Possession is, apparently, nine-tenths of the law. (I’m not totally sure, I’m not a lawyer.) Documentation is, in fact, eleven-tenths of social work. (I’m also not a mathematician.)
As social workers, we have to document everything. Everything. Sessions, group meetings, phone calls, outreach attempts, collateral contacts…”collateral contacts” are essentially “everything else, if you’re unfamiliar. This can be problematic, and not just because it’s time consuming.
There are ways we say things, and there are ways we write things. There are, especially, ways we write things professionally. At times, it’s hard to say things in a professional manner, but we still need to get them out there. (If you were wondering why this blog exists.) You might indicate that there are concerns about a teenager’s hygiene. You wouldn’t write, “Jesus Christ, can this child not smell himself?”
Reframing, a social worker’s annoying best friend, sometimes helps. When my teen girls went on a tangent about why Justin Bieber is hot (I felt like I was going to get put on an FBI list just for being present for that one) I explained it as them sharing qualities they admire and would like to emulate in one of their role models. Apparently the Biebs has been through a lot?
When a mother was listing her strengths as a conference and said that, “Don’t nobody fuck with my kids. They get what they need,” we were able to note that as the mother being an excellent advocate and provider.
There are occasions when this doesn’t work. I was at a meeting once that a mother would not allow to end until it was noted on her service agreement that, “I want ACS out of my fucking life.” The poor worker tried to compromise several times, but mom wasn’t hearing it. Finally, a comic strip style #$%! had to suffice.
Sometimes, when more than one agency is involved in a case or when a family is transferred, we have to read things that other people write. That’s when we wonder how it’s possible that we were hired for similar jobs.
Not everyone is a good writer. Ask a teacher. Most people can barely write a clear sentence. How to write a proper progress note, at least in my experience, is something you’re expected to learn in the field. It’s not formally taught in
Doggie Day Care social work school. Some people get too wrapped up in writing a narrative, detailing everything from what cartoon characters were on the kids’ shirts to what was blaring on the TV in the background. Others think mentioning that no one was on fire or bleeding to death is sufficient.
Some are just simple mistakes. It seems wrong that “now” and “not” are so similar. “One of the family’s strengths is that the child is not going to school regularly.” What’s wrong with you? Oh, the child is now going to school regularly. “Mother is concerned that the children’s father is now abiding by the order of protection.” That is bizarre…or is he not abiding by this? Why does this keep happening to us?
Some are mistakes that seem to require effort, in order to be so wrong. What are the odds that the parents both have the last name Jones, and their children all have the last name Tones?
Some errors go beyond poor execution or a rushed job. Those notes are the stuff of legend.
“This child is being denied the BEST OPPORTUNITIES EVER!!”
This was written by a worker who transferred a case to me, who was concerned that the parents were taking advantage of a scholarship their high school age daughter was being offered. Caps lock, and stacked punctuation. Here’s a tip: exclamation points are rarely appropriate in a progress note or service plan. I can’t even get into the stunning hyperbole.
“CPS told mom that she has a lot of work to do, so get chopping.”
Never say this. In person, or writing. No.
“This worker suspects that the preventive worker is not accredited and qualified to provide play therapy.”
Writing this in a database the preventive worker has access to is essentially using that database as a Mean Girls-style Burn Book.
“Mother shared that her childhood was not all cookies and cream.”
Bummer. That would have been a delicious childhood.
Progress notes are a necessary evil, of course. Without them, transferring a case would be pretty impossible, and it would be a lot easier for an unscrupulous worker to go to Dunkin Donuts while claiming to be out on a visit. (Not that I’ve ever contemplated this.)
And they can be entertaining. Maybe next time you’re working on a note, slip in a little humor for the next person reading it. Silly, unnecessary caps lock, or throw in a “stop reading, it’s a trap!” midsentence. Your supervisor will
thank fire you.