doh.”
Classmate: “Why does SJ come see you at school?”
6 y/o: “Because my family has problems and she helps us.”
Classmate: “Ooooh, we have one of those!”
Excellent! Are you available for public speaking?
2 y/o: “Hi Auntie SJ!”
All right, we’ll let that one go.
I have a weird job and a complex relationship with my families. It’s something that takes a bit of time to explain, and even then, it’s something that really needs to be experienced. Trying to limit the job to just “advocate,” or “counselor,” or “lady who keeps coming to my house” is never really going to do it justice.
Though “personal shopper” is always going to be wrong.
*This was only thought, not said.