Goldilocks’ School of Social Work (Caring Just Right.)

6 08 2012

There’s a phenomenon in the helping professions. You know when a philandering celebrity, or greedy financial…dude (I don’t have finances) says that the only thing they’re guilty of is “caring too much?” Social workers, teachers, mental health professionals, child protection workers, and the like, are at serious risk if that ever becomes a criminal charge. Though so often, caring too much isn’t sufficient. We have to care the most.

Everyone likes to be the best, right? We all want to win the gold. (Side note: might I pat Gabby Douglas on the head and put her in my pocket, even though she could kick my ass?)

I have run into this a few million times in my work.

At times, it’s with school social workers. Some make a particular effort to reach out to and involve the families, but some don’t. And with the ones that do, the parents often start ignoring their calls. As a result, they work primarily with the children. Twelve year old girls fighting with their mothers tend to err on the side of drama, and complaints about being unloved and unwanted. If you aren’t in the home regularly and don’t know the family, it might sound like emotional abuse.

Most social workers, and adults in general, are smart enough to discern abuse from teen angst. But some seem to have a vested interest in being the hero. You know, the only person in the Lifetime movie who believes the totally rational victim, while everyone else has seemingly gone insane?

Which leads to voicemails like this:

SSW: “I am extremely concerned about this child! She said her mother isn’t speaking to her. Why aren’t you answering your phone? We are having an emergency meeting in twenty minutes, I need you to be here!”

It’s one thing explaining to overwhelmed nineteen year olds that I have fourteen other families who also need my attention. When it’s a fellow professional in a similar situation…I don’t care for it.

Some want to feel like they’re the only one who can really forge a connection with this particular child. Like when your friend in high school was dating that total asshole, because she insisted that he wasn’t that way to her, she was the only one who could understand him? Yeah, like that.

After months of running away, drug use, missing persons reports, and pregnancy scares, a sixteen year old I worked with wound up in a diagnostic reception center. This is a short term, non-secure residential facility. Often a stopover on the way to residential treatment.

This girl needed help, but was an accomplished manipulator. She knew what everyone wanted to hear, and how to get what she wanted. (Trust me, I’d fallen for it for months!) After a week or so, I got a call from a social work intern. She asked if she could escort this girl to her previous placement, to pick up some belongings.

Provide her with a Metrocard, and someone who can’t do anything to stop her from running off, to get the things she wants on the other side of the city. I was, I think, understandably skeptical.

“I understand, but I think this is important for her. We’ve developed a good connection.”

Sigh. All right, intern. Not my call, not my funeral.

Her supervisor approved it (really) and the kid AWOLed. She would have done it sooner or later anyway, it wasn’t the intern’s fault. But I do think it’s something that happens when we don’t listen to each other.

“SocialJerk, how do you stay so perfect and avoid all of these pitfalls?” asks no one. Of course I’ve been guilty of this myself. I remember when a fourteen year old told her ACS worker, “I don’t deal with you anymore. I only talk to Miss SJ,  ’cause she’s my girl.”

Now, everyone likes to be the favorite, and this was tapping directly into my love of working with teens, confirming for me that I’m actually good at it. Also, I was not popular in junior high. Of course I knew that this child was being disrespectful, that her mother was allowing it, and that I needed to put an end to it. But I smiled a little on the inside. Even though, ultimately, being “her girl” didn’t prevent this kid from running away for days at a time, cutting school for months, and fighting in the streets.

A lot of the time, we’re not better with fellow social workers we don’t even work with. We say we want self care, but then we compete in the miserylympics. Try mentioning a mental health day, vacation, chance to read a book or watch a movie, or a momentarily small caseload, to a fellow social worker. We always feel the need to qualify it with, “I’m taking a day because I worked twelve hours unpaid overtime in the past three days, I have the flu, and I’m emotionally exhausted from facilitating two removals and running from three shootouts.”

Still, we get responses like, “Must be nice!” “Ugh, jealous. I’m working seventy hour weeks lately.” Or the backhanded, “You totally deserve it! I can’t wait til it’s my turn :/”

Sometimes it’s ok to just say “have fun” Or nothing. That’s ok too.

You don’t have to be the one who cares the most, or the only one who’s doing any work. There is no prize, believe me. I Googled it. We need to support each other in taking care of ourselves. There’s never been a statue erected in the honor of a social worker who died with the most saved up sick and vacation days.

And we’re all trying to do the same work, even if we’re doing it in different ways. Of course we might be working with a burned out, or just not terribly good worker at times. But I think we owe one another the benefit of the doubt, rather than assuming that we’re on our own, and have all the answers.

Now I have to get back to work. I haven’t had a vacation in months.

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2 responses

7 08 2012
Amber

Just wanted to say I love your writing style. Totally makes me smirk and think that I would like working in a unit with you. Glad to see another social worker with a sense of humor. I think (hope) it will help stave off getting burned out too quick.

9 08 2012
socialjerk

Thank you so much! A sense of humor is very often the only thing that gets me through. Having a coworker or two who get it (or at least laugh along) makes a huge difference.

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