Sometimes there isn’t much to say

7 02 2012

It’s rare that I run out of things to say. Really, really rare. Especially when I’m writing.

But lately, it seems like there’s nothing to be said.

I recently came in to work, confronted with the worst message I’ve ever gotten. One of my little boys, a twelve year old, was shot while playing basketball. He was in his own neighborhood, in the afternoon, on an unseasonably warm and sunny winter day.

He’s progressing well and is going to be fine. Weeks in the hospital are unpleasant, but he’s walking already and getting back to his usual self.

It’s almost scary how quickly things seem to be going back to normal. How not entirely shocked the family was. They were devastated, of course. But they’ve all been in situations where they had to run from gunfire. Their friends have been shot. There’s almost a sense that it was just a matter of time.

The day it happened, I can’t say I handled it well. At first I walked around the office frantically. No one else was here, and the nervous energy within me couldn’t be burned out. By the time my supervisor got in, I thought I had it under control. I started sobbing in her office, though, and I realized I didn’t.

I held it together when talking to the family, when visiting this child in the hospital. But all I could think of was how completely, disgustingly unfair it was that this child was traumatized, physically hurt, his life changed forever. Kids shouldn’t have to deal with this.

The thing here is that there are no lessons to take away from this. This child did everything right. He is a smart kid, goes to school, is involved in extracurriculars, always tells his mother where he’s going. Going to college and getting out of the Bronx has always been his focus. His building is run by gang activity, but he’s always managed to stay out of it.

He was a child, playing with his friends. His mother was happy to send him out to have a good time.

Hearing the phrase “everything happens for a reason” has sent me into a rage that’s a little shocking, even for me, since this incident. There is no reason for kids to be shot by stray bullets while being kids. There is nothing to take away from this.

He wasn’t in ” the wrong place at the wrong time.” Where exactly do you go when you’re twelve and want to play basketball?

I usually like to wrap things up nicely. I like to end my rambling thoughts with an affirmation that we’re doing the right thing, that I’ve helped someone, that things aren’t all bad.

But how much are we helping, when we’re sending our children back out into a war zone? When these things can happen so easily? When there are human beings still walking around my neighborhood who think nothing of opening fire on a goddamn playground, while little kids are playing there? When others know what happened but don’t come forward?

Better to be complicit in horrifically injuring a child than to be a snitch, right?

I know the right answers, I really do. We can’t just give up. Some things do get better. We can’t control these random tragedies–he could have just as easily been hit by a car if he were living a charmed life in the suburbs.

But this is a time when it feels like I can’t do it anymore. That’s selfish, and it’s wrong, and this whole situation is not about me. It’s a shitty situation that I couldn’t have prevented, and that I can’t fix. All I can do is support the family and this child. Bring them McDonalds and beanie babies and Metrocards.

Even though all that makes me think is, what’s the fucking point?

I’m Ms. Brightside

19 01 2012

Yesterday was a rough day. Like, the kind your mom warned you about. Or maybe she didn’t. But still, they happen. I had to listen to an awesome twelve year old girl cry about how she wants to go live with her dad, because her mom blames everything on this kid and just can’t be nice. Mom doesn’t beat this child. Her physical needs are taken care of. The mom just has a unique ability to make this kid feel like crap. Dad probably can’t take her, and mom would never allow it anyway, but it was all she could think of.

I am trying to help this kid. Really, really trying. But with a parent who isn’t willing to even think about change, and a situation that doesn’t warrant removal (and really, would removal solve this? Would this child suddenly be in the warm, loving environment she deserves? Maybe. Probably not.) I’m limited in what I can do. A mentor and an afterschool program to get her out of the house, counseling at school, and support from me are kind of all I can do. It happens. There are situations you can’t fix, because the people in charge of them don’t want you to help.

Let’s focus on the good. For a moment

1.) I have been working with a mother and her thirteen year old daughter for close to a year now. They were barely speaking when they started coming in, and it is ridiculously heartwarming to see how much they’ve grown. They do things together and talk to each other. Soon, their case will be closed, which is depressing and thrilling all at the same time.

Anyway, this girl is super smart, and loves school. She just got accepted to the Catholic school of her choice, the one she’s been dreaming of, complete with a full scholarship. As if that weren’t enough (it totally was) she ran to the office to tell me. (After crying with her mom over it.)

2.) The other morning, there was a parenting group meeting at the office for the first time. They assured the clients that child care would be provided, but neglected to tell the workers who provide the child care. As a result, there was a lot of, “Well, I have other work to do. They didn’t tell me. I can’t watch these kids rabble rabble rabble.”

One of the kids in question was from one of my families, so I told the parents to leave their kids with me and go ahead to group. I don’t know how many of you have had the surprise experience of reading “The Cat in the Hat” to a group of toddlers who are extremely rarely read to, but it’s a delight. Trust me.

3.) Recently, we had a holiday celebration for participants that didn’t go exactly as planned. Supervision was lacking, there was a lot of petty infighting, we didn’t have time or money…the usual. But my homemade mancala boards? Were a HUGE hit. Families asked to take them home, so they could play together. Video game addict kids wanted to teach their friends to play. Victory!

Egg carton + beads = no money fun!

4.) In social work, a case being ready to close (not closing because time is up, or because they’re moving on to other services, or the kids are being removed) is a great success. I’ve got a family with an eight year old who is in just that position. They’re doing well. The mother just told me, “Things are still stressful, but I have ways to manage it now.” Yeah. That’s pretty much it.

But that’s not the best part. Here is a pic of me and her eight year old daughter.

See how we get our hair done at the same place?

5.) Another mother just told me that her son had been acting up lately, so she made an appointment with his psychiatrist to see if his ADHD meds needed to be adjusted. This was a woman who remembered to give this child his meds only about half the time last year. As a result, this was a child who spent half the time last year throwing chairs.

6.) My girls’ group ended this week. (Speaking of crying. Oh, we weren’t? I was.) One of our traditions is to have all of the girls write a card to each girl in the group, saying something positive about their participation. Two of the girls decided to write notes to me, and insisted, under pain of death, that I display them in my cubicle.

Yeah. You don't get that often.

We can’t help everyone. There are situations that we work our best on, and then have to admit that there’s nothing else we can do. It’s just reality. The reminders, especially visual reminders, that there are, in fact, people we help, and changes we help bring about, can make quite the difference.

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

8 12 2011

Really. Look it up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes I’m wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh. OK. Looks like you’ve got it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Spanxgiving

23 11 2011

People tend to have big reactions when I tell them what I do. “I’m a social worker, in the Bronx.” I inevitably get a look of concern or shock, told that the asker’s job is not nearly so important, and am asked how I do it?

I’ve gotten better at smiling and nodding, or assuring disbelieving conversationalists that I do, in fact, enjoy my job. But  no one really buys that. Sure, it’s rewarding, but isn’t my heart just always broken?

Sometimes, sure. I’ve written plenty about that. But this is a time of year when we eat our weight in potatoes give thanks, so I think I should get this out there.

I love my job. This is why.

It’s fun.

I swear. For all the complaining, breast-beating, and oh-what-a-worlding I engage in, my job gives me a lot of joy. And I don’t mean in the sappy “a child’s laughter is all the thanks I need” kind of way. I don’t dread going to work in the morning, like a lot of people I know do. (I used to, back when I did data entry. I could actually see my soul leaking out ears back then.)

Still don’t believe me? I get it. My righteous anger can be a lot to forget. But let me provide some reasons and examples, that I’ve conveniently compiled into bullet points.

  • I spent a good portion of this week cutting turkey feathers out of construction paper. I then spent most of Tuesday afternoon corralling sugared up toddlers and tweens and helping them to glue said turkey feathers down, and to decorate the office for Christmas. I know it isn’t everyone’s idea of a delightful afternoon, but it’s pretty damn enjoyable for me.
  • Once a week, I mold young minds in my girls’ group. I get to surreptitiously impart my feminist principles, under the guise of having a Beyoncé dance party.
  • Occasionally, I have Beyoncé dance parties.
  • I have gotten to take teen groups camping, to amusement parks, and ice skating.
  • After the Halloween party, I keep the leftover candy the kids didn’t want. Who the hell turns down Rolos?
  • I live in a walkable city, and have to do home visits. However rough the job gets, I have a de-stressing walk to look forward to.
  • On that camping overnight, I got to lead the way in a high ropes course, in which I realized that thirty feet off the ground is a lot higher than it sounds, and my girls learned some new words.
  • I can wear sneakers to work.
  • My Spanish improves by leaps and bounds. (Hola.)
  • At least twice a week, I am greeted with leg-crushing hugs from young kids, and excited shouts of, “Miss SJ!”
  • Girls’ group includes a snack budget.

Then there are the other things I’m grateful for. The things that make my job doable.

  • My Droid. OK, so it’s not an iPhone, but still. It has kept me from getting lost and helped me to get information on the go (translation: phone numbers I’ve forgotten to look up) during visits. It has also kept me entertained for simply hours while on delayed trains, or waiting for a delayed conference (email me to compare Fruit Ninja high scores.)
  • My iPod. Those walks would not be nearly as calming if I didn’t have the sounds of Amy Winehouse, the Decemberists, Mumford and Sons, or Florence and the Machine to keep me going. On really hard days, I play West Side Story and pretend that I’m doing outreach to the Sharks and the Jets.
  • Amy Winehouse, the Decemberists, Mumford and Sons, Florence and the Machine, musical theater, Glee…the soundtrack to my days and my walks that reminds me that the world can actually produce some pretty beautiful stuff.
  • My supervisor, who laughs at my inappropriate humor, shows me pictures of puppies when I’m feeling bummed, and believes in my abilities much more than I believe in myself.
  • My dollar store notebook. Where would I be without that thing? I have no idea, because it has every address I need in it.
  • My zip-up imitation suede boots from Target. Professional, yet comfy. Best $25 I ever spent.
  • My incredibly, amazingly generous family and friends, who somehow find the time to think of me and my families despite everything else they have to think about first. They’ve come through with donations of kids’ magazines for the waiting room, art and office supplies, and Christmas gifts. Not to mention, they listen to me rant and rave, and rarely tell me to shut it.
  • You blog readers out there. I mean, you know.

Of course I’m also grateful for the parents who finally started treating their son’s mental illness, or the mother who is in the process of leaving her abusive boyfriend. But that’s the boring stuff we all expect. So the thing I find myself most grateful for this year is the my secret fun job. The fact that I’m pretty much having a party every day (more or less) and I get credit for saving the world. There are worse ways to make a living.

Happy Thanksgiving, Americans! And happy Thursday, you international folk!

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.

Vegetarian Soup for the Social Work Soul

19 08 2011

I hate inspirational quotes.  Thanks to social media and Google, it’s oh-so-easy to find them and spread them around. Some people I know have started sounding like page-a-day calendars.

I’m aware that the job occasionally makes me sound like I could do with a bit of inspiration. (Or need to be talked off a ledge, something like that.) But some of these quotes…they just kill me.

“Failure teaches success.”
Sweet! I’m well on my way, then. And this will not sound condescending in the least to someone required to repeat a grade for the third time.

“Everything happens for a reason.”
Well thanks. Please say that to a sexually exploited child. I’ll wait.

“Everything works out fine in the end. If it’s not fine, it’s not the end!”
What the fuck does that even mean?

Don’t even get me started on people who think my clients need to be their “authentic selves.” I liked Oprah as much as anyone, the way she yelled people’s names was awesome, but her views do not belong in social work.

Then we have the posters on the walls in the office, that the teens and I laugh heartily at before attempting to tear down. Did you all know that team work makes the dream work? Or that you should aim for the moon, because even if you miss, you’ll land amongst the stars? It really helps to pay your rent.

Now quotes are being passed around by my director. Apparently, we all need to, “autograph our work with excellence.” I’ll get right on that. Just autograph my service plans when I submit them, and save the paper we’re wasting by printing out this drivel.

Cynical though I may sound, and as much as I hate those cheesy soundbites, there are times when I need a pick-me-up. We all do. Or we burn out, and probably bring some of our loved ones down for the ride. So I do look for inspiration. For something uplifting, to keep me going with what I have to do. But I have some different sources, and criteria.

For one, the quote has to be from someone I have actually heard of. “Unknown” or “proverb” tends to feel a bit irrelevant to me.

“You have no right to fail.”

A group of friends and I spent two weeks working with kids in an extremely poor village in Ecuador one semester in college. This quote was said by a nun who had dedicated her life to running an incredibly successful school for children in the community. Her point was that we were all college-educated, middle class Americans. Who did we think we were to even entertain the possibility of not helping others?

“Our job is not to make young women grateful. It is to make them ungrateful so they keep going. Gratitude never radicalized anybody” — Susan B. Anthony

This one is a reminder to myself, and what I’m working for, and what I need to instill in all of my clients, but especially my teen girls. Complacency is our enemy.

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” -Rahm Emanuel

He took some shit for it, but I don’t think he should have. Crises occur. That’s life. But using them as a jumping off point to change circumstances, to get people moving, to make people think and see different possibilities, is what social work is all about.

After a difficult home visit, my iPod is often my best friend. Two songs in particular are my go-to, only to be broken out in case of emergency.

But I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again

-Mumford and Sons, The Cave

This is why we fight
Why we lie awake
And this is why
This is why we fight

When we die
We will die
With our arms unbound

-The Decemberists, This is Why We Fight

When things get really dire, it’s time for the ultimate comfort food for my soul–Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s honestly one of the most heartbreakingly brilliant shows I’ve ever seen. It also helps that no matter what kind of day I’ve had, odds are Buffy had a worse one. (Friends dying, lying to your mom about late night slaying patrol, your boyfriend trying to kill you after you turn him back into an evil demon by sleeping with him…it’s not easy being the Chosen One.) That’s where the following bittersweet exchange came from, something that I’ve often wanted to hear in my own life:

Buffy: Does it get easy?
Giles: What do you want me to say?
Buffy: Lie to me.
Giles: Yes, it’s terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true, the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies, and everybody lives happily ever after.
Buffy: Liar.

One final one, that strikes me in its simplicity, beauty, and truthfulness. On the importance and power of words, which I relate to as both a writer, and a social worker.

“Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.” -Albus Dumbledore

You didn’t honestly think I was going to leave you without some Harry Potter, did you?

What are your favorites?

I am what I am

5 05 2011

It’s a common debate: the validity of Zefron and Vanessa Hudgens’ relationship what’s the best way to stay sane in this job? Everyone has their own take on how to best unwind, decompress, let loose, whatever you want to call it. What we all seem to be able to agree on is that we need to figure out a way to leave the job at the office.

Let’s all hop in the Wayback Machine (take it away, Mr. Peabody!) and head back to Shoot The Freak social work school.

In some class, I can’t remember which one (for those of you currently there, I assure you, they all run together as soon as you’re out the door) we had a discussion about this very topic. How do we prevent burnout? How do you see what you see, day after day, and come home and just be you?

Lots of suggestions were thrown out. “Exercise.” “Don’t work too much overtime.” “Don’t type notes at home.” None of them struck me as something anyone would really take issue with.

Apparently I forgot where I was.

“Don’t social work your friends.”

This was offered by one of the few people I considered an actual friend and hoped to remain in touch with after boot camp social work school. “Social working” one’s friends or family is a commonly used term. It’s when you can’t shut off that bleed between work and home. When your friend is crying to you about her failed relationship, you might want to lead her in an exercise to identify her strengths as a person, and what characteristics define a good relationship. When your cousin is complaining about his mother (author’s note: this has never happened in my family) your first instinct may be to explore family subsets and boundaries.

Resist at all costs. At least that’s what I say.

Another girl, decidedly, disagreed. Of course.

This girl was a nice person. We hung out occasionally. We had worked on group projects and had tons of classes together. But, to be DSM-IV technical, I thought she was a bit of a wackadoodle.

“People always say that, ‘don’t social work your friends,’ but isn’t ‘social worker’ a part of our identities now? We can’t shut off our education, or the things we’ve learned about human relationships. Isn’t that a good thing to bring into our own interactions?”

Sure. It can be. Everything you learn, and all of your experiences, impact who you are as a person and how you relate to others. But it’s a question of being ‘on’ all the time. When my one of my younger cousins is dating an idiot or going through a tough break up, my social work education and experience tells me that bashing the guy is not the most productive course of action to take.

But the guy in question is a little shit, and that’s my baby cousin. So bash I will. I wouldn’t tell a client that, based on her boyfriend’s Facebook page, he seems to be an immature jackass who doesn’t deserve her. (Again, this is hypothetical.) Because I have professional boundaries, and am trying to help people find the answers for themselves.

This wasn’t enough of an explanation for my classmate, though.

“I think social worker is an integral part of my identity. I think that will really help me in dealing with people, whether it’s at work, or at home, you know, with family, or a lover, or friend.”

Who says lover? Is it 80s flashback day? Honestly.

We all went back and forth for a while, wasting most of our class time away on a non issue.

“I get what you’re saying, but I think you can stay yourself, and maintain your social work knowledge while relating to your friends and family in the same way.”
“Yeah, my previous education and work influence how I deal with people, but I still leave work at work.
“I don’t think social work school fundamentally changes who you are, as a friend or family member.”
“But I think social work school makes me a better sister, friend, lover, whatever.”
“Oh my God, stop saying lover! Aren’t we supposed to be learning about psychopathology?!”

Guess who that last one was?

I went into High School Musical social work because I cared about people, loved kids, and believed that marginalized people need a voice. I learned a lot, certainly. And that’s probably affected how I understand and relate to some people in my life. But overall? I’m still me. The things about me that now scream ‘social worker’ were, in many instances, there before I ever went to Rocky Horror social worker school.

I was a sarcastic little shit before getting into this profession. And now? Well, I think you know where I’m going with this.

I’m being sincere…no, seriously

21 04 2011

We all have cases that get to us. They take up more of our time than they should when we’re with them, and we continue to think about them and wonder how they’re doing, even after they’re closed. Cases like this kind of define our experience as workers. We wish Steven Spielberg would direct a film about our triumphs and tribulations with them.

My defining case came to me my first week on the job, almost two years ago. A mother was pursuing a PINS petition for her supposedly “out of control” (oh, aren’t they all?) 14 year old daughter. The 14 year old, let’s call her Angelica.

Angelica was an intimidating kid. She was big, and looked much older than 14. She got in fights on the street and at school. She had a mouth like a sailor. (At least, that’s what I’ve heard, I don’t know many sailors.) There were allegations that she was engaging in, what I documented as, “inappropriate sexual activity.” Meaning her mom heard rumors that she was blowing older guys in the stairwell.

Mom…mom was a treat. When they first came in, she wanted nothing to do with me, or our services. She just wanted Angelica out of her house. She was fed up. She told me that her daughter was the only one to give her trouble. Her three older sons were always respectful. (I later learned that they all served jail time. Two for robbery, one for attempted murder.) At times, mom was just nasty to Angelica. They fought like teenage girls.

But for all mom said about being done with her daughter, she still “kidnapped” her the day of her eighth grade graduation and brought her to IHOP, a surprise they couldn’t afford. She worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week, as a home health aide. She slept on a mattress  in the living room. Angelica had a bedroom, which she retreated to often to write poetry. Her brother, his girlfriend, and their two children had the other bedroom.

This kid just got to me. I had her for individual counseling, mostly. After she threw a chair in a mom and daughter counseling session, we decided it would make sense to work individually for a while. Not to mention that mom had no time for counseling, and really didn’t think that she had anything to do with the problem.

This girl was difficult, but she was also hilarious. We laughed in session more than is at all appropriate. And I never had to chase her down. She always wanted to tell me what she had done well–when she avoided a fight, poems she had written, times she made her bed or prepared dinner for her mom. This kid ate praise up like no one I had ever met. It seemed like she had never heard anyone say that she was good before.

But it was always two steps forward, one step back with this family. Or three steps back. Sometimes it seemed like they were running backwards. Angelica would stay out all night. Mom would respond by calling her a slut. Angelica would roam the street, waiting for someone to look at her the wrong way.

One of Angelica’s older brothers came home from prison over the summer. Mom made Angelica give up her room, and sleep in the living room with mom.

Eventually Angelica had such a fit at home that mom called 911, and she was admitted to a children’s psychiatric hospital.

It was supposed to be brief. She had been brought into the ER before, but never admitted. But the days turned to weeks. Angelica was admitted at the beginning of the summer, and talk of getting her home by the fourth of July eventually turned into hope that she would be home in time to start the new school year. She celebrated her 15th birthday there. I brought her a journal, which she kept with her the rest of her stay.

Mom didn’t visit Angelica at first, saying it was too far and she couldn’t afford it. So she started traveling with me. We went for weekly meetings with the psychiatrist, which often resulted in Angelica having to be restrained. I visited even when mom decided she couldn’t make it. Angelica would call me with her food order every week, telling me if she was in the mood for Chinese or McDonald’s. We had lunch together in the tiny visiting room, while Angelica asked for updates on her nephews.

Every time it came close to Angelica being discharged, something happened. Once, she returned from a day pass, saying that she had smoked marijuana over the weekend. The test came back negative. She was sabatoging herself.

Angelica befriended a girl on her unit, who had been sexually abused. Angelica confided in this girl, who encouraged her to tell her psychiatrist, the secret that Angelica had been holding on to for ten years–her older brother, the one who recently returned home from prison, the one Angelica was pushed out of her bedroom for, the one who mom enlisted to help discipline Angelica, had raped Angelica when she was five.

Angelica told us this with a blank face. She started having nightmares and flashbacks. Mom was distraught and didn’t know how to react.

The psychiatrists villified mom. She hadn’t protected Angelica, she wasn’t reacting properly now. They compared the situation to the movie “Precious.” (Because that helps. A lot.) They pretended as though Angelica’s mother could be written out of her life, and Angelica could become a grand, triumphant success story without her.

It was easy to blame this woman. She was far from perfect. But she was incredibly damaged herself. She was the kind of mother that Angelica would probably become, if she hadn’t gotten all the help she was getting in the hospital. Though she warmed and opened up to me over the course of our time together, going so far as to call me for support when she felt that she needed to be hospitalized for her own depression, she refused to discuss her own childhood.

I have no idea what happened, but I have some pretty good guesses.

Shortly after all this, I had to close the case. There was no child in the home, and  the family had been evicted, and moved out of the Bronx. My supervisor held off on this for as long as possible. For a long time, I was the only one Angelica had any contact with that she had known before her life in the hospital. But the time had come for us to close.

Angelica cried when I told her. She told me how everyone leaves her, and she didn’t want to get to know anyone else. Somehow I held it together. But I cried plenty afterwards.

We had our last meeting a few weeks later. We shared french fries and she made fun of me for drinking diet coke, as usual. She gave me an art project she had been working on. I told her I’d be thinking of her, always, and that I wanted to hear from her when she was on the supreme court. She laughed and hugged me good bye.

I’m at peace with the way things went. I wish they could have gone differently, but that’s the job. You can’t stay with people until the end, because there is no end. You can just hope that you’ve done everything you can, let them know that someone cares about them, and, at best, send them off with better tools and skills to cope with what life hands them.

I ran into one of Angelica’s psychiatrists on the train recently. We approached the case from different professions, and somewhat different values, but we both cared deeply for this girl. Neither of us had heard from her family, and we didn’t know where she was or how she was doing.

I just hope she knows that we’re both still thinking about her. I think she’d appreciate that.

“Think positive!” OK, but it’s really not in my nature.

18 01 2011

Well. It certainly is a lovely day. The forecast called for a “wintry mix,” and it was fulfilled. That sounds like a charming mix of hot cocoa, marshmallows, and being in the warm bosom of one’s family. It’s actually a potentially deadly mix of sleet, ice, and the wrath of God.

I also came in to three phone calls about one woman–her mental health services were being terminated due to an insurance issue, her baby’s father was bringing her to court to pursue full custody, and an ACS case had been called in for neglect.

While returning calls to four different sources, consoling a hysterical and terrified young mother, and trying to coordinate a home visit accommodating five different schedules, my latest intake showed up. Unannounced. With her hyperactive, nonverbal three year old. I was interrupted from that meeting to sign a declaration, stating that I understand that our agency prohibits falsifying records.

So…does that mean that up until now, I was permitted to falsify records? I could have written up a note, detailing a counseling session conducted on the back of a flying dragon?

This is what we refer to as, “one of those days.”

On days like this, it might help to hear about a true rarity: a social work success story.

I’ve been working with one young mother for about a year now. I’ve written about her, and her girls (a two and a four year old) extensively in the past.

This is because they’re awesome.

The case came to us because the mother had a history of domestic violence with the girls’ fathers. She left, went into a shelter, and needed some support.

We worked together over the course of the year, and she exemplified everything I love about young mothers.

Whenever her kids start displaying new, troublesome behaviors, her first instinct is to ask me–is this normal? Do kids their age do this?

A mother who checks child development first, and formulates a plan to address the problem second, is a rare and wonderful breed.

She, and her children, have grown so much over the past year. Mom has never hit the kids. She has mastered the timeout technique. “The girls crack me up, but I know I can’t laugh in front of them, or they’ll think it’s funny.”

What’s that you say? You enjoy your children, but recognize that there must be a boundary between them and you?

Not to mention that the kids are hilarious. The two year old attempts, on a daily basis, to ride the family’s Pomeranian around the living room. The four year old, recently annoyed at the lack of attention she was getting by sulking under a blanket, attempted to sidle down the hallway, all the while “hiding” under said blanket.

In the past year, I’ve seen the oldest go from a shy toddler who refused to say my name (hey, SocialJerk can be hard to pronounce) to an exuberant  little kid, who is excited to show me her books when I visit.

The two year old has developed an amazing sense of humor, and a serious love of food. I get to see her pretend to munch on a hamburger, and hear her mother say, “This is what you use your imagination for? Eating?” And then mouth to me, “What a fatty.” (Come on, it’s all said in love.)

I’m going to have to close this family’s case soon, but for a brief period of time, I get to visit a wonderful, loving mom, a constantly hungry (though well fed) hilarious two year old, and a bright, energetic four year old.

The girls are in pre-school and day care, and their mother is returning to college. She has no more contact with her abusive former partners. And in this case, I actually believe it! Mom has put distance between herself and her own abusive mother. She’s looking forward to getting her degree, and putting it to use.

Once in a while there’s a good story. And it’s enough to get us through fifteen bad ones.

Here’s hoping.

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.