Welcome to the (Foster)hood

1 03 2013

One of the toughest things about working in the child welfare system is dealing with all of the petty, bullshit, infighting. (You thought I was going to say it was the sadness of children, didn’t you? Fools, social workers thrive on kiddie tears, they’re like Gatorade!)

ACS, the government agency, runs things. They hand out contracts to places like Anonymous Agency to do the preventive and foster care work that they don’t do themselves. Because ACS has the money, and they’re the government, they have the power. Sometimes it seems like we work for them, instead of the way it’s supposed to be–we work with them, for a common goal. In response, we might get a bit persnickety. “Oh, I have to be at that meeting? Well this isn’t enough notice, I don’t know if I can.” “I referred the family to a different type of parenting class than the one you insisted on, because it was more appropriate according to my professional assessment.” Persnickitiness begets persnickitiness, and it becomes a cycle.

Why am I getting into this? Because all of that infighting, and those power struggles, affect people’s lives. Most tragically, it affects children.

My friend Rebecca, rock star Brooklynite of the Fosterhood blog was set to adopt a child born on February 24th. She’s a foster parent in great standing, and is currently fostering an infant. The mother of the little girl born on the 24th has older children in foster care, and knew she wouldn’t be able to keep this baby. The foster agency facilitated some meetings, and mom chose Rebecca. Rebecca got a crib, researched the special hell that is double strollers, and got the call the day the baby was born to come meet her daughter. She named the child Clementine, which is on her birth certificate, along with Rebecca’s last name.

It’s not clear quite what happened next. Miscommunication? Stepped on toes? Incompetence? Crankiness? Whatever the case, the agencies were not in agreement and there was a lot of talk about “how things are done.” Clementine was sent to a strange foster home, and her mother wasn’t aware of this until Rebecca let her know. Two mothers are devastated, and a child is in unnecessary limbo.

I’m not asking for people to block the steps of City Hall wearing “Free Clementine” shirts. (Passerby would just think you were giving out citrus fruits, and it wouldn’t help.) But perhaps you could send Rebecca a little support?

Or maybe just read her story, Clementine’s story, and remember what can happen when we forget our priorities. We’re all working towards the same goal, the safety and well-being of the children entrusted to us, and permanence for them. Anything else is unacceptable.





What’s your sign?

1 10 2012

My college roommate and I were not a match made in heaven. It wasn’t one of those nightmare situations you hear about, with lots of sexiling and murder attempts, but we just didn’t click. I remember a friend telling me that she confided in him that she was concerned we wouldn’t get along when we moved in.

“Your Trainspotting poster kind of freaked her out.”

Her loss. I stand by that poster.

With my best friend in high school, however, I had the opposite experience. We were vaguely connected, because my uncle grew up with her dad’s brother. This meant that our parents arranged for us to take the two hour bus ride together. I mean, we were practically sisters! So they said.

We didn’t say anything, hardly made eye contact, really, until she flipped open her planner, and I saw a picture.

SJ: “You like Hanson?”
BFF: “I love Hanson.”

We were inseparable for the next four years. Ultimately, the friendship ended when she stole from me (note: that actually happened) but we had a good run.

What the hell is SJ babbling about, you’re surely all asking? It’s about signs. Seemingly insignificant things that make you feel like it’s all going to be all right, or like you should just get the hell out now.

We all have these in our personal lives. Of course they exist in our work.

CPS has their items that trigger a happy face. In this case, they don’t say, “let’s be friends,” so much as, “let’s leave these kids here, and be on our way.”

Number one is compliance. Opening your door and answering your phone. Informing them of a changed phone number is even better. Not objecting to a background check of friends, relatives, babysitters, and the mailman is key, as is accepting just about any referral. There may be issues, but they can be addressed if the family is compliant. This is the number one indicator that someone is a dedicated parent. (Hmm…)

Paperwork is also key. A folder with the children’s immunizations, prescriptions, pediatrician information, recent report cards…that’s golden. If it’s an accordion folder with tabs on the dividers, just pack up and go home.

The final major one is having a clean apartment. The more scrubbed down and organized the better. It sends the message that this parent is in control and not overwhelmed. It’s not that sloppy people can’t mistreat their children, but what are the odds?

My list is a bit different, as the word “compliance” makes me itchy, I myself once accidentally discarded my passport by accidentally throwing out a worn out purse, and I live with someone who would never hurt a child, but does sometimes put his dirty clothes next to the hamper. (Side note: why?) But there are things that send my strengths-based social work senses tingling. I’m so predictable.

1. Any discussion of family night.

A whole night, just for family? When you go to the movies or play games? I might explode. You guys are so bonding. Could I come by sometime?! No, of course not, that would be weird.

2. A kid who loves to read.

No matter how bad things are in the rest of their life, I always have faith that a child who loves reading will be ok.

3. Chore charts and schedules.

Yes, I’m a nerd. They’re just so useful when you have lots of kids. No confusion, it’s all right there. And we rotate, so it’s fair! I have a ton of respect for good organizational skills. To me, this says that parents are teaching responsibility and preventing fights. I just got a tingly feeling.

4. Parents who let their kids get dirty/dress like kids.

A parent who does not dress their three year old brand name white clothes head to toe, only to have a heart attack when the kid is soon covered in paint and bodily fluids, isn’t just practical to me. They’re understanding developmental stages. They’re letting their child act in an age appropriate manner. I’m a total sucker for that.

Our jobs are hectic, people are often afraid to tell us things and are therefore not totally upfront, and we’re generally non-judgmental people who are put in a position of making some serious judgments. We need these signs and signals to clue us in and help us to mentally organize what we’re seeing.

We just need to be aware of them. Sometimes we feel a little more personally betrayed when things go awry with a family, and don’t know why. Maybe it’s because they hit all of our favorite personal marks.

Just because someone likes the same AWESOME not-boy-band as you doesn’t mean that they won’t one day throw your friendship away over snagging $15 from you. (I’m over it, I swear, it’s just still shocking.) Just because a family has a beautifully organized home and a weekly board games night doesn’t mean things are a-ok. And just because someone dresses their three year old exclusively in floofy pink dresses doesn’t mean they’re always wrong.

OK, maybe the dresses are wrong.





Writers writing about writing is in no way annoying.

26 07 2012

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.





When life gives you lemons, take its comments out of context and mock it on the internet.

15 05 2012

Most of my job is spent trying to meet my clients where they are. However, there are times when things get a little chaotic, crises occur, or a court date is coming up, and we need to meet where no one wants to be–the ACS office.

This office is a thrifty property flippers dream. If there are swamplands in the Bronx, picture them, and that’s where we are. Scenic, and far, far away from that pesky civilization. Inside, the place is rather cheery. Nicely spruced up with grey paint that all social service agencies buy in bulk, as well as many a plastic ficus.

There’s also the playroom, which is separated from the waiting room by plexiglass. It gives me flashbacks to watching the baby chimpanzees at the zoo. Look at him stacking the blocks! He thinks he’s people! Of course, instead of a tire swing, there’s a heavy metal file cabinet.

Kids love those.

I can’t judge, of course (well, I can, I’m really good at it, but I’ll try not to.) Our playroom is just to the left of atrocious. It’s hard. Kids destroy things, and everyone is short on cash.Most social service agencies leave something to be desired in terms of interior design. Anonymous Agency could use a visit from Ty Pennington. No, wait, he blows things up and his hair annoys me. Is that Queer Eye for the Straight Guy dude up to anything? Maybe him.

I get so familiar with the asthetics at this office because most of my time there is spent waiting. Clients often don’t show up. So we wait. We give them time. We’ll give them an hour if we can. I once got a phone call that my client had arrived three hours late, when  was back in the office, and was rather miffed that I hadn’t waited. After all, she had traveled all that way.

Hmm….

Waiting can be frustrating. It means your entire day can be thrown off. It might mean that you don’t get to see a family that is really in crisis, or get in a contact with them that you really need.

However, in the grand scheme of things, there are worse things than waiting. Technology certainly makes it easier. Having a smart phone means you don’t get to complain nearly as much. There are crossword puzzles to do, somethings to draw, and fruits to ninja. Oh, we can also type up notes, I guess. I also have a Kindle in my bag, meaning I can laugh inappropriately at Tina Fey if I’m feeling down, or if I just want those around me to think I’m strange. The city is also kind enough to have kids’ movies (like Despicable Me. HEAVEN) playing in the waiting room. Of course, I did once see the shadow of a man’s head, presumably going on a popcorn run, during one of those DVDs. That’s right. They’re a bunch of bootleggers.

There are lots of ways to pass the time. My number one favorite, though, is eavesdropping.

Overheard in the ACS waiting/playroom:

“Elmo, you don’t shape up, Imma punch you in the face.” – 3 y/o to a stuffed animal.
It’s almost like this kid is trying to tell me something. I mean, Elmo can be annoying…

“No, I don’t have to deal with you. We don’t have to talk. This does NOT go beyond today. Good bye!” – Receptionist to Chinese food delivery guy.
That was weird.

“I wear breakaway pants to these things now, so they can check my legs easy!” – 12 year old on the bruise-checking procedure.
Young man, you are depressingly savvy.

“Look! Look! I tied the Barbie’s legs to the bed!” – A random 9 year old, eager to show off his handiwork.
1. So glad you’re not mine.
2. We need to find who is responsible for you.

“I don’t care where we are, I’ll beat your ass.” – A mom I fortunately don’t work with to her five year old.
Come on, I’m sitting right here. Don’t do that.

“But I have to go now. I really do. Can I piss in the cup here and then take it over there?”
“We are taking the bus. What the hell is wrong with you? Wanting to get on public transportation with a cup full of pee. I’m about to let them have you.” – 15 year old and his mother debating the logistics of getting over to the urine drug testing facility.
I’m just going to say that you both have valid points.

“They have me in here like I’m smoking crack. I’m not smoking crack! I’m not a crackhead. At least I’m not smoking crack.” -A mother apparently feeling she was being treated unfairly.
I get this excuse all the time. Most often from people doing cocaine.

There we have it. We’ve got to wait, there’s just no way around it. We’re busy, and we need to scheduled things back to back, but at times we just have to let go and let clients. As long as there are conversations to eavesdrop on, I’ll be all right.





Who is my social worker, and what does she do?

6 05 2012

One of the major tenets of social work is starting where the client is. I might recognize that a mother needs counseling for domestic violence. If she’s not ready, though, insisting isn’t going to do much good.  I need to start with what she feels she needs most, like getting the kids into day care, to build a relationship and work up to what the real problem is.

As a result, it can be kind of hard to explain exactly what my job is. I do a lot of things. I do what my families need, with a few notable exceptions.

It’s always interesting to hear other people’s interpretations.

Now, remember-I went to college for four years. I worked for two years in a related field. I put myself into debt to get a Master’s in social work, while interning three days a week and working to support myself. It may seem snobby, but I fancy myself a professional.

ACS workers, who refer a majority of our clients, very often have no clue what it is we do. (Take a moment to wonder how that’s possible.)

At one home visit to meet a new family for the first time, I asked if the mom and the worker had discussed the referral. “Sure,” mom said. “You’re going to be my advocate.”

I hope so. But 1) that’s not really a profession and 2) that’s far from everything.

There are also the times that I ask the referrer what they were hoping to come out of preventive services. “Monitoring” is almost always brought up.

Yes, there’s value in having someone poke their head in once a week to make sure the kids are eating, going to school, and not getting smacked around too much. Routinely assessing for safety is, of course, something that I do with families I work with. But I don’t do a job that could be easily fulfilled by Gladys, the nosy neighbor on Bewitched.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the ACS workers would accept it when I explain what I actually do.

PotentialClient: “So what is counseling with you like?”
ACS: “I’m sorry, SJ wouldn’t be actually doing the counseling.”
SJ: “No, I would.”
ACS: “Well, she’d be referring you for counseling.”
SJ: “No I wouldn’t.”
ACS: “You can do counseling?
SJ: “I’m a licensed social worker. Why are you referring them to me?”
PotentialClient: “Do you two need counseling?”

This even comes up when I’ve been involved for a while. The following exchange took place at a six month planning conference, shortly before I ripped lots of hair out of my head.

ACS: “Mom still isn’t acting like a parent.”
Mom: “I’m working on it with SJ.”
ACS. “Maybe family counseling would help.”
SJ: “Well, we are doing that.”
ACS: “Where?”
SJ: “Um, here? At the office?”
ACS: “Can you refer them somewhere for family counseling?”
SJ: “I can refer you for a foot in your ass.”*

Then there are the interpretations of people I’ve been working with for an extended period of time. You know, the people with whom I’ve developed a relationship and understanding?

Mom: “SJ, I need you to take my daughter back to school shopping to make sure she buys appropriate clothes.”
SJ: “I’m not going to do that. Why aren’t you able to take her?”
Mom: “You know we’ll just fight. Why wouldn’t you take her, you’re her worker!”

Somehow, despite all of the family sessions and advocating for special ed services, the term “worker” was closely linked to “servant” in this mother’s mind.

Mom: “His teacher wants to refer us for family counseling.”
SJ: “Did you tell her you’re already doing that?”
Mom: “…we are?”
SJ: “You know how we meet every week and do all that work together?”
Mom: “Oh! I thought she meant like, with a couch.”

That fucking couch. It’s an image that’s got quite a hold on people.

Mom: “I’m busy tomorrow, so I need you to take him to register for school.”

We need to talk about how we ask for things.

8 y/o: “But SJ is our very good friend!”

Said upon finding out services were being terminated, causing my heart to fall out of my butt.

8 y/o: “This is SJ. She is my therapist. We do play-doh.”

Hmm…go on.

Classmate: “Why does SJ come see you at school?”
6 y/o: “Because my family has problems and she helps us.”
Classmate: “Ooooh, we have one of those!”

Excellent! Are you available for public speaking?

2 y/o: “Hi Auntie SJ!”

All right, we’ll let that one go.

I have a weird job and a complex relationship with my families. It’s something that takes a bit of time to explain, and even then, it’s something that really needs to be experienced. Trying to limit the job to just “advocate,” or “counselor,” or “lady who keeps coming to my house” is never really going to do it justice.

Though “personal shopper” is always going to be wrong.

*This was only thought, not said.





Why Mental Health is Bad for My…Mental Health

12 04 2012

When ACS refers a case to us, there are certain things they want done. (Most often, these are things we don’t do. But that’s for another blog…) A lot of times, it’s counseling for domestic violence, sexual abuse, or substance use. These don’t apply to everyone. But one thing is constant. Everyone in the family–parents, kids, household pets–should have a psychiatric evaluation.

I’m rarely against an evaluation. It can’t hurt, right? Well, I guess anything can hurt, but the professional would have to be a real idiot. Surely there aren’t any of those. I think our kids are overdiagnosed and too often prescribed serious psychiatric meds but evaluations…why not?

There are a few problems, of course. Some parents don’t agree with them, some kids think it means I think they’re crazy. The number one obstacle, though?

Where the fuck are they supposed to get this done?

With the health care debate raging in this backwards ass country, I keep hearing about these “free clinics” that one supposedly trips over on any stroll through the ghetto low-income side of town. They’re doing free well-child visits and tossing out birth control like Gobstoppers at Willy Wonka’s factory.

Unfortunately, they don’t exist. Most of those “free clinics” actually charge Medicaid. You can get urgent care, not ongoing treatment.

This is also true for mental health clinics. In my first months on this job, I thought they were a myth, like Sasquatch, or the G train. But they’re out there. They’re just hard to find. It’s especially hard to find one that takes your insurance. Sure, everyone has Medicaid, but most people also have supplemental insurance. This place takes straight Medicaid, not Health First. This place only takes blah blahdiddy blah…

Most unfortunately, we don’t have mental health staff here at anonymous agency. We’re social workers and case workers, but no doctors. I can do family counseling, play therapy, which is all good stuff, but I can’t prescribe Ritalin. No matter how much I may try. This means that we have to refer out.

Until recently, we had a connection with a nearby mental health clinic. They came by when they felt like it to collect our referrals, and our clients were able to get appointments within a couple of months. To be honest, I thought they did supbpar work. But we had to take what we could get.

That relationship was terminated for some reason that hasn’t been explained to any of us because we’re not important. Now, we’re back to the old referral process.

Agency names have been changed for my amusement.

I call Shining Time Mental Health Station to refer a nine year old girl and a thirteen year old boy. Their mother is also to be evaluated, but I don’t mention that at first, as I don’t want to seem greedy. No one answers, so I leave a message. I do this fourteen days in a row, while also leaving messages at Miss Kitty Fantastico Memorial Mental Health Center and St. Mungo’s Center for Nonmagical Mental Maladies. No one will answer me, and I start to take it personally. I leave decoy messages, telling the intake worker that she’s won a sweepstakes and needs to call me immediately, or saying that I’m holding her puppy hostage. Nothing. That woman does not care about her imaginary millions, or her puppy.

At some point, I give up on St. Mungo’s, because they don’t take this family’s supplemental insurance. Miss Kitty Fantastico is no longer seeing children. That leaves me with one in their area. Oh god.

Finally a coworker sees me sobbing into the phone, and mentions that she has a contact at Shining Time, who might help. I get my hopes up (always a mistake) and call. Of course, this person is a domestic violence specialist only. Could you encourage their dad to stop by and rough up the mom? OK, in that case I can’t help you. Let me transfer you to our intake worker.

NOOOOOO!!!

Next, I try the child study center at St. Anastasia Beaverhausen Hospital. I call their general intake number, and am given the option to press one for the diabetes program, two for women’s health, three for dental, all the way to nine for foot problems, but no child study center.I start cursing into the phone, hoping that this will cause them to connect me with a real person (it works with FedEx) but all this gets me is some looks from my coworkers.  I hit zero for all other calls, and am told that my call is very important to them, but there are six other callers ahead of me. After an hour, I begin to doubt the importance of my call. Someone answers. I ask for the child study center. She transfers me to the foot center. I ask for the child study center. Foot lady transfers me back to the lady who transferred me to her. I finally get the child study center after three more rounds, only to be told that they aren’t accepting new clients for five months. Can’t I put my kids’ names down now, that way in five months they can have an appointment? No, it doesn’t work that way, because we say so. Oh.

While I’m chasing my tail, there are children who need help and aren’t getting it. Counseling, play and art therapy, are crucially important to their well being, and I do that. But when there are things like PTSD, ADHD, bipolar disorder, or a family history of schizophrenia going on, they need to see a doctor.

People in need can always walk into the ER. We always hear this from people who don’t want to pay for our frivolous health care, and it’s true. They can walk in, sit down, and wait for hours. Wait, and wait, and wait. Often they choose to leave. Generally, if they aren’t actively suicidal, they don’t get to stay. I once got frustrated enough that I asked a mobile crisis worker if I should wait to call back when my (pregnant, schizophrenic, drug abusing, cutting, but not presently suicidal) client was setting herself on fire.

In retrospect, that was too far. This is not how we get what we want.

If a client is admitted, they’re often transferred to a different hospital, particularly if they’re a child. Depending on insurance, this can take forever. Not literally, but just about. There’s a sort of time suspending limbo you enter when you walk into an ER.

One of my teen girls who had attempted suicide more than once wound up being sent to a notoriously unpleasant (to say the least ) psych hospital in Brooklyn. They had an available bed and would accept her despite not having insurance. Her mother was afraid to send her there, and didn’t want her to be two and a half hours away, but she did it because she had no other choice.

I don’t think I need to point out the irony that the mental health system in the Bronx has driven me a bit insane. I’m glad I get to absorb this frustration for the parents I work with, honestly, because I can’t imagine that they could do this on their own while also worrying about everything else going on in their lives. But it’s infuriating to see how difficult it is to get someone help. Are they a danger to themselves or others? Yes, but not enough of a danger. Come back when something tragic happens, so we can all blame the parents for not having done enough.

We are tragically failing our people in need when the only way to get (temporary, kinda-ok) treatment is to be brought in slitting your wrists.

I wish I could end this by offering a solution. All I can say is that we need more, and we need better. Prevention is almost always the answer, says the preventive worker. Maybe if some of those earlier evaluations and mental health treatment could happen, we’d be taking fewer trips to the ER.

But what do I know.





Be half that you can be

2 04 2012

I can’t speak for all social workers (never mind, I will) but my job is very cyclical. When I started, I inherited about six cases from another worker. In an inappropriately short period of time, I had signed another six. As a result, a lot of my cases are on a similar time frame. And for some reason that can never be known, everyone falls into crisis at the same time. Oh, you’ve been evicted? That means someone else is going to be hospitalized, someone is going to have a new CPS case called in, and I’m going to hear from a school that one of my kids is setting fires.

This month, four of my cases are ready to close. We say “ready.” The city gives us a twelve month window to work with families. When I started as an intern, we had up to two years. Following this logic, you’ll want to stay tuned for the development of our social work time machine, in which we go into the past to prevent the problems from ever happening, saving the government millions.

Of course, a case being open for a year is not an acceptable reason to close. A family isn’t sent on their merry way on their one year anniversary with Anonymous Agency. We can keep cases open longer, and we do, we just get penalized for it. Never mind that it’s very hard to do meaningful work with resistant, unmotivated families in less than a year. So sometimes, we take what we can get.

I’m really happy about two of these cases that are closing. “Really happy” might not be exactly the right term. I’m sad because I love these families and I’ll miss them, but I’m thrilled that they’ve made so much progress and done so much work that they are really, genuinely, ready to move on from having services.

Two out of four. Fifty percent. I’ll be honest, I’m kind of elated with those numbers. Doing it right half the time is really only a moment for celebration in New York Mets baseball, and social work. If your dentist told you that half of the time he doesn’t pull out healthy teeth, or your mechanic bragged that 50% of the oil changes she performed didn’t result in the car catching fire, you’d probably be looking for another professional. In social work, though, there are so many variables (new crises, family’s involvement, personalities of everyone involved, other helpful services in the family’s life…) in addition to the fact that we’re dealing with things as fluid, unpredictable, and subjective as mental health, family relationships, and parenting skills.

One family that is having their case closed was referred by ACS, due to excessive corporal punishment. The case was called in by the school, and while the parents didn’t totally agree with the call, they wholeheartedly accepted the help. “No one wants to hear that someone is worried about them being a good parent, and you get defensive. But then we thought, yeah, maybe we are hitting and yelling too much, and things can be better.”

I love them. Don’t take them from me.

This family is my crowning achievement. Except they’re not, of course. They’re awesome, but they’re not my creation. They did the word, because they wanted to and they wanted better for their kids. That meant that I could really do my job. We worked together beautifully. If only I could produce a video of us all holding hands and skipping into a meadow. (I should probably ask my friends where they’re all taking their engagement photos they keep putting on Facebook.)

The next family that is closing and actually ready for it came in of their own volition. They had been referred by ACS in the past, but returned voluntarily when the oldest daughter turned 13 and the family members thought she might be possessed by demonic beings.

This family is in the unfortunately common position of sliding back a bit into old habits, particularly acting out behaviors for the now 14 year old hellspawn daughter, just as the case is closing. They’re hesitant, but they can recognize that they’ve done a lot of work. The teenager who wasn’t doing a thing around the house now gets her baby sister ready in the morning and walks the dog twice a day. The mother who could barely look at her child without speaking cruelly, now laughs with her and plans activities for the two of them.

Another family is moving on to foster care services. This is often considered our greatest possible failure, as we are in the business of prevention, but this scenario is a bit different. The children are moving into their grandmother’s care, the person they stayed with almost exclusively as it was, and still have their mother in their life regularly. Foster care was something that needed to happen. But it doesn’t create much of a change for these two young girls. It does give their grandmother, who I would like to submit to the Vatican for sainthood (that’s how it works, right?) or at least send flowers, a bit of money and a major headache. Grandma asked if I could remain with the family, as she’s not connecting well with her foster care worker and she and I had a good working relationship. (Note: this is due to the fact that the family is delightful.) She needs some support, especially now that her daughter is pregnant with a third child, and is still mentally ill and on drugs. Bureaucratically speaking, though, this can’t happen. So we’re done.

The last family has been a roller coaster, and not the fun kind. They’re a great family, but the violent boyfriend is still in the home. He’s on his best behavior for the moment and has never hit the children, so all of the people who have any power in this situation (I’ll take ‘people that aren’t SocialJerk for $500,’ Alex!) have decided that it’s fine for him to stay. Because domestic violence is a total mindfuck, mom doesn’t want to leave him, even though she’s afraid he’ll go back to his old ways as soon as the case is closed. We can’t keep it open to babysit forever. That’s just not how anything works. All I can do is safety play, safety plan, safety plan with mom and the kids, talk with mom about the importance of continuing her individual counseling, and make sure that they know that they can always come back if they need to.

Fifty percent success this month. Maybe a bit more or a bit less, depending on how you look at it. Some months are better, and some months are worse. Realizing that you can’t help everyone, and that some families will leave your life the same way they came in, or maybe even worse, is a frustratingly important thing to understand about social work. We are in the business of helping people, and, at the risk absolute certainty of sounding painfully cliché, helping them to help themselves. As much as we want to, we can’t fix people. I can’t stay with that 14 year old and her mother until things are perfect, because I don’t know if I’ll be at this job until 2026. I can’t move in with another mother to protect her and her children from a potentially violent man. I can only care about my families as much as I can, and work as hard and as well as I can to make sure that they get the best I can give. If that’s fifty percent, then that’s what it is.

At least I’m still better than the Mets.





“Miss, we’re all gonna die in 2012.” -Actual quote from an eight year old client

29 12 2011

As my outgoing voicemail message, e-mail autoreply, and look of relaxation and glee will all tell you–I’m on vacation. Some people will tell you that taking the week between Christmas and New Years off is just for parents. I’m here to tell you that those people are idiots who want to hog all the vacation days for themselves.

Anyway, I was thinking of taking the week off entirely, and seeing you all in 2012. But then I remembered I wanted to do my 2011 retrospective, and that would just be passé on January second. We’re all a year older (another trip around the sun, if you’re fifteen and thinking that indie music is deep for the first time) but I’m actually a year older, as that’s when my birthday falls. (Oh wait, you didn’t care? How embarrassing.) This, plus being an emotional social worker, means I get a little extra reflective.

Therefore, I present: What SocialJerk Learned in 2011

  • Good supervision matters. A lot.

I’ve not made any secret about the fact that my supervisor is great. She trusts her employees, never micromanages, puts up with my weirdo sense of humor, and she bakes cupcakes.
Perhaps most importantly, she has my back. She is not afraid to break out the Bronx when necessary, in a respectful and professional manner, of course. I have been told that I’m not one to suffer fools gladly (what kind of an idiot said that?) but if someone else’s supervisor is accusing me of handling something incorrectly, there’s only so much I can do.

An ACS worker, who failed miserably at her job by losing track of a case that had been referred to me–literally, the family moved and  she didn’t know where they went–tried to put her massive failure off on me. My supervisor was out, so she spoke with the only other supervisor who was in the office.

We’ll call that supervisor Cruella.

Cruella essentially apologized for me not being clairvoyant, and believed everything this ACS worker fed her. Fortunately, I was able to hand her my carefully dated notes (I think Cruella was a bit upset that I did not curtsy when I did this) and waited for MY supervisor to return. Not unlike a child waiting to be picked up from day care.

When my supervisor came back, I only got the ACS worker’s name out before my supervisor said, “Oh no. You were not responsible for that. I’ll speak with her supervisor, don’t worry about it.”

Told ya, Cruella.

Knowing you have someone to go to, when you’re stuck with a particular case, being railroaded, or having a shitty day makes a world of difference in this field.

  • Document everything.

Write a note  for everything. Write a note when you sneeze. And don’t cut and paste, they’ll know. (For further explanation, see point #1.)

  • Thank your wonderful supervisor, if you have one.

Again, see point #1.

  • Tell people that you need help, and accept it.

I learned this one in teen group. For some reason, I am one of those people who has a hard time with this at work. I have a desperate need to be the hardest working one in the room. I blame my parents’ 1950s style work ethic. (If I hear my dad took a sick day, I assume one of his limbs spontaneously fell off and he was unable to find strong enough thread.)  I somehow got the idea that I should be doing most of the work. I carried this into teen group, for which I have a co-leader. This promptly resulted in me hating resenting my co-leader.

Yes, she should have done more. She shouldn’t have thought that having other work to do excused her from setting up or planning for group. But I should not have been so quick to say, “I can do the note this week. I can bring the materials in from home. Oh, I’ll set up the activities if you’re busy.”

Taking on more than we should, can, or have to, and then feeling run down and complaining about it, does not make us noble. It makes us idiots.

  • Offer to help.

Actually, don’t offer–just help. On the off chance that my co-leader, or anyone I supervised when I first graduated from college, is reading this, please just fucking do it. Standing around and saying, “Well, I’m happy to help! What do you need me to do? Just tell me what to do! OK. How do you want that done? How many do we need?” is actually not helpful. It just creates more work for idiots like me, who eventually get frustrated and tell you to go away so we can do it ourselves. Because really, we don’t mind.

Except we do. We hate you.

  • You are not entitled to an explanation.

This really ought to be “you are only very rarely entitled to an explanation,” but I prefer to be dramatic and deal in absolutes.

I’ve been learning this one my entire life. I have two last names, and cousins who are clearly a different race than I am. People, most often strangers or casual acquaintances, have really, genuinely believed that they had a right to know how these things came to be. Were my parents divorced, or never married? Did my mom keep her name for “professional reasons?” (Whatever the fuck those are. She’s not a Kardashian.) Am I married? Are my cousins adopted, or perhaps racially mixed? Are they Filipino, or what?

In social work, we get these kinds of situations. There are times when we want information, just because it’s interesting, and as humans, we are nosy. I have been asked on two separate occasions, by coworkers, if a twelve year old girl I work with is gay. How could this possibly impact their lives? Unless they have a pre-teen niece who is looking, but still, I think that’s inappropriate.

One coworker, with whom I prefer not to associate, as she is horrible, suggested during group supervision that a fellow social worker lie to a client, saying he needed her children’s birth certificates, in an effort to determine if her brother (who had raped her) was the child’s father. One, I doubt that would work. Two, I repeat–you are horrible. Three, how would that help his practice, and this woman?

In social work, and in life, we need to ask ourselves: is this question going to help us to move forward? Is it going to keep everyone safe? Is it just satisfying my own curiosity? Is the world going to be a better place if I ask this?

We’re not entitled to an explanation, except when we are. We need to think more about when that it.

  • Nice is different than good.

Brilliant advice I wish to impart on everyone, especially my teen girls, taken directly from Sondheim’s Into The Woods. You can learn a lot from musicals. I swear. My girls talk about the importance of being nice, or finding a nice guy. I tell them, as delicately as I can–fuck nice. Be good. Not like E.T., except he was pretty good, wasn’t he? Look for good people. The people who act nice, tell you what you want to hear, are not usually good. Being nice often involves not making others feel bad. But when kids have been victimized as often as ours have, they need to know that they can be a little rude if it makes them safer.

And I know things now
Many valuable things
That I hadn’t known before:
Do not put your faith
In a cape and a hood
They will not protect you
The way that they should.
And take extra care with strangers
Even flowers have their dangers.
And though scary is exciting
Nice is different than good.

  • Take a fucking vacation.

When I took these four days off, my supervisor told me that the amount of vacation time I had banked was “offensive.” I was getting to a point where I knew I was not the best social worker I could be, because I was getting a little burnt out. This is not a fancy vacation. It’s actually a staycation, if you want to be a dick about it. So far today, I have gone running, grocery shopping, hit up the post office, done laundry, vacuumed, and deposited checks at the bank. You know, mostly errands and things that I’m pretty sure should actually still be my dad’s job. Very exciting. But I feel like a new person. And I will, through all the dread, actually be looking forward to getting back to work and seeing my clients again.

There is no prize for making yourself the most miserable. If there were, I would have several worthy candidates to nominate.

See you all in 2012.





What’s in a name?

3 11 2011

I’ve talked liberally about the difficulty of keeping track of the kids on my caseload, due to their love of nicknames. It’s hard to know who you’re asking for or speaking to.

But we’re so much easier, right? I would think so, but it never turns out to be true. So often, I’ll call a new family that’s been referred to me, introduce myself, set up an appointment, only to have them come into the office asking to see “the social worker.” All right. This is a social work agency. Can you be more specific. “She called me. It was a woman.” Again, this is a social work agency. Almost all of our workers are women with functioning phones.

No wonder our receptionist is starting to go off the deep end.

Once we actually get to know each other, it should become more clear. Of course, it doesn’t. Not always.

I remember my cousin’s engagement party (it’s a bit blurry, there was an open bar after all) when her soon-to-be mother-in-law approached her. She explained that she wanted my cousin to decide what she wanted to call her mother-in-law. Apparently, the groom’s mother had been married for thirty years, and still had no idea how to refer to her own in-laws. It had gone beyond a point where it could be discussed.

It seems crazy (though I will admit I’ve never called my boyfriend’s parents anything.) But it happens with clients.

Some of my participants are grandmothers raising their grandchildren. I cannot call an elderly woman by her first name. It is against my extremely respectful nature. When I interned with homebound senior citizens, I always called them Mr., Ms. or Mrs., and their last name.

Most clients were happy to meet such a respectful little scamp. (I was just recently mistaken for a junior high student, so five years ago, this was a reasonable way to describe me.) One woman, though, did not appreciate it.

“My name is Mary!” she yelled into the phone at any worker who called. We finally agreed that it was acceptable for me to call her Miss Mary. Something we were both comfortable with.

Generally, I go by the rule of calling someone whatever they introduce themselves by. Whether it’s a first name or a last name. But there are times when this doesn’t work. Sometimes the person is introduced my someone else. Sometimes they’re following your lead. As a result, I have some mothers who I just muddle through every time.

I’ll get a call telling me Ms. Smith is on the line. Oh, ok. So that’s what I’ll say. I answer, only to hear, “Hi, it’s Sara Smith.” Dammit. Now I’m thrown off! What do I choose? Maybe I’ll follow her lead, just like they taught me in the Hunger Games social work school. See what she calls me.

I always introduce myself as SJ. Some other workers insist on a title and last name. I think sometimes this is cultural–either in terms of ethnicity, or agency culture. Most ACS workers I know go by their last names. As a result, they introduce me as Ms. Jerk, no matter how many times I refer to myself as SJ.

I don’t want the young people I work with thinking of me as someone like a teacher, which is what Ms. Jerk sounds like.

Also, my (actual) last name is so complicated to most people that I prefer not to get into it.

However, some young people, and their parents, feel the same way about calling me SJ as I did about calling that elderly woman Mary. They just can’t do it. And far be it from me to interfere with the way parents have instructed their children to be polite.

Many parents correct their children when they refer to me as SJ, tell them to say, “Miss SJ” instead. It only bothers me if a child just says Miss, because I kind of feel like this means they can’t remember my name.

When the kids call me Miss SJ, their parents usually do as well. So that also creates a problem. If the parent is giving me that level of respect, particularly if they’re older than me, I need to give it back to them. Otherwise we’re setting up a faulty power dynamic in which we’re not equals. Our work will fail, we will be unable to communicate, and this may lead to anarchy and deaths.

Am I reading too much into this?

Introductions, and names, are important. They lay the groundwork for the work we’re going to do. I notice that as I become more comfortable with a family, I’ll use their nicknames more often. As parents become more comfortable with me, they’ll often drop the “Ms. Jerk” for something less formal. I always take this as a postive sign.

Even the simplest things become a little more complicated in social work, don’t they?





I just called to say I’m a jerk (not the good kind)

10 10 2011

Not long ago, I got a call informing me that a family I am currently working with had a case called in. The single mother was accused of leaving her two youngest children, ages three and seven, home alone over night, and of using and selling drugs. I was rather surprised by this. This mother, who has her flaws, if anything erred on the side of having her kids with her too much. She had also been required to take drug tests more than once in the past, which always came up negative.

I asked if the person calling had any idea who had made these allegations. She responded, “a concerned citizen” as if it should be obvious.

Ah yes, a concerned citizen. The living embodiment of, “it takes a village.” Someone willing to put themselves on the line, get over those feelings of minding one’s own business, because the health and safety of a child is more important.

Is it bad that my first thought was, “Oh, you mean vindictive asshole?”

Two years ago, that never would have crossed my mind. I knew people used this excuse when being accused of child abuse or neglect. I had heard it when I worked in a youth center, as child protective workers would occasionally come by the speak with the children.

“Oh, I know they’re coming to talk to my child, it’s fine. My man’s ex-girlfriend called that lie in, because she doesn’t like that I have a healthy relationship.”

Really? She doesn’t like that? Strange. It was usually something along those lines.

“My mother-in-law did it, she doesn’t think I’m good enough for her son.”
“My neighbor was pissed at me because our kids got into a fight, so she made the call to get back at me.”
“I’m pretty sure it was my sister, or my cousin, they’ve always been jealous.”

Ever notice that the people who most readily accuse others of being jealous are the people you’d be least likely to actually be jealous of? What, she envies that badass Tweety bird tattoo of yours? Can’t she get her own?

I couldn’t really believe that someone would actually do that. However mad you might get at an adult, would you ever drag an innocent child into it? Would you accuse an adult of something horrible, that could stay with them the rest of their lives? All because you can’t get over a (no doubt, big time winner) guy?

But I know now for a fact that it happens.

I was all set to close a case that had ended with two children going to live with their grandmother. The mother was mentally ill and abusing drugs, but the grandma was quite stable. The kids went from missing half the school year to getting perfect attendance awards. They were traumatized from what they’d been through with their mother, but they were in counseling and thriving.

So I was shocked when I found out that a case had been called in.

I was even more shocked when I found out what the allegations were. The first was educational neglect–the children not going to school. This was very easily checked with a simple call to the schools. Those kids were in school all the time. They showed up on weekends. That was just patently ridiculous.

The second was that the children were inadequately supervised. Now, while their mother was extremely unreliable, apparently this was not a hereditary condition. These children were surrounded by aunts and uncles, god parents, and cousins. If anything they were overly supervised. There was never a moment when there was fewer than three adults in that home.

The third is what really proved to me that this was called in by someone with a bone to pick with this family. It was alleged that there was no food in the home. This family has more food in their home on a regular basis than my three roommates and I have ever had. (To be fair, I currently only have couscous and ice pops in the kitchen, but still.) The grandmother was cooking during every home visit I made. At times, she bought too many groceries, and sent me back to the office with non-perishables for our (small, pathetic) food pantry.

I asked the grandmother what was up, and she told me. Her son’s ex-girlfriend got angry at the family and called the child abuse hotline. They knew this for sure, because after she did it, she called the family to apologize.

Well, I guess the apology counts for something. Oh no wait, I’m being told that it doesn’t. At all.

It’s pretty gross (sorry, but there’s no better word) that this even needs to be considered by someone investigating a claim of child abuse or neglect. Because they don’t have enough actual cases to investigate. And because we need this extra level of confusion in those investigations. Not just interviewing a confused child and angry, frightened parents, and trying to determine if bruises are something to worry about or just the result of normal childhood running into walls (when will I grow out of that, by the way?) but a child protective worker also has to consider if this came from some jackass who does not at all have the best interests of the child in mind.

As a child, I was told not to go anywhere near the police and fire call boxes, because they would respond and be taking time away from someone who might really be in trouble. Also, if they responded to too many fake calls, they might not take them so seriously when people really needed help.

For anyone too young to remember those things that existed pre cell phone, I hate you.

I don’t know if the problem is that this lesson isn’t shared anymore, or if people don’t have much respect for child welfare, or if ACS and similar agencies are just such a part of life in certain areas that it doesn’t seem like a big deal. I suspect it’s a combination of the three. But it’s an unbelievable part of the job, that it’s important to be aware of.

Because apparently, people really are pretty terrible sometimes.