Arise and Seize the Day

28 01 2013

I am exhausted.

It’s just been one of those months. Suddenly almost all of my families are working (yay!) so I have I stay late to make sure I see everyone each week (boo!) Everything is due at once, lots of new cases are coming in, caseload maximums are rising, paperwork is multiplying, I’m working lots of hours I don’t get paid for, and I’m getting heartburn just typing this.

Really, I can’t complain. I mean, it’s what I signed on for. And everyone in the field is doing the same thing. So it’s ok. Just the way it is.


It was recently suggested to me that this isn’t the way it has to be. That maybe we could unite and agitate for change. Bizarre that this didn’t occur to me earlier. I mean, I helped found Students for Social Justice as an undergrad. And I watched Newsies at least 1054 times. That is a conservative estimate.

It’s ridiculous. We make shitty money for our education level, and it is not possible to get work done in the amount of time we are technically supposed to be in the office. Is it just that we’re not talking about it enough?

Note that I said “talking,” not “engaging in martyrdom.” It’s a fine line to draw, but we must make an effort.

Teachers have been talking about too little respect and money and too much work to do in a school day since the dawn of standardized testing time. Yes, they’re still getting a raw deal. But at least they have a union. And they get discounts at random bookstores, which makes me envy them terribly. They’ve done a good job of putting themselves out there as educated people doing an important job that they deserve to be compensated fairly for. We can argue over how much good it’s done, but at least it’s on people’s minds.

Most people don’t even know who should actually be called a social worker.

I think that’s the first step, actually. Title protection. We don’t have it in New York. I know it’s been implemented in Washington and Virginia, with some success. Of course, people can’t legally advertise that they’re an LCSW if they aren’t. But people can refer to themselves or their employees as social workers when they aren’t, and this happens all the time. It’s the first step to respect. Respect is the first step to sweet sweet cash proper compensation.

I’m quite open to suggestions here, as I have no idea how to make progress in this area in terms of law. I do think being open about this, and educating others about the fact there’s nothing wrong with being a caseworker with an Associate’s degree, but that doesn’t make one a social worker, is crucial and something we can all do. Not everyone who works in a social worky field is a social worker. Refer to a doctor as a nurse, and see what you get. People know to be careful about that. It would be pretty cool if they knew that about us as well.

We need to stop acting like self care is the answer. Let me put this in words social workers will understand–it’s kind of victim blaming. It’s not that there’s too much to be done, you just can’t be arsed to take care of yourself! Go to the gym! Oh wait, by the time you get out of work they’re about to close. Well, take a mental health day! But then you won’t get your contacts in, and you put the agency at risk of losing our contract with the city. Why are you so selfish?

Talking a brisk walk and listening to Mumford & Sons only goes so far. It helps you to deal with a shitty, overwhelming situation, before you’re able to change it.

Self care can help postpone burnout, but it doesn’t make it go away. Support from one another would help. When someone in the office says, “Hey, isn’t it kind of fucked that we’re twenty five percent over maximum caseload?” we should talk about ways to fight it in our agencies. We shouldn’t snort and say, “When I started here, we had nine million cases. Literally. More than the population on New York City, I know!”

To really address burnout, though, we need more fundamental changes.

This is where it gets complicated. The work we do and the programs that help us to do it are always the first to go when we realize the country is Texas with a dollar sign in debt. It puts us in survival mode. At my agency, we work incredibly hard to prove that we can do the most with the least. It’s not just because we were all unpopular in junior high and are seeking approval. It’s because we’re in constant competition for city contracts. When we get a new one, we’re momentarily validated. It’s working!

Contracts are the opiate of the social work masses. We don’t have time to fight for change when we’re treading water. Kind of like how we’d love for our clients to agitate for change to the public assistance system, but they don’t have time what with all their appointments for public assistance.

I know we all hate to hear “evidence based,” but like title protection, it’s an important step. We need to be able, in some way, to identify that what we’re doing is helping. Not just that we’re seeing people for a shorter period of time, but that they’re making measurable improvements and not returning for services a month later.

Social services and caring for society’s vulnerable needs to be a bigger priority. It needs to be recognized as something that needs funding. I realize that this statement is far from revolutionary. I realize that I offer nothing in the way of answers, only more questions. But maybe if we start talking about meaningful change that benefits us all, and therefore our clients, rather than exchanging war stories, we can make some of it happen?

I guess it can’t hurt.

SocialJerk Scrooge

13 10 2011

It’s no secret that we have no money. Not just here at Anonymous Agency. I mean everywhere. Donations have dried up faster than…I can’t think of a PG way to finish that sentence, but you know what I mean. We’re short on money because the city is short on money. Programs that used to provide furniture, clothing, books, food, housing subsidies, and Christmas gifts, have shut down or drastically restricted their services.

“Is this for a left handed boy named Lou with an incarcerated parent? Oh, I’m sorry, in that case we don’t have any toddler beds available.”

Many of the families we work with have been in the system, in one form or another, for most of their lives. Many of them remember the good old days, when there was more to go around. When we were handing out clothing and furniture like candy. And you should have seen the way we gave out candy! Some people also confuse programs. ACS might have been able to give you things that we can’t, and no matter how many times we tell some people, they don’t really believe that we aren’t ACS.

This means that people have some expectations that we can’t meet. “You’re supposed to help me. I need food. Help me with that. My mother’s worker used to take her food shopping. And my aunt got a housing subsidy through you guys!” Apparently, a list of food pantries is not “help.” They need their back rent paid off, or their children need new school clothes. Unless one of the workers convinces someone to make a private donation (we do what we can, but you’ll be surprised to know that most of us don’t run with a particularly wealthy crowd) we usually can’t meet these needs.

It’s understandable that people want this kind of help. Who wouldn’t? But there are times when it seems like it’s expected. And that’s when we all start to get kind of pissed.

One family I have is constantly in need. I understand why. The sheer number of appointments and programs that the mother has to attend due to her court case meant that she needed to take a leave of absence from her job. Her public assistance case was sanctioned, and she’s having trouble providing the basics for her family. So the agency was kind enough to approve me buying them soap and detergent.

The kids are now demanding to know what they’ll be getting for their birthdays. I’m sorry, but there are six of you. I know you’re only nine, but it’s time you learned the phrase, “not in the budget.” (With or without a coupon.) Especially when the request is for red Jordans. If you’re that desperate, you’re not allowed to be that picky. That’s how this works.

All of the families we work with are in need, but some are needier than others. Some really tug at your heartstrings (I have those too) and make you want to help. One young mother I worked with upon first coming here had a serious cockroach problem in her apartment. Unfortunately, I’ve been there. (When I’m a rich and famous social worker, I’ll reveal my landlord’s name on The View and ruin her. But not yet.) This woman’s management company was not responsive, and complaints to 311 did nothing. The mother was desperately trying to find work, but having no luck, and couldn’t afford to deal with the problem herself.

So I didn’t really mind spending $15 of my own money on bug bombs, when the agency said there was nothing they could do. Mom was grateful, we all moved on. The same thing happened when I had two high school students who didn’t have bus fare for the first day of school. As much as I wanted to hang on to my laundry quarters, I can deal in order to get them to their first day of ninth grade. They were also almost embarrassingly thankful.

Sometimes it doesn’t go this way. There’s nothing like feeling like you’ve made a connection with a family, only to be told, “You haven’t done anything for me! I need clothes for the baby and school books, and you haven’t gotten me anything!”

Every so often, we do get donations. At the beginning of the school year, we’ll get a few bookbags. Around Christmas, we’ll get some toys or movie passes. Once in a while a worker with connections can get a department store to give us some new clothes for kids.

But it’s never enough for everyone. So choices have to be made.

As much as we all try to deny it (or not) we all have favorites. There are some families who are just more pleasant to work with than others. They make our jobs easier, they’re more polite, their kids are cute. They also tend not to be demanding.

That’s not to say that they don’t need services. But they don’t show up to the office and tell you that they’d like you to make them a fresh pot of coffee (oh yes, this has happened) or have their kids go to you requesting new school clothes. As much as we all try not to be, we are all human. There are families that make you want to go above and beyond, lay your own money out, call in favors. And there are families that don’t. We don’t want to let these kinds of personal preferences interfere with our assessment of who needs those rare, precious handouts the most. At the same time, we’re not perfect. It’s something to be aware of.

But we also don’t want to foster unrealistic expectations, or dependency. I don’t believe that this is human nature. I do think people want to provide for their own families, rather than rely on the public, whenever possible. But we have seen that people can be made dependent on a system. The flawed way public assistance works is a good example of this. When people grow up understanding that this is where and how you get what you want and need, it’s hard to blame them for seeming entitled and pissing off their social worker. Especially when the system has changed.

I understand, as a social worker, that people have needs. Not just for counseling, but for food, shelter, clothing, and even for toys. I would love to be able to give every kid I work with birthday and Christmas gifts, and to pay for families to go on outings together. Unfortunately, it’s not possible. I understand why people are looking for those things, but sometimes it feels like people misread “social worker” as “Santa Claus.”

And no one even bothers to leave me cookies.

Moving on up! (But staying in the exact same place)

10 03 2011

I don’t know if you all heard the news, but I think it’s time to share. Here at Anonymous Agency, we’re expecting! That’s right. 150 new families, 13 new case planners, three new supervisors, and a new director.

At a time when a lot of social service agency are hemmorhaging workers, and losing funding to serve clients, we’re getting more. Why, you must be asking, could that be?

For one, we’re very, very good. I say that facetiously, but it’s true. We do good work. This place is less crazy than most agencies.

For another, our proposal promised to do a lot with a little. More than possible, some would say. (I mean, I wouldn’t say that. That would be termination worthy incorrect.)

We had a meeting the other day to discuss, what else, doing more with less. It’s been the topic of pretty much every staff meeting we’ve had since our old director who made us do group-building yoga exercises left.

The main problem is space. We’re getting a lot of new people. And we don’t have anywhere to put them. We’ll be able to use a large room down the hall, but that’s all we’re adding on, in terms of office, cubicle, and counseling space.

Let's try a helpful visual aid.

This is the office as we currently have it. Those smiley faces are workers. The smiley face with the long hair and eyebrow ring is your very own SocialJerk. The one with glasses that make him look like a ninja turtle is my desk mate.

These little diagrams were passed out a staff meeting, which the Big Boss attended. She frightens me. And when I’m nervous, I get extra sarcastic and try to be funny. It’s not the best defense mechanism, I admit.

She came in and told us that we would have to rework our floor plan. The large room down the hall will be divided in half, so one half can be used for groups, and the other can be used for case planners.

In the space we currently use, we would have to figure out how to cram in some extra cubicles, give the new supervisors the private offices that they so richly deserve, and not sacrifice all of our counseling space.

Now, if you ask me, the priority is counseling space. Yes, we need a place to do our paper work, and a spot to keep our files, but without counseling space, what’s the point?

Obviously, I’m an idiot.

“”Can the supervisors share offices?”
“Well, that would make supervision difficult.”
“But they’re not supervising all the time. Maybe they can work on sharing the space, come up with an arrangement.”
“I’m not sure that would work.”

I took “that won’t work” to mean, “We want our own damn offices, Snood isn’t going to beat itself.” I might have just been in a bad mood.

Then one of my coworkers suggested using a potential counseling room as a storage area. I’m sorry, are we running a big box store on the side? I understand that we have a lot of junk here, but let’s try to clear it out and keep what we need in actual closets.

How about our enormous filing cabinets? What if we attached a shelf over everyone’s desk, so they could lock and keep their files there?

“But where will be put the cabinets?”

It was the strangest descent into office life I’d ever experienced. It was as though I’d stumbled upon a primitive culture, who had no idea of the advances going on in the world around them. “That is the rock. The rock has always been there. We cannot move it.” For a moment, I comtemplated taking out my smart phone and convincing them to worship me as a goddess.

Every suggestion that was made, some Debbie Downer, or Negative Ned, I don’t care which one, piped in with why it was terrible. If we use partitions they won’t be soundproof, if we give away the donated clothes we won’t have them when we need them, turning cubicles that way might be a fire hazard, bunk desks are a dangerous and stupid idea, SocialJerk, stop suggesting that.

Somehow we developed impossibly higher standards for our new space. Even higher than the standards we currently have. (To be fair, you’ve seen pictures, our standards are pretty low.)

But changes are coming, whether we like it or not. One thing I’ve always loved about social work is that it allows me to creative and flexible in my practice.

So I’m still holding out for top desk.

Social Workers Run More Numbers Than the Mob

7 02 2011

I talk about my clients all the time. I’m sure you’re dying to know how someone gets so lucky as to work with me. Well I’ll tell you!

The vast majority of our referrals come from ACS (New York’s Administration for Children’s Services, which includes CPS) or from PINS (Person In Need of Supervision) diversion.

Go acronyms!

An ACS referral means that there has been a credible allegation of abuse or neglect, but that the children will not be removed. In order to prevent foster care, which is the last resort, families are referred to us for counseling.

PINS is a warrant parents apply for if their child is “out of control.” Skipping school, engaging in dangerous behavior, all the tomfoolery the kids these days get up to. The warrant makes it so that the child can be sent to a residential treatment facility, or something similar.

Because that’s expensive, and the city is a little short on cash (I think they’re going to start charging sidewalk rental fees for walkers) before the courts will grant these warrants, they send the families in for preventive services. So social workers such as myself can fix everything.

Our services are voluntary. However, the ACS workers tell families, “You need to sign on for preventive services.” I then tell them that services are voluntary. The ACS worker looks at me with hatred in his or her eyes, because if the case is not moved to preventive, it stays with that ACS worker. The families are often threatened with returning to court, and ultimately, they sign.

PINS diversion cases are also voluntary. Parents are willing to sign on, often under the assumption that counseling will fail, and then they’ll be granted the magical warrant. These families have been through a lot, and feel that they’ve tried everything. They’re not eager to meet for weekly counseling to explore alternative disciplinary methods, and discuss their own childhoods.

A lot of people who initially seem eager to sign on for services disappear after a couple of weeks. We’re required to see each family at least twice a month, at least once in the home. The goal, of course, is to see them weekly.

This doesn’t sound too hard. But oh, it can be.

I had one family who was at home for a visit by myself and their ACS worker, then came to the office for two visits before singing on. After that, they promptly disappeared. This was over the summer, and it turned out that the mom had sent the two kids to California to visit family for six weeks.

I’ve gone to Staten Island for visits. I could swing San Diego. But my proposal was rejected.

There are people that you need to chase on this job. It’s one if the most frustrating things we deal with. I understand it. These are people who have had negative experience with service providers, and “people just trying to help” in the past. They associate us with ACS, and think I’m there to check up on them. What could be more frightening than the idea that someone is judging you, making a case that you don’t deserve your kids?

But come on. I’m fun! I really am here to help! And for the last time, I cannot take your kids! Even if I really like them. When I haul myself out in a blizzard to try for a home visit , only to find that no one is there when they said they would be…I have to struggle to stay empathetic.

Numbers are incredibly important at my job. I recall one conversation I overheard between my director and my supervisor.

“She’s only seen this family once this month.”
“I know. But she went to the house four times.”
“Yeah, she needs to see them again.”
“I know, she’s trying.”
“OK. She needs to see them again.”

Apparently he’s a believer in The Secret. Just keep saying it, it’ll happen.

A valid excuse doesn’t matter. What matters is results. Stereotypical tough football coaches in movies about high school in Texas are more accepting of, “Well, I did the best I could!” than social work bosses.

My director once decided that a monthly competition would get everything in gear. The person with the most contacts wins a prize!

We can’t afford juice boxes for kids’ group, but we’re going to give out incentives to the workers. Fortunately, it never happened.

I had something to do with this. My supervisor had warned me that I was in the lead during supervision (oh yes, I’m very good.) We wound up talking about how uncomfortable this made me.

I understand that numbers are important. We need to document that we are seeing these families. We need to make sure that everyone in the home is safe. We need to meet our funding requirements.

But there are times that it feels like that is what being a good social worker is. I have run into a family in the bodega and counted it as a contact. (Casework, and Sunchips? Yes please!) Did I get any work done? What did we accomplish? The idea that my work is often judged at my agency based on how many times I see these families, rather than the quality of the sessions, is rather disheartening.

This is what frightens me when I think of being in a supervisory role at some point. How do you achieve a balance between the requirements for funding, and what’s best for clients? When these things are at odds, how do you decide what is most important?

No matter what, at least I know what the answer is not–a monthly contest in which grown professionals compete for a (proverbial?) cookie.

All times of the year have been evaluated, and the results are in–this is the most wonderful

22 12 2010

Looking for a last minute gift for that special social worker in your life? For shame, there’s only three days to go! And if this is a Jewish social worker, you’ve missed the boat entirely.

Oh well. If you hurry, you make use of these recommendations. (In case you’re wondering, I barely even get paid to do my actual job, so I am definitely not making money here.)

SocialJerk Book Club (I’ve always thought that Oprah and I have a lot in common.)

  • Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
    Work in the Bronx? Love the Bronx? Wish you were cool like the Bronx? This is the book for you! It’s also an incredible, true story of one family going through the cycle of poverty. Not entirely original, but the love and respect with which this story is told unique.
  • American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare by Jason DeParle
    Spoiler alert: it didn’t work. But it’s an amazing look into welfare reform, and how it affected actual people. Not just those welfare queens in their cadillacs that we always hear about.
  • Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care by Nina Bernstein
    Warning: This one isn’t what you’d call uplifting. A teenager is part of a class action law suit, claiming that the NYC foster care system is discriminatory and unconstitutional. While all this is going on, she has her own son, whom she relinquishes to care. Many things have changed for the better, but so much of what I read in this book reminds me of what drives me crazy today. But it is an amazing analysis of foster care, at least in New York, and the changes that have been made and what still needs to be done.
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
    Not exactly a social work book, but it is the most stunning book about teenage depression I’ve ever read. I read it in one day when I got it for Christmas, at age 15. I felt like I was reading the story of my life and someone finally understood me. (Whatever, 15 year olds are supposed to be dramatic.) I’d recommend it to anyone who works with teens. Or who likes awesome books with fabulous mid 90s references.

Practical Necessities

  • Mace
    Don’t worry–only for emergencies, never for unruly children. I swear.
  • Comfy sneakers
    It’s fine, Letterman made professional dress matched with sneakers cool and acceptable. Necessary, because we do a lot of walking. Often in bad neighborhoods. Which means sometimes we have to do some running.
  • Glee Christmas Album
    Do you need any more reason, other than “it’s awesome?” OK. Sometimes, the job is hard, holidays aren’t happy for everyone, and the Christmas spirit gets dangerously low. (And we all know that’s what powers Santa’s sleigh.) Nothing lifts my mood like Glee. If it doesn’t do the same for you…well I just don’t know if we have anything to say to each other.
    Aside from that, nothing makes me happy like inclusivity and a lack of heteronormativity. A couple of cute teenage boys chasing each other around while singing a love song, on national television like it’s no big thang? Love it for my teens.
  • Spanish-English dictionary
    Avoid sounding like an idiot. A former co-worker was constantly asking kids how many anuses they have, instead of how old they are, and saying, “I love you?” instead of asking if they wanted a snack. Seriously. Don’t be that crazy person.
  • Subway/bus map
    You’re going to be on public transit, and you’re going to get lost. Prepare for it now.
  • Silly Bandz, slap bracelets, whatever the latest trend is.
    Nothing gets you in good with a reluctant kid like nonchalantly flashing proof that you follow the latest fads.
  • Play Doh
    Because everyone loves it. You’re never too old. I have my own set that I don’t even let the kids play with. (What, they always mix up the colors. I hate that.)
  • Pens
    I believe we’ve gone over this.

Well, I hope I was able to help. (It’s kind of why I got into this profession.) And if your own budget is a little too tight, maybe you can hug a social worker this holiday season. We like that sort of thing.

It’s like I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription is staff meeting

10 12 2010

Social workers love communication. We tell our clients to do more of it with their families, their friends, and we’re probably even a pain in the ass about it with our own social circles. (Not me, but you get the idea.) We can solve anything if we just talk it out. This even applies to our office issues.

I don’t know about you, but I’m in the mood for a damn fine staff meeting.

We have them around here about once a month or so. For two hours we gather in the largest session room, that is normally reserved for group, and really hash things out. Then a coworker presents a family for group supervision, and we clear out.

Or we sit cramped together, complaining about the fact that pastries are no longer provided due to budget cuts, while our director voices our complaints and explains why nothing can be done about them. Then we listen while someone else talks about their impossible case, offer feeble suggestions, and leave feeling more overwhelmed and defeated than when we walked in.

We just had one of these meetings today. Allow me to walk you through our agenda.

  1. Cultural assessment in service plans– We need more, because this is what was cited in our last audit. Let me clarify–I recently submitted a service plan with a family assessment that included the family’s ethnicity, language, religion, and how they spend the holidays. Apparently if we’re not listing what traditional dances are done in their country of origin, we are lacking.
  2. Security in the office. This is a big one, since we’ve had two break-ins in the past two months. I was actually told to stop coming in early, so I wouldn’t be alone in the office, because things have been heating up.
    A little background–we are located in the “Little Italy” section of the Bronx, which is actually incredibly culturally diverse now. Not to mention a pretty rough area. It’s also where “A Bronx Tale” was set. So in addition to the regular street violence, there’s something a bit more…organized going on around here. (If you didn’t guess, I am, in fact, winking.)
    Our director tells us that we should feel safe, because we work upstairs from the “Italian Social Club.” Those guys are known to provide protection. (Apparently we’re ignoring the break-ins, for the moment.) He tells us that they’ve known for years what goes on around here. Surely we all remember when that man got out of a limo, went into the murder Social Club, and left with a bag of money? Oh, and the man was wearing a cape.
    I’ll let you mull that one over for a moment.
  3. Mundane office issues- There was a slew of these that I won’t bore you with, even though I had to suffer through them. Get more groups going, plan the Christmas parties, make more contacts…basically, everyone do more work. (I think I’ll have to remind him he told me not to come in early.)
  4. Finally, we got to group supervision. Which essentially means that we are all now worrying about a woman who has six kids, four of whom are in foster care, while the other two have severe mental health and behavioral issues. I guess it’s fair, though. Our director told me that I depressed the entire office the last time I presented a difficult case.

OK. I think you can see that this certainly was helpful, yes? Let’s get out there and help some people. On three…break!

Cutting the budget, before Suze Orman does it for us

22 11 2010

Money makes the world go round. Or maybe it’s love? Whatever it’s supposed to be, we all need cash. Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy things that will make you happy.

We might be stumbling upon the reason why so many of us are kind of miserable.

I’m not complaining about low salaries for social workers. (I’ll get to that in my annual Christmas letter.) I’m talking about everyone’s favorite–the budget.

Does everyone have their Tums ready? Such discussions frequently induce heartburn.

Things are only getting worse in preventive services. ACS, the city organization that funds us, is getting their budget slashed. Guess what that means?

We’re next. But dont’ worry, we’ve been preparing for it for a while. I present, a lesson in frugality, courtesy of social services.

Now, before you get all distracted by the stunning decor (the slab of cardboard really makes the crate pop, don’t you think?) ask yourself: how much would you pay for, what is clearly, a damn fine cup of coffee? It used to be free, but come on guys, the Rockefellers don’t live here anymore. So for only a dollar a week, you get the privilege of starting your day with the best lighter fluid Mr. Coffee can brew.

Yes, Halloween just passed. But think of all we’ll save by recycling these treat bags that some kids left behind, after taking the candy? We’re talking tens of cents, people. (More savings than some Target coupons.)

Speaking of holidays, don’t worry. We will be ordering the traditional late November feast of two for one Little Caesar’s pizzas for our clients’ Thanksgiving party.

I see you looking with lustful eyes. Everyone has to bring their own pens here, so hands off! (Note: I got these at an alumni event. You were supposed to take one, I emptied an untended basket into my bag. Further note: I was not a part of the Class of 2004.)

Speaking of office supplies. I requested hanging file folders. Once the laughter died down, I developed the equally mildly effective system of organization you see before you.

Safety is, of course, our number one priority. That’s why, after our office was recently broken into, we took the precaution of carefully patching up the hole that had been punched in the wall. Really take a moment to appreciate the craftsmanship. We also posted this helpful, laminated sign, so we won’t be victimized again.

I suggested posting a “Please, no burgling” sign out front as well, but it just wasn’t in the budget.

Don’t be shy. Share your social services/non profit/cheap boss ways to save. Because once we can’t cut any more extras out, we become the extras. Happy budgeting!