The monster at the end of this blog

2 03 2012

When I mention that I work in child welfare, there are a couple of questions that people instantly have. One is how I afford to live in New York on that pathetic salary. Well, I managed to afford not one, not two, but THREE awesome pairs of Chuck Ts, so there you go. The next is how I manage to work with those monstrous parents.

I think this is one of the greatest misconceptions of what we do. When I talk about working with parents, utilizing their strengths, and helping them to find their own solutions, people often get a bit tetchy. “Do you really think they deserve that?” “They’re abusive, their children should just be taken away!” Sometimes they throw in an eye roll and condescension, free of charge! “Yeah, I’m sure thinking about what they’ve done and getting in touch with their feelings will fix everything.”

I blame television.

The fact of the matter is, most people do not wake up and plot to torture their children throughout the day. It happens.  There are terrible people in the world. When it happens, you typically hear about it on the news. Years later, you see a special on Dr. Phil, now that Oprah is no longer with the daytime viewers. It’s a big deal because it’s so rare. Commonplace stuff we all deal with doesn’t make it to the box. “Today, you’ll see a family squabble momentarily over what cereal to buy, before realizing that Cap’n Crunch and Honey Nut Cheerios are actually both on sale.” Chilling.

Abusive monsters exist. So do serial killers. (I swear there’s a parallel, so bear with me.) If you get your information on the topic of crime from Law & Order, Criminal Minds, Bones, and their ilk, you would think that 90% of murders are committed by a brilliant, deranged longer who has a secret room wallpapered with pictures of women, with lots of pins in them, leading a team of equally brilliant, extremely good looking federal agents in a game of cat and mouse.

But when we look at what actually happens, that doesn’t reflect reality. Most people are killed by someone they know. It’s usually unplanned and involves that whole “heat of the moment” “in a rage” thing. Those criminal minds aren’t nearly so brilliant, as the initial defense is often something along the lines of, “she stabbed herself? I mean, she asked me to stab her!”

Child abuse is frequently similar. According to Law & Order: SVU and Lifetime movies, abuse often involves international intrigue, plots to sell babies, and kids being chained to radiators. The “chained to a radiator” thing just will not go away. For the amount of times I’ve heard that one, I would estimate that upwards of half of all American children have spent at least an hour of their day secured to a heating appliance.

That’s just not the case. Parents who hit their kids are most often people who were raised with physical discipline, and are using it excessively themselves, or are parents who have snapped. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Physical discipline is not illegal. You’re allowed to spank your kids. (Personally, I think it’s a bad idea, but that’s an entirely different…I won’t say “can of worms,” because that’s gross, but you know what I mean.) You’re not allowed to beat them with objects or leave marks or bruises on them. But when people are overwhelmed, stressed, don’t have realistic and developmentally appropriate expectations of their kids, and don’t have a lot of support, sometimes they lash out in an effort to make themselves feel better.

Before any righteous smartasses jump in, I’m not defending murder, child abuse, spandex, or any other horrors. As in the case of typical murderer vs. serial killer, losing one’s temper doesn’t make it OK. There are still consequences, and the injured parties are still equally hurt. But pretending that people are, in fact, monsters, just doesn’t help.

We can look at these parents as evil caricatures. It makes us feel really good about ourselves. I might make mistakes, but I’m not like those people! It often makes those who hear my touchy-feely social work talk feel quite righteous and superior to say, “Well, I think those parents should be in prison! Those children should be removed!”

Because that solves everything, right? It has to happen sometimes, of course. But it’s generally best for kids to not have to go through removal, and to not have parents in prison.

If there were some magical farm run by happy, plump grandmas, who spent the day baking cookies, reading aloud, and raising puppies, where we could send all of these children, it might be a bit different. Magical farm doesn’t exist. Believe me, I’ve checked.

When we acknowledge that these things–abuse and neglect, which unchecked and at their worse lead to the death of a child–are usually not the deliberate acts of evil individuals, they become much scarier.

I routinely have nightmares that I am somehow complicit in someone’s death. I see them drowning in Jell-O and do nothing, I drive a monster truck into a playground, I accidentally throw peanut butter at someone with a severe allergy on the bus. (Hey, I said they were dreams.) In those dream moments, I have these thoughts. “Holy shit, how did that happen?” I think it’s because I have seen, time and again, how things get out of hand.

Also, I’m addicted to Dateline.

It’s not about rationalizing or explaining away a parent’s behavior. Having the good intention of trying to potty train your toddler doesn’t mean that it’s OK that the child wound up with a dislocated shoulder. But it does make a difference in how we address it.

An evil monster doesn’t learn and change. A person with the right intentions, but few skills and poor self control, can. Often they want to. But they’re defensive. I hear it all the time. “I lost my temper and I hit her. I’m not one of those abusive parents you see on the news, though!”

I’m sure they’re not. And that’s why I got sent in, not Nancy Grace. Before we go any further, let’s all just agree that she’s bad for society. OK? Great.

Not everyone deserves a second chance. (I think we all know what singer/dancer’s direction I’m looking in.) But a lot of people do. From a practical standpoint, even if we think it’s not for the best, they’re very often getting their children back. So we need to work with them, because so often, things can get better.

And no one can work well with monsters.

I just called to say I’m a jerk (not the good kind)

10 10 2011

Not long ago, I got a call informing me that a family I am currently working with had a case called in. The single mother was accused of leaving her two youngest children, ages three and seven, home alone over night, and of using and selling drugs. I was rather surprised by this. This mother, who has her flaws, if anything erred on the side of having her kids with her too much. She had also been required to take drug tests more than once in the past, which always came up negative.

I asked if the person calling had any idea who had made these allegations. She responded, “a concerned citizen” as if it should be obvious.

Ah yes, a concerned citizen. The living embodiment of, “it takes a village.” Someone willing to put themselves on the line, get over those feelings of minding one’s own business, because the health and safety of a child is more important.

Is it bad that my first thought was, “Oh, you mean vindictive asshole?”

Two years ago, that never would have crossed my mind. I knew people used this excuse when being accused of child abuse or neglect. I had heard it when I worked in a youth center, as child protective workers would occasionally come by the speak with the children.

“Oh, I know they’re coming to talk to my child, it’s fine. My man’s ex-girlfriend called that lie in, because she doesn’t like that I have a healthy relationship.”

Really? She doesn’t like that? Strange. It was usually something along those lines.

“My mother-in-law did it, she doesn’t think I’m good enough for her son.”
“My neighbor was pissed at me because our kids got into a fight, so she made the call to get back at me.”
“I’m pretty sure it was my sister, or my cousin, they’ve always been jealous.”

Ever notice that the people who most readily accuse others of being jealous are the people you’d be least likely to actually be jealous of? What, she envies that badass Tweety bird tattoo of yours? Can’t she get her own?

I couldn’t really believe that someone would actually do that. However mad you might get at an adult, would you ever drag an innocent child into it? Would you accuse an adult of something horrible, that could stay with them the rest of their lives? All because you can’t get over a (no doubt, big time winner) guy?

But I know now for a fact that it happens.

I was all set to close a case that had ended with two children going to live with their grandmother. The mother was mentally ill and abusing drugs, but the grandma was quite stable. The kids went from missing half the school year to getting perfect attendance awards. They were traumatized from what they’d been through with their mother, but they were in counseling and thriving.

So I was shocked when I found out that a case had been called in.

I was even more shocked when I found out what the allegations were. The first was educational neglect–the children not going to school. This was very easily checked with a simple call to the schools. Those kids were in school all the time. They showed up on weekends. That was just patently ridiculous.

The second was that the children were inadequately supervised. Now, while their mother was extremely unreliable, apparently this was not a hereditary condition. These children were surrounded by aunts and uncles, god parents, and cousins. If anything they were overly supervised. There was never a moment when there was fewer than three adults in that home.

The third is what really proved to me that this was called in by someone with a bone to pick with this family. It was alleged that there was no food in the home. This family has more food in their home on a regular basis than my three roommates and I have ever had. (To be fair, I currently only have couscous and ice pops in the kitchen, but still.) The grandmother was cooking during every home visit I made. At times, she bought too many groceries, and sent me back to the office with non-perishables for our (small, pathetic) food pantry.

I asked the grandmother what was up, and she told me. Her son’s ex-girlfriend got angry at the family and called the child abuse hotline. They knew this for sure, because after she did it, she called the family to apologize.

Well, I guess the apology counts for something. Oh no wait, I’m being told that it doesn’t. At all.

It’s pretty gross (sorry, but there’s no better word) that this even needs to be considered by someone investigating a claim of child abuse or neglect. Because they don’t have enough actual cases to investigate. And because we need this extra level of confusion in those investigations. Not just interviewing a confused child and angry, frightened parents, and trying to determine if bruises are something to worry about or just the result of normal childhood running into walls (when will I grow out of that, by the way?) but a child protective worker also has to consider if this came from some jackass who does not at all have the best interests of the child in mind.

As a child, I was told not to go anywhere near the police and fire call boxes, because they would respond and be taking time away from someone who might really be in trouble. Also, if they responded to too many fake calls, they might not take them so seriously when people really needed help.

For anyone too young to remember those things that existed pre cell phone, I hate you.

I don’t know if the problem is that this lesson isn’t shared anymore, or if people don’t have much respect for child welfare, or if ACS and similar agencies are just such a part of life in certain areas that it doesn’t seem like a big deal. I suspect it’s a combination of the three. But it’s an unbelievable part of the job, that it’s important to be aware of.

Because apparently, people really are pretty terrible sometimes.

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.

You gotta give ’em hope

22 09 2011

I hate people.

I know a lot of my sarcastic contemporaries who hide behind internet anonymity (see you all at the next meeting, guys) revel in their misanthropy, but I try not to. I really do.

On some days, it’s hard.

I had to walk a few blocks out of my way in order to get to the office the other morning. This was because there was a shootout on the street in the middle of the night, and the block was still roped off by the police.

Apparently, this is what it takes to have a meaningful police presence in the neighborhood.

Often, because of where these types of things take place, they get ignored. If it was Midtown Manhattan, it would be a big deal, but it’s the Bronx. It’s the ghetto. A bunch of gang members want to kill each other? Let them.

Except that in this city, in the past month, we’ve had three children under five (that I’ve heard about) accidentally shot on the street. What the hell kind of human thinks that their ridiculous beef with some other dude in the neighborhood is worth the accidental death of a child?

Earlier, I noticed a candlelight memorial outside a client’s building. Apparently it was for a three year old girl. The parents claimed her death was accidental, but upon further examination, she had been horribly abused for some time. The mother of the family I was visiting showed me pictures of her daughter and this poor girl together at a recent birthday party, while she asked what kind of person could do that to a child? She was just glad that her daughter was young enough to not really understand.

We didn’t discuss the fact that, though we were quite a bit older, we certainly didn’t understand either.

Then I got a call about one of my families. A big, chaotic family, with lots of kids who fight like cats and dogs, and who make me laugh on every visit. Apparently they’ve been removed with no warning, and, as far as I can tell, no real reason. The children’s lawyer called me, mystified, saying she thought everything was improving. That’s what I had thought as well. They were waiting for placement in a domestic violence shelter, because the dad is now out of jail and has been coming by to beat the shit out of mom as often as he can.

By all means, traumatize everyone further. That’ll show them.

There’s a lot of disgust to go around in this case. The city, for refusing to move the family to a new location before the father was released from prison, and again for having an underfunded shelter system, and again for punishing a family for having been victimized. Of course, the “father,” who feels justified in beating the mother of his children in front of those children, pulling a knife, trying to set mother and children on fire.  (Fun fact–you only get a year in jail for that!) An ACS worker, who seems to be primarily focused on how inconvenient this all is for her.

These are the people we’re sharing a planet with.

People are always asking how I manage to do my job, how it doesn’t get me down, how I work with people who do terrible things.

Barely, it does, and I don’t know.

All I know is that if I don’t believe in the people I work with, I can’t do my job. And while my job might not be changing the world, it’s something. If I write everyone off as “bad parents” and “juvenile delinquents” things don’t get better. They stay the same if we’re lucky, they get worse if we’re realistic.

Days like this I can’t do it. Bureacracy, disappointment, inconsiderate people, I can deal with. I have to. On a daily basis. I can get snarky, use my impressive vocabulary and quick wit to get a one-liner in that will make me feel better, and move on. I’ll be annoyed, but I move on.

Today I have to half lie to myself, and say that, despite the tragedy and the people we can’t help, things do get better. As much as I want to quit right now, I can’t imagine doing or being anything else.

Because there are those moments. Moments that make you feel good, like a teen telling you she likes that you listen to her, or a grandma bringing you cough drops because your voice sounded scratchy on the phone. And moments that actually make a difference, like a kid walking away from a fight for the first time, or a parent recognizing that a child’s behavior is developmentally appropriate, and not worthy of punishment.

It really beats the alternative.

If I hear someone ask about “that ACS bitch” one more time…

12 09 2011

It’s very difficult having ACS, or whatever child protective/social services are call in your area, involved in your life. They drive me crazy, and I just have to work with them. I can’t imagine them being a part of my family.

ACS involvement starts out as an investigation. Investigations are, by definition, invasive. The kids get interviewed away from their parents. ACS workers look at their bodies to check for marks. The fridge and cupboards are rifled through to ensure there’s enough food. Workers might show up late at night, for a surprise meeting.

It can start to feel like you have no privacy. Like your life isn’t your own.

As a social work agency, we approach our clients from a strengths-based perspective. Meaning we start with what’s working, and build on it. That’s the goal, anyway. Sometimes we start by chasing clients down the block, or getting yelled at from windows. But the goal is to work together.

ACS comes from a different perspective. It seems more of a checklist than a philosophy, actually. Are you doing this? Do you have this? No? OK. Do this and this and I’ll leave you alone. First let me see your children’s beds. You brought the kids to the doctor? All right, I’m going to call to make sure. What are you getting so cranky about?

Because they’re investigating and putting services in place, the focus is on deficits. What’s going wrong. The parent isn’t disciplining the child appropriately, the child isn’t going to school, there isn’t a reliable child care provider, the home is too chaotic and messy. If someone came into my apartment and pointed out that I was unfit to be an adult, based on the fact that the only groceries I currently have are Cheerios and ice pops, my bed isn’t made, and it’s 2011, take down the framed Nirvana poster, I wouldn’t take to it too kindly.

In fact, I’d lash out at the person in question, then begin to doubt myself. Especially if those things that were pointed out were things I was already ashamed of. (When it comes to my Nirvana poster, I, of course, feel no shame.) This is, not surprisingly, the reaction we see from a lot of clients.

One of my families was referred to preventive services through ACS, and continues to have ACS involvement due to an ongoing court case. It’s challenging, because the family hates ACS. Not “please don’t stay in my home any longer than strictly necessary” hate, but “get the fuck out of my house, bitch, before I let this pit bull out of her cage” hate.

I’m always trying to understand my families’ feelings about ACS. At one meeting, I realized how insightful this mother was, and she made it incredibly easy for me. I’m tempted to get her to write a book. You know, when she’s not trying to get ACS off her back, meet with me, attend parenting classes, move where her abusive ex can’t find her, find a job, and get her kids back in school.

At this particular meeting, the mother, we’ll call her Ms. S (for strength, and sass) showed some vulnerability to me, and her ACS worker. The ACS worker was insisting that the children needed to undergo psychiatric evaluations. (The official chant is: 2, 4, 6, 8, when in doubt, medicate!) Ms. S opened up about her difficulties in getting the children to do what she wanted. “I tell them to go, I wake them up, you tell me I’m not allowed to beat their asses, so what am I supposed to do if they refuse?”

Yes, that was Ms. S being vulnerable. She’s tough.

The ACS worker then started explaining her side, in what she felt was a reasonable manner. “I have to go back to court, Ms. S. And if this hasn’t been done, the judge is going to be asking me why. My supervisor’s going to be asking me why. If I say we just made the appointment and they didn’t go, that’s not going to be enough, it’s going to be on me.”

This is when things got interesting.

“Are you talking to me about your job? Your job. I don’t give a shit about who you have to to talk to, this is my life. Do you think I’m not worried about my kids acting crazy? I’m the one who has to deal with them. I don’t care what a judge says, these are my kids.”

It was probably the most honest outburst I’d heard. It led to the ACS worker wrapping up her end of the meeting, and leaving me and Ms. S to it.

We talked more and more about her feelings about ACS. And it became more and more apparent that there is a fundamental flaw in the way our parents are being approached.

Ms. S told me about the supports in her life, particularly her sister and her cousin. They were always the people she could turn to in times of crisis, and when she was feeling overwhelmed. The kids got along well with these women. But when the case got called in, the kids were no longer allowed to pop over to their relative’s home to crash for the night, when things got too hectic at home. The relatives needed to be interviewed by ACS, to make sure they were appropriate.

“I’m not allowed to be their parent. This lady met my kids two months ago, she decides what’s best for them? I can’t say you can go sleep at your aunt’s house? And then she’s coming into my house, looking at my fridge. When I tell her, yeah, I am low on food, she tells me to go to a food pantry. Like I need someone coming in to tell me that.”

They way Ms. S was being approached put her on the defensive, because it undermined her as a parent. It told her that she wasn’t good enough. It didn’t make her think, OK, I’ve made some mistakes, and bad choices, but I’m a good mother, with smart, healthy kids. I’ve done something right. I’m not clueless.

If the goal is to preserve families, and foster independence, this is not the way to do it. This is the way to keep people moving from services to services–ACS case closed, preventive case opened; preventive case closed, mental health treatment opened. This doesn’t inspire our parents to utilize what they know, what they can do, to call in their existing resources and supports to meet their needs and improve the lives of their children. It creates dependent parents who question their every choice, feel that they have no say in their family’s life, and believe that they need outsiders to control their children.

Keeping us in business is not the goal.

SWAAFI (Social Workers Against Acronyms, for Irony)

17 06 2011

In high school, my friends and I went through the early motions of starting an official group called, “SAA: Students Against Acronyms.” We thought we were smart and funny. I’d say we were half right, but it seems like a bit too much credit. We were also lazy, so it never got off the ground.

Little did I know that my future would be AF. That’s acronym filled, for those of you not in the know.

Social workers, or SWs, as I refer to them in my progress notes, simply adore acronyms. We use them in the referral process, in writing up intakes, assessments, and service plans. That all makes sense. Condense everything as much as possible, because we’ve got enough to talk about.

Family was referred by ACS (Administration for Children’s Services) following a CPS (Child Protective Services) investigation. BM (Biological Mother, not Bowel Movement, though it always makes me giggle) reports a history of DV (Domestic Violence) with BF (Biological Father.) MGM (Maternal Grandmother) took custody when children were placed in FC (foster care.) BM (tee hee) denies a history of MH (Mental Health) and SA (Substance Abuse.) Contact information for the children’s GAL (Guardian Ad Litem) is included.

Oh dear. So much work to be done. I’ll have to include it all in my FASP (Family Assessment Service Plan.) What if BM (sorry, it’s still funny) wants to pursue a PINS (Person In Need of Supervision) warrant on the oldest teen? Is the family receiving PA (Public Assistance)? BM (OK, I’m done) is attending a BTW (Back To Work) program, but she missed a few days because her ACD (I honestly don’t even know) child care voucher didn’t come through. If they’re sanctioned, she might need an EVR (Eligibility Verification Review) and that’s a huge pain in the ass. Are they asking for a PE (Psychiatric Evaluation) for any family members? Did we talk to the CM (Case Manager)? Or was it the CW (Case Worker)?

Do any of the children identify as LGBT? Is the family going home to DR for the summer? Do the kids know their ABCs? Are they posting on FB? Do I have time to stop for cash at the ATM? What did I get on my SAT?

After a while, you start to go a bit mad. (We all go a little mad sometimes.)

Using these acronyms says something. It says, hey, I’m busy and important! I have things to say, and very limited time in which to say them. It also might say that you’re well-versed in the world of Twitter.

The acronyms say more than that, though. As I’ve said, social workers are insecure and annoying. Speaking in jargon lets people know that we know the system. I am a professional, dammit! I know what I’m talking about. Oh, you have to ask what PINS or CASAC means? I’ll explain it. And you will recognize that I know more than you.

This sends a message, and often not the message we want to send. I’ve seen workers, social workers and protective workers, or psychiatrists and case managers, or any other variation of well-intentioned helpers, talk in circles in front of their clients. Most of the clients we work with know public assistance lingo. They often know some child protection speak, as well. Odds are, they aren’t familiar with all of it, though. Public assistance, child protection, mental health…it’s a lot of language to be up to speed on.

I felt incredibly out of place when I first started in this field. I thought I sounded like an idiot when I had to ask what one of these things meant. I try to keep that in mind, before I drop initials on a client. I can’t stand when doctors prattle on in medical terminology about…whatever it is they do (I don’t often go to doctors, but I did watch ER) and act like a patient who never saw the inside of a medical school should know exactly what they mean.

I think it does us all well to remember what it’s like to feel like the newbie, like the dumbest person in the room. Some of us feel like that more often than others, but that’s not the point. There are reasons we sound like this sometimes. Sometimes it becomes second nature, sometimes we want to sound like we know the drill, sometimes we try to make ourselves look better than an obnoxious worker, or someone talking down to us.

But sometimes, being so comfortable with the jargon shows how comfortable we are on the inside track, which makes others feel that they’re on the outside. Sometimes making ourselves look better makes someone else look worse.

SA, DV, MH and the rest aren’t technical terms, but they are confusing when you’re the new guy, as a worker or a client. And to be honest, since we’re all friends here–they’re kind of obnoxious. Occasionally, they make us sound like a bunch of douches.

So please, join me in fighting back. Talke back entire words along with me. I’ll be emailing out an invite to SWAAFI later today. Let me know if you want me to CC you.

Are empty Funyuns packets indicative of child abuse?

13 06 2011

Drug addiction is notoriously difficult to treat. It’s a frustrating problem for the person trying to get help, and for the professionals trying to provide that help. Twelve step programs are generally the most accepted, along with intensive rehab and inpatient treatment.

The only thing that we know really doesn’t work is being featured on a VH1 reality show. Who knew?

I shouldn’t have to worry all that much about this. I’m not a drug counselor. I don’t work in drug treatment. In the world of prevention, families with drug problems or mental health issues are supposed to be sent to “intensive preventive.” This involves more frequent home visits, and a case worker in addition to a social worker, to provide the level of care the families need.

Surprise surprise, funding is short. Meaning we are increasingly getting sent cases that are not strictly appropriate for our services.

I guess they try to keep the really, really intense cases where they belong. For the most part, we don’t get clients who use hard drugs. Crack is not a big part of my professional life. (Or my personal life, don’t worry.) But, it would seem, marijuana follows me everywhere I go. (At work, I mean. Settle down.)

Drug tests are a regular part of an ACS investigation. I’m not usually one to get all up in arms about such things, but it is a bit odd. Especially when the reason a case was called in has nothing to do with drug use. A parent using excessive corporal punishment, or a case of inadequate guardianship could be influenced by drug use, but it seems wrong to jump to conclusions and imply that parents have to go along with a drug test, when they actually have the right to refuse.

Not surprisingly, considering how drug tests work (marijuana stays in a person’s system for up to thirty days, cocaine for about forty eight hours) test frequently come up positive for marijuana. And I’m frequently asked to deal with this.

A drug problem is difficult to treat when the person in question admits that they have a problem and need help. When the person in question does not admit this, and says that they just smoke weed every so often, to relax, to have a good time, to celebrate a special event, it’s an uphill battle.

When the worker assigned to provide help, and convince this person that there is, in fact, a problem, does not believe that there’s a problem? We’re beyond uphill battle. It’s uphill, wearing roller skates and ankle weights, being chased back down by a pack of wolves.

Most people who get busted for marijuana use, whether they be parents or teens, admit to using it occasionally. Sometimes I suspect that it’s more often. There was one teenage boy I worked with who I don’t think I ever saw not high. He had gone beyond the fun, let’s-watch-Adult-Swim-and-eat-Cheetos high to the this-is-just-who-I-am high. I thought he had a problem, and that he needed help.

But most of the positive screenings we get a report on are low levels. People admit to smoking because it was someone’s birthday, or smoking once a month.

They admit that to me, anyway. In court, and to ACS, they usually admit to having been in a smoky room. Or they admit to eating a poppy seed bagel, because a lot of people saw that one episode of Seinfeld and got a little confused.

It’s so strange to me that so many workers, social workers, protective workers, judges, and lawyers, will act like a positive marijuana test is the end of the world. I don’t think it’s a good thing. But it’s so easy to pick up on, and so easy to say it needs to be addressed, that I think it clouds our judgment.

Sometimes I feel like I’m being sucked back into the 1950s and Reefer Madness. “She’s been smoking marijuana, SJ. What if she leaves her kids unsupervised because she goes out to buy more? What if she gets stoned and ignores them? They could get hurt!”

These things could happen. They could also happen if a parent went out for a pack of cigarettes, or a Mountain Dew. She could ignore her kids for lots of reasons. Good book, Halo tournament, a few beers…I have one client whose use of  pills concerns me greatly. But my worries aren’t heard by the court, because she has a valid prescription.

How many adults have never smoked weed, not even once? Most people I know at least went through a phase where it was a bit of a regular thing. Some of us even inherited our parents’ old Cheech and Chong albums. (I’ll be honest, they really hold up.)

I’m not saying that it’s the best way to deal with one’s stress. It’s not the most effective coping strategy, nor is it the most mature method of dealing with one’s problems. We all know that people going through hard, stressful times ought to let the tension out by talking with a trusted loved one, exercising, writing a sad poem in their journals…you know, like we all do.

Oh, wait.

Yes, excessive marijuana usage concerns me. If someone can’t put the pipe down long enough to let a CPS worker complete a home visit, then I’m concerned about what’s going on. But if the children are taken care of, and this is the only concern? It seems like we’re looking for and creating problems.

And I don’t think we need to be doing that just yet.

Soapbox, high horse, whatever you call it, here I am.

11 04 2011

I’ve hesitated to write about the Marchella Pierce case, in which two ACS workers are being charged with criminally negligent homicide. I’m not a lawyer. I’m not well-versed enough in the law to decide what constitutes manslaughter vs. criminally negligent homicide vs. murder, first or second degree whatever. No matter how much Law & Order I’ve watched.

But I am a social worker. So there are some things I can comment on.

This was the case of a medically fragile four year old, who weighed fifteen pounds at the time of her death. (I weighed fifteen pounds at about four months.  True, my family produces fatty hearty babies, but still. At four years old, that’s bad.) ACS was involved with the family due to the mother’s drug history and the child’s medical condition. Mom called the police after her daughter had been unresponsive for about an hour. The child had marks that indicated she had been tied to the bed and beaten. She died in September of 2010.

All around, a tragedy. Of course. And, of course, people are looking for someone to blame.

What’s unique here is not that the child protective agency is being blamed. That happens whenever a child dies from abuse or neglect. What’s unique is that they are being held criminally responsible.

In six months, from March through August, when the ACS caseworker was meant to be conducting biweekly visits with the family, he entered two contacts in the city database. One was a phone call in March. The other was an (unsuccessful) attempted home visit in June.

After the child’s death, he and his supervisor miraculously recalled five other contacts he had with the family, and entered those. What we ethical fucking human beings social workers call, “falsification of records.”

I decided to write about this topic after reading many other people’s reactions. One concern that’s been brought up many times is that fear of criminal prosecution will keep people out of the profession.

Guess what? I’m ok with that. This job is serious. I am not being dramatic when I say that child protective workers have children’s lives in their hands. This man did not take his responsibilities seriously. This child was at risk of death. This isn’t a case of hindsight being 20/20. This isn’t a situation in which no one called the abuse in because they didn’t want to get involved. This was a malnourished child who had visible bruises and rope marks on her body, who had a team of people assigned to protect her.

They failed.

Some people say that the system failed. I’m not often trying to defend our child welfare system. It’s deeply flawed. But this is not an example of that. This is an example of deeply flawed workers.

Six months. Without seeing this child. An eighth of her life.

We hear about these workers being overwhelmed. They’re claiming that they were so overwhelmed and busy that they forgot to enter all of the contacts with the family, but they did, in fact, see them.

Sorry, but that’s bullshit.

The opinion piece I linked to above talks about the need to appreciate the improvements that ACS has made, especially since the death of Nixzmary Brown. Caseloads are smaller, they’re trying to recruit better workers (they make more money than I do, with less education), and more referrals are being made to quality preventive programs.

They’ve got a long way to go, but these points are true. New York City child protective workers have an average caseload of ten. People in other parts of the country would kill for that. I would kill for that. Yes, it’s a difficult, thankless job, often dangerous, with crazy hours. But it’s doable. I have met a lot of CPS workers that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, but I’ve also met some wonderful ones. CPS workers who are dedicated, knowledgeable, and put children first. The idea that this worker only had time to enter his contacts after the death of this child is ludicrous.

Sometimes people fall behind. There is a chain of command, supervisors on top of supervisors, for this very reason. Someone is looking over your shoulder, insuring that things are getting done as they’re supposed to.

Meaning that the supervisor in this scenario failed miserably as well.

Falsification of records happens. It should be unheard of, but it’s not. I’ve seen it. I’ve reported it. And I’ve seen that worker kept on their job. It’s inexcusable. It’s the one thing (well, one of very few things) my supervisor tells us she will absolutely not defend.

Because this is what it can lead to.

What can we learn from this?

  1. We need to take our jobs seriously. Social workers, child protective workers, investigators, preventive workers…we can be the last hope for a child in this type of home.
  2. We can’t defend others just because they share our profession. Our first instinct is so often to stand up for our fellow workers. But in cases of ethical violations, especially when they lead to tragedy, we owe it to the profession not to do this.
  3. Supervisors cannot become so overwhelmed or detached that they ignore their responsibility. Even if their direct contact with clients is limited.
  4. DON’T FALSIFY YOUR RECORDS. It will never be worth it. Some people are told to do this by their supervisors. Some people feel pressure to do this in order to make their numbers. But it’s inexcusable. There aren’t a lot of things I will say that about, but this is one.

So I don’t see this case as an indictment of ACS, or the social work profession. I see it as an indictment of two people who failed to do their jobs, which contributed to the death of a child. A child who was clearly at risk, and should have been protected.

A child who would probably be alive today, if those smaller caseloads had been taken advantage of and those stricter requirements followed.

It’s something we all need to keep in mind.

Getting to know all about you (Whether I like it or not)

3 03 2011

Joyous news! I’ve got a new family on my caseload.

Engagement is always a tricky process. Getting to know people, letting them know you’re there to help and they can trust you, all while getting the information you need and setting appropriate boundaries…there’s a lot going on.

It’s especially tough as a preventive worker. A lot of our families come to us because of a CPS investigation. When CPS comes into your life, they tend to be fairly blunt. I need to see your kids. “OK kids, roll up your sleeves and pant legs so I can check for bruises. Let me talk to you without your mom. Does your mom hit you? How does she hit you? How often? OK mom, open the fridge. No I don’t want a snack, I’m checking for food!”

It needs to be done. But it’s a rough process for people already in a crisis situation.

CPS then sends me in as “the new worker.” So why would those families expect me to be any different?

My latest family has a grand total of ten kids.

Did anyone else’s uterus just try to escape?

Single mom, ten kids. The youngest is severely disabled, with cerebral palsy. There are six kids under 18. Nine of the kids live in the home. Dad pops in and out when he damn well pleases can.

This was an unusual situation, because CPS was still involved. The family’s case was transferred over to me, after the mom was called in for educational neglect. Translation: YOU get this damn teenager to go to school! Before CPS could even close the case, another investigation was called in. This time for the 14 year old boy inappropriately touching his 16 year old sister.

When this happened, I had the case for two weeks. I had been to the house once, for a brief visit, before the family signed on. The 14 year old had come in for an individual session.

Then I got a call from a CPS worker, telling me that my presence was requested at a conference.

JK. What she said was, “We’re having a conference Thursday morning at our office. You have to come to it.”

Technically speaking, I don’t. Of course I will, but I don’t have to. Even if it was required, is it so hard to ask? Honestly, people.

Let me explain something–I’m old enough. I have my Master’s degree and a couple of years of experience. However, I appear to be about 15. I get carded on the rare occasion that I head over to the tavern for a night cap. I was recently asked if my mother was giving permission for me to donate blood. (You don’t need that after age 17.)

This often means that people think they can talk to me a certain way.

We went ahead with the meeting. I explained that my knowledge of the case was limited, because I had barely even met the family.

Then the condescension kicked in.

“So you didn’t do a home assessment?” asked a supervisor who clearly realized she was old enough to be my mother. “I’m confused, I thought you had been to the home. Well, I suppose that’s something we’ll have to work on.”

It was as though she was assigning me homework.

This continued for the next hour. By the time I made it back to my office, I was fuming. Fortunately I have an understanding supervisor, who allows me to vent and rant sarcastically every day so often.

This woman didn’t speak to me as though we were colleagues, from different agencies working towards the same goal. She spoke to me as if I were a stupid child. As if she was trying to shift some sort of blame to me.

Oh wait, that’s it.

When different service providers are involved, it so often gets forgotten that we’re working towards the same goal. We’re all trying to help this family to function independently, to keep the kids safe, to help them to achieve their goals. Instead, it’s “You want me to do the referral? But your agency is connected with theirs, it will go through faster if you do it!” “I am not writing the thirty day service plan, I only got the case ten days ago. Ha!”

A lot of this comes from being overwhelmed. Everyone has too many families and not enough time. If you can put work off onto someone else, especially if that someone else is someone you don’t see too often, you’ll do it. A lot of this also comes from fear. Especially when there are a lot of safety and risk factors for a family, but the kids are still in the home, no one wants to have the ultimate responsibility. We all remember the stories of children who have died from abuse or neglect. The parents are often almost an afterthought. Where was the school, where were the social workers, where was CPS? Who fell down on the job?

No one wants to be that one worker who shoulders the blame in the media, in the case of a tragedy. But the ironic thing is that such tragedies would probably happen a lot less if we worked together a little more. If we did things that didn’t strictly fall under our umbrella of responsibility every so often, and talked to each other before resorting to blame.

But what do I know. I’m just a kid.