“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.

List my strengths? How much time do we have?

3 10 2011

The importance of working from a strengths based perspective is one of the first things I learned in social work school.

For those of us not familiar with this, it’s exactly what it sounds like. When people come to us for help, they come to us with problems. Especially if they’re referred by another source due to parenting problems. (ACS, family court, I’m looking in your direction.) They’re constantly hearing: you did this wrong. You should have done it this way. You’re deficient in this area.

So it can be pretty empowering when they come to us, and the first thing they hear is: what’s working for you guys? What are you good at? What are you doing well?

Abusive monsters are fairly rare. That’s why they make the news. Most of the people we work with have some strengths. It can be disheartening, at times, to see how hard it is for some people to name one of their strengths. They just draw a blank. What do you mean, something that the family is good at? Would we be here if we were good at things? One of my most important social work skills is helping them to start small, so they can build on that.

SocialJerk: “Well, you’re here. That’s a strength.”
Mom:           “Only because the judge said I had to come.”
SocialJerk   “But she didn’t carry you here. And you brought the kids. They all have clothes on and they seem to have been fed.”
Mom:          “Um, yeah. You’re saying me not bringing in naked, hungry kids is a good thing? What do you see in this office?”

Ma’am, you have no idea.

It’s true. Everybody has strengths. And many things can be viewed in a more positive light. Yes, you hit your kids, but you did it because you were worried about them getting hurt because they stayed out all night. It doesn’t make what you did OK, but the fact that you had the right motivation means that you can change. You can learn ways to discipline your children that will be less destructive and more effective.

Sometimes, though, kids are in danger. And sometimes, strengths need to take a back seat.

A coworker of mine, back at my second year field placement, had a rather tricky family. The parents had joint custody and a contentious relationship. In this situation, the father was more together than the mother, who rarely prioritized her child and was rather unpredictable in her moods.

A conference was held, due to the father’s concerns about inadequate guardianship and medical neglect when the five year old was with her mother. Apparently, when the little girl was with her mother, she complained about chest pains one night. The mother told her that it was “just her boobies growing,” and to go back to bed.

We all remember hearing those motherly words of wisdom, don’t we ladies? Almost amusing. But this kid had a pre-existing heart condition, and this could have been really bad.

As an agency, we approach our families from a strengths-based perspective. Like geometric proofs, though, this has its limits. (I apologize for that. Sincerely.)

My coworker was horrified by a number of things. One, that the mother was not worried about her daughter’s heart health. At least, not enough to take her to the emergency room that night, or even to make an appointment with the pediatrician the next day. Two, that the mother could not admit that this might have been an error in judgment.

Unfortunately, her supervisor did not help with the horror.

“So what I’m hearing is, you have a different view of when children should be taken to the doctor?”

Yes. Her view isn’t “wrong,” it’s “different!” She believes children should only be taken to the doctor when healthy or dead. Not when they’re ill. Maybe it’s cultural?

No. It was just wrong. And people using this empowering approach incorrectly and irresponsibly makes us all look like whackjobs who don’t put children’s safety first.

I don’t believe in focusing only on what a family is doing poorly, or how they are putting their children at risk. But there is pretty much always some place to meet in the middle. I have to remind myself that just because I dislike the child protective worker’s approach, it doesn’t mean he’s entirely wrong.

Most of my philosophy of work, life, relationships, and eating cheetos boils down to moderation. It is our friend. A happy medium does, in fact, exist. We can keep more than one idea in the forefront of our minds. Safety, and strengths. Guidance, and empowerment. Cheesy snacks, and not having to buy new pants.

We can’t be so married to any one philosophy that it clouds our common sense. Because I’m finding more and more that it isn’t as common as I thought.

You gotta give ’em hope

22 09 2011

I hate people.

I know a lot of my sarcastic contemporaries who hide behind internet anonymity (see you all at the next meeting, guys) revel in their misanthropy, but I try not to. I really do.

On some days, it’s hard.

I had to walk a few blocks out of my way in order to get to the office the other morning. This was because there was a shootout on the street in the middle of the night, and the block was still roped off by the police.

Apparently, this is what it takes to have a meaningful police presence in the neighborhood.

Often, because of where these types of things take place, they get ignored. If it was Midtown Manhattan, it would be a big deal, but it’s the Bronx. It’s the ghetto. A bunch of gang members want to kill each other? Let them.

Except that in this city, in the past month, we’ve had three children under five (that I’ve heard about) accidentally shot on the street. What the hell kind of human thinks that their ridiculous beef with some other dude in the neighborhood is worth the accidental death of a child?

Earlier, I noticed a candlelight memorial outside a client’s building. Apparently it was for a three year old girl. The parents claimed her death was accidental, but upon further examination, she had been horribly abused for some time. The mother of the family I was visiting showed me pictures of her daughter and this poor girl together at a recent birthday party, while she asked what kind of person could do that to a child? She was just glad that her daughter was young enough to not really understand.

We didn’t discuss the fact that, though we were quite a bit older, we certainly didn’t understand either.

Then I got a call about one of my families. A big, chaotic family, with lots of kids who fight like cats and dogs, and who make me laugh on every visit. Apparently they’ve been removed with no warning, and, as far as I can tell, no real reason. The children’s lawyer called me, mystified, saying she thought everything was improving. That’s what I had thought as well. They were waiting for placement in a domestic violence shelter, because the dad is now out of jail and has been coming by to beat the shit out of mom as often as he can.

By all means, traumatize everyone further. That’ll show them.

There’s a lot of disgust to go around in this case. The city, for refusing to move the family to a new location before the father was released from prison, and again for having an underfunded shelter system, and again for punishing a family for having been victimized. Of course, the “father,” who feels justified in beating the mother of his children in front of those children, pulling a knife, trying to set mother and children on fire.  (Fun fact–you only get a year in jail for that!) An ACS worker, who seems to be primarily focused on how inconvenient this all is for her.

These are the people we’re sharing a planet with.

People are always asking how I manage to do my job, how it doesn’t get me down, how I work with people who do terrible things.

Barely, it does, and I don’t know.

All I know is that if I don’t believe in the people I work with, I can’t do my job. And while my job might not be changing the world, it’s something. If I write everyone off as “bad parents” and “juvenile delinquents” things don’t get better. They stay the same if we’re lucky, they get worse if we’re realistic.

Days like this I can’t do it. Bureacracy, disappointment, inconsiderate people, I can deal with. I have to. On a daily basis. I can get snarky, use my impressive vocabulary and quick wit to get a one-liner in that will make me feel better, and move on. I’ll be annoyed, but I move on.

Today I have to half lie to myself, and say that, despite the tragedy and the people we can’t help, things do get better. As much as I want to quit right now, I can’t imagine doing or being anything else.

Because there are those moments. Moments that make you feel good, like a teen telling you she likes that you listen to her, or a grandma bringing you cough drops because your voice sounded scratchy on the phone. And moments that actually make a difference, like a kid walking away from a fight for the first time, or a parent recognizing that a child’s behavior is developmentally appropriate, and not worthy of punishment.

It really beats the alternative.

“It’s SJ!” “Who? “…the white lady.”

15 09 2011

There are certain things you aren’t supposed to talk about in polite company. The banned dinner party conversations are supposed to be “religion and politics.” That rule leaves the door wide open for discussions of sexually transmitted infections, the Yankees, and other distasteful topics, so we probably want to have a few more guidelines. I think, no matter what, we can all agree that one of the stickiest of topics continues to be race.

It’s tricky subject matter. Few things get people quite as fired up, while simultaneously terrifying them that they’ll come across as a bad person.

My participants don’t seem to have that issue. Especially the kids. Race is something they notice, and they see no need to hold back. If I’m thinking it, I should say it! (I can’t really fault them for this, as this is a flaw that I’m working on myself.)

I am white. None of my current participants are. In the two years I’ve worked at Anonymous Agency, I have not worked with a white family. It’s not a big suprise, considering that I’m usually the only white person I see when walking around the area. As much as I’d like for this to not be an issue, it is something people notice.

I mean, I guess it is. I’ve been surprised at how many people have been confused by my race.

Child:    “You’re Puerto Rican, right?”
SJ:          “Why do you think that?”
Child:     “Because you speak Spanish like one. And you don’t look Dominican.”
SJ:           “I’m actually not.”
Child:     “So…you are Domincan?”

For the record, I’m almost actually white. As in the shade. I have an Irish nose and freckles. People have never been confused by “what I am” before. When this first came up, when I was working at a camp for children in foster care, I mentioned it to the director. Not out of concern, I just found it amusing. She thought it was because I was one of very few white people they had interacted with, and that most of their interactions with white people were not too positive. In that way, it was kind of a good thing.

I’ve gotten lots of these types of comments over the years. In addition to constantly being told by children that I look like their teachers.

16 y/o: “Ugh, I cannot deal with that white lady anymore!”
SJ:          “Oh come on, I’m standing right here.”
16 y/o: “Nah, not you, you don’t count.”

12 y/o: “SJ doesn’t play. She’s mad white, but she lets go when she has to. I’ve seen you get black.”
SJ:          “Thank you?”

Mom: “My daughter told me the worker stopped by, and I thought she meant the ACS worker, I started asking what that bitch wanted. She was surprised, she was like, ‘the white lady’s a bitch?’ I was like, oh, Miss SJ, no, we’re cool.
SJ:       “I’m glad we’re cool. Am I really the white lady, after all our time together?”

13 y/o: “I don’t like black people.”
SJ:          “Wow, that’s a pretty big statement. You know all black people?”
13 y/o: “No, the ones around here.”
SJ:          “Oh, ok, so there are some people you don’t like. Can you dislike someone and not their entire race?”
13 y/o: “I guess.”
SJ:           “Well, we get along, does that mean you love all white people, no matter what?”
13 y/o:  “You’re white?! I thought you were Irish!”

That last one might be my favorite.

I’ve learned to joke about it. I see no reason to let it go on as the (white) elephant in the room. Recently, I walked into an ACS meeting with a mother and daughter, who are Dominican and dark-skinned. The guard asked if I was the worker, and had me sign in with my ID.

SJ:      “How did he know I was the worker?”
Mom: “SJ, you are crazy. You walk in here with two brown women, talking about ‘How they know I’m the worker?'”

They could barely speak for laughing. It lessened the tension when we walked into a pretty difficult meeting. (I’m very good.)

But look at our president, we’re living in a post-racial society!

I’ll give you a moment to laugh at that one.

We all know that race still matters. People aren’t color blind. OK, some people are color blind. Like my dad. Try to get the man to distinguish between blue and grey, it’s a nightmare. But no time to talk about that now.

Even when you love someone, it still matters. My cousins are Native American. They’re all adopted. They’re father is also Native, their mother, my aunt, is a white lady like myself. (“White lady” is cool, I’m taking it back.) But the fact that they look different from half of their family does come up.

They had come to visit in New York once, and my cousin, who was twelve at the time, asked why so many black women had white babies at the Museum of Natural History. I looked at him and asked, “What do you think people think of us?” He told me that they don’t think we’re related. And it’s true. My room in college was essentially wallpapered with photos of these kids, and people regularly asked who they were. When I told them they were my cousins, this simply wasn’t enough. “No, these kids. These ones. They look…Filipino? Mexican?”

How could I expect the random boy my roommate was, ahem, hosting to walk away without a concrete explanation as to how, exactly, these non-white children were my family? He was entitled to an explanation.

As much as I wish me being white didn’t say anything to my participants, it does. It’s the first thing they notice. The second thing is probably that I look twelve. This could lead to the idea that I don’t really have much of an understanding of them.

As usual, I don’t have answers. I didn’t solve the issue of race in America, though I know you were all expecting that to be the conclusion. Interracial adoption? I think it’s a good thing, and necessary, but we have to recognize that love isn’t all you need. (Sorry, John.) White lady social worker, working with non-white lady families? I don’t think there’s another option.

But I do have the option to be open about our differences, and not act like noticing them is somehow shameful. I have the option of challenging assumptions about race, and presenting the idea that not all people who look the same are the same.

It seems to be the best the white lady can do.

If I hear someone ask about “that ACS bitch” one more time…

12 09 2011

It’s very difficult having ACS, or whatever child protective/social services are call in your area, involved in your life. They drive me crazy, and I just have to work with them. I can’t imagine them being a part of my family.

ACS involvement starts out as an investigation. Investigations are, by definition, invasive. The kids get interviewed away from their parents. ACS workers look at their bodies to check for marks. The fridge and cupboards are rifled through to ensure there’s enough food. Workers might show up late at night, for a surprise meeting.

It can start to feel like you have no privacy. Like your life isn’t your own.

As a social work agency, we approach our clients from a strengths-based perspective. Meaning we start with what’s working, and build on it. That’s the goal, anyway. Sometimes we start by chasing clients down the block, or getting yelled at from windows. But the goal is to work together.

ACS comes from a different perspective. It seems more of a checklist than a philosophy, actually. Are you doing this? Do you have this? No? OK. Do this and this and I’ll leave you alone. First let me see your children’s beds. You brought the kids to the doctor? All right, I’m going to call to make sure. What are you getting so cranky about?

Because they’re investigating and putting services in place, the focus is on deficits. What’s going wrong. The parent isn’t disciplining the child appropriately, the child isn’t going to school, there isn’t a reliable child care provider, the home is too chaotic and messy. If someone came into my apartment and pointed out that I was unfit to be an adult, based on the fact that the only groceries I currently have are Cheerios and ice pops, my bed isn’t made, and it’s 2011, take down the framed Nirvana poster, I wouldn’t take to it too kindly.

In fact, I’d lash out at the person in question, then begin to doubt myself. Especially if those things that were pointed out were things I was already ashamed of. (When it comes to my Nirvana poster, I, of course, feel no shame.) This is, not surprisingly, the reaction we see from a lot of clients.

One of my families was referred to preventive services through ACS, and continues to have ACS involvement due to an ongoing court case. It’s challenging, because the family hates ACS. Not “please don’t stay in my home any longer than strictly necessary” hate, but “get the fuck out of my house, bitch, before I let this pit bull out of her cage” hate.

I’m always trying to understand my families’ feelings about ACS. At one meeting, I realized how insightful this mother was, and she made it incredibly easy for me. I’m tempted to get her to write a book. You know, when she’s not trying to get ACS off her back, meet with me, attend parenting classes, move where her abusive ex can’t find her, find a job, and get her kids back in school.

At this particular meeting, the mother, we’ll call her Ms. S (for strength, and sass) showed some vulnerability to me, and her ACS worker. The ACS worker was insisting that the children needed to undergo psychiatric evaluations. (The official chant is: 2, 4, 6, 8, when in doubt, medicate!) Ms. S opened up about her difficulties in getting the children to do what she wanted. “I tell them to go, I wake them up, you tell me I’m not allowed to beat their asses, so what am I supposed to do if they refuse?”

Yes, that was Ms. S being vulnerable. She’s tough.

The ACS worker then started explaining her side, in what she felt was a reasonable manner. “I have to go back to court, Ms. S. And if this hasn’t been done, the judge is going to be asking me why. My supervisor’s going to be asking me why. If I say we just made the appointment and they didn’t go, that’s not going to be enough, it’s going to be on me.”

This is when things got interesting.

“Are you talking to me about your job? Your job. I don’t give a shit about who you have to to talk to, this is my life. Do you think I’m not worried about my kids acting crazy? I’m the one who has to deal with them. I don’t care what a judge says, these are my kids.”

It was probably the most honest outburst I’d heard. It led to the ACS worker wrapping up her end of the meeting, and leaving me and Ms. S to it.

We talked more and more about her feelings about ACS. And it became more and more apparent that there is a fundamental flaw in the way our parents are being approached.

Ms. S told me about the supports in her life, particularly her sister and her cousin. They were always the people she could turn to in times of crisis, and when she was feeling overwhelmed. The kids got along well with these women. But when the case got called in, the kids were no longer allowed to pop over to their relative’s home to crash for the night, when things got too hectic at home. The relatives needed to be interviewed by ACS, to make sure they were appropriate.

“I’m not allowed to be their parent. This lady met my kids two months ago, she decides what’s best for them? I can’t say you can go sleep at your aunt’s house? And then she’s coming into my house, looking at my fridge. When I tell her, yeah, I am low on food, she tells me to go to a food pantry. Like I need someone coming in to tell me that.”

They way Ms. S was being approached put her on the defensive, because it undermined her as a parent. It told her that she wasn’t good enough. It didn’t make her think, OK, I’ve made some mistakes, and bad choices, but I’m a good mother, with smart, healthy kids. I’ve done something right. I’m not clueless.

If the goal is to preserve families, and foster independence, this is not the way to do it. This is the way to keep people moving from services to services–ACS case closed, preventive case opened; preventive case closed, mental health treatment opened. This doesn’t inspire our parents to utilize what they know, what they can do, to call in their existing resources and supports to meet their needs and improve the lives of their children. It creates dependent parents who question their every choice, feel that they have no say in their family’s life, and believe that they need outsiders to control their children.

Keeping us in business is not the goal.