It’s a bird, it’s a plane…no, it’s definitely a monkey.

4 08 2011

It’s possible that I’ve been a bit down on the job lately. There are so many changes, so many new deadlines, so much pressure…plus, it’s summer. I miss summer. Actual summer, where you have time off to get hideous tan lines, develop beach hair, catch fireflies, all that whimsical shit. The fact that I’m an adult and am never going to have that again hits me occasionally, with depressing reality. This is compounded by a job where I’m faced with the realities of poverty, abuse, and neglect on a daily basis.

Where is the joy in this job? We all talk about the victories, big and small that we experience, as the things that keep us going. But if we’re being honest, we might go a long time without one. It’s been a rough month for me. My biggest victories have been my teen girls thinking I’m cool and wanting to paint their toenails purple like me. While that’s a nice feeling, it doesn’t change the fact that they’re failing school and about to be kicked out of their houses.

It doesn’t change the fact that I work in the Bronx. It’s certainly improved since the ’70s, when it was literally on fire and I think you were handed crack upon entry, but we’ve got a long way to go. The level of poverty is astonishing and, quite frankly, offensive in modern America.

And yet, there is something about being a social worker in the Bronx that I love.

I think the following sums it up.

I saw this one day while walking to a home visit. As much as I appreciate living in a city with arguably absolutely the best public transit in the world, I love walking. I love that my job doesn’t keep me stuck in an office all day long.

While out walking, I saw this awesome stuffed money, chilling by a streetlight. One of those things that you think, “Ooh, so cool! It probably has bedbugs.” I carried on, not knowing that the odyssey of Bronx Tree Monkey had begun. (I know it’s not a brilliant title, but the Twitter hashtag worked well.)

A few days later, I was walking that same familiar route. And I noticed something–Bronx Tree Monkey was on the move.

Apparently, he decided it was time to branch out. (Please forgive me for that one.) See the great big world that the Bronx has to offer.

The following week, I walked by with my supervisor, and alerted her to what I had seen the previous week. Well, she was certainly in for a treat.

Bronx Tree Monkey had started a family! Congratulations were certainly in order.

Until the following week.

Holy. Shit. Could this get any better?

Apparently, no. Because things kind of petered out from there. But it was really fun while it lasted.

I mean, really fun. I keep thinking about how it started. Someone tossing a big stuffed animal their kids no longer had any use for. A passerby thinking it would be funny to stick it up in the tree, with help from a friend. Neighbors noticing, climbing up to add their own superfluous monkeys to the mix, perhaps with the aid of a stepladder or cocktail.

It’s kind of everything I love about social work. And the Bronx.

No-money-fun. An important concept. Life is giving fun away. And in the Bronx, we know where to seek it out. I have family members who grew up in communities where everyone had their own pool. Where I work, that would be frowned upon, as there are no backyards and you’re likely living in a high-rise. So the kids all gather at the community pool, especially those days when it cracks 104 degrees in July. (No more…please, no more.) Kids don’t have their own swingsets, so they go to the playground and actually interact with each other. Walking around for work, I have seen games you’d expect, like pick-up basketball, and ones you would think had died out, like hopscotch and skully. Every street has an open fire hydrant, with entire families gleefully playing in them.

When you actually need people, you can develop community.

We hear so much about the negative aspects of neighborhoods in the Bronx and other, similar, urban areas. They’re overcrowded, with high rates of crime and pollution, and devastating poverty. Of course it’s true. But there are wonderful aspects that we should take a moment to be proud of.

Social work is a profession that arose from need. People in impoverished, urban communities needed services, needed help, and empowerment. Social work developed from that, with little money or training at first. Things grew more sophisticated as time went on, but that early model of doing what works never left us.

It’s why we’ve all had experiences of taking families grocery shopping, bringing kids McDonald’s, helping with college applications, holding counseling sessions in the park, looking over homework assignments…when we do our jobs well, we do what needs to be done.

When we do our jobs well, there is plenty of sorrow. Fights, removals, violence, and deaths. But there’s also plenty of joy. Forgiveness, adoptions, new jobs, reunions, graduations, births, and funny little kids. Sometimes a teenager wanting to be just like you is enough to get you through the day.

Sometimes it takes a person, or persons, dedicated enough to making the neighborhood laugh, that they risk life and limb to put stuffed monkeys in a tree.

What I like about the Bronx (still not the Yankees)

6 01 2011

Things have been a bit heavy around here lately. Poverty, judgment, philosophy…I think it’s time to get happy. There’s still a lot to love and enjoy around here!

SocialJerk hereby presents: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bronx, part II.

Last time around I explained that most people don’t have the best view of the Bronx. They tend to think of things like this:
A fixer-upper for sure, but there’s probably potential. Somewhere.

Or this:

Look closely to learn who exactly in this NYCHA elevator loves dick!

But the Bronx offers many suprises.

You have a boat. In the Bronx. Ballin...

Yes, that is a baby doll carriage, caught in barbed wire atop a fence at the Bronx Zoo. Perhaps a moment of silence?

A bunny! And a rooster! In one of our many community gardens. How delightful...

Oh no...Mr. Rooster, run for you life!

There are helpful hints to be found: 

"it is only one way to escape Hell! it's by faith in Jesus Christ period..." I always look to trees for spiritual advice.

 There’s also truth in advertising:

Two Star restaurant. For that adequate person in your life.

That about sums it up.

 But I always come back to what always strikes me about the Bronx, and about my clients. Resourcefulness. It is one of their greatest strengths. As much as we joke, it is amazing to see what some people create from so little.

Basketball? I got next!

Yes, that's someone's car. What's the over/under on how many times a day he has to explain to irate pedestrians that he will not be picking them up?

The bed frame should do to keep this tree safe...

Bed frame said back away from the tree!

We’ve also got art, if only you know where to look:

There's no real reason for it, but I love it.

Murals left and right

Wow. If you're going to do graffiti, do it right.

This sculpture is on the sidewalk, for no discernible reason. Take my word for it, the woman is grabbing the man's butt.

 So yes, I complain. But I also love these people, and this place. Be sure to look out in Time Out NY for my SocialJerk walking tours (half price after dark!)

Happy Thanksgiving, ya ungrateful jerks!

24 11 2010

OK, that title was directed at me.

I complain a lot here. We all complain. It’s what keeps us social workers young (and good looking, I might add.)

But it’s that time of year in the US, when we gather with loved ones, eat dead birds, and watch Santa inexplicably get towed into Macy’s.

Oh, and take stock of what we’re grateful for. Here’s my list.

  • I have a job. (If you’re reading this, I hope you do as well, otherwise I’ll come off as more of a jerk than usual.) It’s a tough time, and a tough economy. Social services are usually the first thing to go. We’re eliminating all the unecessaries, and thus far, that isn’t me. Yay!
  • Today, I attended a school meeting. It was held in what is known as “The Situation Room.” Awesome.
  • Kids’ drawings. Need I say more?

Just in case I do–this is Megator. He gets picked on because he’s so much bigger than everyone. And he only hits bullies.

  • I closed a case successfully this month. The family was happy, and the mother told me how refreshing it was to have a social worker actually listen to her.
  • I get hugs from happy two year olds when I do home visits, and then I get to leave them with their moms.
  • Dealing with surly school secretaries who pretend not to see me when I am clearly standing directly in front of them makes me realize that my job is not so bad.
  • Getting hit on by gross men on the street gives me the opportunity to quote Janet Jackson regularly. “No my name ain’t baby…”
  • People in the Bronx are thoughtful. I was a little tired after a home visit today, and look at what was waiting outside for me:

Bedbugs are complimentary.

  • For every ten bad calls I get, about a teen being truant, a parent getting arrested, or a child being removed, there’s one good one. A mother calling to say her teenage daughter went to school on time. A young woman who thinks to call me from the hospital to let me know her child was just born. A kid who asks me to photocopy their social studies award, because they want it in their file.

This isn’t an easy job, but it’s what I studied, and what I signed on for. I’m fortunate to be able to practice. Hey, things could always be worse! What are you grateful for as a social worker this year?

When Good Social Workers Go Bad

18 10 2010

I’ve wanted to be a social worker since I was 15. I was always interested in the child welfare system. This led to some delightful books as Christmas gifts–about the damage the NYC foster care system does, families struggling to survive welfare reform, the cycle of poverty. All sorts of fun fare.

I learned a lot from this early reading material. The main thing I learned was the kind of social worker I did not want to be.

There were so many examples of bad social workers. Workers bogged down by bureaucracy, cynical about their clients, working for the weekend. Social workers just trying to close cases because their caseload was too large, whether it was in the client’s best interest or not.

I always planned to be the good social worker. I wanted to be available to my clients, to care deeply about them, and not to close a case until everyone was absolutely ready. I wanted to rise above the bureaucracy, and the system, so my families would know that I was genuine and that they could call on me for anything. I wanted to change people’s lives by going above and beyond.

Seriously…how cute is that?

When I get down about my job (I know you’d never guess, but it does happen) my friends and family tell me that I’m helping people. Sometimes I get a little sarcastic and dramatic (again, hard to believe, but I swear it’s true) and say that we don’t really help anyone.

Realistically, I know that’s not accurate. I don’t know that I’ve pulled anyone off the edge of a proverbial cliff single-handedly, but there are families that have gotten better in their time here.

But then there are those that have gotten worse. Those are the ones who make me feel like the worker I never wanted to be.

I have a teenage girl who recently entered a diagnostic reception center, and is being referred to a residential treatment center.

This kid drives me nuts.

I have infinite sympathy and patience for kids, I really do. Most kids I work with have been through so much trauma that it’s easy to understand their acting out behaviors. Yes, they’re obnoxious, they’re skeptical, they skip school, do drugs, and fight. But in the context of their life experience, the fact that they’re still alive and functioning is all you can ask for.

This particular teen girl has an absentee father. Not ideal, I’ll admit. But her behavior is ten times worse than children I know who were born to drug addicts, abandoned repeatedly, or brought up in foster care.

You don’t want to get so jaded by the horrible things that you see that you lose sympathy for mundane horrible things, like deadbeat dads. Because that is a perfectly valid, horrible thing to deal with.

But it’s hard to help. There are those times that I find myself thinking, “Dad’s not around? Boo-frickin-hoo. Get your ass to school and stop doing drugs.”

This particular case is one that got eaten up by the system. This girl was sent to family court, ran away, got placed in foster care, ran away, got sent to a DRC, AWOLed repeatedly, and ran around staying with friends until her mother was able to get a warrant.

All of these different people and agencies involved meant that no one thought they were responsible for the case. Mom had an impossible time figuring out who to go to.

I include myself in that as well. I found myself wanting to close the case as soon as possible, having little sympathy or patience for this family, and wishing someone else would come to take responsibility. There was information I couldn’t get, there were times that I couldn’t find this child.

I closed that case this past week. The child is finally getting the help that she needs, and I know it’s for the best. As difficult and frustrating as this case has been for me, I know I’ll keep worrying about this girl for years. It already kept me up plenty of nights, wondering where she was and what she was doing. And it still rips my heart out to think that there was more that I could have done. To think that maybe I didn’t do my best.

I re-read those books sometimes. Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care, by Nina Bernstein, and Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc are my two favorites. They remind me of why I went into this field, how I want to practice, and what dick moves symptoms of burnout I’d like to avoid.

It’s hard to be a good social worker all the time, and it’s hard not to beat yourself up when you fall short. But in an effort to not become complacent, I guess this is a situation where feeling bad is a good thing.

Thanks, but no thanks. Oh wait, just no thanks.

25 08 2010

I’d venture to say that no one goes into any particular field expecting heaps of gratitude. None of the waitresses or bank tellers I know have said, “Hey, the pay isn’t great, but the general public are just so darn polite!”

Social workers are in the same boat. (Lawyers are in a similar yacht.) It’s hard to work with people. They are often unpleasant and demanding.

In mildly amusing euphemism social work school, people always said that we go into this field because we love people. I’m going to assume that we’ve spent enough time together for you to imagine my reaction to that.

Social workers try hard to help people. And it’s incredibly rewarding when we actually can. There are also plenty of times when we fall short. We can’t deliver services that we thought we could. Despite our best efforts, a kid ends up in foster care or the hospital.

Fortunately, the populations we work with are incredibly forgiving.

I used to work in a youth center, way back in 2006. One of our favorite times of the year was Christmas, due to our Christmas giving program. Businesses and wealthy people sponsored the children and families we served, to give them presents and food for a nice holiday.

Most families are extremely grateful for this. But then there’s always the ones that ruin it…

Our first day back from the Christmas break, an 11 year old girl who had received a van-load of gifts walked up to me to say, “I asked for Jordans.” Well, I asked for Ryan Gosling, kid, so I guess neither of us are happy.

A mother yelled at a co-worker of mine, because she felt that the brand new coat she had received was ugly. My co-worker was so flustered that she forgot her Spanish, ultimately trying to tell this woman she was ungrateful by calling her “graciosa.” (Babelfish that one. I’ll wait.) The woman probably did not get the message, but at least she left sincerely confused. And wearing an ugly coat.

Sometimes you expect these things, but other times you are caught off guard. I called an elderly man, back when I was an intern, to offer him a home health aid for the low, low price of free. This was a city funded service for low-income seniors, and there was an incredibly long waiting list. Putting 85 year olds on an indefinite waiting list…let’s just say a lot of people never got what they were waiting for.

I was excited to tell this man that he had finally been approved, and a worker would be coming over for an intake. Someone to clean your house and wash your ass–free! Do you know what people usually pay for that kind of service?

Instead, I got yelled at for twenty minutes. “Do you even know who this person is? I’m not going to let just anybody work for me. You better interview this woman. What are you trying to do to me?”

Sir, I’m trying to offer you a free service that you requested. FREE! Am I the only cheap person left?

You try to understand where these people are coming from. There are mental health issues, cultural differences, and feelings of shame at accepting help.

We can all be assholes sometimes. People who need help are not exempt from that.