You’re in big trouble, mister.

9 09 2013

Children are great. I mean, they are the future. They’re made of sugar and spice and shit. They give your life meaning. At least, that’s what people tell 29 year olds who haven’t gotten around to procreating yet.

Kids are delightful, and adorable. But they’re also difficult. You have to teach them eeeeeverything. They always get it wrong at first. This might sound harsh, but it’s true. Potty training, shoe tying, not leaving Lego on the floor…honestly it takes forever. But eventually they get it, and you both get to feel an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment that the childless can only dream of.

Then the kid smacks you in the face and laughs.

Discipline. It’s not easy. But there are ways to not be terrible at it.

There are more than two options, for starters. From what I hear from lots of people, you are either whipping your child with an extension cord while she kneels on rice (I’m sorry, I know it’s “cultural,” but that is sadistic and a waste of a good starch) or letting them run the streets, pick their own bedtime, and asking them if they need a timeout for doing heroin at the kitchen table.

You are allowed to discipline your kids. You’re even allowed to spank your kids. Parents have given their toddlers a swat on the butt while I was in the room, even. It’s ok. If you’re resorting to spanking when the kid is a teenager, something’s gone wrong, and you’ll find it not working and pretty weird, but still.

You are allowed to discipline your kids. You’re not allowed to beat your kids with objects. You’re not allowed to leave marks and bruises. I’ve said this before, but I’m saying it again because it never seems to get through and I will get at least one comment complaining about how you’re not allowed to discipline your kids. You’re allowed to discipline your kids.

A lot of the parents I work with got hit as kids. When they’re really honest, they acknowledge that it wasn’t a whole lot of fun, or particularly effective. But they usually say it was just what they needed. “I was running the streets at 14, fighting and getting arrested, so yeah my mother beat me.” Good point. But she’d been beating you since you were two, and this behavior didn’t stop until you were 23, so…

Parents we work with usually recognize that they need to stop hitting their kids. Because it’s gotten out of control, because the kids have outgrown it, because they don’t want another case, whatever. Learning new ways isn’t easy, though.

Before you ask, no, I don’t have kids. But outside perspective is valuable. Sometime you get so caught up in the day to day battles (we’re all picking those battles, right?) that you need a reminder. Also one taken groups of fifteen to twenty adolescents to the mall and the zoo, by myself, and never lost one. So I do know some things. And sometimes, people just have to be open to common sense.

I work with teenagers who have been “grounded” for months. It either starts out way too harsh–you came home at 4:15 instead of 4? No leaving the house for two months!–or it starts out reasonable and time gets added on. “Oh, you rolled your eyes at me? That’s three more weeks!” It gets to a point where the kid an the parent can’t remember what the kid did wrong. It’s just the status quo–this person is only allowed to go to school and come home. At that point, this is not an adolescent, it’s a maximum security prisoner with nothing left to lose. Parents ask me all the time, “well, she’s already not allowed to do anything, so what am I supposed to take away?” Hmmm…perhaps this is the problem?

Time outs and sticker charts get a shitty reputation. A time out is “soft.” It’s not real discipline! Who cares about sitting in a chair for a few minutes? People who say this, of course, have never seen a three year old attempt to sit for THREE WHOLE MINUTES.

The thing that really gets me, though, is that parents try to get too creative. There’s usually a reason you tell your kids to do something. Leave your sidewalk chalk outside? Yeah, it probably won’t be in good shape tomorrow. Insist on fighting sleep? Ok, you’re gone be hella tired when I still get you up on time for school tomorrow. Refuse your coat? Oh yeah, it IS cold out now that you mention it. You want to lay on the sidewalk and have a fit instead of walking with us? Ok, bye! My my my, but you caught up quick.

Obviously this doesn’t work with lessons like staying out of the street, or that Windex is not as delicious as it looks, but natural consequences go a long way.

So does treating kids like functioning humans. If you want to do something, you have to earn it. It’s a valuable skill to teach your kids. A friend at a 30th birthday said out loud, “I’m going to eat some salad, that way I can have chips.” Don’t you think it all the time? “I’ll clean the bathroom, then I can watch Orange is the New Black before everyone on Twitter reveals all.”

No, your social worker doesn’t know all. There’s no magic discipline cookbook, or everyone would follow it and we would bake a cake out of rainbows and smiles. You know your kid best. But if what you’re doing isn’t working, it’s best to at least be open to suggestion. Sometimes we make sense, even if we don’t have kids.


10 06 2013

When we get a referral, it (usually) specifies why the family is being referred. Sometimes it focuses on the parent. “The mother is hitting the children with a belt.” Sometimes it’s more about the child. “The teenager is staying out all night and the parents suspect she’s using drugs.” Often it’s a combination of both. “The teenager is staying out all night, and the mother is responding by hitting her with a belt.”

When they focus on the kids, it’s usually that they’re “acting out.” Something is dysfunctional. They’re doing something they shouldn’t be doing.

Sometimes, it’s OK. Doing things you aren’t supposed to is a developmental phase. It lasts from age two until death, but is usually a bigger problem at around fifteen. There are ways that kids test boundaries, and while it’s annoying, it’s appropriate.

At other times, kids are really acting out. They’re setting fires, they’re staying out for days at a time, they’re hurting themselves, hurting someone else, getting so stoned every day that they can’t function…there are many, many options.

When it’s standard acting out, “catching an attitude” and wanting independence, a lot of the work is on getting the parent to understand that this is what they signed on for when they brought that cute little baby into the world. They need to work with it, and their kid is far from the worst.

When it’s the more intense stuff, there’s a reason. Routinely, we know what it is.

“The teenage daughter was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. The mother did not believe her. The case did not become known to us until the child told a teacher who called the case in. The child has been extremely angry and leaves the home without permission. She refuses to speak to her mother.”

She does? That’s so weird. Why wouldn’t she want to talk to her? Clearly this kid has problems.

Or is she doing exactly what she’s supposed to do in that situation? Who would handle it better? And how?

“Family was referred by the child’s school. She is easily distracted and fights frequently. It is believed she suffers from ADHD and needs a mental health evaluation. Child witnessed her mother’s death in another country eighteen months ago and moved to the Bronx to live with her father.”

Definitely medicate her. There’s no other explanation.

Mental health counselor: “This boy refuses to even admit that he was sexually abused.”
SJ: “He never admitted it?”
MHC: “No, he told when it was happening, and he testified in court. But now he refuses to talk about it.”

And the problem is…? Wouldn’t we be more concerned if a kid nonchalantly told everyone he met about being orally raped by a family member?

“The children have been truant for the past two months.”

Sounds like straightforward bad behavior until you find out that their secondary caregiver was dying in the home during that time.

We label and pathologize behaviors that are so understandable. Grief? Fuck grief, get it together! (Or so says my obscenity ladened parody version of DSM-V. Look for it in bookstores this fall!) It’s not to say that not going to school, or running away, or fighting, are ok and we should let it go on. They’re not, and we shouldn’t. People need to be getting help and working through these things.

But they need to be getting the right kind of help. Working with someone who thinks your behavior makes sense, and that you don’t just need to knock it off or take the right pills (I’m not against medication, I swear, except when I am) can make all the difference. Especially when that person is willing to advocate on your behalf to the powers that be–someone else saying that you’re not crazy, you’re not bad, you’re just traumatized can be a pretty powerful way to develop the therapeutic relationship.

We’re rarely the only service providers involved in our families’ lives. There are mental health professionals, school staff, child protection specialists, and more. There’s often a lot of talk about taking a no-nonsense approach, and not letting a child “make excuses” for their behavior. That’s fine if we’re talking about a spoiled kid whose led a charmed life and has decided she doesn’t want to go to school.

Am I the only one who doesn’t work with many of those?

Understanding trauma, how it changes the brain and affects behavior, and how long it can take someone to feel safe again is something that everyone in this field (caseworkers, social workers, supervisors, receptionists) need to take upon ourselves. Otherwise we’re just spinning our wheels.

Snarky Blog Title # 1704

10 12 2012

There are things we see over and over again in our work. They’re bad, but we get used to them. You got so frustrated that you beat your kid with a chancla? Yawn. You don’t have an involved dad? Um, who does?! Obviously, jerks, I’m being facetious. These things are never ok, or no big deal. You just grow somewhat accustomed to them. If we were shocked every time something like this happened, ninety percent of social workers would be dead of a heart attack within their first year on the job.

There’s one thing that comes up, time and time again, though, that’s different.

Sexual abuse.

Sometimes, it’s the reason a family is referred to us. This isn’t ideal, as there are agencies that deal specifically with sexual abuse and are really better suited to this work. But there aren’t that many of them, there are long waiting lists, so you get what you get.

Yes, that is how seeking help works if you don’t have money. But I digress.

Very often, it’s not in the referral. Rather, it comes up later. It’s not the main issue. That would be truancy, or the kid having an attitude, or getting into fights, or excessive corporal punishment. The abuse comes out later.

When it comes up, we’re supposed to address it. So I do. Part of this involves asking the kid how they’d like to handle it. Would you like to try sexual abuse counseling? Do you want to talk about it?

A surprising amount of the time, they do. Kids often know what they need, and if they’ve been wanting counseling, they’re relieved to have it offered. Sometimes they don’t want it, though, and I respect this.

Apparently, this is very bad.

Not long ago, a family was referred to me, and on their laundry list of issues was that their teenage daughter had been molested by a family friend. She was very upfront with me. Ever since this incident came to light, it was all anyone had talked about. This child had to talk about it to a guidance counselor, to her parents, to an ACS worker, to the police, to a sexual abuse investigator. She was done talking about it.

Her parents accepted this. They went out of their way to make sure she wasn’t withdrawing from the family, as they knew this was what she turned to, and let her know she could talk about it if she wanted to. But the court insisted she seek counseling. Actually, she was told, “If this child doesn’t get sexual abuse counseling, all of the kids will be removed.”

Or, as she heard it, “If this happens again, keep it to yourself, because it’s going to lead to all of these problems.”

(For the record, she went to the sexual abuse counseling agency, where it was recommended that the family keep doing what they were doing and bring her back for counseling in the future, when she was ready. In other words, in your face, Your Honor.)

Sometimes, when a child is sexually abused, we forget that they’re still a person. They become Sexual Abuse Victim #23489542. Everything is about the abuse.

I’ve gotten numerous referrals for girls who are being “promiscuous” or “acting out sexually.” Victims of sexual abuse most certainly do this. But there’s no technical definition for “promiscuous,” and I can’t always tell the difference between “acting out sexually” and “having sex.” Most troubling, we never get that concern for a boy.

Actually, we got it once. The boy in question was gay. Apparently, if you’re having sex with boys, it’s to be pathologized.

It reminds me of how some people justify “abortion is bad.” They have a friend who had an abortion and has been a total wreck ever since, she just never got over it. You know who else had an abortion? One in three women. They’re not all a disaster beyond repair.

I realize I left myself open for some “heh heh, is that why women are such bitches, amirite bros?” Stop now, you’re better than that.

We notice the squeaky wheels, is the point. But plenty of kids are ok. Overall, kids are resilient. We’re not supposed to say that, because supposedly this denies that sexual abuse is awful and inexcusable. It is awful, it is inexcusable. I have a hard time coming up with reasons why people who even think this might maybe be an ok thing to do shouldn’t, at the very least, be sent to a remote island to live out the rest of their days. (There aren’t that many remote islands, they might figure out how to make a boat…)

But acknowledging that children are resilient is much better than going on and on about how victims’ lives are destroyed. You sound like a real asshole when you do that.

Some kids are ready for counseling. Some aren’t. They might be later. Forcing a kid into it is terrible and can be retraumatizing. Sometimes, a parent or other caring adult believing, supporting, and appropriately protecting a child, assuring them that nothing was their fault, can be sufficient.

Sexual abuse, more than almost anything we face in our work, brings up our own issues. It horrifies and disgusts us, and it makes us feel protective, and it makes parents feel guilty. We need to be sure that we’re addressing what’s best for the child, not what makes us feel better.

The monster at the end of this blog

2 03 2012

When I mention that I work in child welfare, there are a couple of questions that people instantly have. One is how I afford to live in New York on that pathetic salary. Well, I managed to afford not one, not two, but THREE awesome pairs of Chuck Ts, so there you go. The next is how I manage to work with those monstrous parents.

I think this is one of the greatest misconceptions of what we do. When I talk about working with parents, utilizing their strengths, and helping them to find their own solutions, people often get a bit tetchy. “Do you really think they deserve that?” “They’re abusive, their children should just be taken away!” Sometimes they throw in an eye roll and condescension, free of charge! “Yeah, I’m sure thinking about what they’ve done and getting in touch with their feelings will fix everything.”

I blame television.

The fact of the matter is, most people do not wake up and plot to torture their children throughout the day. It happens.  There are terrible people in the world. When it happens, you typically hear about it on the news. Years later, you see a special on Dr. Phil, now that Oprah is no longer with the daytime viewers. It’s a big deal because it’s so rare. Commonplace stuff we all deal with doesn’t make it to the box. “Today, you’ll see a family squabble momentarily over what cereal to buy, before realizing that Cap’n Crunch and Honey Nut Cheerios are actually both on sale.” Chilling.

Abusive monsters exist. So do serial killers. (I swear there’s a parallel, so bear with me.) If you get your information on the topic of crime from Law & Order, Criminal Minds, Bones, and their ilk, you would think that 90% of murders are committed by a brilliant, deranged longer who has a secret room wallpapered with pictures of women, with lots of pins in them, leading a team of equally brilliant, extremely good looking federal agents in a game of cat and mouse.

But when we look at what actually happens, that doesn’t reflect reality. Most people are killed by someone they know. It’s usually unplanned and involves that whole “heat of the moment” “in a rage” thing. Those criminal minds aren’t nearly so brilliant, as the initial defense is often something along the lines of, “she stabbed herself? I mean, she asked me to stab her!”

Child abuse is frequently similar. According to Law & Order: SVU and Lifetime movies, abuse often involves international intrigue, plots to sell babies, and kids being chained to radiators. The “chained to a radiator” thing just will not go away. For the amount of times I’ve heard that one, I would estimate that upwards of half of all American children have spent at least an hour of their day secured to a heating appliance.

That’s just not the case. Parents who hit their kids are most often people who were raised with physical discipline, and are using it excessively themselves, or are parents who have snapped. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Physical discipline is not illegal. You’re allowed to spank your kids. (Personally, I think it’s a bad idea, but that’s an entirely different…I won’t say “can of worms,” because that’s gross, but you know what I mean.) You’re not allowed to beat them with objects or leave marks or bruises on them. But when people are overwhelmed, stressed, don’t have realistic and developmentally appropriate expectations of their kids, and don’t have a lot of support, sometimes they lash out in an effort to make themselves feel better.

Before any righteous smartasses jump in, I’m not defending murder, child abuse, spandex, or any other horrors. As in the case of typical murderer vs. serial killer, losing one’s temper doesn’t make it OK. There are still consequences, and the injured parties are still equally hurt. But pretending that people are, in fact, monsters, just doesn’t help.

We can look at these parents as evil caricatures. It makes us feel really good about ourselves. I might make mistakes, but I’m not like those people! It often makes those who hear my touchy-feely social work talk feel quite righteous and superior to say, “Well, I think those parents should be in prison! Those children should be removed!”

Because that solves everything, right? It has to happen sometimes, of course. But it’s generally best for kids to not have to go through removal, and to not have parents in prison.

If there were some magical farm run by happy, plump grandmas, who spent the day baking cookies, reading aloud, and raising puppies, where we could send all of these children, it might be a bit different. Magical farm doesn’t exist. Believe me, I’ve checked.

When we acknowledge that these things–abuse and neglect, which unchecked and at their worse lead to the death of a child–are usually not the deliberate acts of evil individuals, they become much scarier.

I routinely have nightmares that I am somehow complicit in someone’s death. I see them drowning in Jell-O and do nothing, I drive a monster truck into a playground, I accidentally throw peanut butter at someone with a severe allergy on the bus. (Hey, I said they were dreams.) In those dream moments, I have these thoughts. “Holy shit, how did that happen?” I think it’s because I have seen, time and again, how things get out of hand.

Also, I’m addicted to Dateline.

It’s not about rationalizing or explaining away a parent’s behavior. Having the good intention of trying to potty train your toddler doesn’t mean that it’s OK that the child wound up with a dislocated shoulder. But it does make a difference in how we address it.

An evil monster doesn’t learn and change. A person with the right intentions, but few skills and poor self control, can. Often they want to. But they’re defensive. I hear it all the time. “I lost my temper and I hit her. I’m not one of those abusive parents you see on the news, though!”

I’m sure they’re not. And that’s why I got sent in, not Nancy Grace. Before we go any further, let’s all just agree that she’s bad for society. OK? Great.

Not everyone deserves a second chance. (I think we all know what singer/dancer’s direction I’m looking in.) But a lot of people do. From a practical standpoint, even if we think it’s not for the best, they’re very often getting their children back. So we need to work with them, because so often, things can get better.

And no one can work well with monsters.

Unforgiven: Social Work edition

13 02 2012

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (thank you, as my self esteem is directly proportional to my number of followers) will know that I was a little upset about the Grammys last night. It’s surprising, because I didn’t even watch them.

Was Chris Brown at the Grammys before? I think maybe he was…ah yes, three years ago! He was going to perform, but the night before he punched Rihanna, his girlfriend at the time, leaving her face a bloody and bruised mess.

I’ve already talked about the damage Chris Brown has done. Not only to Rihanna, but to young people across the country, for whom he further normalized violence as a part of romantic relationships. So I’m not going to go into that again. (Though he did. He did a lot of damage, on a problem that was already bad enough.)

Chris Brown is right at the top of SocialJerk’s Shit List. I assure you, it’s an unpleasant place to be.

But he’s not alone. He has the company of Ben Roethlisberger and Roman Polanksi, to name a couple. Michael Vick had set up residence, but he’s done some work in getting himself removed.

A dinner party you’d never want to attend, amiriteladies? These are people that my friends and family members know not to mention in my presence. If they don’t want me to turn red, and them to not have a chance to speak for the next twenty minutes.

Just so we’re clear–Michael Vick, the one who killed and mistreated dogs, got the harshest sentence (a fine and a suspended prion sentence) and has done the most to make up for his crimes (through seemingly heartfelt apologies, and by lobbying for harsher penalties for animal fighting.) He’s also, arguably, the most vilified. He’s the one who mistreated and killed dogs. The others exploited, raped, or beat women and children. In case you weren’t feeling my rage.

I can’t see any of these individuals ever getting off said shitlist. I just can’t.

Chris Brown and Roman Polanksi in particular have acted like and been treated like victims. They have whined like petulant children about how unfairly they’ve been treated. None of these men have made a real, meaningful apology. They’ve all been defended relentlessly in the press.

What do I want from them? So glad you asked. I want this:

“Wow, I appreciate you all caring about me, but I’m a total piece of shit. I hope that by taking some time out of the public eye, I can do a lot of work on myself, and be deserving of your respect. But until then, remember–I’m a real asshole, a danger to society, and I’m just not worthy of it.”

Then, after some time off, they either shut up and stay that way, or, preferably, get out there and educate people as to why they were wrong.

Chris Brown tells young women that real men won’t hit them, and tells young men that he was an idiot for ever putting his hands on Rihanna. Roman Polanksi will explain that it doesn’t matter if that 13 year old got herself wasted and ran around naked begging for him to anally penetrate her (which people seem to believe), he was the adult and should have acted like it. Ben Roethlisberger will tell men the world over that, even if you’re a big star, more physically powerful than women, and a women is drunk, she can still say no to any sexual encounter with you.

The social work connection, and there is one, is forgiveness. Forgiving the unforgivable, excusing the inexcusable.

Not all of the people we work with are exclusively victims. Some of us work with men who abuse women, women who abuse children, people who abuse animals, and many variations thereof.

People who are abused, very often, want to go back to the person who violated them. They want the abuse to stop, of course, but they don’t want that person out of their life. Children love their parents. People love their partners. Teenage girls at least feel like they love their boyfriends, and maybe they do. They want to forgive their abuser. It’s normal. It takes a domestic violence victim an average of seven times to leave an abusive partner, before leaving for good. And the time that victim is most at risk to be killed is when she’s attempting to leave, and right after.

Remember that next time someone offers Rihanna talking to Chris Brown as evidence that we should all get over it.

Many of the women I work with have suffered through domestic violence. This means that their children have as well. One of those women lived with the man who beat her horribly for thirteen years and had five children with him. Just recently, she left him for good. When she says she hopes she never sees him again, I believe her. She made her kids deactivate their Facebook pages so their father couldn’t find them–these days, that’s the ultimate in putting your foot down.

Another woman is, sadly, just at the beginning of this process. She left her abusive partner once, and has considered leaving him many more times. She has one very young child with him, and three older children who are completely fed up with their mother’s relationship.

She keeps bringing this man, who hits and intimidates her, back into her home. This woman forgives this man, for some reason. Her children are in the position of trying to forgive her, because she’e their mother. And I’m doing my home visits, trying not to narrow my eyes and spit every time this dick man looks in my direction.

She’s made her decision. I can make sure that the children are safe, and that this family has somewhere to go when he inevitably does it again, and I can try to help her to understand that what he’s doing is inexcusable and that it follows a pattern. But I can’t make her decide that it’s unforgivable.

She can forgive this man. It doesn’t mean I have to. Rihanna can forgive and Tweet at Chris Brown. That doesn’t mean we should forget what he did and applaud him at award shows. Samantha Geimer can say she’s over what Roman Polanski did to her. Of course she wants it all to go away. It doesn’t make him any less of a sick bastard, and a fugitive from the law.

Don’t let anyone tell you different. Victims can forgive if they feel they need to. We have an obligation to remind them that they deserve better.

I need to figure out a way to work with them all. (My client’s abusive boyfriend, not Brown and Polanski.) Ignoring him and feeling self-righteously angry about the fact that I hate this guy doesn’t move us forward. It makes mom feel like she needs to lie to me about her feelings for him, or her intentions to leave.

I heard a man speak once about telling his friends that street harassment is, for lack of a better term, a dick move. He admitted that it was a while before they took him seriously, because he used to shout sexual comments at strange women right along with them. A friend of mine just stopped using the “f” word (no, the other “f” word) because he realized, “I’m offending an entire group of people that I actually don’t have a problem with when I do that.”

Both of these guys used to do something stupid and offensive. We’ve all made mistakes. Many things can be forgiven. People can learn. And, I think, they can change. We can agree to disagree, but that’s the basis of the profession, and if I didn’t believe that I’d quit and work at Starbucks.

I don’t want to go out for a drink with anyone on my shitlist. They’re bad people, and some of them would probably assault me. But I do honestly believe that they can improve themselves. Michael Vick, even if you still choose to hate him, has taken some steps. Many of us have people in our lives who did as well. Whether we want to deal in forgiveness or not, the reality is that we have to work with it.

And please, if you’re as angry as I am, consider making a donation to SafeHorizon, a wonderful organization that helps  victims of domestic violence. (I swear, I did!) Tell them the Grammy’s sent you.

Did you know the word “gullible” is not in the dictionary?

8 12 2011

Really. Look it up.

Being skeptical is an important part of our jobs. We can’t take things at face value.

Gullible Social Worker: “So, anyone beating the children here?”
Suave Child: “Nope. None of that.”
GSW: “Great! What’s up with that bruise?”
SC: “Um, I fell.”
GSW: “On your eye?”
SC: “I mean I crashed my skateboard into an eye-level table.”
GSW: “Ooh, bad luck. Well, good bye!”

I think we can all see why that doesn’t work.

At the same time, we need to have faith in our participants. Without faith and hope (and charity, why not) we wouldn’t be able to do this work. We would start to think that, because not everything gets better, nothing gets better. We should just give up, remove all the kids from all the parents, and close up shop.

That’s the danger–when necessary skepticism turns into unhelpful cynicism.

You can usually tell when someone has been doing this job for too long, or when they have gone way too long without a fake sick day mental health day. Some of my coworkers seem to really assume the worst in people.

A young girl was once talking about her mother taking in a foster child with a disability. A coworker instantly said, “Oh, she wants the money?” This girl seemed surprised, saying no, her mother loved kids. Coworker clearly wasn’t buying it.

Another coworker told me about a mother who was excited about the romantic relationship she had just begun. My coworker told her that this unkown guy was probably only interested in her to gain access to the client’s teenage daughter.

I’ve been accused of being cynical. Honestly. I don’t know why, but it’s happened. I’m not cynical. I’m sarcastic, I get angry, and sometimes I do a convincing impression of Eeyore, but I’m no cynic. I genuinely care about my participants and believe in their desire to improve their lives and the lives of their children.

Sometimes I’m wrong.

Recently, a family I’ve been working with for nearly a year came to see me. The mother, who had been more and more distant when speaking about her boyfriend, told me that she planned to ask him to leave the home.

I was ecstatic. I could barely contain my victory whoops. The boyfriend was, in technical terms, an abusive asshole. There was a long history of domestic violence, which the mother and children claimed hadn’t been a problem since we started working together. (My presence is magic, you see.)

The family missed their next office session, and I got a little worried. So I went to see the teenage girls at school. The fifteen year old, who I will hereby refer to as “Mom Jr.” showed me a picture on her cell phone.

Of the gigantic purple bruise on her mother’s arm.

“She said she fell down the stairs. But there’s no way. She does this all the time, saying she’s going to leave him. He hasn’t changed in six years, why is he going to change now? I told her: he goes, or we go. I talked to my grandma, she said we can stay with her. I don’t need my brother and sister thinking this is normal.”

Oh. OK. Looks like you’ve got it.

I’m torn between crying for this girl, who has less faith in her mother and the outside world than the most seasoned, cynical, social worker, and applauding her for having the strength, determination, and intelligence that she somehow does.

I’m also torn between wanting to hug her mother for all that she’s been through, and wanting to scream at her, for subjecting herself and her children to this.

Don’t even ask what I want done to the boyfriend. It’s shocking, even for the internet.

I also can’t help feeling kind of stupid. I know that it takes an average of seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship. I know that the period of time when a victim is attempting to leave is usually the most dangerous time. I know that victims cover up what goes on in the home. But it still feels like I should have known that this wasn’t going to be a real change. Like I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up quite so much.

We recently had to have a little conference with one of the girls in my group, and her worker, due to this girl talking about her mother’s boyfriend being in the home and making her uncomfortable. Of course it turns out that this is the very guy who molested her, and has supposedly had no contact with the family for two years.

The girl immediately started back peddling when we told her we were concerned for her safety and needed to talk to her worker. “Oh, he’s not in the house. My mom was just talking about him.” “But last week you said he grabbed your waist and you didn’t like it.” “Yeah…no never mind. My mom doesn’t want another case.”

It’s easy to become cynical. It’s easy to get pissed off at mothers who don’t protect their children, and grown men who prey on them, and forget that there is good in the world and more good to be done.

We get our hopes up every time it seems like someone is going to make a meaningful change or improvement. Most often, it doesn’t happen. And it hurts, both us and the participants. But sometimes, people surprise us, and they do make those changes. It’s not easy to keep going back for more, when it starts to seem like we get shot further down every day.

But it’s just one more part of the job.

College football–what could possibly go wrong?

14 11 2011

You’d have to be living under a rock (I’m looking in your direction, Ashton Kutcher) to be blissfully unaware of what’s going on at Penn State. It’s referred to frequently as a scandal, which doesn’t quite seem right. Scandal implies something salacious and consensual, which, obviously, the sexual abuse and cover-up of/turning a blind eye to said sexual abuse was not.

Many people are at fault. Number one, of course is Sandusky. The child molester. The actual monster. The one who involved himself with a children’s charity for the express purpose of having access to young boys to abuse. The one who repeatedly raped children and exploited their trust.

But it goes beyond that. We have the bystanders. Many, many bystanders in this case.

Graduate assistant turned assistant coach Mike McQueary, and Jim Calhoun, a janitor, on separate occasions, each walked in on Sandusky raping a child. Mike McQueary (who moved up and up the ranks at Penn State in the nine years following this incident) saw Sandusky, a man he knew, holding a child he estimated to be ten years old to a wall and anally raping him. He quietly left the room. The janitor reacted in similar fashion when he walked in on a similar incident in the locker room, only in that scenario, Sandusky was performing oral sex on a little boy.

But don’t worry. They were both really upset about what they saw.

They both left the room. Essentially letting Sandusky finish. Allowing him to continue hurting a child so horrifically.

I don’t usually imagine myself to be much of a hero. (OK, I imagine it all the time, but I don’t trick myself into thinking that I actually am one.) I try to recognize that one never knows how one will react to a traumatic instance. But I honestly cannot imagine walking in on something like that and quietly backing out of the room.

If you aren’t going to go all vigilante and throw Sandusky to the ground prior to kicking his ass, could you at least make your presence known with a “What the fuck are you doing?!” Not even call 911? Just report it to your boss, and ignore it when it goes nowhere.

Apparently, in the incident McQueary observed, the victim heard him come in. Can you imagine that little boy, thinking he was saved, that finally there was an adult there to rescue him, and then realizing that adult was not going to do a thing?

This brings us to our first social work issue–we are all madated reporters. As are teachers, dentists, doctors, schoolstaff, and pretty much anyone else who comes in contact with children.

You have to tell someone. This doesn’t always equate to doing the right thing. We’ve all heard it said that the people in this scenarion told someone. They went to their bosses, or to people higher up the football ladder. When nothing was done, they (especially McQueary, who remained in the organization) did not object further.

Your duty to protect children doesn’t end with making that phone call or mentioning the rape you saw to your boss that one time. Protecting children, as I’ve said before, is a sacred responsibility. Feel free to follow up. Those hotlines and a chain of command to work one’s way up are put in place to make it easier to report abuse. They’re not there to absolve you of responsibility, because you’re afraid of losing your job or making some asshole look bad. It’s not so that you can pass it on and forget what you know.

When a five year old is told to apologize  for tripping a classmate, they often whine and say, “But it was an accident!” We still make them apologize, because they need to learn to admit if they were wrong, and to take responsibility for their actions. The mandated reporter, or non-mandated bystander, saying “But I told my boss!” displays no moral development from this kindergartener.

Think of what you would have wanted done, if you were the child being victimized.

It probably wouldn’t make you feel any better if you knew that the red-headed grad assistant was sleeping better, because he let the big boss know.

I think Nazi comparisons are way overused (Glenn Beck, I’m looking in your direction) but if you’re going to say you ignored it because you were just doing your job, you’re really asking for it.

Calhoun, as many of us have heard, is now suffering from dementia and not competent to testify at Sandusky’s trial. It was finally announced on Friday that McQueary would not be coaching the team’s final home game, out of concerns for his safety. (So glad they’re finally concerned about someone’s safety.) Ultimately, it was determined that he would no longer be the receiver’s coach.

Joe Paterno, a much beloved coach who was considered one of the good guys of college football, as well as athletic director Tim Curley and senior vice president Gary Schulz were made aware of what Sandusky was using Penn State facilities, and his access to children, for.

None of them did anything.

Well, that’s not fair. They didn’t do “nothing.” The most disturbing part of all of this (not really, it’s all too disturbing to keep an accurate list) is that the action that was taken was to prohibit Sandusky from bringing children on campus after these incidents.

The message there is clear–do whatever you’re going to do, just don’t do it here. We care about this school, we don’t care about those children.

This is especially evidenced by the fact that the people who saw what happened, and the people they told, made no effort to seek out those children. Didn’t try to ensure that their parents or guardians knew what happened.

One of those victims, one of those little boys, has never been identified.  Nothing illustrates more perfectly how the children in this case have been forgotten.

This brings us to our next social work issue–why not? They were poor, they were underprivileged, many of them were in foster care. This is not to say that kids from middle class backgrounds are not abused as well. But they are better protected.

Some idiots have even been heard calling into sports and news radio shows (really, is there a lower form of person? Aside from YouTube commenters?) saying that because these were troubled children, they really aren’t to be believed.

So that’s it, kids. You’re fucked. Yes, you’re more likely to be victimized, as you’re emotionally vulnerable, looking for approval, and don’t have a consistent, caring adult in your life to protect you. Also, when you are victimized, you won’t be believed. We all know it, you and your kind lie.

Sandusky knew this. He could have just as easily offered his services at a football camp for wealthy children of football-dreaming parents, but he didn’t. He opted to go after kids in need. Kids we work with.

This is one of many things we’re up against.

Some current Penn State students saw Joe Paterno being fired as reason to riot. I’m sure they weren’t fans of the sexual abuse, but it didn’t bother them nearly as much as something tarnishing the football season. I know people who attended Penn State. People that I consider to be good. But even they are blinded by love of their school and their football team.

I don’t think they’re all terrible people. I do think they’re showing themselves to be spoiled, myopic, and selfish.

They seem to think that saying, “of course, if the allegations prove true, Sandusky should be punished to the fullest extent of the law” is sufficient. My goodness, what a brave statement! So you think the child rapist should be locked up? You’re against child abuse? Please consider writing a book, so that others may benefit from your strong moral compass.

Just like in our work, we need to keep the focus where it belongs–on the children who were hurt. No one else in this situation was a victim. Not those who witnessed something terrible, not the geriatric who has been napping on the sidelines for the past few seasons, and not the brats fretting over a game.

Everyone says that they care about children, but most only do so when it’s convenient.

These kids and their families need help. Changes need to be made to ensure that people stop covering up for pedophiles. Anyone who tries to take the focus off of those issues needs to know that it’s unacceptable.

One never knows

27 10 2011

If I’m writing at midnight, it’s almost never good.

I’ve mentioned before that I used to work in a youth center. I spent two years there before I ran screaming, leaving an SJ shaped hole in the front door. The job appealed to me because I knew I wanted to work in child welfare, but I wasn’t ready to jump straight into graduate school after college.

This place was a neighborhood center with pre-k classes, an afterschool program, and teen groups. I helped out in pre-k, and ran the afterschool program my second year. I was 22 and blown away by the amount of responsibility I was given. It was a massive struggle, but I learned a lot.

I also cried a lot. Ask my dad about those phone calls.

My organizational skills grew. (I still managed to lose a pair of pants this week, but still.) I learned to do more with less. (Twenty dollars to take fourteen kids ice skating? Done!) I developed my scary Teacher Voice. Most importantly, I took on the responsibilities of a supervisor. I helped hire new staff, all of whom had to be approved by the director, and managed them. I delegated not unlike a mofo.

There was one college kid who started volunteering for us as a freshman. We liked him. He was reliable and good with the kids. So we ended up hiring him. My coworker and I advocated strongly for this. (The program was essentially held together with Elmer’s glue, dried macaroni, and dreams, so hires were unusual.)

This was a rare student who wasn’t volunteering to fulfill a course requirement, or for community service hours following a particularly rowdy rugby initiation, or for credit for an internship. He just wanted to volunteer. I had volunteered plenty when I was in college, in similar programs, so this was something I understood.

Of course, when he was hired, he had to jump through all of the hoops. Fingerprinting. Background check.

Nothing came up. So he came on trips with us, helped out in pre-k, coached in the basketball tournament, brought disabled children to the bathroom, supervised swimming trips. All the responsibilities an employee might have.

After jumping through the necessary hoops.

I left over four years ago. I went to social work school and started working at Anonymous Agency. He stayed at the youth center until he graduated.

I got a call from that coworker, who advocated so strongly for this hire with me. She had gotten curious about this kid, after not hearing from him for a while and finding his Facebook page was shut down.

A bit of googling led to her discovering that he’s in jail, convicted of being a part of an international child pornography ring. Further internet sleuthing informed us that he was active in this group while working for us.

This was a guy that we liked. Someone we took out for drinks on his 21st birthday. Who used to noogie me when I was calling for everyone’s attention at staff meeting. Someone who babysat my coworker’s children.

Usually when we hear things like this in the news, we wonder why no one did anything. After it comes out, people always say they had their suspicions. He gave off a creepy vibe, she was too interested in this one kid, he leaned in too close, tried to spend time alone with kids, whatever.

We had no idea. None.

It’s even scarier to think that this is possible. I don’t fancy myself to be some naive shrinking violet who would be oblivious to such signs. I grew up in the Catholic church–there were other people I thought I could trust, when it turned out I couldn’t. I’m not so meek that I would hesitate to go with my gut. I don’t take the safety of children lightly.

But I had no idea. Not even an inkling. He wasn’t creepy, he didn’t make weird comments, he wasn’t even too perfect. Looking back, I’m desperately searching for signs. Something I ignored, something that seemed like nothing at the time. But I can’t think of one thing. Neither can my coworker.

Now we’re trying to figure out if he hurt children we worked with. It seems unlikely, that there wouldn’t have been time, the center was always so open, there was always more than one adult with a child. But then, we never had any suspicions that he was even like this. What else did we miss?

This is all just reminding me of how precious our jobs are. We are trusted with other people’s children. For however long. They are in our care. It’s terrifying to think that we can fail them. That we might be fooled by a sweet nature, cute Joe College looks, a self-deprecating sense of humor, and an ability to fit in with the rest of the staff.

We never know. We never really know. I’ve always been very anti-hysteria, especially when the hysteria-of-choice seems to be directed at men who work with children. Because it isn’t fair.

But this has shaken me in a way I can’t describe. I’m not even entirely sure what the lesson is. At the moment, I feel like it’s “trust no one,” but I know that isn’t possible. We need support. Kids need caring adults in their lives.

But we never know.

Chester, this is the last time I’m gonna tell you…

1 09 2011

There’s a very awkward, complicated problem that comes with being an adult who works with children. I bet a lot of you can already guess what it is.

My parents tell stories about growing up in the 1950s and 60s. A nice guy in their neighborhood who used to take them to the World’s Fair for the afternoon, helping adult neighbors who didn’t have children around their houses, that kind of thing. No one batted an eye.

There was the one creepy guy on the corner, who all the children were instructed to run past, but other than that, sexual abuse wasn’t really a thought. Fortunately it worked out all right for them. The well-meaning adults in their lives were just that. But of course, as awareness of sexual abuse rose, it became apparent that a lot of people aren’t to be trusted with children, and they are not always the people you think.

We’ve kind of swung the other way in our culture. From, “You want to take my kid to the movies? And  you’re buying? Hell yeah, do whatever he says, kiddo” to “Don’t post photos of my child on Facebook, the pedophiles are in the computer and they’re tracking her!”

It’s worst for men…what kind of guy wants to work with kids? I mean, there must be something going on. That’s so often the first reaction, and it’s repulsive. Plenty of men want to work with kids for the same reasons women want to work with kids–kids are funny, they’re cute, and it’s nice to think that you can make an impact on someone who is still impressionable.

But this is still a part of the job. It starts at the very beginning. (A very good place to start.) When I was hired at Anonymous Agency, I was required to undergo a background check and get fingerprinted. Curiously, I did not have to do this when I was an intern. At my previous job, at a neighborhood youth center, we required this of interns and all employees. Good thing, because we did once have a convicted sex offender come in looking for work.

Dude, your picture is on the internet. Are you kidding me?

Given that scare, I’m on board with the policy. This is what we do. They’re also not just looking for sex offenders, there are a lot of restrictions, including a history with child protective services, that could make on ineligible for certain jobs with kids.

Then there are the discussions in staff meetings. Is it ever OK to be in a room alone with a child? What about during a home visit? Do you go into a child’s bedroom? What if a teenager is home alone when you show up for a visit?

The assumption isn’t that anyone we work with would want to hurt a child. It’s that you want to avoid the appearance of anything that could possibly be “misinterpreted.” And that’s all anyone will say. Because people get uncomfortable.

I’ve had it happen, on numerous occasions, that I’ve gone to a home and found a teenager there alone. The kids are usually polite and welcoming. There’s no hard and fast rule, so we’re always told to use our judgment. Recently, I went to an apartment and found a sixteen year old girl at home with her twelve year old sister. I stood in the doorway, we talked for a few minutes, and I left a note for their mother. Last Christmas, I tried to do a home visit and found a sixteen year old boy, who seemed to be permanently leering, at home alone. In his eagerness to answer the door, he neglected to put on a shirt. When he asked if I wanted to come in, despite his mother being out, I politely declined.

Actually, I shouted, “NO I DO NOT WISH TO COME IN, WITNESSES, CAN YOU HEAR ME?” and put an SJ-shaped hole in the front door.

That neighborhood youth center that I started at was actually a Catholic organization, which meant that they had to meet certain requirements set by the diocese. One of these was a rather strange day long training that involved videos and discussion. (I won’t say the name here, but I’m sure some people are familiar with it.)

It was well-intended, I thought, given the Catholic church’s history ongoing bullshit on the subject. (I came to feel that they were primarily trying to cover the church’s ass, and to point out that just because there was an epidemic of child abuse and a cover-up of epic proportions within the church, doesn’t mean that all pedophiles are priests. Because that’s what’s important.) The videos were designed to teach us how to spot sexual abuse, and how to avoid doing anything that might lead to false accusations.

Some of the suggestions made sense. Avoid being alone with one child. Meet with kids in rooms with windows.

Some of them seemed to have been written by someone who had never met a child.

“Don’t touch the kids.”
OK, when I have to pull a splinter out of a crying five year old’s foot, I’ll just pat her on the head with a roll of paper towels. And I’ll tell them all that I’m made of hot lava.

“Don’t help the kids change.”
If I could avoid it, I would, but we had 1.) low-functioning autistic children who were not yet toilet trained and 2.) a pre-k program. Parents, I know those little belts, suspenders, and overalls are just adorable, but if you don’t want your child’s pre-k teacher having anything to do with their pants, stick to elastic waistbands.

“Don’t have favorites.”
Well, I can’t help it if some kids are way more awesome than others.

Then there was the “spotting child abusers,” which supposedly contained stories from actual victims of sexual abuse. Interestingly enough, they hadn’t managed to find one child who had been abused by a priest. Strange, because I know many who are willing to say quite a lot about the church. They went through all the usual hullabaloo, informing us that child molesters are not “strangers,” lurking in the bushes, waiting to snatch your children. They’re people you know, people you trust. (Like…priests?)

They then showed a video of a concerned mother watching a greasy-haired man, dressed like a longshoreman, approaching her children in a playground, next to some shrubbery.

I really recommend these videos for home entertainment.

I’m glad that we’re vigilant about child abuse, of course. But it makes me sad to see what a part of my job it’s become. Not assessing for abuse in families I work with, but making sure no one thinks that my coworkers or I am up to no good.

Paranoia doesn’t help anyone. It leads to panic, and good people, men especially, being afraid to work with children because they don’t want the suspicion and hassle. And that doesn’t make anyone safer.

I’ll be banging my head against a wall, if anyone needs me

20 06 2011

Domestic violence is a difficult topic to work with. It’s one of those situations in which we all know the right answer–leave. Do whatever you have to in order to survive, then run and never look back.

Of course, we all know it’s not that easy. The victim, or survivor, whatever terminology you prefer, in these situations, has reasons that prevent him or her from leaving and staying away. (All of the domestic violence situations I work with are men being abusive towards women, so that’s what I’ll be referring to here. But I am well aware that women can be the aggressors, and that violence occurs in same sex couples as well. Equal opportunity, yeah!)

There are reasons that the women I work with stay in these relationships. Some are concrete–they are financially dependent on this man, they live in his apartment, they’re worried about custody of the children. Some are a bit harder to understand, but no less real–they grew up in an abusive home, and view the situation as normal, they grew up without a father and are looking for love and acceptance.

We understand why these situations exist, and how the cycle perpetuates itself. Things get better for a while, the “honeymoon phase.” It’s not so much a “honeymoon” as it is “how your partner should treat you as a person,” but there you go. The victim, who has bene through so much already, wants to believe that things are really better.

Domestic violence is so frustrating to work with because it is a cycle. You can predict, with great certainty, what’s coming next. Things will get bad again. Especially when the abuser has decided that he’ll “just stop.” No treatment, no time away from the home. He’s just not going to hit the woman he supposedly loves anymore. It was pointed out to him that this was a bad thing to do, and he’ll knock it off.

Right. My hopes are high. (And so is he, if he thinks I believe that.)

Like almost every other situation we deal with, we can’t give our clients the answer. We can plan for safety, discuss the risks, talk about what this is doing to them and their children, but we can’t make anyone leave.

A family I’m currently working with had this situation come up. The case was called in due to some domestic violence that the children had witnessed. The father of the youngest child (but not the three older children) agreed to leave. Nothing legally binding, but he did sign a contract, along with the ACS worker, oldest kids, and mother, saying he would leave the home.

About a month later, I found out he was back. Several weeks later, I found out he never really left.

It wasn’t the mother’s choice, so it didn’t work. She wasn’t ready to cut ties with him. She wanted him in her son’s life, and didn’t feel that she had the right to prevent this man from seeing his child. There’s no restraining order, and he hasn’t hit the children. So it is her decision.

If it were up to me, I would chase him out of the apartment myself while beating him with a shoe and shouting emasculating insults. But I’m told that I can’t do that.

Then there are restraining orders. Often, these feel more like restraining suggestions, because they don’t seem to carry a lot of weight. People get them, then continue to see the person they’re not supposed to be seeing. Many people don’t pursue them at all, until the court steps in. “How is a piece of paper supposed to help me?” I know the right answer, that they can help, but someone in that situation, who knows what their abuser is capable of, can’t be convinced. They’re usually right.

A lot of women I work with seem to keep restraining orders in their back pocket. I’ve been told many times, “Well, I went over there, but I reminded him that I have the restraining order.” “I let him move back in, but I still have the restraining order, so I can kick him out if I want to.” I didn’t think it would be so hard to explain that this isn’t exactly how these are supposed to work.

At times, though, they work. If someone is really ready to move on and cut ties, and is really ready to call the police whenever this guy shows up, or calls (and the police are ready to take it seriously) they can work. One of the young mothers I work with has spoken so regularly with her ex-boyfriend’s parole office, I think they’re going to start trading casserole recipes. She is very serious about keeping this guy away from the family.

Another woman, and her seven children, have a restraining order against the father. “Well, my oldest was home when he threw boiling oil at me, he tried to get her too.” Charming man.

Mom is done with the guy, according to her. He just got released from prison, so time will tell. Fortunately, she is taking the restraining order seriously. As much as she wants to let the kids see their father (and who wouldn’t?) they are all old sadly overly informed enough to understand what the order means. They don’t want their father going back to jail. So for the time being, they’re staying away. I hope that this gives us enough time to work with mom and the kids on the trauma they’ve been through, so that when this guy inevitably comes knocking on their door, they’ll be able to call the cops.

It’s infuriating, though. Everything is on the victims, as so often happens. They have to be the one to leave, they have to be the one to make the call. When they decide it’s time to go, they’re the ones who have to leave their support system, home, job, and schools behind to go into a shelter that’s a safe distance away. I don’t know what the better way to do it would be, exactly.

But I think a little pressure could be taken off these women. Who wants to have to share details of their abuse with a stranger, in order to be approved for a housing transfer?  Shouldn’t a police report be enough? Who needs to be berated by a judge or protective worker for staying with an abusive partner, and be told that the children are being put at risk? As if this mother didn’t know her own situation. Maybe men who do things like hit women or throw boiling oil at children should get the jail time they deserve. Maybe they should be the ones who have to move and give up their lives and comfort zone.

As I mentioned earlier, a lot of people prefer the term survivor. It’s empowering, I get that. But we also need to remember that these people, most often women and children, have been victimized, and need someone to fight for them until they are able to fight for themselves.

And in the meantime, we need to cope with our own frustrations to ensure we don’t tell people what they’ve always been told–it’s kind of your fault you’re in this situation, why don’t you just leave, you’re being a bad mother. Because we know that doesn’t work. So we need to do whatever works–walk, drink, talk, howl at the moon, start a snarky, angry blog, whatever.

I promise, that last one helps.