At best, our work is certifiable.

30 08 2012

I’ve mentioned that my job confuses people a bit. They often don’t really have a clue what we do, and assume that we’re some sort of borderline useless combination of caseworker and friendly visitor. I don’t really care if people on the street, or my Facebook feed (you know, the modern street) think this. Well, I kind of care, but I know it really doesn’t matter. However, when judges don’t get it, then we have an issue.

Family court doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of respect for what I do. Saying that a family has been working with us for the past year on addressing their history of domestic violence, and on empowering the mother to assert herself as a parental figure, is pretty much met with blank stares. “What have you actually done?” The implication being, of course, that we’ve been sitting around chatting. A ten week parenting class, though, often means a check mark and a case closed.

Family court loves things that they can tally up and tick off “attended nine out of twelve sessions.” It’s like you can determine how good a parent someone is by their attendance percentage. What I do, the longer term family counseling is too abstract.

I’ve figured it out. It’s the certificate.

Certificates are a powerful thing. I mean, I got up an hour early three days a week at Girl Scout camp to go swimming in a cold Long Island pond, just to get a “Polar Bear Club” certificate. (I assume it’s still in a large Tupperware bin in my parents’ basement.)

I use them for my girls’ group now. Kids are really excited to have something that they can show off and hang up that indicates their achievement. It’s printed on nice paper in fancy font. Parents who didn’t complete school, I find, are also particularly into them. The ones who are the happiest about them, though, are people who have been in “the system” for a long time. Their kids have been in and out of foster care, they’ve been mandated to attend drug counseling, parenting classes, domestic violence groups, healthy cooking class, Zumba and whatever else might have been slightly helpful. They know the power of a “certificate of completion” (fuck participation) and have a folder full of them.

I have worked with one family that could be featured in a social work textbook as the quintessential “multi-problem family.” After two looooong years of work, the one thing of value that the courts see is that one of the teenagers completed my girls’ group. Twelve sessions, 75% attendance, certificate sent home and hung on the wall. Yay. It’s the only certificate they’ve managed. Never mind the school meetings, the days spent in the hospital, the calls from the police (Scared Straight is a real thing. An ineffective, real thing), referrals for mentoring and psychiatric evaluations, emergency grocery shopping with mom and two toddlers (I’m never doing that again, and you can’t make me!) and weeks of family counseling sessions in whatever room I could cram nine people into. Those things don’t have a curriculum and a clear end point.

As a result of Certificate Focused Practice, we’re being driven to be shorter term and more “evidenced based.” I’m not against our work being evidenced based–if it’s working, we should be able to see evidence, now matter how much we dislike that. But they’re making us do work that only has a bit of evidence and could, in theory, be more evidenced based, which I think just misses the point. And it’s a little automaton-y. It feels like social work in a dystopian future. “Enter problem here. Beep boop beep. Your solution is being processed.”

I hope you read that last bit aloud, in a robot voice.

I’m not anti-certificate. Like I said, I use them in girls’ group. I just think that getting so focused on checking off classes can take away from helping families. Not everything can happen and be fixed in a time limited program. “All right, let’s go through your Lisa Frank folder with the rainbow dolphins on it. Yes, we’ve got paperwork to show you’re a good parent, you don’t drink anymore, and you’re over the abuse you suffered!” Parents always ask “how long is the program?” when first engaging in counseling. That’s really not how effecting meaningful change in a family works, but it’s what they’ve come to expect. If you could attend “family college” and then be great at everything, I’m fairly certain everyone would do it and I’d be out of a job. But families have individual needs and situations, and while classes and group can provide invaluable help, they’re not quite everything.

For now, let me present you with this. You’ve earned it.

I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and goshdarnit, people like my sarcasm

20 08 2012

When I first started my teen girls’ group, I had to come up with an overarching theme. Apparently “let’s get together to chat and eat cheese” was insufficient. My co-leader and I came up with self-esteem. In some way, everything we wanted to cover–dating, body image, relationships with parents, peer pressure–could be incorporated into this.

Saying I run a “self-esteem group” is kind of embarrassing. It just sounds so Stuart Smalley. The term gets thrown around and degraded so much. My fantasy happy hour guest and Twitter follower personal hero Jessica Valenti wrote about this recently. I thought about it a lot, due to my group and my respect for Ms. Valenti.

Still, I can’t just say “fuck self esteem.” Because it is important. It encompasses so much of what our girls are dealing with. They’re shoplifting because they have to have what everyone else does, and also because their friends are doing it. They’re having sex, at times, to maintain a partner’s interest. They’re getting in fights constantly because they can’t let even the littles comment slide. So what’s the problem?

Self-esteem has gotten kind of weird. Primarily because it is far too tied up in physical appearance, as evidenced by the idea that plastic surgery is going to improve a young woman’s self-esteem. I got teased for being flat-chested when I was in junior high. Fortunately, my parents didn’t start saving up for a boob job for their twelve year old.

“You’re all beautiful in your own way” is remarkably similar to “everyone gets a trophy.” I had a shitload of trophies as a kid, because I participated in a shitload of activities. I sucked at most of them, so I knew those trophies were meaningless. If everyone is beautiful, what’s the point? Not everyone has to think you’re hot. There are standards of beauty in our society. (Impossible, stupid standards, says my brown hair and tummy.) Not everyone conforms to them, even if they want to. Pretending that away doesn’t work, and it puts the focus on the wrong place.

Valenti points out that not growing into your looks until a bit later in life can be beneficial. Hell yeah, it can. You don’t learn to be funny if people are fawning all over your looks. Why bother? If I had known how to brush my hair properly and didn’t wear my brother’s hand-me-downs in junior high, I wouldn’t have had all that time to watch entirely inappropriate stand-up on Comedy Central. Or to finish The Diary of Anne Frank while eating lunch alone. (Oh yes, it was bad.) A friend of mine will sometimes tell others, “you are so beautiful right now” if they tell a joke that falls flat. Just about everyone who is successful in a creative industry will talk about how they were an awkward loser at some point in school. Except the models who talk about how they were way too skinny and couldn’t get a date until they were fourteen. They don’t count.

I’m often told that it is great for my girls’ self-esteem that they are all black or Latina. You know, because their culture, and their men, like “bigger” women. Because there is nothing to make you feel worse than being overweight, everyone is heterosexual, and defining your self worth by men’s attraction to you is a rockin’ idea.

It reminds me of a vintage advertisement that was making the rounds on Facebook recently. It featured an image of a skinny woman and a curvier woman, and implored women to take some snake oil type treatment so they could pack on some pounds to look sexy at the beach. Everyone tagged it with, “How times have changed!” And because I’m obnoxious, I had to keep commenting, “Eighty years ago, people were still telling us we weren’t good enough, so…no, times haven’t changed that much.”

My girls want to be thin, but they don’t want to be skinny. Skinny is a bad word. The constant refrain is “I don’t want to look like a crackhead!” This might be indicative of the devastation that crack cocaine wrought on our inner-cities, or something. Of course, my fantasy therapist and woman who could totally call me to baby-sit other hero Tina Fey said it best. As always.

All Beyonce and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful. Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine year old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits. The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes.

Women and girls are held to very high standards. You have to look a certain way, and you’re not supposed to work at it. Don’t starve yourself, that’s stupid! Just be really skinny! But have boobs, don’t be gross about it. Don’t wear too much make up, it looks fake and gross. A natural, minimal, blemish free perfectly smooth complexion is preferable. Be tall, but not too tall. Dress sexy, but not slutty. (As there are no clear guidelines on this, you will just have to wear what you think is best and then listen when others criticize you. Fun!)

When I ask my girls in group what I like about themselves, they start listing off physical attributes. “My hair,” “my eyes,” “my titties,” (seriously.) It isn’t because they’re shallow, or think that’s all they have to offer. It’s because they think that’s what I mean. I have to press them for what they’re good at, what it is others admire in them.

I try to focus on getting my girls to notice double standards between what’s expected of them and boys, to question why certain things are considered “slutty” or indicative of a “lack of self-respect,” and to get them a little pissed off about these things. I’m not under the impression that pointing out that they are undervalued by society will make them feel good.

But it does make them think about where that poor self-esteem is coming from. It takes some pressure off them to live up to those standards, and spend some more time questioning where they’re coming from and why they feel bad about themselves. It lets them know that they’re not alone in the inequality they notice (believe me, they notice), that gaining or losing five pounds or waxing their eyebrows isn’t the answer to what they’re feeling, and that there are more important things to think about. Being a part of something and connecting with other girls makes them feel pretty good about themselves, and about being a girl.

And things like this come out.

14 y/o: “It’s so much harder to be a girl. We have to get periods.”
Entire group: “Ugh, periods!”
13 y/o #1: “And we have to have babies and decide whether or not to have an abortion.”
13y/o #2: “Yeah, and guys can just leave if they don’t want to take care of the kid.”
14 y/o: “And men say nasty things to us on the street when we’re just trying to walk.”
12 y/o: “Yeah, but our moms teach us to take care of ourselves. One day a boy is going to tell me to cook for him or do his laundry and I’m going to tell him he should have learned when I did!”

It’s a start.

I use clips from The Breakfast Club in my work

12 07 2012

When you’re studying groupwork in Village of the Damned social work school, they prepare you for certain things. You know, the doorknob effect, mutual support, a lot about the importance of snacks. (Disclaimer: I was a casework major.) You learn about the need for each group to have defined goals, and a purpose.

I’ve run groups with the themes of self-esteem and communication, mostly. I tend to go with those because they kind of incorporate everything, so I can do what I want.

Each group tends to take on a theme of its own, in addition to what I had planned, which guides and tweaks our curriculum. In the first group I ran, the girls were all obsessed with losing their virginity. It bordered on teen movie style fanaticism. So that group was my introduction to the importance of sex ed, and was the first time I asked a room full of people if they knew where their uterus was. Another group, the girls jokingly called “gay club.” By the second day, 80% of them came out as gay or bisexual. So we went with that, talked about dating, dealing with parents…also Naya Rivera came up a lot, but that’s neither here nor there. My last group could have had the Maury Povich style title “I hate my stepfather!” All of the girls were dealing with their mother’s husband or boyfriend, and he was always a massive tool. We spent a lot of time role playing different scenarios, and trying to figure out what would make Mom listen.

In the fiery pits of Mordor social work school, we also learn about the various roles group members take on. There might be a scapegoat, a ringleader, a deviant…whatever. (Again, casework major.) These roles certainly make sense in a group setting. But I’ve noticed some other titles that pretty much always apply. Boy bands and eighties movies need types, and so do girls’ groups.

1) The Good Student. This is the one who all the girls use on their Human Bingo cards for “I love to read.” Very often she has a somewhat quirky interest that the other girls don’t quite get, like anime or death metal. She needs to be encouraged to stop raising her hand before talking.

2) The Comedian. This is the one who must make others laugh in order to know she exists. Everyone loves to laugh, but it’s not the best when you’re trying to lead a group bonding activity or someone is revealing their history of sexual abuse. Great for breaking the ice, not too helpful in staying on task. (See also: SJ, ninth grade.)

3) The Cuckoo Bananas One. This girl reads things on the internet, and believes them. To a degree that’s alarming even for an adolescent. Like, more so than that aunt of yours who keeps forwarding you $250 cookie recipes, or warnings about how murderers are using recorded crying baby sounds to lure women to their deaths. (Snopes is giving out “don’t look ridiculous” for free, people.)

But really. Did you know the government is going to move us all into tiny compounds by the end of the year? And of course 9/11 was an inside job. You can see the strings, people!

At first I thought this was just one wacky girl in my first group. But it’s continued over the years, and I think it belongs in a textbook.

4) The Youngest Child. This one may or may not be the youngest in the group, or even the youngest in their family. They’re just perceive themselves to be at risk of being left out at all times, and as a result laugh a little too hard at the Comedian’s jokes and agree a little too quickly with Cuckoo Bananas’ theories…and then with the people who disagree with her. She needs to be assured that people like her for her, then learn that it doesn’t matter as much as she thinks.

5) The Teacher You Wish Would Stop Teaching. This girl might be a little bit older, have done a group before, or just be a little more experienced than the other girls in the group. She fancies herself a bit of a mentor, which is great until she gives advice like, “you should just do sex once to get it over with” or “make him wash it off first.” (Those are actual quotes. Actual.)

6) The One Who Drives You Insane, Out Of Love. Oh wait, that’s all of them. They love Chris Brown, they idolize Snooki (“she’s herself!” Yeah, and her self is terrible) they disappear for a couple of weeks and return seemingly minus all the progress they’ve made.

But you keep going, welcoming them back and telling them you’re thrilled to see them (because you are!) and remember that, while it’s way too trite and Hallmark movie to say, “you get even more out of group than they do”–the Comedian does make you laugh, the Good Student gives you hope for the future, Cuckoo Bananas keeps you on your toes and comes out with a gem every so often, the Youngest Child is endearing as hell, and the Teacher You Wish Would Stop Teaching just wants to help her friends and is actually learning.

Also, there are always snacks.

Drama Llamas are pack animals

26 06 2012

I’m gearing up for another girls’ group. These are generally the highlight of my professional life, so I’m rather excited. The thing that I don’t particularly enjoy about the girls, though, is the drama.

Now, I love drama. As in theater. The other kind of drama, though, I would prefer be saved for yo mama. (As a keychain I once saw instructed.)

Drama is free-flowing with teenagers, and not just girls. They can’t trust anyone, because everyone is two-faced. My girls really accuse people of being “two-faced” all the time. I kind of enjoy this because it sounds olden-timey. Like Sandy might have called Rizzo this.

They start spouting cheesy quotes that I assume they got from day-time talk shows and Jersey Shore.

“I like that people are talking about me, that I’ve got haters. It means I’m more interesting than they are.” “I know it’s just them being jealous.” Everyone is a jealous hater or has a staring problem. I remember being accused of these things in high school. I’m sorry, classmate, but I could see your underwear out the bottom of your skirt. I assure you it wasn’t jealousy.

“I’m the best friend you’ll ever have until you cross me.”  “I fight to the death to protect my family.” What does that mean? You’re talking like we live in Kabul. I believe the topic was infidelity.

“We’ll never be friends again, but if she calls me at three o’clock in the morning I’ll be there.” Why not if she calls you in the afternoon, like a normal person? You mean if she calls you because she’s being held against her will, or is on fire, or something? Is there a person you wouldn’t be there for in that situation? Is this such a likely scenario that everyone is always talking about it?

I can accept it from teenagers. It’s annoying, sure, but it’s developmentally appropriate. They’re becoming more independent, friendships take on increasing importance, and it’s normal to think that everyone is watching you with a hidden camera. When you haven’t experienced all that much, this minor nonsense feels huge.

When it comes from people my age, I start to have a problem.

I don’t know if this is more common with my clients than it is with the general population, or if I just don’t associate with people in my free time who get into this sort of thing. I suspect it’s a little of both.

Here’s a free tip–the easiest way to tell that someone LOVES drama is to hear them say, “I can’t stand drama.” It would be like me saying, “I hate line dancing.” I mean, I might, but since it doesn’t interest me, it’s not a part of my life, and doesn’t require a comment. Certainly not a Facebook status.

I hear it from my adult clients all the time. The parents are worse than the kids with the Facebook shenanigans. My constant refrain is, “If you won’t delete your profile, will you at least unfriend your ex/ex’s new girlfriend/former friend/asshole cousin?” No. They need to keep that person around. Know your enemy, and all that. “This way I can see what she’s up to.” Oh. Ok.

WHY THE HELL DO YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT SHE’S UP TO?!? You talk about how you can’t stand this person, thank goodness they’re out of your life, you wouldn’t touch them with a thirty nine and a half foot pole, but heaven forbid you not get to see the Instagram picture they uploaded of the bundt cake they made last night.

But you can’t reason with drama.

This is also what happened after I tracked down a father after his cell phone had been shut off. He begrudgingly gave me his new cell phone number, under strict instructions not to give it to anyone else. (You know, because I would do that.) He didn’t want people having that new number, because he didn’t want to deal with any drama. (You know, because people are banging down his door.)

I have a few theories as to why more of the adults I work with seem to attract drama. One is the lack of traditional employment. Most of my clients work, for sure. But most of that work is off the books, quasi-self-employment like Avon, or more casual like baby-sitting and odd jobs. The thing that helps some people reign in their nuttier impulses, especially on the social networks, is the need to keep up a professional appearance. If that’s not there, there’s less incentive to hold back.

Related to this is a lack of hobbies or activities. I would never say the families I work with have too much free time on their hands, because they don’t, but they don’t have enough mental stiumlation. A lot of the people I work with are very intelligent but under-educated, and can’t entertain themselves quite enough. Or they spend a crazy amount of time waiting for hours for appointments, and a fight might be just the think to break up the monotony.

Another is, of course, mental illness. I don’t work specifically with a mentally ill population, but of course, mental illness is everywhere.

Then there are poor examples. Growing up with violence and inappropriate anger in the family can make it easy to seem like that’s the best way you can show your love. Saying you’ll physically fight someone if they look at your kids or your partner sideways could feel like a nice compliment to let someone know you care.

And some of it is just lack of maturity. That sounds really judgmental, and it is, but I have a social work-y explanation. So many people I work with don’t get to be children. They don’t have the opportunity to experience that developmentally appropriate period of safely asserting their independence (and maybe their bitchy side.) Or this is when they launch themselves into the adult world, before they’re properly prepared, and they get a bit stuck in that phase. I hear parents tell me all the time that the kids need to get themselves together and stop acting up because, “this is my time. I raised her, and now it’s time for me to do me.” I don’t know what exactly “doing me” means in this context, but I usually have to remind these parents that the kid in question is seven, and their job as parent is far from over.

As annoying as it can be to hear about it, because it would be so easy to avoid it I have to remember that it’s worse for the person involved. As much as they might seem to glory in it, that is a stressful way to go through life. Never knowing who your real friends are, not trusting anyone, your guard always being up. If nothing else, it makes me grateful for my boring life.

But not so grateful for Facebook.

Seven Dirty Social Work Terms

24 05 2012

I was recently called out for not being professional in my language by using the term “motherfucker.”

Fuck fuck fuck. Ok, I’m done now.

When I say the concern was that I wasn’t being professional, I’m sure you all agree. It would be unprofessional to use hard core profanity in the workplace, at court, or with a client. But I wasn’t in any of those places. Meaning that “not being professional” translated to “conduct unbecoming of a social worker,” or, a bit more accurately “not being ladylike.” Acting like a lady has never gotten anyone anywhere I wanted to go, so that doesn’t bother me terribly.

I’ve never been a believer in the “swearing means you’re unintelligent or inarticulate” line of thinking. Well, not since I was old enough to think critically and independently. It’s just such an easy line to trot out.

I’m a big fan of Kevin Smith. I saw Clerks when I was 13, on my dad’s recommendation. Two years later, he bought me tickets to see Smith speak live. This is what I tell people when they’re shocked at the language I use with my parents. Or at anything about me, really.

When people say profanity, swearing, “offensive” language is never necessary, or effective, it kind of baffles me. Have they never heard of George Carlin? Bill Hicks? Lenny Bruce? Quentin Tarantino? St. Francis of Assissi?* Listened to “Totally Fucked Fluffed” from Spring Awakening? Bad words can be an art. When used correctly, thoughtfully, and selectively, they get your point across.

We all have words that irritate us. Ninety percent of the people I know can’t stand to hear the word “moist.” Problem is, sometimes things are moist, and need to be described as such. My mother requested that I stop using the term “boner pills” to describe this country’s infatuation with insuring Viagra more readily than birth control. Personally, I object to the phrases “just to play devil’s advocate” and “check your privilege.” “Playing devil’s advocate” most often means “Allow me to be an asshole for no reason” and “check your privilege,” while generally a good idea, comes across as unnecessarily snotty and self-righteous. We’re all perfectly entitled to have pet peeves. Things that grate on our nerves. That we, therefore, avoid.

In terms of blog reading, I get that it’s not for everyone. If you are more offended and upset by my use of four letter words than you are by my discussions of childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence, then I think you have some strange priorities, but all right. Everyone has their non-negotiables, and if that’s one you can’t look beyond, then that’s fine.

But we don’t have that option out in our world of social work. Even if I object to the way that my clients talk, it’s probably not why they had a case called in, or why they sought services. Is it a safety issue? I suppose it could be, but that will have to be demonstrated. Oh, and simply saying, “it shows that they don’t respect themselves” is weak. We need to back that ass up. With facts.

When we go over rules the first day of teen group, using swear words is always brought up. The girls initially assume that our rules are similar to school, and someone mentions “no cursing.” As with every damn thing they say, I bring it back to the group. Is that a rule everyone agrees upon? Are people offended by swear words? What would be the pros and cons, the reasons for this rule? What works for us?

Every time, this has yielded the same results. They’re not offended by the words so much as the intent. They don’t give a rat’s ass puppy’s patoot if someone sprinkles a tale of their day with curses. They don’t like being cursed at. Called a bitch. Told “fuck you.” Who does? So that’s the rule. We can curse, but we don’t curse at each other. It’s never been a problem.

I have a family that puts my knowledge and use of those bad, naughty words to shame. It is constant. It would cause someone who objected to my declaration that a certain musical is motherfucking delightful to flutter their hands over their heart and call for Reginald to fetch the smelling salts, as they’d certainly caught the vapors.

However, this family follows my teen group rule.

That’s how it is in this family. Swearing is a part of their vocabulary. They don’t use it to hurt one another. Amongst themselves, these are just words. The family knows it doesn’t bother me.

The school social worker, however, overheard this and was scandalized. She was tempted to make a report for verbal abuse. I’ve heard verbal abuse go down, very often with nary a bad word. Telling a child she’s stupid and can’t do anything right struck me as much worse than saying, “I can’t believe I burned this fucking rice.”

The only real issue I saw was this family creating problems for themselves by swearing in inappropriate situations. These situations certainly include “on the phone with your daughter’s school.” We discussed it. Again, no problem since.

But that worker’s reaction did have some effect. It made this family feel judged, and misunderstood. It’s hard to work with someone when you feel that way.

As I said, I don’t swear at work. My supervisor doesn’t either. Usually. There was that one time, when things had all gone to shit poo for a family we’d worked incredibly hard with. She let the f-flag fly, once, in her office, when it was just me and her. It was fine. I got it.

I wouldn’t swear at a job interview, when meeting a significant other’s parents, at a doctor’s appointment, in front of my Gram. I also don’t swear at my Little Sister, or with children, particularly the ones I work with, in general. No matter what they say to me. Some things, like alcohol, coffee, and burlesque, are meant to be enjoyed by adults who have developed a sense of self control and propriety. Who are mature and know when it’s all right to let out a mother fucker Mother Hubbard, and when it most certainly is not. Some adults can’t handle their alcohol, some can’t handle their swearing. But it doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t partake.

A lot of times, I’m told this boils down to setting a good example. Even though I wouldn’t curse at work, I should be teaching clients that it’s impolite and unacceptable through my reaction to their speech.

We don’t want to get so caught up in how people are expressing themselves that we overlook what’s most important-what are they expressing? Is a kid cursing to be provocative and get attention, or because they’re so angry that they can’t do anything else, or because that’s just how they learned to speak? Are we upset because a parent’s language is hurting their child, or expressing negative feelings towards us, or because we have feelings about what words are inherently offensive that conflict with what this parent believes? As usual, I think we need to look at ourselves and consider our own motivations before we react, and find a reasonable middle ground. We constantly have to check our prejudices and assumptions in this work. That includes writing someone off as being a certain “type,” due to their fondness for swearing.

And remember that sometimes, the situation just calls for a “motherfucker.”

*St. Francis’ fondness for curse words has historically been denied.

“It’s Women’s Day, Rudy.”

7 03 2012

I’ve hardly had time to put away the decorations from last year, but once again, International Women’s Day is upon us! Before we get started, am I the only one who thinks of that episode of The Cosby Show when Rudy gets her first period, and they all go out for “women’s day?” Just me? All right.

The theme this year is “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures.” To which I say: cha-ching! I love those things!

I might have mentioned once or twice that my favorite work to do is with my teen girls’ groups. These groups are fun, challenging, different each time, and important. There is something special about bringing a room full of teen girls together and telling them that what they have to say really matters.

Feminism is an integral part of working with girls. We can act like it’s an option, but it’s really a requirement. Trying to help them deal appropriately with their anger, improve their self-esteem, make good choices, have safe sex, live peacefully with their parents, or anything else would be a lot easier if they weren’t already considered a bit less worthy, simply because they are girls.

It seems especially important since we’re living in a country that is still debating birth control. You know, that stuff that lets you have fewer than seventeen kids? And in which a man with millions of listeners saw fit to publicly declare that an intelligent, civic minded, possibly sexually active law student was a “slut” and “prostitute” because she thinks that universities and employers should not have the right to determine what medications the insurance she pays for will cover.

I just need to get this out, and then we can move on. The entire thing is bull shit. The next person who says, “Well, why should I pay for your birth control?” is getting a foot directly in the ass, as that is the orifice that they are talking out of. We are talking about INSURANCE COMPANIES, not taxpayers, paying for medication. We’ve had enough sexism and misogyny, we don’t need outright lies. Taxpayers do pay for birth control–it’s called Medicaid, everybody. The country hasn’t crumbled into the sea and been sucked into the fiery pits of Mordor just yet, so I think we’ll survive a private insurance mandate.

Oh, and I don’t care if you say birth control is not preventive medicine. Doctors say it is. Insurance companies cover it when not blocked by squeamish employers. That’s kind of it.

I’m also sick of all the false information being spread about birth control. Our kids are misinformed enough, we do not need politicians and drooling radio hosts further confusing them. It’s been said a million times now, but apparently it hasn’t sunk in. IT DOES NOT MATTER HOW FREQUENTLY YOU HAVE SEX, IF AT ALL, YOU STILL TAKE ONE BIRTH CONTROL PILL PER DAY. Rush Limbaugh is thinking of condoms…or Viagra…or those other pills he’s known for being so fond of, I’m not sure.

But way to mislead young people, and make them ashamed for taking control of their reproductive health. Yes, better to just have sex without protection. We wouldn’t want people hearing about my prescription.

Whether or not our girls have ever even heard of Rush Limbaugh (I’m sincerely hoping they haven’t) they are living in a society that has given him a platform. In a society that punishes women for speaking out about their rights and sexuality by shaming them for being sluts. A society that publicly admonishes a woman for daring to have sex, because that’s bad, but then says she should let men watch, because it’s cool when men do it.

Or something. It’s so convoluted I have trouble keeping up.

Working with girls to get them to recognize their own value and worth as women in this society is often an uphill battle. It is complete with peaks and valleys, which I present to you now.


14 y/o: “Wait, you can say you were raped even if you’re married? That’s stupid.”

Yes, so silly. If you say yes once, you say yes always, everyone knows that! And your body is there to be used by a man as he sees fit! I’m going to rock in the corner for a bit.

13 y/o: “My teacher was saying that like, if you get pregnant, it’s your responsibility, so like, you have to have the baby. So that’s why abortion is illegal.”
SJ: “OK. That might be what your teacher feels. But we all know that abortion is legal, correct?”
13 y/o: “No, I don’t think it is.”
SJ: “It definitely is. It’s been legal in this country since 1973.”
13 y/o: “Really? That doesn’t make sense, how is that possible?”
SJ: “I’m not saying you have to run out and have an abortion. But it’s really important to know your options.”

Teenage girls in America, many of whom have mothers who have had abortions (trust me) don’t know their rights. That is how demonized and muddled this issue has become. Scary.

15 y/o: “Miss, if a girl is giving head in a stairwell, she’s a slut! It’s ok to call her that!”

Fine. Now we’ve degraded her, and remained suspiciously silent about the boy involved. Are we better people yet?

“You should consider what people are going to think if you dress a certain way, because you might get a reputation. People will think you’re a certain type of girl.”

That was from my co-leader. Because if there’s one thing teen girls need to consider more, it’s what others think of them. And there are very few, very clearly defined types of girls.


15 y/o: “Do you guys notice that we get in more trouble for fighting than boys do?”
13 y/o: “Yeah, they expect them to be aggressive but we’re supposed to be perfect angels. It’s not fair.”

Wait…yes! That’s a double standard! And you’re noticing it on your own!

16 y/o: “Sometimes I think girls say they just got caught up in the moment and had sex because they don’t want to say that they wanted to do it. Like, because people will think they’re slutty. But that’s not slutty. And if you think about it and prepare then you’ll use condoms.”

No shame in wanting to have sex, and condom use?! High five!

14 y/o: “Slut is such a stupid word, can we please not use that in here?”

We should TOTALLY not use that stupid word in here!

15 y/o: “You know, I think I finished an entire bottle of ranch dressing in here tonight, but I don’t even care.”

It’s not groundbreaking, but comfort is important.

14 y/o: “Yeah, but whatever you do and however you dress someone is going to have something bad to say about you, so you might as well do what you want.”


The valleys, the downfalls, the moments that make me want to tear my hair out, have so much value, even though the peaks are what keep me going. Without that being presented, we can’t counteract it effectively. Feminism, and challenging the status quo, is a point of view that these girls are really not hearing.

A lot of lip service is paid to what in my day was called “girl power” (even when I was 13 and the Spice Girls were massive, I thought it sounded a bit silly.) You’re tough, you’re strong, girls rock! While it’s fun, a lot of it is meaningless. People are very often not talking about the real issues with girls, and educating them on issues that affect them. These girls aren’t stupid. They’re young, they’re easily influenced, but at the same time they’re smart, and they know on some level when they encounter inequality. Talking to them and introducing the idea that things actually can be different is an amazing gift for all of us.

So please, let’s try it this women’s day. For Rudy Huxtable, if no one else.

I’m Ms. Brightside

19 01 2012

Yesterday was a rough day. Like, the kind your mom warned you about. Or maybe she didn’t. But still, they happen. I had to listen to an awesome twelve year old girl cry about how she wants to go live with her dad, because her mom blames everything on this kid and just can’t be nice. Mom doesn’t beat this child. Her physical needs are taken care of. The mom just has a unique ability to make this kid feel like crap. Dad probably can’t take her, and mom would never allow it anyway, but it was all she could think of.

I am trying to help this kid. Really, really trying. But with a parent who isn’t willing to even think about change, and a situation that doesn’t warrant removal (and really, would removal solve this? Would this child suddenly be in the warm, loving environment she deserves? Maybe. Probably not.) I’m limited in what I can do. A mentor and an afterschool program to get her out of the house, counseling at school, and support from me are kind of all I can do. It happens. There are situations you can’t fix, because the people in charge of them don’t want you to help.

Let’s focus on the good. For a moment

1.) I have been working with a mother and her thirteen year old daughter for close to a year now. They were barely speaking when they started coming in, and it is ridiculously heartwarming to see how much they’ve grown. They do things together and talk to each other. Soon, their case will be closed, which is depressing and thrilling all at the same time.

Anyway, this girl is super smart, and loves school. She just got accepted to the Catholic school of her choice, the one she’s been dreaming of, complete with a full scholarship. As if that weren’t enough (it totally was) she ran to the office to tell me. (After crying with her mom over it.)

2.) The other morning, there was a parenting group meeting at the office for the first time. They assured the clients that child care would be provided, but neglected to tell the workers who provide the child care. As a result, there was a lot of, “Well, I have other work to do. They didn’t tell me. I can’t watch these kids rabble rabble rabble.”

One of the kids in question was from one of my families, so I told the parents to leave their kids with me and go ahead to group. I don’t know how many of you have had the surprise experience of reading “The Cat in the Hat” to a group of toddlers who are extremely rarely read to, but it’s a delight. Trust me.

3.) Recently, we had a holiday celebration for participants that didn’t go exactly as planned. Supervision was lacking, there was a lot of petty infighting, we didn’t have time or money…the usual. But my homemade mancala boards? Were a HUGE hit. Families asked to take them home, so they could play together. Video game addict kids wanted to teach their friends to play. Victory!

Egg carton + beads = no money fun!

4.) In social work, a case being ready to close (not closing because time is up, or because they’re moving on to other services, or the kids are being removed) is a great success. I’ve got a family with an eight year old who is in just that position. They’re doing well. The mother just told me, “Things are still stressful, but I have ways to manage it now.” Yeah. That’s pretty much it.

But that’s not the best part. Here is a pic of me and her eight year old daughter.

See how we get our hair done at the same place?

5.) Another mother just told me that her son had been acting up lately, so she made an appointment with his psychiatrist to see if his ADHD meds needed to be adjusted. This was a woman who remembered to give this child his meds only about half the time last year. As a result, this was a child who spent half the time last year throwing chairs.

6.) My girls’ group ended this week. (Speaking of crying. Oh, we weren’t? I was.) One of our traditions is to have all of the girls write a card to each girl in the group, saying something positive about their participation. Two of the girls decided to write notes to me, and insisted, under pain of death, that I display them in my cubicle.

Yeah. You don't get that often.

We can’t help everyone. There are situations that we work our best on, and then have to admit that there’s nothing else we can do. It’s just reality. The reminders, especially visual reminders, that there are, in fact, people we help, and changes we help bring about, can make quite the difference.

Sexily sexing for sexiness. Do I have your attention?

22 12 2011

We all know that’s it’s my favorite time of year–Solstice sex talk week. Every teen girls group I run, no matter the focus, at least one week is devoted to this topic. Self-esteem, communication, body image, basket weaving, I don’t care. I’ll find a way to work it in.

It’s important. I hear more and more about the Obama administration ushering in an era in which pre-schoolers are putting condoms on anatomically correct dolls, but I feel like my girls are less informed with each passing year.

This isn’t true for all of them. Some are at least savvy in some matters. Just recently I was walking to the office with one of the twelve year olds I work with who started informing me of the girls she has crushes on. After a minute, she looked at me and asked, “Do you know what bi means?”

Um, yeah. I was watching My So-Called Life before you were born. I remember Danielle rolling her eyes and telling her mom “it means bisexual.” Not to mention I’m fifteen years older than you, come on.

My teens, though, they’re confused. They’re not sure what they think or who to believe. We’re battling the media, you know. It’s not always giving them the best information.

14 y/o: “Can’t the baby claw its way out of you?”
SJ: “Not outside of Twilight.

15 y/o: “Oh, I know this one girl…”
SJ: “Do you know this girl, or is this another ‘I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant’ story?”
15 y/o: “It’s ‘I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant.'”

14 y/o: “But one girl on Maury said she didn’t have sex with the guy the DNA test said was the father, she just…”
SJ: “Maury is not an acceptable source. For anything. Ever. Except for funny ‘not the father’ dances.”

I’m glad they at least feel comfortable asking questions.

“If a boy masturbates and then shakes your hand, can you get pregnant?”
Wow. Why would that even happen? No you won’t get pregnant, but maybe invest in some Purel if that’s really a concern. Bonus points for use of correct language, though.

SJ: “You can get STDs from oral sex, but you can’t get pregnant.”
15 y/o: “Even if you swallow?”
And now I’m nauseated.

There’s always the one who thinks she really knows what she’s talking about. Rather often, that’s the one with the greatest number of “facts.”

“Well, there’s always the risk of STIs. And those can turn into STDs!”
You’re a little misinformed. But I think your heart is in the right place.

“Two guys together is nasty to girls, and two girls together is nasty to guys.” Now you’re just grossly misinformed. Not to mention the fact that we’re respectful and non-judgmental in this space. (But seriously, have you heard of the internet? Silly.)

15 y/o: “The fetus is what the baby grows in.”
SJ: “Well that’s actually the uterus. The fetus is what we call the baby when it’s developing, before it’s born.”
15 y/o: “No, but like, it grows in the fetus.”
OK, you’re saying it a little differently, but still no.

“If you go off the pill, and then have sex with a bunch of different guys, you can get pregnant with like, four different guys’ babies at once.”
That’s it, you’re staying after for a remedial session.

Some girls are just uncomfortable, and need a little baptism by fire.

SJ: “Some people only consider it sex if it’s penis in vagina.”
13 y/o: “Ew!”
SJ: “What, vagina?”
13 y/o: “Ew!”
14 y/o: “Or penis?”
13 y/o: “Ew!”
15 y/o: “We all have a vagina in here.”
13 y/o: “Ew!”
SJ: “OK this is silly. Penis vagina penis vagina penis vagina.” (To the tune of “La Cucaracha.”)

And sometimes, they’re just hilarious.

“Pfft. Her booty isn’t a virgin.”
Did you steal that from a book of proverbs?

“I don’t want to have sex ever! Well, I mean, I guess before I die. I don’t want to be a nun. I heard you can die if you don’t have sex.”
Yeah, I don’t know either.

“I would like to see you all wait until you’re 21.”
My group coleader. Isn’t that cute? She’s new at this.

SJ: “Is it ok for someone to have sex because they want to have a baby?”
Group: “No!”
SJ: “OK, at your age, I agree. But what if the person is older, and they’re married or in a relationship, and they want to have kids?”
13 y/o: “I just don’t feel like that’s a good choice in this economy.”

Occasionally, there are moments of awesome.

13 y/o: “Is it good if you tell a guy you’re not ready, and he’s ok with it, and he still wants to date you?”
SJ: “Yeah, I think that’s great.”
13 y/o: “Oh yeah, that’s my man!”
14 y/o: “Can we clap for Liz’s man?”

You know we clapped. Also, Liz’s man is in fact fourteen.

For all of the laughs, and the moments of wanting to slap myself or others in the face (YOU CAN GET PREGNANT YOUR FIRST TIME AND BIRTH CONTROL PILLS ARE EFFECTIVE WHEN TAKEN CORRECTLY) I love these sessions. Somewhere along the lines, we’re really failing our kids in terms of sex ed. It’s a very concrete way we can shape kids lives, and help them to make good, informed decisions.

Or at least teach them to say “vagina” without cringing.

Under pressure

28 11 2011

One of my favorite parts of running girls group, aside from the sound of children’s laughter, seeing the participants grow and mature, the availability of snacks and impromptu dance parties, is watching the girls form friendships with one another.

It’s often assumed that the girls we work with are out running the streets. Their parents don’t care what they do, there’s no curfew, they drink and smoke with their grandmas.

Of course, this often isn’t the case. I wish some of the parents of girls I work with would lighten up. I understand their fears. Teen pregnancy is rampant where we live and work, and the neighborhood is dangerous. Shootings, gang violence, and drug deals are a part of everyday life. The idea of letting your child out of your sight is frightening, to say the least.

But at some point, you have to. Otherwise you end up dealing with what I see every day–these girls know that no matter what, they’re not going to be allowed to go out. So when they have the opportunity, they seize it. Stay out all night, do all the things they aren’t allowed. They don’t really have anything to lose.

So it’s nice to get them together with some other girls who are dealing with similar issues. No reason to be embarrassed about having an ACS case or a social worker, because everyone here does. Your mom doesn’t trust you? Mine doesn’t either! Your dad is constantly worrying about you getting pregnant? Ugh, I know. But they let the boys do whatever they want!

It’s easy for them to find common ground. We see the bonds start to form, the exchange of information, the mentions of seeing each other over the weekend or after school. It’s usually a little easier on the parents to let this happen. You want to hang out with someone you met in Miss SJ’s group? I guess it’s better than some trouble maker from the building.

It’s something I love to see. But it’s also something I’m very wary of.

Eating disorders can be very difficult to treat. They often don’t make sense to outsiders–just have a sandwich, what’s the issue? It sounds like it might be helpful for people suffering from eating disorders to have others to talk to, who know what they’re going through, who let them know they’re not alone. Group work, anyone?

But groups are actually rather dangerous for the treatment of eating disorders. I know some particularly skilled workers are able to make it work, but the fact is that whatever support participants get in those groups is generally counteracted by what they learn from other group members. New tricks, ways to hide what they’re doing, and the like.

That negative influence and sharing secrets is also a concern in our group. When we were first planning our group, we talked about the common problems we saw amongst the girls we worked with. One that came up frequently was shoplifting. Hey, stuff is awesome, but it’s also expensive!

I was nervous about focusing on shoplifting for precisely this reason. I didn’t want to girls to learn from each other in this way. I was afraid that those already into it would get better at it, and those who hadn’t considered it might give it a try.

Shoplifting came up anyway. And my oh my, we all learned a few things. Someone threw out the names of a couple of stores that have rather lax security, and another went on in great detail about how to hide things in one’s bra. One girl had to be cut off before she was able to complete her speech on the importance of developed thigh muscles in smuggling stolen goods out of electronic stores. Fortunately, it wasn’t too difficult to remind them that this was girls’ group, not thievery class, and get us back on track.

In a previous group, a young girl, Callie, who had just lost her virginity became close with another girl, Anna, who had a long history of sexually acting out. Callie asked Anna about performing oral sex on her boyfriend. Callie had tried this, and simply could not see the appeal. Anna told her that “it’s just something you do, even though you don’t really want to.” As glad as we were that Callie and Anna could relate to one another and talk, but this wasn’t advice we were going to endorse. It was fortunate that Callie confided this to her worker, who was able to discuss this with her, and bring it up to the group in a general way that didn’t violate confidentiality. But it doesn’t always happen that way.

Rebecca and Madison, two girls on my caseload who are also both in my group, recently became friends. Rebecca is the classic “problem child,” while Madison was disappointed to hear that she couldn’t go to school on Thanksgiving day. (Seriously, she needs to lighten up.) They seemed like an odd pair, but I was tentatively hopeful that Madison would positively influence Rebecca.

Of course, Madison came to me saying that Rebecca was pressuring her to go to parties with twenty year old guys (excellent place for thirteen year old girls) and was threatening to defriend her on Facebook. (I’m fairly certain that this is the equivalent of erasing a teenager from life, much like the McFly children disappearing from photographs in Back to the Future.)

When the kids come to us with these issues, or we see them in group, we can address them. But how? Peer pressure is not going anywhere.

Our best friend seems to be positive peer pressure.

I always get annoyed when people clap for a pilot landing a plane. It was literally the least he could do. What’s the alternative? Yay, thanks for not killing us all! It’s the pilot’s job. I don’t get a round of applause when I successfully lead a family in a scaling exercise.

But it’d be nice.

So we clap in group. We clap for a girl saying no to sex she didn’t want, we clap for a girl telling her mom how she really feels, we clap for walking away from shoplifting. Girls take turns telling each other the improvements they’ve noticed.

Praise is powerful. Your peers and group leaders giving you a standing ovation? It can help.

Groupwork is amazing. It’s incredibly important for these girls, and they’re able to learn a great deal. There are drawbacks, of course, as there are drawbacks to everything in work and life. But looking out for those negative influences, and jumping all over the positives, can make it worthwhile.

They might even clap for you.

I rule.

17 10 2011

If there’s one thing social workers love, it’s cake empowerment. We talk about it all the time. Every one of those staff meetings I so adore come back to questioning how we can further empower our clients. Self-determination! Let them formulate their own goals! Include their input in the planning process! Have them choose their own seats!

Am I allowed to decide when I get a haircut, or should that be left up to the clients to vote on?

Teen group follows the same principles. Yes, they’re kids, but they still have ideas and goals that should be included in our work. That is to say, what they want to get out of group is just as important as me wanting them all to improve their self esteem, be able to talk to their caregivers without screaming, and write a list of the pros and cons of every major form of birth control in under seven minutes.

This starts from the very first session. Particularly when working with teens, what’s most important?


As fun as we like group to be, we need rules. Have you ever had a roomful of thirteen to sixteen year old girls? You’ll want to impose some order, if your goal isn’t to leap screaming from a second floor window.

Now, telling them what they are and aren’t allowed to do is not particularly empowering. It comes from the group leaders, not the group, and it’s negative and sounds like school.

So we start by having them talk about what they want in group.

“Friends.” I like that. Nice.
“To talk to people who know what I’m going through.” Excellent. I’m so on board.
“Sex.” What the hell?! “I said snacks.” Oh thank God.  Yes, those will totally be provided.
“Can we go on trips?” Well, we can try. Money is a little tight. Does Target count as a trip?
“Oh, I want to go to the mall. Like, if we’re good.” Yeah, I think this is getting away from us.

Let’s talk about what we don’t want in group.

“No boys.” All right, I think we’ve done it. Also, refreshing sentiment.
“No cursing.” Is that realistic? “No cursing at each other.” I hope we can all do that.
“No gossipy bitches.” I think we’re going to have to reframe that. Confidentiality?

Speaking of which, nothing polishes those reframing skills like a group of teenagers. I am the spin master. (I’m being told that this means I’m not welcome on the O’Reilly Factor, which is good because I’d embarrass that guy horribly.) There’s nothing I can’t turn.

“Miss, if this girl does not stop talking shit, I’m gonna slap her.”
“So you’re feeling frustrated with the way she’s addressing you, but you’re recognizing your own limits, and trying to keep things from escalating? I appreciate that.”
“…oh. Well. You’re welcome.”

This is an important skill, for many reasons. Especially when working with people in large groups, especially when those people are teenager, there are rules that you ned to lay down in order to get some work done. And it really helps if you can make people feel that those rules came from them.

SJ:      “Who has a suggestion for a rule?”
Teen:  “No interruptions.”
SJ:       “Yes! I love that. Let’s talk about why.”
Teen:   “You’ll miss what other people are saying?”
SJ:        “Absolutely.”
Teen:    “People will feel disrespected?”
SJ:        “Yeah, definitely. And I think something that goes along with that, wanting to be respectful, know what others are saying, is getting here on time. And being here every week. So we’re not missing things. What else can be an interruption?”
Teen:    “…what?”
SJ:        “Who has a cell phone? Let’s turn them off now. Great rule.”
Teen:   “I said all that?”

I have to, with that last one. A teenager will not suggest a no cell phone rule. They don’t understand that texting while someone shares the details of her latest suicide attempt just isn’t the best way to show you care.

So we’re all set for group, it seems. What happens in group, stays in group. (Unless you’re talking about harming yourself or someone else.) Call if you can’t make it to group. (You think your grandma worries? She’s got nothing on me.) Push yourself to share. (Not too much. Unless you need to get a good cry in, in which case go for it.) No cell phones. (Except for SJ’s, because there’s no clock in the room. And how else am I supposed to live-Tweet?)

With rules like these, clearly laid out in magic marker, how could anything go wrong?

I’ll keep you posted.