At best, our work is certifiable.

30 08 2012

I’ve mentioned that my job confuses people a bit. They often don’t really have a clue what we do, and assume that we’re some sort of borderline useless combination of caseworker and friendly visitor. I don’t really care if people on the street, or my Facebook feed (you know, the modern street) think this. Well, I kind of care, but I know it really doesn’t matter. However, when judges don’t get it, then we have an issue.

Family court doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of respect for what I do. Saying that a family has been working with us for the past year on addressing their history of domestic violence, and on empowering the mother to assert herself as a parental figure, is pretty much met with blank stares. “What have you actually done?” The implication being, of course, that we’ve been sitting around chatting. A ten week parenting class, though, often means a check mark and a case closed.

Family court loves things that they can tally up and tick off “attended nine out of twelve sessions.” It’s like you can determine how good a parent someone is by their attendance percentage. What I do, the longer term family counseling is too abstract.

I’ve figured it out. It’s the certificate.

Certificates are a powerful thing. I mean, I got up an hour early three days a week at Girl Scout camp to go swimming in a cold Long Island pond, just to get a “Polar Bear Club” certificate. (I assume it’s still in a large Tupperware bin in my parents’ basement.)

I use them for my girls’ group now. Kids are really excited to have something that they can show off and hang up that indicates their achievement. It’s printed on nice paper in fancy font. Parents who didn’t complete school, I find, are also particularly into them. The ones who are the happiest about them, though, are people who have been in “the system” for a long time. Their kids have been in and out of foster care, they’ve been mandated to attend drug counseling, parenting classes, domestic violence groups, healthy cooking class, Zumba and whatever else might have been slightly helpful. They know the power of a “certificate of completion” (fuck participation) and have a folder full of them.

I have worked with one family that could be featured in a social work textbook as the quintessential “multi-problem family.” After two looooong years of work, the one thing of value that the courts see is that one of the teenagers completed my girls’ group. Twelve sessions, 75% attendance, certificate sent home and hung on the wall. Yay. It’s the only certificate they’ve managed. Never mind the school meetings, the days spent in the hospital, the calls from the police (Scared Straight is a real thing. An ineffective, real thing), referrals for mentoring and psychiatric evaluations, emergency grocery shopping with mom and two toddlers (I’m never doing that again, and you can’t make me!) and weeks of family counseling sessions in whatever room I could cram nine people into. Those things don’t have a curriculum and a clear end point.

As a result of Certificate Focused Practice, we’re being driven to be shorter term and more “evidenced based.” I’m not against our work being evidenced based–if it’s working, we should be able to see evidence, now matter how much we dislike that. But they’re making us do work that only has a bit of evidence and could, in theory, be more evidenced based, which I think just misses the point. And it’s a little automaton-y. It feels like social work in a dystopian future. “Enter problem here. Beep boop beep. Your solution is being processed.”

I hope you read that last bit aloud, in a robot voice.

I’m not anti-certificate. Like I said, I use them in girls’ group. I just think that getting so focused on checking off classes can take away from helping families. Not everything can happen and be fixed in a time limited program. “All right, let’s go through your Lisa Frank folder with the rainbow dolphins on it. Yes, we’ve got paperwork to show you’re a good parent, you don’t drink anymore, and you’re over the abuse you suffered!” Parents always ask “how long is the program?” when first engaging in counseling. That’s really not how effecting meaningful change in a family works, but it’s what they’ve come to expect. If you could attend “family college” and then be great at everything, I’m fairly certain everyone would do it and I’d be out of a job. But families have individual needs and situations, and while classes and group can provide invaluable help, they’re not quite everything.

For now, let me present you with this. You’ve earned it.





List my strengths? How much time do we have?

3 10 2011

The importance of working from a strengths based perspective is one of the first things I learned in social work school.

For those of us not familiar with this, it’s exactly what it sounds like. When people come to us for help, they come to us with problems. Especially if they’re referred by another source due to parenting problems. (ACS, family court, I’m looking in your direction.) They’re constantly hearing: you did this wrong. You should have done it this way. You’re deficient in this area.

So it can be pretty empowering when they come to us, and the first thing they hear is: what’s working for you guys? What are you good at? What are you doing well?

Abusive monsters are fairly rare. That’s why they make the news. Most of the people we work with have some strengths. It can be disheartening, at times, to see how hard it is for some people to name one of their strengths. They just draw a blank. What do you mean, something that the family is good at? Would we be here if we were good at things? One of my most important social work skills is helping them to start small, so they can build on that.

SocialJerk: “Well, you’re here. That’s a strength.”
Mom:           “Only because the judge said I had to come.”
SocialJerk   “But she didn’t carry you here. And you brought the kids. They all have clothes on and they seem to have been fed.”
Mom:          “Um, yeah. You’re saying me not bringing in naked, hungry kids is a good thing? What do you see in this office?”

Ma’am, you have no idea.

It’s true. Everybody has strengths. And many things can be viewed in a more positive light. Yes, you hit your kids, but you did it because you were worried about them getting hurt because they stayed out all night. It doesn’t make what you did OK, but the fact that you had the right motivation means that you can change. You can learn ways to discipline your children that will be less destructive and more effective.

Sometimes, though, kids are in danger. And sometimes, strengths need to take a back seat.

A coworker of mine, back at my second year field placement, had a rather tricky family. The parents had joint custody and a contentious relationship. In this situation, the father was more together than the mother, who rarely prioritized her child and was rather unpredictable in her moods.

A conference was held, due to the father’s concerns about inadequate guardianship and medical neglect when the five year old was with her mother. Apparently, when the little girl was with her mother, she complained about chest pains one night. The mother told her that it was “just her boobies growing,” and to go back to bed.

We all remember hearing those motherly words of wisdom, don’t we ladies? Almost amusing. But this kid had a pre-existing heart condition, and this could have been really bad.

As an agency, we approach our families from a strengths-based perspective. Like geometric proofs, though, this has its limits. (I apologize for that. Sincerely.)

My coworker was horrified by a number of things. One, that the mother was not worried about her daughter’s heart health. At least, not enough to take her to the emergency room that night, or even to make an appointment with the pediatrician the next day. Two, that the mother could not admit that this might have been an error in judgment.

Unfortunately, her supervisor did not help with the horror.

“So what I’m hearing is, you have a different view of when children should be taken to the doctor?”

Yes. Her view isn’t “wrong,” it’s “different!” She believes children should only be taken to the doctor when healthy or dead. Not when they’re ill. Maybe it’s cultural?

No. It was just wrong. And people using this empowering approach incorrectly and irresponsibly makes us all look like whackjobs who don’t put children’s safety first.

I don’t believe in focusing only on what a family is doing poorly, or how they are putting their children at risk. But there is pretty much always some place to meet in the middle. I have to remind myself that just because I dislike the child protective worker’s approach, it doesn’t mean he’s entirely wrong.

Most of my philosophy of work, life, relationships, and eating cheetos boils down to moderation. It is our friend. A happy medium does, in fact, exist. We can keep more than one idea in the forefront of our minds. Safety, and strengths. Guidance, and empowerment. Cheesy snacks, and not having to buy new pants.

We can’t be so married to any one philosophy that it clouds our common sense. Because I’m finding more and more that it isn’t as common as I thought.