When I started as an intern with Anonymous Agency, my mother was shocked to hear that I immediately started counseling families. “Do you really know how to do that?” It was kind of like seeing a chicken who can play tic-tac-toe.
The truth is, no, I didn’t. I had some basic knowledge from a year of social work school, I got something that might pass as support in supervision, and I was still learning. But I didn’t get a ton of guidance. A whole lot of it was learn as you go. We didn’t have one way of practicing. You just did what worked, within the context of our guidelines and values.
Sometimes, things change. Agencies decide to focus on new methods, or take on a new model. This particularly happens when auditors run through the office two to three times per year, aflame, throwing files at all of us while screaming “EVIDENCE BASED!!!” That, combined with the need to see more families in less time to ensure we keep getting contracts, meant that it was time to “tighten up our process.” With a new structure for engagement and practice.
There are some growing pains with doing things differently. For one thing, we need to be trained. And trainings are kind of hit or miss.
In these situations, where you’re not going to learn a new skill, or information about a specific population, but to revamp your entire way of practicing, it’s especially difficult. No one likes being told that they’ve been doing a bad job. For some reason, in order to embrace something new, we have to talk about what an awful job we were doing before. “You’re not going to go in there and tell the family what to do. You’re going to engage them in creating their own plan. Join with them!”
Wait, what? I’ve been wearing a tiara, sitting on a high stool so that I can look down on my participants, and telling them that they are stupid and I am smart. Was this incorrect? No wonder everyone has gotten worse while working with me!
The worst part, though, is having someone tell you how to change when they don’t know how you do things. The people training us are whatever the social work version of ivory tower is. (Tin foil? Papier mache?) They’re not currently practicing. They’ve never practiced in an urban area, or in a community based organization. When we say we have families in shelters, they think that we have mothers with toddlers sleeping on cots a la the Louisiana Superdome in 2005. They know nothing of undocumented people. They forget that a lot of our families are incredibly isolated. They tell us to ignore the fact that their housing may be insecure, or their food stamps being shut off, and focus on the reasons they were referred.
People in power making assumptions about you, ignoring your reality, being patronizing…what does this remind me of?
As workers, we resist, because it’s natural to resist change. But sometimes it sounds good. The examples they give always work, flawlessly! The little role play exercises, too. They tell you about all of their successes. But there’s something missing when they tell us we just need to stick to the model.
Recently, I had a day that went like this:
- Called a school to schedule a visit with a teen, because mom and the target child are unavailable due to a medical emergency. They told me to come on over.
- Get to the school. Kid is at lunch. They tell me to come back in 45 minutes.
- Go do an unannounced home visit to a family whose phone is cut off. Mom tells me they’re out of food.
- Go back to do the school visit.
- Stop in at my office to explain the food situation to my supervisor and get approval to buy emergency groceries.
- Grocery shopping trip in which I debate baloney brands, and if Oscar Meyer is worth the money.
- Drop off groceries.
- Head back to the office where I document all of this while shoveling butternut squash bisque (way to go, Campbell’s) into my face.
- Call two families repeatedly to find out they aren’t coming in.
- Leave to stalk.
None of these things happen in their examples. No one is hospitalized or arrested, they’re never tracking down clients wherever they can be found, neighbors never stop by half way through a home visit, the worker isn’t distractedly trying to get out of a dangerous building before dark, things never have to stop because a two year old pissed on the floor. Everything works out. The worker always finds the right words to get the participant to do things according to plan.
So if things are going poorly for you, it’s not the model. You’re not buying into it enough. Or maybe you’re just not very good. If you really wanted to do this, and commited yourself to it, you’d be doing it. And you would regard the extra paperwork as the gift that it is.
Again, what is this reminding me of? Oh right, people trying to get out of the shelter system, single mothers trying to get off public assistance, parents struggling to get their teenagers to school, young people doing poorly in school. We recognize that it’s difficult, but really, if they wanted it, they would make it happen.
If I get nothing else out of this, I at least have a much better understanding of why some of my clients are so pissed all the time. It should make joining with them a little easier.