SocialJerk Scrooge

13 10 2011

It’s no secret that we have no money. Not just here at Anonymous Agency. I mean everywhere. Donations have dried up faster than…I can’t think of a PG way to finish that sentence, but you know what I mean. We’re short on money because the city is short on money. Programs that used to provide furniture, clothing, books, food, housing subsidies, and Christmas gifts, have shut down or drastically restricted their services.

“Is this for a left handed boy named Lou with an incarcerated parent? Oh, I’m sorry, in that case we don’t have any toddler beds available.”

Many of the families we work with have been in the system, in one form or another, for most of their lives. Many of them remember the good old days, when there was more to go around. When we were handing out clothing and furniture like candy. And you should have seen the way we gave out candy! Some people also confuse programs. ACS might have been able to give you things that we can’t, and no matter how many times we tell some people, they don’t really believe that we aren’t ACS.

This means that people have some expectations that we can’t meet. “You’re supposed to help me. I need food. Help me with that. My mother’s worker used to take her food shopping. And my aunt got a housing subsidy through you guys!” Apparently, a list of food pantries is not “help.” They need their back rent paid off, or their children need new school clothes. Unless one of the workers convinces someone to make a private donation (we do what we can, but you’ll be surprised to know that most of us don’t run with a particularly wealthy crowd) we usually can’t meet these needs.

It’s understandable that people want this kind of help. Who wouldn’t? But there are times when it seems like it’s expected. And that’s when we all start to get kind of pissed.

One family I have is constantly in need. I understand why. The sheer number of appointments and programs that the mother has to attend due to her court case meant that she needed to take a leave of absence from her job. Her public assistance case was sanctioned, and she’s having trouble providing the basics for her family. So the agency was kind enough to approve me buying them soap and detergent.

The kids are now demanding to know what they’ll be getting for their birthdays. I’m sorry, but there are six of you. I know you’re only nine, but it’s time you learned the phrase, “not in the budget.” (With or without a coupon.) Especially when the request is for red Jordans. If you’re that desperate, you’re not allowed to be that picky. That’s how this works.

All of the families we work with are in need, but some are needier than others. Some really tug at your heartstrings (I have those too) and make you want to help. One young mother I worked with upon first coming here had a serious cockroach problem in her apartment. Unfortunately, I’ve been there. (When I’m a rich and famous social worker, I’ll reveal my landlord’s name on The View and ruin her. But not yet.) This woman’s management company was not responsive, and complaints to 311 did nothing. The mother was desperately trying to find work, but having no luck, and couldn’t afford to deal with the problem herself.

So I didn’t really mind spending $15 of my own money on bug bombs, when the agency said there was nothing they could do. Mom was grateful, we all moved on. The same thing happened when I had two high school students who didn’t have bus fare for the first day of school. As much as I wanted to hang on to my laundry quarters, I can deal in order to get them to their first day of ninth grade. They were also almost embarrassingly thankful.

Sometimes it doesn’t go this way. There’s nothing like feeling like you’ve made a connection with a family, only to be told, “You haven’t done anything for me! I need clothes for the baby and school books, and you haven’t gotten me anything!”

Every so often, we do get donations. At the beginning of the school year, we’ll get a few bookbags. Around Christmas, we’ll get some toys or movie passes. Once in a while a worker with connections can get a department store to give us some new clothes for kids.

But it’s never enough for everyone. So choices have to be made.

As much as we all try to deny it (or not) we all have favorites. There are some families who are just more pleasant to work with than others. They make our jobs easier, they’re more polite, their kids are cute. They also tend not to be demanding.

That’s not to say that they don’t need services. But they don’t show up to the office and tell you that they’d like you to make them a fresh pot of coffee (oh yes, this has happened) or have their kids go to you requesting new school clothes. As much as we all try not to be, we are all human. There are families that make you want to go above and beyond, lay your own money out, call in favors. And there are families that don’t. We don’t want to let these kinds of personal preferences interfere with our assessment of who needs those rare, precious handouts the most. At the same time, we’re not perfect. It’s something to be aware of.

But we also don’t want to foster unrealistic expectations, or dependency. I don’t believe that this is human nature. I do think people want to provide for their own families, rather than rely on the public, whenever possible. But we have seen that people can be made dependent on a system. The flawed way public assistance works is a good example of this. When people grow up understanding that this is where and how you get what you want and need, it’s hard to blame them for seeming entitled and pissing off their social worker. Especially when the system has changed.

I understand, as a social worker, that people have needs. Not just for counseling, but for food, shelter, clothing, and even for toys. I would love to be able to give every kid I work with birthday and Christmas gifts, and to pay for families to go on outings together. Unfortunately, it’s not possible. I understand why people are looking for those things, but sometimes it feels like people misread “social worker” as “Santa Claus.”

And no one even bothers to leave me cookies.





All times of the year have been evaluated, and the results are in–this is the most wonderful

22 12 2010

Looking for a last minute gift for that special social worker in your life? For shame, there’s only three days to go! And if this is a Jewish social worker, you’ve missed the boat entirely.

Oh well. If you hurry, you make use of these recommendations. (In case you’re wondering, I barely even get paid to do my actual job, so I am definitely not making money here.)

SocialJerk Book Club (I’ve always thought that Oprah and I have a lot in common.)

  • Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
    Work in the Bronx? Love the Bronx? Wish you were cool like the Bronx? This is the book for you! It’s also an incredible, true story of one family going through the cycle of poverty. Not entirely original, but the love and respect with which this story is told unique.
  • American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare by Jason DeParle
    Spoiler alert: it didn’t work. But it’s an amazing look into welfare reform, and how it affected actual people. Not just those welfare queens in their cadillacs that we always hear about.
  • Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care by Nina Bernstein
    Warning: This one isn’t what you’d call uplifting. A teenager is part of a class action law suit, claiming that the NYC foster care system is discriminatory and unconstitutional. While all this is going on, she has her own son, whom she relinquishes to care. Many things have changed for the better, but so much of what I read in this book reminds me of what drives me crazy today. But it is an amazing analysis of foster care, at least in New York, and the changes that have been made and what still needs to be done.
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
    Not exactly a social work book, but it is the most stunning book about teenage depression I’ve ever read. I read it in one day when I got it for Christmas, at age 15. I felt like I was reading the story of my life and someone finally understood me. (Whatever, 15 year olds are supposed to be dramatic.) I’d recommend it to anyone who works with teens. Or who likes awesome books with fabulous mid 90s references.

Practical Necessities

  • Mace
    Don’t worry–only for emergencies, never for unruly children. I swear.
  • Comfy sneakers
    It’s fine, Letterman made professional dress matched with sneakers cool and acceptable. Necessary, because we do a lot of walking. Often in bad neighborhoods. Which means sometimes we have to do some running.
  • Glee Christmas Album
    Do you need any more reason, other than “it’s awesome?” OK. Sometimes, the job is hard, holidays aren’t happy for everyone, and the Christmas spirit gets dangerously low. (And we all know that’s what powers Santa’s sleigh.) Nothing lifts my mood like Glee. If it doesn’t do the same for you…well I just don’t know if we have anything to say to each other.
    Aside from that, nothing makes me happy like inclusivity and a lack of heteronormativity. A couple of cute teenage boys chasing each other around while singing a love song, on national television like it’s no big thang? Love it for my teens.
  • Spanish-English dictionary
    Avoid sounding like an idiot. A former co-worker was constantly asking kids how many anuses they have, instead of how old they are, and saying, “I love you?” instead of asking if they wanted a snack. Seriously. Don’t be that crazy person.
  • Subway/bus map
    You’re going to be on public transit, and you’re going to get lost. Prepare for it now.
  • Silly Bandz, slap bracelets, whatever the latest trend is.
    Nothing gets you in good with a reluctant kid like nonchalantly flashing proof that you follow the latest fads.
  • Play Doh
    Because everyone loves it. You’re never too old. I have my own set that I don’t even let the kids play with. (What, they always mix up the colors. I hate that.)
  • Pens
    I believe we’ve gone over this.

Well, I hope I was able to help. (It’s kind of why I got into this profession.) And if your own budget is a little too tight, maybe you can hug a social worker this holiday season. We like that sort of thing.





‘Tis better to give than it is to etcetera.

7 12 2010

It’s that time of year. When we’re all freezing, our skin is dry, our heating bills are through the roof, but we’re still in kind of a good mood. (Most of us.) And people tend to be just a little more giving.

Trust me. My roommate is a kindergarten teacher. During the holiday season, she receives a year’s supply of scented body lotion and winter gloves. Not to mention the fact that we can decorate our apartment with Christmas tchotchkes and not have to pay for a single one.

Watch out. Santa and the bear are fighting for village domination.

We know teachers are innundated with these gifts. It’s part of the job. But it happens to social workers as well. Clients get to know you, (sometimes) they like you, no matter what you’re a part of their lives. At times like Christmas, or when a case is being closed, they might want to bring you a little something.

And I recall what I was taught in Tim Burton’s social work school. “I am a professional, not your friend, and as such I cannot accept. Thank you.” Or, “What is the meaning behind this gift? Let’s process your transference in our next session. Perhaps you see me as a mother figure.”

Ugh. Right?

Gifts are a fine line. Some could be inappropriate. I’ve never had a client try to give me booze, but if it ever happens I hope I’ll have to fortitude to turn it down. (I probably won’t.) I had an elderly man try to give me perfume when I was an intern. (If you’re ever looking for an example of ‘awkward,’ I’ll be doing that as a watercolor series.)

But sometimes, it’s ok. No, my clients are not my friends. I am a professional, and they are people that I serve. But we are all humans. (Except for the dinosaurs in clever human costumes, but we’ll get to them another time.)

Some occasions call for gifts, in normal human interactions. An eight year old girl who I saw for counseling for six months had her mom buy me play-doh, something we always used in sessions, when her case was closed. I said thanks. I suspect my casework professor got an urge to throw herself out a window, and didn’t know why. Ah, well.

Kids are notorious for this. I was recently strong armed by a three year old into taking the subway back to work with this.

The kid was giving everyone in the family huge, plastic hibiscus, and simply would not hear of me leaving without any. And those of you wondering why I didn’t throw it out on my way to the train–you really should be ashamed.

I was not permitted to turn down these sweet Silly Bandz (from the marine life edition.) I managed to get the kid to take some of my Batman bands in exchange, though.

It also works the other way around. One of my clients recently had a baby, and I went to see them when they came home from the hospital.

You don’t go see a new baby and not bring a gift. It simply isn’t done. So I went to the Children’s Place, fought the urge to buy every adorable, tiny thing I saw, and spent $12 on onesies.

Poppable collars, because infants can be preppy too.

A kid is a big deal, and I felt that it was right that the fact was acknowledged by the social worker.

My elderly clients always wanted to give me tea and cookies when I did home visits. They didn’t get a lot of visitors, and wanted to treat me like a guest. A kid is never prouder than when someone takes their gift, carefully selected from Family Dollar, and puts it on display like it’s the greatest thing in the world.

I had been taught that I was always supposed to say “no,” and sometimes you do have to. Elderly perfume? No. A mother taking from her food budget to buy her worker jewelry? Unlikely, and I’m sure we’d all turn that down. But sometimes that rejection is damaging. We’ve all learned from Hallmark and Lifetime movies that giving really makes the giver feel good.

In case anyone was wondering why my cubicle is decorated with children’s drawings, school photos, and a strangely oversized fake flower.