We Wilsh You A Merfy Christams*

21 12 2012

Confession time: I have Christmas spirit. Always have, and I hope I always will. I like the cheesy music, I like the gaudy lights, I like the predictable movies. Everything about it. As a kid, Santa was a big part of that.

Actually, Santa is still a big part of that. Twenty eight years young, people!

I believed in Santa until I was about eight. I had my suspicions earlier, but I persevered because I wanted to. It was fun. Sure, Santa had the same handwriting as my mom, and a lot of my Christmas gifts had tags from Sorrelli’s, her favorite discount store in Brooklyn that no self respecting elf would ever set foot in. I read Judy Blume books in which Peter and Fudge discussed the fact that there was no Santa. I heard my parents going in and out of the attic, where the presents were kept, when I was supposed to be asleep on Christmas Eve, and the only explanation I was offered was, “Oh, yeah, we…yeah.”

But I still believed. Why? Kids are stupid. Like I said, I wanted to. It was fun. I wasn’t particularly materialistic, but I had an innate understanding that believing in magic and preserving this ritual was a time limited thing.

I always thought it was sweet. Until I learned about the true horrors of this myth in this article.

JK, peeps. I’m pretty sure that article is the definition of “overthinking it,” and exactly what people worry I had to deal with when they find out my mother is a psychologist.

It’s something I’ve heard debated more and more. Should you support the Santa myth? Isn’t lying wrong? As almost always, I advocate for the middle ground. I think the real danger is when people fall into these “beliefs” or “schools” of parenting. It leaves little room for logic and dealing with things on a case by case basis.

Some people get all high and mighty about not “lying” to their children. Fine, I won’t lie to them either. I feel bad for the next child who hands me an art project! “Kid, you have zero sense of perspective and proportion. That picture of your grandmother looks more like a pineapple. It’s called shading.”

Not to mention, Santa is a cultural phenomenon. He’s everywhere. It’s not a damaging lie, like “that boy is teasing you because he likes you!” or even such an outright one as, “No, SJ, the toy store is closed.”

But some people go overboard. Remember what I said about the middle ground? If you are policing what your child reads and watches to make sure they don’t hear anyone expressing any doubt about my good buddy Kris Kringle, then maybe it’s time to relax. And if your kids are unholy terrors unless you threaten to call Santa, or because Shingles the Shelf Elf is watching, they probably need to have little more respect for your authority.

Side note: If my parents had an Elf on a Shelf when I was a kid, I too would have been on my best behavior. Because I would have thought it was waiting to murder me.

It seems like the more money people have, the more time they have to blow this out of proportion. Either they will protect the Santa myth to such an extreme that they have to sit Junior down before the grandchild’s first Christmas so he doesn’t expect reindeer to deliver the gifts, or they lay the smackdown on magic and provide strategies for investment banking while the child is still swaddled.

Most of my families have more of a relaxed approach. It makes me sad, though, that a lot of the kids stop believing so early, thanks to the harsh realities of life. Their parents don’t have the money to pull it off how they’d like and tell the kid not to be disappointed, mom asks for help setting up the Santa surprise for the younger kids as there is no older adult around…there’s just less time to be a child lost in a fantasy world.

So I like it when the kids are into it. Even if it will surely lead to distrust and incsecure attachment is super dorky.

A couple of years ago, I called a mother to let her know that the Christmas presents we had for her seven year old son just arrived. She came in with him, as there was no one available to babysit. She pulled me aside to say, “I told him that Santa was really busy, so he dropped the presents off here early.”

“SJ, my mom said Santa was here! Did you meet him?”
“I did. It was amazing. He shook my hand twice and he smells of peppermint. I’m so sorry you missed him!”

While I’m sure I did that child irrevecable psychological damage, it was pretty fun for the day.

Happy holidays, people!


*This is a joke that is only funny to my older brother and me. I hope this is a sufficient Christmas gift to him.

I was told someone would put a lampshade on their head

19 12 2011

It’s the time of year for global warming party after holiday party. Notice I said “holiday,” not Christmas. That’s right, it’s time to take sides in that imaginary war.

The parties can really pile up. Between friends, (shit, I still need to get my Kris Kringle gift) family, (much more fun now that I’m allowed to drink) and work (oh, we’ll get to that) your schedule can get pretty packed.

I remember hearing about wild office parties on TV when I was growing up. As a child, I couldn’t imagine why someone would have the urge to photocopy their own buttocks, but I understood that this was an important part of celebrating the holidays with coworkers. People were to get drunk, hook up in supply closets, talk shit about their boss, and then come in the next day reeking of Schnapps, shame, and regret.

Things don’t quite go that way in social work. Our parties are a little…tamer, to say the least.

At Anonymous Agency, we have our “celebration” (yes, those are sarcastic air quotes) in the middle of the day. A normal agency would send its overworked and overpaid workers straight home after all that organized “fun” (yes, again) but they chose not to. After two hours of luke-warm catered wares, eaten while balanced on our laps, and a half-hearted attempt to organize us into groups to sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” we were sent back to our offices. A half an hour away.

Not that I’m still pissed, or anything. (Not in the charming British drunk way–just furious.)

That get together isn’t quite enough. That’s for the entire agency, and we still have to celebrate with just our site. Because we love each other so, so much, and simply don’t spend enough time together.

The debate rages on. Do we go out to eat, or do we have a potluck in the office? A real Sophie’s choice. Whichever side I fall on, I’ll end up hurting someone, it seems.

Honestly, I don’t care. It’s happening in the middle of the day, and booze isn’t allowed no matter where we go. I’ll either be spending time and money baking, or spending money on lunch, because our budget for the Christmas party seems to be that we have no budget.

My only non-stick-in-the-mud coworker and I toyed with the idea of an after-work happy hour. This was primarily a way to get everyone drunk, so we could see if our intoxicated imitations of our supervisors were correct. But I don’t think it’s going to happen.

Whatever, staff. It’s not important. We all know Christmas is for the kids.

We also have a Christmas party for the families we work with. Here’s a word to the wise–when it comes to planning in the office, if you volunteer to do something once, you become the person who does that thing.

My first year here, as an engergetic new social worker, I volunteered to make the flyer for the party, and to run the arts and crafts room for the kids. Three years later, guess what I’m still doing?

They’re kind enough to say, “Oh, well SJ does such a great job with the flyers.” It’s true. I am able to type up dates and times, and steal snowman clipart on Google. It’s a gift, I suppose.

Then we have to discuss how many families we can invite. We work with a lot, and the office isn’t so big, so we have to cut it off somewhere. New Director is fond of advertising any goings-on at the agency, which puts all us workers in the awkward position of telling our families: yes, we’re having a party. No, you weren’t invited.

We’re the mean kid in your elementary school who hands out pool party invites to almost the whole class.

Some families get Christmas gifts through our donors, so we try to invite the families who don’t get gifts. Of course, given some of the gifts we’ve seen come in, I feel a little guilty about that.

Even if you don’t know that a kid has a history of vandalism, who gets an eleven year old a pack of Sharpies as a present? If something says, “small parts–not for children under 3” don’t give it to a fifteen month old. If I indicate that a six year old is a size nine, as her parents have yet to learn portion control, don’t assume that I’m an idiot, and she’s actually a 6x. Also, if you get one kid eight gifts, don’t give her older brother and sister three each, and think they won’t notice. They will. I had spreadsheets comparing what my brother and I got year to year when I was young. Have you ever seen a kid?

Anyway, back to the festivities. The debate tends to rage over what kind of food to get. Should we branch out, and try ham, or turkey? How about Italian food, something our families don’t usually have?

Then we remember we don’t have any money, and everyone will be sad if we don’t have rice and beans, anyway. Fine.

Then we need activities. As I mentioned, I’m the arts and crafts expert. What this actually means is that I am willing to sit in a large counseling room with rowdy children, guiding them in decorating tree ornaments, making cards, coloring snowy scenes, and generally not murdering each other. I do this all while wearing reindeer antlers, because I am festive and whimsical.

At least it’s not Easter, when eggs need to be boiled. Gross.

There’s usually a discussion about sending the kids home with gifts. Our budget is so small, we’d pretty much be sending them each home with a pencil. More than anything, I think this just calls more attention to the fact that we suck, and it’s best to avoid it.

Despite a lack of money, and no shortage of sugared up kids, the parties actually are always fun. It’s nice to see families come together and have a good time. And as much as I bitch about time with my coworkers, who understands the insanity of the job better than them? Once or twice a year, it’s nice to be reminded of that.

Provided we get to leave early.

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.

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.

This is what you get for lack of IT.

17 12 2010

All right, loyal readers, friends, Mom. We’re due for an update, but computers are down office-wide. So this is my first ever post coming at you from my phone (hint-it was the Droid I was looking for.) I apologize in advance for any autocorrect errors that might turn participants into presents, or groups into gropes.

But it got me thinking-this is a pretty regular occurrence. What else happens so often in this field that you can pretty much count on it? Add to that the fact that we’ve got our agency Christmas party this afternoon, and I saw only one option-SocialJerk drinking game. (Completely different from ghetto bingo.)

Let’s get crunked up.

  1. Computers go down- take one shot.
  2. Computers go down during the only free time you blocked off for writing notes- take two shots.
  3. Client is late-one shot.
  4. Client shows up at a completely made up time-one shot.
  5. Client is right on time-call me and I’ll take you out for a drink, so you can teach me.
  6. Distressed coworker calls the office for directions, after getting lost on the way to an initial home visit-one shot. If you manage not to laugh at them, treat yourself to a beer.
  7. A public assistance or child protective specialist is rude to you- a shot, plus a beer to share with the cranky worker. Maybe that will help?
  8. A parent or referral source seems to be under the impression that you have magic powers and will “fix” difficult children- a six pack should do the trick
  9. You get a nervous call from your mother, because you forgot she follows you on Twitter and posted about being harassed in a sketchy neighborhood- a bottle of wine, to be split with Mom.
  10. A little kid cracks you up, by saying something hilarious like “I’m the best!” or “I love marine life.”-the joy of a child’s laughter should be enough. If not, take a shot.
  11. You find out you can still be surprised- have a Flaming Dr. Pepper. (This was a SocialJerk college specialty, email me if you need details.)

All right. Computers are back up and running, so it’s time for this Jerk to be on her way. Happy drinking, and try not to slur in your progress notes!

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!

‘Tis better to give than it is to etcetera.

7 12 2010

It’s that time of year. When we’re all freezing, our skin is dry, our heating bills are through the roof, but we’re still in kind of a good mood. (Most of us.) And people tend to be just a little more giving.

Trust me. My roommate is a kindergarten teacher. During the holiday season, she receives a year’s supply of scented body lotion and winter gloves. Not to mention the fact that we can decorate our apartment with Christmas tchotchkes and not have to pay for a single one.

Watch out. Santa and the bear are fighting for village domination.

We know teachers are innundated with these gifts. It’s part of the job. But it happens to social workers as well. Clients get to know you, (sometimes) they like you, no matter what you’re a part of their lives. At times like Christmas, or when a case is being closed, they might want to bring you a little something.

And I recall what I was taught in Tim Burton’s social work school. “I am a professional, not your friend, and as such I cannot accept. Thank you.” Or, “What is the meaning behind this gift? Let’s process your transference in our next session. Perhaps you see me as a mother figure.”

Ugh. Right?

Gifts are a fine line. Some could be inappropriate. I’ve never had a client try to give me booze, but if it ever happens I hope I’ll have to fortitude to turn it down. (I probably won’t.) I had an elderly man try to give me perfume when I was an intern. (If you’re ever looking for an example of ‘awkward,’ I’ll be doing that as a watercolor series.)

But sometimes, it’s ok. No, my clients are not my friends. I am a professional, and they are people that I serve. But we are all humans. (Except for the dinosaurs in clever human costumes, but we’ll get to them another time.)

Some occasions call for gifts, in normal human interactions. An eight year old girl who I saw for counseling for six months had her mom buy me play-doh, something we always used in sessions, when her case was closed. I said thanks. I suspect my casework professor got an urge to throw herself out a window, and didn’t know why. Ah, well.

Kids are notorious for this. I was recently strong armed by a three year old into taking the subway back to work with this.

The kid was giving everyone in the family huge, plastic hibiscus, and simply would not hear of me leaving without any. And those of you wondering why I didn’t throw it out on my way to the train–you really should be ashamed.

I was not permitted to turn down these sweet Silly Bandz (from the marine life edition.) I managed to get the kid to take some of my Batman bands in exchange, though.

It also works the other way around. One of my clients recently had a baby, and I went to see them when they came home from the hospital.

You don’t go see a new baby and not bring a gift. It simply isn’t done. So I went to the Children’s Place, fought the urge to buy every adorable, tiny thing I saw, and spent $12 on onesies.

Poppable collars, because infants can be preppy too.

A kid is a big deal, and I felt that it was right that the fact was acknowledged by the social worker.

My elderly clients always wanted to give me tea and cookies when I did home visits. They didn’t get a lot of visitors, and wanted to treat me like a guest. A kid is never prouder than when someone takes their gift, carefully selected from Family Dollar, and puts it on display like it’s the greatest thing in the world.

I had been taught that I was always supposed to say “no,” and sometimes you do have to. Elderly perfume? No. A mother taking from her food budget to buy her worker jewelry? Unlikely, and I’m sure we’d all turn that down. But sometimes that rejection is damaging. We’ve all learned from Hallmark and Lifetime movies that giving really makes the giver feel good.

In case anyone was wondering why my cubicle is decorated with children’s drawings, school photos, and a strangely oversized fake flower.