I’ve mentioned that my job confuses people a bit. They often don’t really have a clue what we do, and assume that we’re some sort of borderline useless combination of caseworker and friendly visitor. I don’t really care if people on the street, or my Facebook feed (you know, the modern street) think this. Well, I kind of care, but I know it really doesn’t matter. However, when judges don’t get it, then we have an issue.
Family court doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of respect for what I do. Saying that a family has been working with us for the past year on addressing their history of domestic violence, and on empowering the mother to assert herself as a parental figure, is pretty much met with blank stares. “What have you actually done?” The implication being, of course, that we’ve been sitting around chatting. A ten week parenting class, though, often means a check mark and a case closed.
Family court loves things that they can tally up and tick off “attended nine out of twelve sessions.” It’s like you can determine how good a parent someone is by their attendance percentage. What I do, the longer term family counseling is too abstract.
I’ve figured it out. It’s the certificate.
Certificates are a powerful thing. I mean, I got up an hour early three days a week at Girl Scout camp to go swimming in a cold Long Island pond, just to get a “Polar Bear Club” certificate. (I assume it’s still in a large Tupperware bin in my parents’ basement.)
I use them for my girls’ group now. Kids are really excited to have something that they can show off and hang up that indicates their achievement. It’s printed on nice paper in fancy font. Parents who didn’t complete school, I find, are also particularly into them. The ones who are the happiest about them, though, are people who have been in “the system” for a long time. Their kids have been in and out of foster care, they’ve been mandated to attend drug counseling, parenting classes, domestic violence groups, healthy cooking class, Zumba and whatever else might have been slightly helpful. They know the power of a “certificate of completion” (fuck participation) and have a folder full of them.
I have worked with one family that could be featured in a social work textbook as the quintessential “multi-problem family.” After two looooong years of work, the one thing of value that the courts see is that one of the teenagers completed my girls’ group. Twelve sessions, 75% attendance, certificate sent home and hung on the wall. Yay. It’s the only certificate they’ve managed. Never mind the school meetings, the days spent in the hospital, the calls from the police (Scared Straight is a real thing. An ineffective, real thing), referrals for mentoring and psychiatric evaluations, emergency grocery shopping with mom and two toddlers (I’m never doing that again, and you can’t make me!) and weeks of family counseling sessions in whatever room I could cram nine people into. Those things don’t have a curriculum and a clear end point.
As a result of Certificate Focused Practice, we’re being driven to be shorter term and more “evidenced based.” I’m not against our work being evidenced based–if it’s working, we should be able to see evidence, now matter how much we dislike that. But they’re making us do work that only has a bit of evidence and could, in theory, be more evidenced based, which I think just misses the point. And it’s a little automaton-y. It feels like social work in a dystopian future. “Enter problem here. Beep boop beep. Your solution is being processed.”
I hope you read that last bit aloud, in a robot voice.
I’m not anti-certificate. Like I said, I use them in girls’ group. I just think that getting so focused on checking off classes can take away from helping families. Not everything can happen and be fixed in a time limited program. “All right, let’s go through your Lisa Frank folder with the rainbow dolphins on it. Yes, we’ve got paperwork to show you’re a good parent, you don’t drink anymore, and you’re over the abuse you suffered!” Parents always ask “how long is the program?” when first engaging in counseling. That’s really not how effecting meaningful change in a family works, but it’s what they’ve come to expect. If you could attend “family college” and then be great at everything, I’m fairly certain everyone would do it and I’d be out of a job. But families have individual needs and situations, and while classes and group can provide invaluable help, they’re not quite everything.
For now, let me present you with this. You’ve earned it.