The social worker the Bronx deserves, but not the one it needs.

30 07 2012

I remember seeing the 1960s Adam West Batman TV show for the first time when I was six years old, on a rainy day during a family vacation. This was a year after I had seen the Batman movie, starring Michael Keaton, which, as I was five, scared the shit out of me. But I was mesmerized by the cartoon-y, campy version, which led me to fall in love with the grittier film, and even more in love with Batman Returns. Then I just kind of fell in love with Chris O’Donnell (yes please) even though the movies got terrible. During this time, though, I came upon the wealth of graphic novels (or comics, if you want to be a dick about it) that kept my Batman love alive until Christopher Nolan’s brilliance reminded the rest of the world of what Batman had to offer.

So I had been counting down the days until I could see The Dark Knight Rises.

Most of us are only thinking of one thing when it comes to The Dark Knight Rises. I have a few friends who are refusing to see it in theaters. Not out of some sort of protest over violence in film, but because they’re really scared. I understand that. I don’t think it’s sensible, or going to keep them safe, but it’s understandable.

When I talk about Batman here, I’m not going to talk about the shooting. Because, like most people, I don’t believe the shooting had a thing to do with the movie. If it hadn’t been at this movie, it would have been at some other event. It was about a possibly ill, definitely terrible person, who was able to get a lot of weaponry way too easily, finding the easiest way to murder a lot of people. I’m terribly sad for everyone involved, of course, but there’s not really anything more to say here.

My love of comics expanded over the years, particularly to include the X-Men, but Batman always had a special place in my heart. He’s always reminded me of social work.

Back in Two-Face’s lair social work school, I did a presentation in my Social Work and the Arts class about using comics in our work. My main inspiration for that was The Crow. James O’Barr wrote it as a way of coping with the death of his girlfriend, who was killed by a drunk driver. He channeled everything he was feeling, the grief and loss and rage at not being able to protect her, and was able to create a character that could avenge the woman he loved, and protect others.

I mean, comic books are for kids.

The X-Men are part of a minority group, largely hated for the thing that makes them different, debating whether to try to change what they are, to fight the majority with violence, or to embrace what makes them different and use it to help others. Art Spiegelman dealt with the trauma and horror his family had been through, and shared the repercussions with the world, in Maus. One! Hundred! Demons! is all about exorcising those things that haunt you–abuse, bad relationships, weird families–through art.

And of course there are the actual issues that our superheroes tackle–Northstar’s coming out and recent marriage, (Mazel tov, by the way) Magneto’s life as a Holocaust survivor, Iron Man’s alcoholism, and Batman witnessing the tragic death of his parents, then growing up to take back his city from the violent criminals that have taken over.

If there was any question as to why Batman resonates with me so much.

I wrote about the young boy I work with who was randomly shot earlier in the year. There was another awful event in the city recently, in which a four year old boy was shot to death on a playground. Things like this happen a lot. We have random shootings and muggings with depressing regularity, particularly where I work.

Being social workers, we know it’s so much more complex than good versus evil. As much as the people who shot those children are the bad guys (and they are) we also know that they have their own stories. Their own trauma. We often wonder what makes some kids survive whatever they go through, and work incredibly hard to have a different life, as opposed to some kids who take the same path their bad examples and influences did. Sometimes it’s easier to conceive of it all as a choice between Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent, Charles Xavier and Max Eisenhardt.

Sometimes it’s nice to fantasize that one of those kids is going to grow up to reject the drugs and gun violence that plagues our neighborhood and take it back for the hardworking citizens that make up a majority of the population. It’s nice to imagine that it’s a clear choice between good and evil, that good has an unlimited budget and some of the greatest minds in the world working on its side, and that the power of a symbol can unite people in hope.

Until that time, I’ll  keep doing the work, firmly in the grey area. But I’ll keep reading my comics, because we all need to escape, and we all need hope.

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?

Free-Range Kids…delicious?

14 12 2010

There’s a movement sweeping the nation–or at least, beginning to dust certain parts of it. It’s called “Free-Range Kids.” I know it sounds like the children are allowed to roam free so that they will grow to be extra succulent, but it’s actually based on the idea of giving your kids a little freedom. Not holding their hands constantly, allowing them to walk to school, and not laboring under the delusion that everyone in the country is out to kidnap your kid. (Personally, I have enough kids in my life. I’m not about to go looking for more.)

It was started by writer Lenore Skenazy, who allowed her 9 year old to take the subway a few stops on his own and was then written up as “America’s worst mom.” (I’ll give my fellow social workers a moment to absorb that.)

The blog is pretty interesting. Skenazy’s parenting ideas don’t differ much from the way I was raised. And it gets me thinking about the kids I interact with and see on a daily basis.

I spend a good deal of time in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The Upper East and West Side parents, as well as the Park Slope ones, are decidedly not raising free-range kids. Not just parents, but nannies and other staff are constantly hovering. No one walks to school. I have seen 12 year old kids wander away from a cab and leave the door open, the bewildered driver thanking me for noticing and shutting it.

Kids who are taken care of to that extent don’t get the idea that they have to do some things for themselves, it would seem.

Oh, and when your able-bodied five year old is still confined to a stroller, deal with the fact that you have essentially put your kid in a wheelchair.

These are the kids I’m always hearing about in human interest stories on the news, or in Time magazine. “The over-scheduled child.” All those appointments and enrichment programs leave so little time for free play. Besides, the poor kids aren’t allowed to play outside in their rather safe neighborhoods, because their parents just can’t take the risk. Can’t we just let kids be kids?

Then I think of the children I work with.

They are decidedly not overscheduled. They aren’t on organized sports teams, they don’t take outside classes. A number of them attend their school extended-day programs, but that’s about it. There’s not much pressure to go above and beyond in school–just being on grade level is considered achievement enough.

Most of them need to get home right after school. They aren’t allowed to just hang out outside, carefree, but not because of ridiculous fears of kidnapping by strangers with vans full of candy. (Who could resist?!) Because there are in fact drug dealers and other gang members trying to chat them up, and shootings do occur regularly.

Despite this, these kids have more freedom than the wealthier kids kept on leashes on their way to Gymboree. They are well acquainted with public transportation, and can get themselves home from anywhere at any hour of the night. (Usually without a Metrocard…I just don’t even ask.)

The kids I work with are trusted with responsibilities, because there’s no other choice. They need to care for younger siblings, clean house, cook. Parents are working, or not present for a multitude of other, less desirable, reasons.

I hear so much about the kids who aren’t allowed to be kids because they are under pressure, and given every opportunity, to succeed. They are over-protected to the nth degree.

I’m the first to say that’s detrimental. I shudder to think what kind of college student, employee, or partner a 12 year old will grow up to be if he or she can’t even figure out how to operate a door.

But I wouldn’t mind a little more media coverage and awareness for my kids, who aren’t allowed to be kids because it truly isn’t safe outside, and because they’re needed at home just to keep the family functioning. The parents who don’t weigh the pros and cons of each parenting style, because they just need to make do with what they have.

For those of us with choices, though, the blog is a good read. (And if I’m saying it about someone else’s writing, it must be true.)

A Snarky Title Seems Inappropriate When the Topic is Suicide

4 10 2010

Unless you’ve been too busy viewing Facebook photos catching up on progress notes to watch the news, you’re probably aware of what’s being called an “epidemic” of suicide amongst teens who either are gay, or are perceived to be gay. Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, Billy Lucas, Tyler Clementi, and Raymond Chase all took their own lives in the past month.

Wow. It’s even exhausting to write.

It’s being discussed ad nauseum all over: MTV, CNN, the Times, Jackass Central Focus on the Family, and a variety of other blogs. (Apparently, there are other blogs.)

I felt the need to bring it up here. Because this is a social work issue.

Some of us work in schools. A lot of us work with children and teens. All of us work with gay people, whether that is the focus of our work and our agency’s mission or not.

This is a social work issue, because this is affecting our kids.

I used to work with a ten year old boy who got bullied mercilessly in school. He was sweet and sensitive. His mother loved him, but she just couldn’t understand him.  His father desperately wanted him to toughen up. The school staff thought if he stopped whining and “being such a target,” the bullying would stop.

I assumed that this kid was gay. He never mentioned anything one way or the other, but it seemed likely. (I noticed him staring at my chest one day, and thought maybe I had the kid pegged wrong. Until he looked up at me and said, completely genuine, “Miss, I love your necklace.”) His parents also never brought up his sexuality, but it was clearly their number one fear.

I no longer work with this family, or this child. But I worry about him. Whether he’s gay or not, that’s the perception people have of him. Was Billy Lucas gay? No one knows, but his peers tormented him because they thought he was.

GLSEN, a great resource, tells us that nine out of ten LGBT middle and high schooler experience harassment at school, and they’re four times more likely to commit suicide.

This is a social work issue because we can do something about it.

These kids talk about wanting staff and other adults to intervene on their behalf, and to protect them. Social workers have a long, usually proud history of working with marginalized people. We have a commitment to serving people who need us the most.

This past month has sent us a clear message about who needs us.

One of my coworkers works with a fifteen year old boy who identifies as gay, and as of late is considering that he might be trans. He’s figuring himself out, but he’s comfortable. He loves wearing make up, and his manicure is always much better than mine.

And he is mercilessly tormented in his Bronx public high school. The school has admitted that they can’t protect him, and recommend that he stay home until they can get him a safety transfer.

This kid is fortunate to have a supportive mother, and a great social worker. When my coworker went to this teen’s school to talk about his future, she brought a male coworker of ours as “backup.” Not because she was concerned about being attacked by the students if they started to harass him. Because she thought she wouldn’t be able to hold herself back from slapping a child if the harassment occurred.

That’s a Mama Grizzly for you, Mrs. Palin.

Even so, we’re concerned about how much he can take.

We’re planning to start a group for LGBT teens, and our traditionally Catholic agency is surprisingly receptive. I’m hopeful that it will have some effect in convincing these kids that they’re not alone, people do love them, and that it gets better.

We all need to work on this. I would sincerely hope that anyone reading this is pro-equality in all respects, including marriage, ending DADT, and other issues. It is the social work way. But whatever your political leanings are, these are kids we’re talking about. And we can help them.

Because this is a social work issue.

What was his name-o, again?

10 08 2010

That’s right, we’re talking bingo today. It’s not just for stereotypical old people anymore.

As I’ve mentioned once or twice, we spend a lot of time out in the field. Being “out in the field” sounds much nicer than it is. It actually means that we’re walking the streets of the Bronx, not romping in a meadow. All that walking gives a social worker time to think, plan, and get sweaty on the way to a visit. It also gives us all time to notice certain patterns in our beloved Bronx.

This brings us to “Ghetto Bingo.” It works just like regular bingo- get a full line across, up and down, or diagonal checked off, and you win!

But this is a special edition. No “B6” for us. Instead, we at the office compiled a list of things you’re likely to see in the neighborhood, that will earn you a square.

Get honked at by a gypsy cab? That’s one space. A painfully obvious drug deal going on between a guy on the corner and a stopped car? That’s another one. You can also mark down that open fire hydrant, but only once. Checking it off on every block just wouldn’t be fair.

A pit bull on a chain is another available square. A pit bull off a chain means you should start running. (Another option is to push a friend in the path of the oncoming dog. I was once the one being pushed, so I assure you it really does work, though it won’t earn you any good karma.)

Of course, any kind of sexual harrassment is also worth a square. We’re considering a rule that would make it worth two for men. Getting stuck in an elevator in a NYCHA building will not only give you time to mark down everything you’ve seen, but is also a space on your bingo card.

Spotting anyone drinking a 40 before noon is a space. (When I first started working here, there were so many people lined up outside of one store at 7:30 am, I thought that Apple had released a new product. Turns out they were waiting for the liquor store to open. I have since nicknamed them “The Fanboys of 40 oz.”)

The daytime hooker, the rarest of all the prostitute breeds (popularized by “My Name is Earl”) has her own, richly deserved, square on our bingo cards. Lost, frightened tourists desperately seeking out the Bronx Zoo also get a space. Gang fights have their own as well, but have a similar clause to the pit bull square- when gun shots are heard, it’s time to run.

Disclaimer: Bingo cards available by emailing SocialJerk. Play “Ghetto Bingo” at your own risk. Please maintain a sense of humor during play, remembering that this game was developed by people with a deep love and respect for this neighborhood. Also, wear comfortable shoes.

The art of inter-floor travel

30 07 2010

Getting to the upper floors of a building has always been fairly straight forward in my life. I don’t like to brag, but I’ve pretty much mastered both stairs AND elevators.

Social work has made even this difficult.

A lot of my clients live in NYCHA apartments, better known as the projects. I’m sure their reputation precedes them.

The elevators in these places are notorious. I’ve been in crowded elevators that residents were convinced were going to get stuck between floors, because we broke the sacred “six people at a time” rule. (Little known fact—elevators can count.) They were planning who would crawl out of the ceiling to pry the doors open and go for help.

There is also the fact that these elevators are not places you would want to bottle perfume. Like I said, they get stuck, and when you gotta go…

Terrible elevators shouldn’t be a problem for fat Americans, right? Get a little exercise, tubby. The problem is, lots of these places are over 20 stories high.  If you’re on the top floor and don’t happen to be Lance Armstrong, you probably aren’t going to make it.

If you don’t go into cardiac arrest, there’s another problem—people hang out in the stairwells.  People you don’t want to run into in a poorly lit area with few options for escape (such as, say, a stairwell.) They’re a favorite of drug dealers and other people I try not to associate with.

I was visiting a family on the second floor of one such building a while back. I took the elevator anyway, for all the aforementioned reasons. On the way back out, I found that there was a crack dealer and a crackhead customer standing in front of the elevator. The dealer was standing by the window, counting his money out for all to see. The crackhead was, predictably, mumbling and scratching herself.

I decided to risk the stairs. I opened the door, and was immediately hit in the face with smoke.  This made me think of two things: 1) I hate the smell of crack. 2) Why do I know what crack smells like?

Realizing I was stuck between a crack rock and a hard place (I apologize for that one, I really do) I headed back for the elevator. As I waited for it, I realized that the dealer was trying to get my attention.  I turned to find him smiling and waving, looking up from his drug money to ask how my day was going.

I’ve found that the only way to act in these situations is something I call, “pretty and dumb.” “I’m fine, how are you? Look at all that money you’ve got! You must have won some sort of a sweepstakes.”

Luckily the elevator was working, and I was able to beat a hasty retreat. I’ll soon be investing in a parachute, for any similar situations in the future.

Be careful out there.

14 06 2010

I like reading books about the Bronx in the 1970s. It makes me feel like we’ve made progress in my adopted neighborhood. Yes, the violent crime rate is currently about twice the national average, almost a third of the population live below the poverty line, crack is still everywhere you turn, and there is one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the country. But at least it’s not on fire anymore. “The Bronx is Burning?” Apparently there was a time when that wasn’t just a book or an ESPN drama. It was a response to, “How are things in NYC?” “Oh, not bad. You know. The Bronx is burning.”

Things are better. But safety is still a concern. Try as I might, I can only blend in so much. People see a professionally dressed white girl in the projects, and for some reason just assume that I don’t live there. I might as well wear a “Social Worker” sandwich board out on my visits. As I’ve mentioned, for a lot of people, “Social Worker” equals “Baby Snatcher,” so I do try to watch myself.

There was a huge fight outside the office today. Five cop cars and an ambulance showed up. This was pretty remarkable, because the police tend not to respond when we call. Domestic violence they don’t mind, but apparently this multi-person fight was too big to ignore. I know, because I was watching intently out the window with my coworkers.

Later in the day, my supervisor pulled a couple of us aside, telling us to be careful. One of the building custodians informed her that the fight was gang related. The guys have been flashing their guns around, and there’s probably going to be a shooting soon.

I started laughing. I couldn’t help it. How exactly does one “be careful” during a random shooting on the street, if one happens to be on said street? There aren’t a whole lot of options.  “You get down on the ground,” my supervisor told me. “Yeah,” I said. “And then I won’t have far to fall when I get shot.” I was informed that I was not to get shot. It was not allowed. Much like fraternizing with the clients or eating labeled food out of the fridge, being murdered while on the job, apparently, was simply not permitted.

I have never been a stickler for the rules. But I am trying to follow this one.