Social work is easy, coworkers are difficult.

3 04 2013

Everyone has coworkers who drive them insane. The fact that I have a few is not really social work specific. It does not make me special.

What makes me special is my ability to turn even a staff meeting into a dance party, but that’s neither here nor there.

Some of my social work colleagues drive me crazy in typical work ways. One plays shitty music in the office (I don’t know why they call it top 40 when there are only six songs, and three of them are by Taylor Swift), some don’t pull their weight at agency events, I am required to stand around awkwardly eating birthday cake much more often than I care to mention, and no one understands my sarcasm but all laugh hysterically when two people wear red shirts because “they got the memo.”

But that’s life. The people I choose to hang out with outside of work do not do these things, and that is what friends are for.

There is something incredibly annoying that is specific to social work, though. It’s hard to believe, but it’s there, and I’ve identified it. It’s hard to bring up without being accused of racism or “ageism.” But the ones I most want to throttle are white social workers in their twenties.

I would feel bad about saying that, but I am a white social worker in my twenties.

Anonymous Agency is a community based organization. We’re a non-profit. We work with people in serious need. “Multi-problem families” sounds either harsh, or like something that can apply to everyone on the planet, but it’s an apt descriptor for our clientele. Poverty, a failing education system, domestic violence, a violent neighborhood…it makes the work difficult and frustrating. But it’s part of the job. The people who are most in need of help are very often not the most punctual, grateful, engaged, hygienic, whatever.

The job isn’t glamorous. Home and school visits are annoying and inconvenient. Chasing clients in order to provide them with voluntary services can be rage inducing. We don’t spend a lot of time stroking our beards and doing innovative therapy in front of a two way mirror, and we don’t usually have the time to be published in scholarly journals.

It’s unfortunate, because the world would be a better place if “Engaging hard to reach teens with cheesy dad jokes and Play-Doh: A strategic approach” were peer reviewed.

There are some who go into social work a little too convinced that they’re going to save the world. But even worse are the ones who think we should be ever so grateful that they’ve decided to work socially. They went to a really good school, and they’re super knowledgeable about the DSM. They get totally jealous that you got the client with schizoaffective disorder, because, ugh, so interesting! They apply for a supervisory position a year in, because, come on, what more could they learn? They dominate group supervision because they have all the answers, and don’t even notice when everyone groans and leaves.

Come on–the longer I spend in social work, the more I realize how much I don’t know. Feeling differently, I’m quite sure, means you’re delusional.

And they are never available to help out with grunt work. Packing up to move, painting faces at the summer picnic, covering so the receptionist can take lunch? It’s not in the job description. You think the person with the $250,000 brain is going to hold the elevator for someone who doesn’t make that in four months, come on! (Sorry. I’m really excited about an Arrested Development movie.)

The good thing is that they usually don’t last too long. They’re constantly chasing the perfect agency ghost. Somehow, they’ll find a position at an agency where the clients keep all their appointments, they don’t have to deal with housing or public assistance issues, supplies are actually supplied, supervision is never canceled because the police and EMTs are called to the office, and the extensive knowledge they’ve gathered in sixteen months is truly appreciated. Someone should probably let them know that these things are a part of the field, not of this particular agency. I always whisper it to them as they leave.

I know I shouldn’t be bothered by a couple of assholes. But it concerns me when it feels like a trend.

One doesn’t become a social worker because it’s an “easy” way to become a clinician. We enter this field because we agree with its values and ethics. We genuinely believe that people are the experts on their own situations, that everybody has strengths, that people cannot improve and do not exist in isolation.

This is not to be translated as “ugh, phDs take forever!”





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.

Right?

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.





Objective: to get the hell out of here.

24 09 2012

Those of you who follow me on Twitter, and aren’t sexy spambots (which sound much more interesting than they actually are) will know that I haven’t been thrilled to pieces at work lately.

I was supposed to get my first intern this month, and simultaneously start the class that teaches and qualifies one to supervise. (In social work, we learn as we go, and not a minute before!) This was supposed to happen in September. As you might have noticed, September is drawing to a close, and I’m not freaking out about a grad student being smarter than me or complaining about this class being useless. Something must have gone wrong.

My director, the boss of my fabulous supervisor and underling of my fabulous regional director, came to me to say, “You’re not getting an intern. I sent the paperwork in late. We can try again next year.” That is a direct quote. She then shrugged and walked away.

Here’s a tip: if you’re telling someone that you couldn’t be bothered, for no apparent reason aside from laziness, to do a very simple thing that would be very important for their career, do not end with a shrug.

Let’s just say she’s lucky there were no leftover water balloons from the agency picnic.

It was only one thing. A big thing, granted, as it pushes me back a year in something that’s important and necessary for my future in this field. It also delays my coworker, who was supposed to be the one getting an intern next year. (We only have room for one at a time. I have to respect Anonymous Agency for not pulling the old “we’ll figure it out when they get here, no one mention that this was a broom closet!” trick.)

But it’s kind of pushed me over the edge. Not in the sense of spinning in my chair making barnyard animal sounds on the job, but in feeling pushed out the door, and getting my resume together. Seriously, this time.

What makes our jobs bearable?

For the most part, Anonymous Agency is a good place to work. Benefits and vacation time are good, the place is well regarded, I’m comfortable there, and I have a lot of respect for most people who work above me.

The fact that one person can counteract all that kind of drives me crazy. But feeling like someone doesn’t give you a second thought, and has no respect for your ideas, goals, and schedule, goes a long way.

Now, what does this remind me of?

I’m always telling myself that I have to bear in mind that I’m up against every negative experience a client has ever had with a social worker. Or case worker. Or psychiatrist. Or anyone else who was supposed to help.

We’re different. We’re not like those workers. We care about our clients, and treat them with respect. We know it, and we’ll show it.

Sometimes things come up. Sometimes the bus makes us late, we have to call in sick, a school visit goes way too long and it takes us a while to return a call. Sometimes, for all our efforts, we can’t get a kid a mental health appointment for months. Even worse, sometimes we make mistakes, or forget things.

It seems unfair that this makes all the good fly out the window. Why can no one focus on the positive?!

Especially when someone is coming off of a string of bad experiences, the negative just weighs more. We have to remember that, even when it’s not fair. It takes a lot of good to make up for mistakes.

As my dear director taught me, owning and apologizing goes a long way. If she had said, “I dropped the ball, I’m really sorry,” I still would have been upset. Objectively, some damage had been done. But I wouldn’t have felt the betrayal and disregard for me as a person. If this had been an anomaly in her behavior, I would be able to move on. It wasn’t, so she needs to be ready to lose her most dedicated blogger worker.

We’re going to make mistakes in our work, as social workers and as supervisors. We can get over them if we recognize what’s going on. If we’re too busy being defensive and thinking about ourselves, we won’t.

More importantly, is anyone hiring?





C’Mon N’ Ride It (The train)(ing)

8 05 2012

Anonymous Agency is great about sending their workers for trainings. Typically we get to pick what we’re interested and everything. Meaning most of our trainings are relevant and enjoyable.

I know, right?

Of course, there are the mandatory ones that are a bit of a waste of time. First aid/CPR? No. If anything happens, I know myself well enough to understand that I would scream “911! Stop drop and roll!” and then flee, leaving the distressed individual behind. The main thing we were trained in was doing nothing and calling for help, anyway, which I honestly think could have been handled in a half day.

There was also LGBT sensitivity training, another one of those requirements from on-high. If nothing else, it produced this conversation.

Sup: “Did you take lesbian training?”
SJ: “Is that like a how-to?”
Sup: “It’s for awareness.”
SJ: “So…like spotting lesbians?”

I went. I got in a fight with my least favorite coworker who admonished my friend for dressing her son in pink. But that’s another story.

It seems that the more widely mandated the training, the worse it’s going to be. The entire agency had to attend two days of a lecture by three people from Kansas (or Kentucky…maybe Indiana. Somewhere in the middle) that was supposed to completely change the way we practice, apparently by making our work totally robotic and ineffectual. I played six simultaneous games of Words with Friends and resorted to plucking my eyebrows to stay awake. The receptionist kept demanding to know why she had to be there and who the hell was answering the phones. My supervisor kept reminding me to take my turn, because she had an awesome “q” word to play. Triple word!

The trainings that are only mandated for a few sites, or just for the Bronx, are generally somewhat better. Not as good as the ones I get to pick myself (I do like having some agency) but they’re all right. They’re typically held at the office that my boss’ boss’ boss (life is great) works at, which has a fancy coffee machine. Occasionally they spring for bagels. The trainer almost always knows what agency he or she is at, and what we do.

See, I’m not asking for all that much.

At any training, big or small, whether you’re there voluntarily or chained to a chair like Bobby Seale to meet agency requirements, there are some things that don’t change.

First, be prepared to get involved. Or at least, be asked to get involved. Every training that has ever happened ever starts off with the training informing the room that they don’t like to lecture. Hey, I don’t like to be lectured to! Sweet! They go on to tell you that this training will be experiential! Ah, so you mean we have to do stuff…I was more excited a minute ago.

Note: though the trainer tells you they don’t like to talk, they’re lying.

The trainer will talk about the significance of the day of the week, and why that means there’s no “energy” in the room. “OK guys, I know it’s Monday, but…” “I know, I know, it’s Friday, everyone wants out…” “Yeah, no one wants to be in training on Wednesday…” When is the good training day? Is it Thursday? I don’t think it’s Thursday.

You will have to introduce yourself. It doesn’t matter if there are ten people in the room, or a hundred. Seriously, it doesn’t matter. I was at a training with eighty of my nearest and dearest colleagues. We had to go around the room and give our name, position, and site where we work. Some people didn’t make it that day.

You will, at some point, have to pair up with someone near you. If it is a particularly cruel trainer, you will be told that this can’t be someone you know, or work with. If the trainer is a real jerk, you’ll have already been forced to move your seat, as you, like a normal person, chose to sit with people you work with.

This gives everyone involved awkward flashbacks to elementary school. What if no one wants to work with me? What if there’s an odd number and I have to partner with the teacher? You’ll be given a task to do, and five minutes to complete it. Two minutes in, you’ll be told that you and your partner should “switch off.” If you’re me, you’ll already be done, and realize that you never took turns. You and your partner will be sitting silently, checking the phones that are supposed to be turned off, while everyone else continues to talk excitedly. Oh well.

There are certain types of trainers. Some people just seem to be born for it. It’s amazing to be in a room with them. They’re well-informed, clear, dynamic, entertaining, you want to ask if they’re free for dinner. Some people fall into it, and are less so. They have a script and are sticking to it. “There will be time for questions at the end.” Really? No.

Some have no idea what it is we do. One woman told us of her brilliant trick of telling children that their parents would have to pay for their session if it wasn’t canceled in time, in order to ensure that they came in for counseling. She was surprised to hear that we don’t charge, and our kids already have way too much to worry about. Another trainer insisted to my coworker that our site was located in a school. She was pretty good, she almost convinced him.

I think my least favorite trainer is the one who likes to talk about him or herself. A lot. I don’t think I learned anything about play therapy, but I know the names and ages of your three kids, how many dogs you’ve had, and every agency you’ve rescued from the brink of disaster with your incredible consulting skills. That’s very helpful.

There are also types of trainees, of course.

Some people hate the fact that they’re there. They disagree with the fact that they’ve been sent, they have other things to do, or they’re just miserable people in general. Who knows? But they hate it, and they want you to know. They will try to lure you over to their side with snide comments under their breath. Resist if you can. You’re out of the office, after all, and they always give you a lunch break!

Sometimes, you get a new best friend. Someone who missed the fact that you’re awkward and trying to read a book, and wants to know more about what you do. Where is your office? That’s interesting! It’s tricky. I suggest a bathroom break right before lunch, otherwise you’ll end up waiting in line with your new friend at Chipotle when you just wanted to go to Starbucks.

If you’re very unlucky, there will be, essentially, a second trainer in the room. This person really should have been tapped to run the day’s activities, but she wasn’t, so she signed up to be trained instead. Every sentence starts with, “At my agency, we…” or “In my experience…” and of course, “Well yes, but…” I’m sorry, is it time for comments? You won’t remember anyone’s name except hers. This will not be a good thing. She will challenge the knowledgeable trainer on minor, nit-picky details, just to show how smart she is. I recommend another fake bathroom break, because that shit’s annoying.

You also might end up with someone who thought they were signing up for a day long therapy session. Someone who is just way too personal and shares too much. Oh, your daughter was diagnosed with ODD? Yes, I’m sure that was very difficult for you. And you regret sending her to live with her aunt? I can imagine you would. I hope you can get your relationship back on track. Now, about this new method of developing goals with the family…?

Sometimes we love to hate trainings, and sometimes we just hatelove them. They can be a waste of time, but I’ve also gotten some great stuff out of them, after reminding myself that other people actually know things that I don’t.

If nothing else, a boring day is sometimes a good thing around here.





Give me a minute to figure out how I can blame myself

19 04 2012

Everyone knows I have a work-appropriate non-sexual crush deep respect for my supervisor. She’s a gifted, knowledgeable social worker, and manages to be fun and have a great sense of humor while being a really fair boss. (And dammit, if I weren’t anonymous I could show this to her and totally lobby for some comp time.) Therefore, when she gives me advice, I take it seriously.

We also all know that I had a grand old time with my self-evaluation. However, that was only part of the process. My supervisor has to evaluate me as well.

Essentially, she thinks I’m pretty awesome. This is good, because a compliment from someone you admire is way better than a compliment from someone you know to be a jackass. (Like when Kanye West told me he liked my shoes.) But it’s an evaluation, you need something to work on. And nobody’s perfect.

So my area to improve? Not taking my work home with me. You know, not taking it to heart so much when things go wrong. Not being overly involved with my families. When bad things happen, not being so devastated that it impacts my work, now or in the long-term.

My supervisor admitted that she is still struggling with this. Probably because it’s impossible.

There’s not even a good consensus on what is and isn’t the right way to handle this. I mean, you need to maintain a professional distance. If you take every set back hard, and every struggle your families go through becomes personal, you’re not going to last. But, you know, you never want to be jaded. You need to care, or you’ll be terrible at this and won’t have empathy.

So care, but don’t care too much. You’ll know if you’re caring too much. You won’t really be able to do anything about it, because you’re in too deep, but you’ll know. If you’re not caring enough, you might realize it, but you won’t care. Because…you know.

When the topic of getting overly involved or caring too much comes up, people usually talk about self care. When we talk about self care, it’s usually meaningless bullshit. Not that self care (which, for the last time, my non-social work friends, is not  our euphemism for masturbation) isn’t important. It is. But everyone knows what works for them. When it’s discussed at an agency event, someone always tries to get me to meditate. No. I don’t meditate. I go to the bar I live above, hang out with my niece, listen to Freelance Whales or Mumford and Sons, write obnoxious blog posts, watch Arrested Development or A Very Potter Musical, or go to the gym. Oddly specific, I know. Did you write those down? Did they help you? No, because you have what works for you.

Anyway, self care is something you do continuously to keep yourself going at work. To avoid burning out. But it doesn’t address how involved is too involved. How you maintain a professional distance while having empathy and feeling, at least on some level, what your clients are feeling.

I realized how much of an issue this is for me particularly after one of my little boys was shot. It’s horrifying, even in the abstract, because that event was so wrong and against everything that should happen. The fact that my supervisor pretty much directed me to go home that day, because she knew I was no good to anyone, made me realize that this was going to be a struggle for me.

I happened to run into his thirteen year old sister in the neighborhood that day. She ran up to me for a hug. I could pretty much hear my casework professor’s voice ring in my ear. “Hugging a client? Unprofessional and confusing to the child. Is this about what you need or what she needs? This child needs boundaries reinforced.” (My casework professor was a known bitch.) But then I could also hear myself. “Who the fuck cares?” We both needed a hug.

My supervisor had talked to me about not overextending myself with this family. They had a ton of issues but the kids have an incredible amount of potential. They’re just so special, and so intelligent, and it kills me to think of some of them wasting it by not going to school or hanging out with gang member assholes. So I did a lot for them. I was always looking for extra ways to help. To a point that I’m pretty sure I’m invited to their guidance counselor’s wedding. Some families just hit you hard.

The problem is, you can’t make people change. I could make things easy for this mother, but I couldn’t make her put her children first. While I was running around killing myself, because I couldn’t stand the thought of something happening to these kids when they were supposed to be in school, or them being screwed over for life because they dropped out in the seventh grade, they didn’t mind all that much. So in addition to them still not doing what they need to do, I had the fun bonus of kind of starting to resent them.

I care deeply about this family, and I love those kids. I love all the kids I work with. I have boundaries. I don’t friend them on Facebook (I will admit to checking a girl’s Facebook, once, because I was afraid she was going to school one day for the purpose of fighting. Fortunately, her guidance counselor had checked it before I did.) I don’t initiate physical contact, though my teen girls are huggers and my toddlers are under the impression that I’m some sort of jungle gym.

But I call my kids sweetheart or shortie. I joke around with the moms. My teens and I have secret handshakes, and on occasion I buy them lunch. When they come in, I tell them how happy I am that they made it in, and I know that they believe me. I think about these kids when they’re not with me, and I worry about them and I’ve cried over them and for them more than once.

My bitchy casework professor would kind of hate all of this.

Friends and family members have a hard time understanding my job, and the hard to explain relationship I have to my families. I know they worry about the effect emotional involvement in my work affects me. So do I. I can have moments of feeling like I can’t do this anymore, but they can only be moments. If I didn’t love and care about my families, or worry about these kids when they leave my office, I’d be no good at this.

There’s some kind of balance between, “You got evicted? Well, probably should have followed through on the program I sent you to” and “You got evicted?! This is all my fault! I’ll stay at work until ten and pay to put you up in a hotel tonight!” Something that preserves my sanity (hey, I could have sanity) while getting people the help they need.

Maybe before I retire, I can figure it out.





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.





“Take my kids, please!” “For the last time, NO!”

5 01 2012

The baby-snatcher is one of the most enduring social worker stereotypes. The assumption that we steal children away first, ask questions later, is one that most of us confront fairly regularly. Some social workers are able to explain that they don’t even work with kids. Some, like me, try to make people understand that, although we work with families, we’re not authorized to remove children, and this would be kidnapping, whether or not we used a van. Still others have to explain that, while removal might be a part of their job, it’s a bit more nuanced than people tend to think.

You would think that hearing, “I’m not here to take your kids!” would be a comfort to everyone, especially the parents. And it often is. But then there are the parents of teenagers.

I most often get this from mothers of teen girls, but it happens with boys at times as well. These parents come in, sometimes self-referred due to struggling with their teenager in the home, or referred by ACS for “educational neglect.” (This term, when applied to young children, means that the parent is being negligent in getting the child to school. When applied to teens, it means the kid is truant due to 1) unmet special needs 2) problems in the home or 3) being a lazy jerk. These are all technical terms, do try to keep up.)

A lot of parents come in and are fed up. I think we all get that. Teens are exhausting. I work with them, and I was one. Sometimes I wonder why my parents still talk to me. I’ve also had a couple…let’s say, free-spirited youngsters, in my family. So it’s not that I don’t understand how someone could feel like they’re at the end of their rope.

That’s not to say I agree with the desperate “take my kids, please!”

Parents regularly come to us, wanting their teenagers removed from the home. Not forever, mind you. They want them to come home fixed.

I blame Sally Jesse Raphael. Remember that show? Overwhelmed mothers would bring their out of control, swearing, skanky teens on the show. The audience would boo them, get sassy with the teens in question (“Yo momma brought you into this world, she can take you out!” Really? Murder?) and then a “drill sergeant” (sorry, putting on fatigues doesn’t make you a drill sergeant) would yell and make them run through tires. They would cry and hug their moms, happy to be home after a harrowing afternoon. Problem solved.

I sincerely doubt that this works. But hey, television is a powerful medium. People very often believe what they see, especially when they’re feeling desperate.

People who really want help don’t seek it on TV. If you genuinely want to meet someone to spend your life with, or find out who the father of your child is, you don’t do it on The Bachelor or Maury. Unless you are seeking attention, or a complete idiot.

Mom: “She’s out of control. Can’t you send her to one of those boot camps?”
SJ: “What boot camp? You want her to enlist?”
Mom: “No, those programs for bad kids, like on the talk shows.”
SJ: “I think those are rather expensive.”
Mom: “Well, the city can pay for it!”
SJ: “The city doesn’t do that.”
Mom: “Why not?”
SJ: “I don’t know. We can write a letter. This isn’t helping right now.”

Get this kid out of my house, she can come back when she’s ready to listen. (Note: I don’t want to be the one to make her listen.)

I’m not talking about the parents of children with mental illness, looking for residential treatment. I’m talking about parents who have, for lack of a better term, let their kids run wild. Little kids “acting bad” is generally regarded as cute. They swear, they get sassy, and everyone laughs. Then they’re teenagers, bigger than their parents, and it isn’t so cute anymore.

The common thread here is wanting the kids sent away. Wanting someone else to come in and fix things. These are most often the parents who send their kid in for counseling, but refuse to participate themselves, saying they’re not the ones who have the problem. They are genuinely shocked and appalled that they are expected to do some hard work and make changes. “Why won’t you whisk him away to the Good Teen Factory?!”

Like I said, I get it. I understand being overwhelmed, being depressed, or not having supports to turn to. I understand feeling undermined as a parent by systems that you don’t want in your life. But I don’t understand feeling like your child is someone else’s responsibility.

I was raised with a pretty strict, “You made this mess, you clean it up.” If Rudy Huxtable was responsible for cleaning the kitchen when she tried to make jelly in the blender (so cute) then you can at the very least participate in getting your teenager’s life back on track.

I’m always being told by these parents that they have reached out for help, so if we don’t “fix” the child in question, and that child gets arrested or hurt, they’re going to sue.

Seriously. People say this. Constantly.

First of all, if your kid is hurt, dead, or in jail, and your first thought is, “Who is paying me for this?!” just go fuck yourself. This is not a social worky, strengths based statement, but I do think it’s accurate.

Second of all, fine. Bring all the law suits you want. But this kid is your responsibility. First and last. I will never understand a mindset that contradicts this.

I don’t like lamenting a lack of personal responsibility. It makes me feel like a Republican, which isn’t good, because I can’t shower at work. But I need to be honest.

Challenging this mindset is a huge part of my job. And complaining about it on the internet seems to be a huge part of keeping me at it.





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.





I don’t even think I have bootstraps

29 09 2011

I was a sociology major as an undergrad. It made sense to me, as I knew I was going into social work. I stand by that major, though I’ve heard many people disparage it as an easy way to get through college. Hint: everything’s easy if you don’t do any work.

Learning about society and how we function together as a unit to avoid killing and eating each other (it’s possible I just read Hunger Games) has been very helpful to me as a social worker. One professor in particular made a major impression on me, and made me think about some things that inform my practice in a different way.

This professor was old. Really old. He told us stories about growing up during the Depression. And of course, he had way more energy than any of the 20 year olds in the room. He talked about how people should work long past 65 now, because we live so much longer. He told us about his trips to South America, climbing mountains and hiking in rainforests with native people.

You’d think a tough guy like this would be pretty into that whole “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. (I don’t really know what that means. My boots have a fashionable and convenient side zipper.)

But he was the first person I heard say, “Some people are born on third base and grow up thinking they hit a triple.” Lots of those people were in the room, so it was a pretty cool moment.

I think we’re all familiar with this attitude when it comes to financial issues. People who think they’ve worked so hard to get where they are, and maybe they have, but who fail to recognize how lucky they were. To have parents who supported them, to have been able to go to college, to not have had to drop out to care for a sick relative.

My professor was fascinated with what he described as the American ideal–pushing through adversity. Not admitting weakness. Not admitting defeat. He told us a story about a time he almost died giving a lecture, because he decided to ignore severe abdominal pain until his appendix ruptured. The man running the event he was speaking at talked to my professor’s wife, after he had been rushed to the hospital. “Your husband’s quite a guy,” he said with admiration.

“You think so?” said his wife. “Well, I think he’s an asshole.”

I want to be friends with her.

I have to deal with this attitude from parents, teachers, and other workers all the time. Many parents have told me that they understand that their child has a mental illness. However, that is no excuse for poor behavior!

Well, it kind of is. Not that we should let it go. But you have to adjust your expectations. If we’re not going to do that, then what does a diagnosis even mean? You have ADHD, you have bipolar disorder, you have PTSD, but we’re going to act like you don’t. Hmm…

These parents always tell me that their children know right from wrong. I’m sure that they do. But the voices in their head don’t seem to. And when your brain is rushing so fast that you don’t have a minute to slow down and take in and process new information, you’re bound to make some bad decisions. We have kids evaluated and diagnosed when they’re struggling with these things so they can get treatment, so adults in their lives can be a little more patient, and so those same adults can learn what’s effective with this child’s unique ways of thinking and behaving. And yet it’s so hard to let go of the idea that clinging to those same expectations, and resisting medication and other treatments, is somehow superior.

I remember talking with a fellow student back in college, who had an IEP in high school and was entitled to extra test time. However, he was embarrassed and always refused to take it. The other girl we were talking to said, “I’m proud of you for not taking the extra time!”

1. You’re not his mom.
2. Why? Because he jeopardized his academic career for the sake of appearances? Because failing in the face of unfair standards is better than passing, if it means admitting you need help?
3. Why are you still talking. She doesn’t even go here! (Anyone? Come on.)

“If we admit that something is wrong, then we’re coddling him!” You’re right. You there, in the wheelchair! Up, now! If we give in to this desire to be pushed around everywhere, she’s never going to get up and walk.

Of course that’s ridiculous. But we say things like that all the time. To people with disabilities we can’t see, to people with histories we don’t know. They’re doing this incredibly destructive, unproductive thing. Why don’t they just stop it? I don’t know. Why don’t we work together? Simply saying, “Stop. Get yourself together. Do things this way” doesn’t make you a purveyor of tough love.

It makes you, in the words of my dear professor’s wife, an asshole.