Intake my breath away

3 06 2013

Engaging clients is a never ending process that begins the moment they first hear your voice and ends…never. (Never ending, remember?) It’s important to remember that. We put a lot of pressure on those first phone calls and first meetings. And they are important. But you have time to make up for missteps and mistakes, and to show who you are as a worker and a person. That’s the good part about that ongoing, torturous engagement process.

You still want to make a good initial impression. It’s important that clients know from the beginning that you’re competent and there to help, and only crazy in the good way.

Really, it all starts with intake.

At Anonymous Agency, we are fortunate enough to have an intake worker. This is the person who takes the phone calls, gets the extremely basic initial information (you know, name, date of birth, if anyone has a restraining order, the essentials) and assigns them to whoever has space on their caseload. For that last reason, she’s very popular. I send her presents periodically, always signed, “Love, SJ (the one with the long hair and the full caseload.”)

I appreciate that doing a good intake is difficult. But some of the referrals I’ve gotten…well, I’m not sure I know what anyone was thinking.

One thing you want to know is why the hell these people are here.

“Reason for referral: family is in need of services. ”

Well that is stellar. You truly paint a picture with your words. Oprah called, she would like to speak to you about sharing your teachings.

“Child threatened to blow up the school. Mother specified that he did not actually do this.”

Yes, well, I hope I would have heard about that.

“School: unknown.”
“Date of birth: unknown.”
“Race: unknown.”

Wild idea, but did you try fucking asking? You can call back if you forget, I swear. It’s a little embarrassing, but people are generally forgiving.

“Child’s age: 16. Grade: 7th. (Child may have been held back.)”

Whoa now, let’s not jump to conclusions.

I shouldn’t complain though, really. I suppose not having some information is better than having a lot of the wrong information.

SJ: “So you see your dad on the weekends?”
Kid: “…”
Mom: “His dad’s in prison. For trying to kill us.”

All right. That has been noted, and we will be moving on.

SJ: “And you guys just moved from North Carolina?”
Mom: “Puerto Rico.”
SJ: “I always confuse those two.”

There’s nothing quite as special, though, as arriving at a five floor walk up, looking for apartment A, only to discover that there is no apartment A. What’s one to do? You start at the bottom and work your way up. Apartment 1. “Mr. Gonzalez? No? I’m sorry.” Apartment 2. “Mr. Gonzalez? No? I apologize?” Apartment 3…and on and on to apartment 8. “Mr. Gonzalez? Oh thank god! Ooooh, 8, A, I get it!”

We don’t always have the best info, and sometimes it makes us look like idiots. (That’s not just me, right?) But what better way to show a new family that you can laugh at yourself, and that you’re not perfect?

Sometimes it’s good to set the bar low.

Excuses, excuses

30 01 2012

An unfortunately large part of my job is dealing with missed appointments. People very often are not where they say they will be, when they say they’ll be there. Sometimes I find myself happily (really, happily) typing notes, only to look at the clock and realize that it 3:45, and my three pm appointment hasn’t showed up. It’s even worse when we’re supposed to meet somewhere out of the office.

Recently, a mother and I scheduled a meeting with her child’s guidance counselor, in an effort to calm a situation that erupted from her daughter jumping another girl and the police being called. I waited for an hour, they didn’t show. Another time, I waited for an hour and a half for a child safety conference at the ACS borough office. Apparently the mother and her child showed up two hours after I left. It’s socially awkward to sit in a waiting room for that long. You begin to resent people being called in for successful meetings.

Honestly, I don’t know how I got through any of this before Fruit Ninja.

You often can’t tell who will show and who won’t. Sometimes the people who are the most conscientious about writing down their appointment time, requesting printed directions to the office, and calling to confirm, never make it in. You start to worry that they were kidnapped by pirates, until you call and it’s confirmed–they just didn’t come in.

Some participants offer an explanation. “I had a court date.” No you didn’t. I would know that. “My son was sick.” OK, but he was in school. “I couldn’t find the place.” You live down the block and we have a sign.

We lament the fact that people aren’t honest with us. Don’t insult my intelligence by scrambling for an excuse. Just tell me the truth!

But, to be perfectly honest, sometimes that’s even worse. These are some of my favorite, totally true, occasionally repeated, “excuses.”

  • “I don’t take the kids out in the rain.”

I think I have to report you for this. This is New York, not Maui, you can’t only go out when the weather is nice. We have about eight really nice days a year. Otherwise it’s too hot, too cold, raining, snowing, hailing, humid, whatever. Do your children attend school? Are they snowmen?

  • “She has a hair appointment. We’ll come in on Saturday.”

Well, yes, hair comes first. And I won’t be here on Saturday, but I hope you get some good work done.

  • “My mom keeps yelling at me and I’m in a bad mood, I’m just going to stay home.”

Sounds like a really good reason to skip counseling and stay home with your mother.

  • “I’m sorry, SJ, I’m not feeling well. I got the runs.”
Oh, Jesus. Less is more. I would have appreciated you stopping after that second sentence, really.
  • “Miss, my hair is a mess, my mom hasn’t had the money to get it done.”

Why is everyone having a hair crisis?! I realize that not everyone can pull off the thrown-together-ponytail look with the class and elegance that I can, but come on. In this case, I would have paid to be one of my coworkers only hearing my side of the conversation:

“Well when are you getting your hair done? So what, you’re not going to come in for weeks? You’re not going to go anywhere? What if there was a Justin Bieber concert, would you find a way? No, we’re not talking about Chris Brown, you know how I get. There are so many scarves in your house, I’ve seen then, throw one on and get over here.”

  • “It’s snowing.”

It’s December.

  • “I’m exhausted. I was up drinking way too late last night.”

Oh my god, why wouldn’t you lie in this situation? Just lie! You saw your social worker was calling, you answered the phone, and “too hungover to function” was the best you could do?

  • “I don’t feel like it.

Oh. Well…ok then.

  • “SJ fell on my leg and it hurts.”

OK, let me explain this one. Yes, I did fall on her leg. We were on an outward bound sort of weekend trip with girls’ group, and these things happen. But it had been a week, she was running around all weekend, and she was totally fine. This is America, and no one sued! No way there was a legit injury. Right?

Getting an excuse like this can be horribly frustrating. Sometimes it means your boss will be all over you because a contact wasn’t made. It might mean important work isn’t done, or a deadline that affects a child’s future isn’t met. Often, it’s a frightening glimpse into people’s priorities.

But we all know that I strongly believe that if we don’t laugh, we’ll cry. So let’s laugh. What are your favorites?

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.

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.

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.