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.

…or SocialJerk will give you something to cry about!

8 08 2011

Spanking is a hot topic in my field.

Typing that made me feel a little gross. So let me just say now, some of you may have been directed here by search terms, when you were in fact looking for something a bit different. It happens. The boyfriend and I debated this very topic at a restaurant once, and the waitress definitely did not believe we were talking about child welfare. Please be on your way if this is the case.

It can be a difficult topic to discuss. People have strong feelings about physical discipline. They love it or they hate it. It’s one of those times when we feel the need to defend our parents. “My father never laid a hand on his children!” “Well, my parents spanked me, and I turned out just fine.”

I know lots of people on both sides. Plenty of them didn’t turn out fine, despite their claims to the contrary. But that might just be misanthropic SocialJerk talking.

Just because something went all right in your life, it doesn’t mean that it’s OK. My parents thought bike helmets were silly and unnecessary when we were kids. My brother and I never had them, but we never got into a horrific accident that involved our brains being splattered across the Brooklyn sidewalk. So they’re stupid, right? I mean, I just proved it!

No. This doesn’t mean that if I ever have children, I won’t buy them helmets. It means that I acknowledge that my parents did the best they could, with the knowledge available at the time, and that we were lucky not to be hurt. It’s not going against Mr. and Ms. Jerk to buy my hypothetical kids bike helmets. It’s learning from additional experience and advancements.

So we’re leaving that behind. If you’re going to tell me, “My parents did it!” save yourself the time. I’m not interested.

We often get families referred to us by ACS due to “excessive corporal punishment.” ACS tells the family that they are not allowed to hit the children with an object, and they are not allowed to leave marks or bruises. I guess this is an OK guideline. It doesn’t seem to be making much of a difference, but we need some type of cut off.

Most of the parents I work with come to me seeing their options as corporal punishment, or letting the kids do as they damn please. Working with parents to develop other methods of discipline is a huge part of my job. Explaining that half-assedly trying something for a day does not mean that you’ve exhausted that strategies potential. Showing them that behavior charts are not bribery. Talking about how they felt when they got hit as children–angry, ashamed, aggressive.

One particularly honest parent got  into detail with me about spanking her children. We talked about the feelings she experienced when she spanked her kids. She told me that she spanked her ten year old son (on the butt, with an open hand, therefore ACS approved) one day, because he wasn’t listening. The mom told me that she thought this would get his attention. And it did. He behaved for the rest of the day. He was scared, and embarrassed, and wouldn’t look at his mother, but he behaved.

Success story? Mom went on to explain why she really spanked her son, beyond thinking that she had tried everything else. “I was so frustrated. I was angry. I didn’t really do it because I thought it was what he needed. I thought it would make me feel better.”


This woman changed the way I talk about discipline. Discipline is about getting your child to listen, to do what they need to do, so that when they grow up they can make good decisions, be a productive citizen, and be able to take care of themselves.

It’s not to get your frustrations out. It’s not an outlet, no matter how much of a nightmare little pain in the ass your child is being.

I do, despite not having kids, get how an adult could get that frustrated. When I worked in a neighborhood youth center, there were days that those little jerks (not the good kind) brought me to tears. When they wouldn’t listen, when they were blatantly disrespectful, when they were thoroughly ungrateful, when they fought, cursed, broke rules, ran off, and laughed about how angry I got.

But it still wasn’t about me.

Because of that incredibly honest mother, I approach discipline with my families by telling them they have to be ready for it. They need to have those consequences in their back pocket. If the consequence is a spanking, then fine. That’s their right to run their home that way if they choose. Personally, I don’t agree with it, but that doesn’t matter. But it can’t be delivered in a fit of rage or frustration.

“Because my dad did it” or “because my mom said so” is a fine reason to do things until age twelve. As we get older, we think for ourselves. We learn from what our parents did well. We also learn from what they royally fucked up could have done better.

“Because he pissed me off” is an acceptable reason to punch your third grade classmate, or flip off a cabbie. (Not that I have ever done either of those things.) But it’s not a very good reason to change your disciplinary strategy.

Parents all make mistakes, and that’s fine. Kids are resilient, they get over things. (Seriously.) But we do a great disservice to ourselves and our children if we aren’t honest with why we do the things we do, why we make the choices we make, and don’t acknowledge that we make mistakes.

Incoming intakes!

21 07 2011

I was recently in the position of trying to transfer a case to another agency, due to the family having fled for the greener pastures of Brooklyn. A worker from the other agency and I spent a lot of time tracking down this family, going to see them (two hours on the train? Yes please!) and explaining to the mother why we felt she needed her case to be transferred. Mom wasn’t really feeling it. I had been her worker for a year at that point, and the idea of starting over with someone new wasn’t too enthralling.

Plus, I’m awesome.

But eventually, she agreed to give the new worker a shot. Until the new worker helpfully explained that she wasn’t actually the new worker. She was the intake worker. The worker who would get all of the family’s information and history, get them to sign on for services, and then hand this all off, preferrably in a neat little packet, to the actual new worker.


This is what prompted my recent, highly scientific, entirely accurate Twitter social work poll: do you do your own intakes? We don’t have those kind of intake workers here at Anonymous Agency. I was wondering if we were in the minority.

Most people who responded did their own intakes. Most people said they preferred it this way, which I can certainly understand. Ideally, we want to avoid situations like the one I described. “OK, open up. Tell me all about your abusive boyfriend. You have how many kids with him? I see. And your father beat you as well, interesting. Drug history? Wow, quite a history. All right, I’ll just type this up, and pass it along to the next person you’re going to have to give all of this information to.”

But I can also see the appeal of an intake worker. For one thing, it would save me a lot of wasted time. (Not time being wasted, which I would be ok with. Time that I could spend doing actual work.)

After a family is referred to us, they have thirty days to sign for services. If they don’t sign within those thirty days, they can be re-referred, or they can be dropped forever. In that thirty day time frame, even if people seem uninterested, we have to show “diligent effort.” You would think that this means placing some phone calls, sending a letter, and stopping by the house. When a family doesn’t want to sign, however, it seems that “diligent effort” means popping out of bushes in front of their homes, stalking them at their place of work, and tagging the children with tracking devices.

When a family is referred by ACS, the stakes are even higher. ACS workers are under a lot of pressure to get families off of their caseloads, and into preventive services. The first thing that I tell a client who has been referred by ACS is, “Our services are voluntary.” The first thing the ACS worker tells them is, “If you don’t sign, we’re going back to court to have services madated.”


We don’t want to sign a family that is not actually committed to participating in services. We are mandated to see the family twice a month, do home visits, and see all of the children. Personally, I do more than enough running after people as it is.

Families tend to be all about preventive services when their ACS worker is present. “Sure, I’ll sign, why not? We could use the help.” ACS then extends the greatest compliment they can bestow on anyone: “They’re very compliant.”

Compliance tends to fly out the window when the ACS worker instantly checks out. I call, I stop by the home, I send carrier pigeons. I start to take being ignored personally. Then the thirty days are up, I have to reject the case, and I get a call from a cranky ACS worker telling me I didn’t put enough effort in.

I immediately transfer all such calls to my supervisor, who delivers a sound bitchslap over the phone.

So an intake worker would be nice. Someone whose job it is to just do all of this. Because in social work, we can’t just think of what would be “best practice.” We also need to consider time management and logistics. Am I not seeing a client who actually wants services, because I’m chasing down a family that wants nothing to do with me? (Fools, I know.)

It would also be nice to have a better idea of what exactly I’m getting into. Technically, we have an “intake worker” for the agency. She accepts referrals, and completes some very basic information which is collected from the referral source. Names and birth dates of everyone in the home, address and telephone number, and the presenting problem.

I don’t know if she’s overwhelmed, or just a little wacky. But the information we’re getting…it’s flawed at best. I recently showed up twenty minutes late and extra sweaty for an initial home visit, because the referral form had the correct building number, but wrong street. (If you saw a white girl running through the Bronx while clutching forms, you might have had an SJ sighting!)

There’s also the time that I was told that an eighteen month old injured himself by turning on the hot water in the bathtub. Turns out he was actually scalded by a pot of boiling water. I also called a home asking to speak to Ms. Smite. Yeah, it was Ms. Smith. Or when I frantically searched for a family’s missing infant, only to find out that our “intake worker” had made the kid up.

What’s my point? I’m not sure. The initial engagement period is important, and it’s crucial to set a good tone for the relationship between client and worker. But mistakes are going to be made. Whether it’s showing up late and out of breath, mispronouncing someone’s name, or accidentally giving them more children than they have, everything isn’t going to go how we like. There are good and bad aspects in both ways of doing things. Making sure we have all the information, and minimize retraumatizing people by not making them tell their story over and over again, goes a long way in getting families to trust our competence and feel that we respect them.

Plus, it saves me looking like an idiot.

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

20 06 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I promise, that last one helps.

SWAAFI (Social Workers Against Acronyms, for Irony)

17 06 2011

In high school, my friends and I went through the early motions of starting an official group called, “SAA: Students Against Acronyms.” We thought we were smart and funny. I’d say we were half right, but it seems like a bit too much credit. We were also lazy, so it never got off the ground.

Little did I know that my future would be AF. That’s acronym filled, for those of you not in the know.

Social workers, or SWs, as I refer to them in my progress notes, simply adore acronyms. We use them in the referral process, in writing up intakes, assessments, and service plans. That all makes sense. Condense everything as much as possible, because we’ve got enough to talk about.

Family was referred by ACS (Administration for Children’s Services) following a CPS (Child Protective Services) investigation. BM (Biological Mother, not Bowel Movement, though it always makes me giggle) reports a history of DV (Domestic Violence) with BF (Biological Father.) MGM (Maternal Grandmother) took custody when children were placed in FC (foster care.) BM (tee hee) denies a history of MH (Mental Health) and SA (Substance Abuse.) Contact information for the children’s GAL (Guardian Ad Litem) is included.

Oh dear. So much work to be done. I’ll have to include it all in my FASP (Family Assessment Service Plan.) What if BM (sorry, it’s still funny) wants to pursue a PINS (Person In Need of Supervision) warrant on the oldest teen? Is the family receiving PA (Public Assistance)? BM (OK, I’m done) is attending a BTW (Back To Work) program, but she missed a few days because her ACD (I honestly don’t even know) child care voucher didn’t come through. If they’re sanctioned, she might need an EVR (Eligibility Verification Review) and that’s a huge pain in the ass. Are they asking for a PE (Psychiatric Evaluation) for any family members? Did we talk to the CM (Case Manager)? Or was it the CW (Case Worker)?

Do any of the children identify as LGBT? Is the family going home to DR for the summer? Do the kids know their ABCs? Are they posting on FB? Do I have time to stop for cash at the ATM? What did I get on my SAT?

After a while, you start to go a bit mad. (We all go a little mad sometimes.)

Using these acronyms says something. It says, hey, I’m busy and important! I have things to say, and very limited time in which to say them. It also might say that you’re well-versed in the world of Twitter.

The acronyms say more than that, though. As I’ve said, social workers are insecure and annoying. Speaking in jargon lets people know that we know the system. I am a professional, dammit! I know what I’m talking about. Oh, you have to ask what PINS or CASAC means? I’ll explain it. And you will recognize that I know more than you.

This sends a message, and often not the message we want to send. I’ve seen workers, social workers and protective workers, or psychiatrists and case managers, or any other variation of well-intentioned helpers, talk in circles in front of their clients. Most of the clients we work with know public assistance lingo. They often know some child protection speak, as well. Odds are, they aren’t familiar with all of it, though. Public assistance, child protection, mental health…it’s a lot of language to be up to speed on.

I felt incredibly out of place when I first started in this field. I thought I sounded like an idiot when I had to ask what one of these things meant. I try to keep that in mind, before I drop initials on a client. I can’t stand when doctors prattle on in medical terminology about…whatever it is they do (I don’t often go to doctors, but I did watch ER) and act like a patient who never saw the inside of a medical school should know exactly what they mean.

I think it does us all well to remember what it’s like to feel like the newbie, like the dumbest person in the room. Some of us feel like that more often than others, but that’s not the point. There are reasons we sound like this sometimes. Sometimes it becomes second nature, sometimes we want to sound like we know the drill, sometimes we try to make ourselves look better than an obnoxious worker, or someone talking down to us.

But sometimes, being so comfortable with the jargon shows how comfortable we are on the inside track, which makes others feel that they’re on the outside. Sometimes making ourselves look better makes someone else look worse.

SA, DV, MH and the rest aren’t technical terms, but they are confusing when you’re the new guy, as a worker or a client. And to be honest, since we’re all friends here–they’re kind of obnoxious. Occasionally, they make us sound like a bunch of douches.

So please, join me in fighting back. Talke back entire words along with me. I’ll be emailing out an invite to SWAAFI later today. Let me know if you want me to CC you.

Are empty Funyuns packets indicative of child abuse?

13 06 2011

Drug addiction is notoriously difficult to treat. It’s a frustrating problem for the person trying to get help, and for the professionals trying to provide that help. Twelve step programs are generally the most accepted, along with intensive rehab and inpatient treatment.

The only thing that we know really doesn’t work is being featured on a VH1 reality show. Who knew?

I shouldn’t have to worry all that much about this. I’m not a drug counselor. I don’t work in drug treatment. In the world of prevention, families with drug problems or mental health issues are supposed to be sent to “intensive preventive.” This involves more frequent home visits, and a case worker in addition to a social worker, to provide the level of care the families need.

Surprise surprise, funding is short. Meaning we are increasingly getting sent cases that are not strictly appropriate for our services.

I guess they try to keep the really, really intense cases where they belong. For the most part, we don’t get clients who use hard drugs. Crack is not a big part of my professional life. (Or my personal life, don’t worry.) But, it would seem, marijuana follows me everywhere I go. (At work, I mean. Settle down.)

Drug tests are a regular part of an ACS investigation. I’m not usually one to get all up in arms about such things, but it is a bit odd. Especially when the reason a case was called in has nothing to do with drug use. A parent using excessive corporal punishment, or a case of inadequate guardianship could be influenced by drug use, but it seems wrong to jump to conclusions and imply that parents have to go along with a drug test, when they actually have the right to refuse.

Not surprisingly, considering how drug tests work (marijuana stays in a person’s system for up to thirty days, cocaine for about forty eight hours) test frequently come up positive for marijuana. And I’m frequently asked to deal with this.

A drug problem is difficult to treat when the person in question admits that they have a problem and need help. When the person in question does not admit this, and says that they just smoke weed every so often, to relax, to have a good time, to celebrate a special event, it’s an uphill battle.

When the worker assigned to provide help, and convince this person that there is, in fact, a problem, does not believe that there’s a problem? We’re beyond uphill battle. It’s uphill, wearing roller skates and ankle weights, being chased back down by a pack of wolves.

Most people who get busted for marijuana use, whether they be parents or teens, admit to using it occasionally. Sometimes I suspect that it’s more often. There was one teenage boy I worked with who I don’t think I ever saw not high. He had gone beyond the fun, let’s-watch-Adult-Swim-and-eat-Cheetos high to the this-is-just-who-I-am high. I thought he had a problem, and that he needed help.

But most of the positive screenings we get a report on are low levels. People admit to smoking because it was someone’s birthday, or smoking once a month.

They admit that to me, anyway. In court, and to ACS, they usually admit to having been in a smoky room. Or they admit to eating a poppy seed bagel, because a lot of people saw that one episode of Seinfeld and got a little confused.

It’s so strange to me that so many workers, social workers, protective workers, judges, and lawyers, will act like a positive marijuana test is the end of the world. I don’t think it’s a good thing. But it’s so easy to pick up on, and so easy to say it needs to be addressed, that I think it clouds our judgment.

Sometimes I feel like I’m being sucked back into the 1950s and Reefer Madness. “She’s been smoking marijuana, SJ. What if she leaves her kids unsupervised because she goes out to buy more? What if she gets stoned and ignores them? They could get hurt!”

These things could happen. They could also happen if a parent went out for a pack of cigarettes, or a Mountain Dew. She could ignore her kids for lots of reasons. Good book, Halo tournament, a few beers…I have one client whose use of  pills concerns me greatly. But my worries aren’t heard by the court, because she has a valid prescription.

How many adults have never smoked weed, not even once? Most people I know at least went through a phase where it was a bit of a regular thing. Some of us even inherited our parents’ old Cheech and Chong albums. (I’ll be honest, they really hold up.)

I’m not saying that it’s the best way to deal with one’s stress. It’s not the most effective coping strategy, nor is it the most mature method of dealing with one’s problems. We all know that people going through hard, stressful times ought to let the tension out by talking with a trusted loved one, exercising, writing a sad poem in their journals…you know, like we all do.

Oh, wait.

Yes, excessive marijuana usage concerns me. If someone can’t put the pipe down long enough to let a CPS worker complete a home visit, then I’m concerned about what’s going on. But if the children are taken care of, and this is the only concern? It seems like we’re looking for and creating problems.

And I don’t think we need to be doing that just yet.

Law & Order: SJ

19 05 2011

There are a lot of aspects of being a social worker that are annoying. Home visits. Mandated clients. Language barriers. But there’s one that I am very fortunate to miss out on.

I don’t have to go to court.

I’ll take a minute to let you deal with your jealousy. Everyone OK? OK.

It’s an agency policy. We are only allowed to go to court if subpoenaed. (That is a hard word to spell.) This is pretty rare, because it involves some work. If we are subpoenaed (seriously, is that Latin or something?) the agency lawyer has to accompany us. He’s rarely available, so this is another battle.

I’ve been at the agency for two years. Some of my coworkers have had to appear in court, but so far, I have not. I always feel pretty bad when a client asks me to be there to support them, and I have to explain that I can’t do this. At the same time, nothing gives me greater joy than when an ACS calls me the evening before a court date, telling me that I will be there, and I get to explain that, unfortunately, I’m unable to do so. It’s policy.

Suck on that.

In these situations, I send a letter, on agency letterhead, signed with all those letters after my name, explaining what the family has been working on, if they’ve been participating in services, the progress they’ve made, all that.

But somehow, court still tries to ruin my life.

I’m not a legal expert. I have a couple of lawyers on retainer (one used to babysat me, and one accompanied me to various Hanson concerts) but I don’t know more than the average person about how our legal system works. I do know, though, that judges have a lot of power.

A lot. I think they can do whatever they want. Like, I think they can fly.

They can also tell me what to do. Sometimes parents are referred for services by the court. At first, our services are voluntary. If the parent refuses services, and things in the home don’t improve, a judge can order them to participate in services in order to avoid losing custody of the children.

This makes sense. It’s not how you want to start a working relationship, but it can be necessary, to keep kids safe while preserving families. Sometimes that order from the judge is the “in” you need, and lets you get some actual work done.

But sometimes, these judges don’t know when to back off.

I work with some large families. One in particular consists of a mother, (sometimes) a father, a 20 year old son, a 19 year old son, his 18 year old girlfriend, their five month old son, 16 year old fraternal twins, a 14 year old boy, 11 year old girl, eight year old boy, and six year old girl. To make things more interesting, the six year old has cerebral palsy, is non-verbal, and is confined to a wheelchair.

The 14 year old in this scenario is the target child. But I’ll be the first to say that they entire family has things they need to work on.

However, that’s not where they are. Mom has had over twenty ACS cases in her life. The “these children will be removed!” threat does not hold water when it hasn’t happened in all of her experience. This woman is exhausted. Obviously. She is overwhelmed. All she wants is for these services to be out of her life, and all of these well meaning strangers to get out of her home.

She sends her 14 year old in for counseling every other week. And the kid is great about coming in and participating. She lets me come to the house every other week, and talks with me, tells me what’s going on, and asks for help with getting her disabled child services or making sure that all of the kids are in school.

The kids are safe. And the family is working on what they are ready to work on.

This was not enough for the judge. For the record, this judge was described to me by the ACS worker as, “very frightening. I was almost peeing on myself.”

And they say we’re not professionals.

The judge wanted family counseling. The entire family. At once. Every week.

First of all, I don’t have time to see one family six times a month. Second of all, a counseling session with eleven people, ages six to forty? One of whom has a serious disability? Eight of whom are marginally interested, at best? Your honor, I’m beginning to suspect that you hate me.

This judge doesn’t know what that counseling session would be like. She’s never been a social worker. An actual social worker would never suggest that kind of intervention. Because it is stupid.

Sorry, I’m a little cranky about it.

I also work with a woman who was arrested because a friend had a small amount of marijuana in her apartment. The woman’s drug test was clean, but she was still mandated to receive services. I have to get this woman enrolled in parenting classes, domestic violence counseling, and an anger management group.

Who couldn’t use those things? But it’s a bit much. It’s a little overwhelming to go from minding your own business to suddenly dealing with all of the bad things that have ever happened to you. And I guess an argument could be made that she shouldn’t have been hanging out with someone who had weed on them.

Certainly a parenting class and some DV counseling will help with this.

I don’t want to downplay the important role that the courts play in keeping kids safe. However, they are not, primarily, experts on child welfare or family dynamics. The idea that they some of them think they can tell me how to best do my job kind of pisses me off. If they’d like to try social working, they’re welcome to it.

And I’ll be happy to dole out some harsh sentences.


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