What’s your sign?

1 10 2012

My college roommate and I were not a match made in heaven. It wasn’t one of those nightmare situations you hear about, with lots of sexiling and murder attempts, but we just didn’t click. I remember a friend telling me that she confided in him that she was concerned we wouldn’t get along when we moved in.

“Your Trainspotting poster kind of freaked her out.”

Her loss. I stand by that poster.

With my best friend in high school, however, I had the opposite experience. We were vaguely connected, because my uncle grew up with her dad’s brother. This meant that our parents arranged for us to take the two hour bus ride together. I mean, we were practically sisters! So they said.

We didn’t say anything, hardly made eye contact, really, until she flipped open her planner, and I saw a picture.

SJ: “You like Hanson?”
BFF: “I love Hanson.”

We were inseparable for the next four years. Ultimately, the friendship ended when she stole from me (note: that actually happened) but we had a good run.

What the hell is SJ babbling about, you’re surely all asking? It’s about signs. Seemingly insignificant things that make you feel like it’s all going to be all right, or like you should just get the hell out now.

We all have these in our personal lives. Of course they exist in our work.

CPS has their items that trigger a happy face. In this case, they don’t say, “let’s be friends,” so much as, “let’s leave these kids here, and be on our way.”

Number one is compliance. Opening your door and answering your phone. Informing them of a changed phone number is even better. Not objecting to a background check of friends, relatives, babysitters, and the mailman is key, as is accepting just about any referral. There may be issues, but they can be addressed if the family is compliant. This is the number one indicator that someone is a dedicated parent. (Hmm…)

Paperwork is also key. A folder with the children’s immunizations, prescriptions, pediatrician information, recent report cards…that’s golden. If it’s an accordion folder with tabs on the dividers, just pack up and go home.

The final major one is having a clean apartment. The more scrubbed down and organized the better. It sends the message that this parent is in control and not overwhelmed. It’s not that sloppy people can’t mistreat their children, but what are the odds?

My list is a bit different, as the word “compliance” makes me itchy, I myself once accidentally discarded my passport by accidentally throwing out a worn out purse, and I live with someone who would never hurt a child, but does sometimes put his dirty clothes next to the hamper. (Side note: why?) But there are things that send my strengths-based social work senses tingling. I’m so predictable.

1. Any discussion of family night.

A whole night, just for family? When you go to the movies or play games? I might explode. You guys are so bonding. Could I come by sometime?! No, of course not, that would be weird.

2. A kid who loves to read.

No matter how bad things are in the rest of their life, I always have faith that a child who loves reading will be ok.

3. Chore charts and schedules.

Yes, I’m a nerd. They’re just so useful when you have lots of kids. No confusion, it’s all right there. And we rotate, so it’s fair! I have a ton of respect for good organizational skills. To me, this says that parents are teaching responsibility and preventing fights. I just got a tingly feeling.

4. Parents who let their kids get dirty/dress like kids.

A parent who does not dress their three year old brand name white clothes head to toe, only to have a heart attack when the kid is soon covered in paint and bodily fluids, isn’t just practical to me. They’re understanding developmental stages. They’re letting their child act in an age appropriate manner. I’m a total sucker for that.

Our jobs are hectic, people are often afraid to tell us things and are therefore not totally upfront, and we’re generally non-judgmental people who are put in a position of making some serious judgments. We need these signs and signals to clue us in and help us to mentally organize what we’re seeing.

We just need to be aware of them. Sometimes we feel a little more personally betrayed when things go awry with a family, and don’t know why. Maybe it’s because they hit all of our favorite personal marks.

Just because someone likes the same AWESOME not-boy-band as you doesn’t mean that they won’t one day throw your friendship away over snagging $15 from you. (I’m over it, I swear, it’s just still shocking.) Just because a family has a beautifully organized home and a weekly board games night doesn’t mean things are a-ok. And just because someone dresses their three year old exclusively in floofy pink dresses doesn’t mean they’re always wrong.

OK, maybe the dresses are wrong.

How clean is your house? Can we use scaling?

5 06 2012

As we social workers know, all problems can be solved by red wine more paperwork. Are we not addressing culture enough? Ok, we’ll do a special cultural note once a quarter. Is there a problem getting kids’ attendance records every marking period? Add a checklist to each file! It’s never failed. (Except for all those times it’s failed.)

At some point, it was decided, probably by a cranky auditor, that we weren’t focusing enough on safety in the home. As in, the physical environment. Food in the home? Appropriate place for everyone to sleep? Any rooms on fire routinely? That should be addressed.

As a result, we got a checklist.

It looks pretty straightforward. At first. But is anything straightforward in social work? No. (Ok, just that question.)

I have a bit of experience in this area, from when I interned working with homebound senior citizens. We always had to assess the home for safety, to ensure that these people really were all right to be living on their own. You would note that they had rails in their shower, one of those toilet booster-seat-type-things that meant that I could never use my Gram’s bathroom, and things like that. If we thought they were at a point when they really ought not be living on their own, there wasn’t all that much we could do, but dammit if we didn’t document.

Some of the same safety factors carry over. There are the standard things we look for, starting with smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Isn’t it great that carbon monoxide detectors are expected now? I mean, my family always had one, because I watched an episode of Rescue 911 when I was eight in which an entire family nearly died, and I camped in the backyard until my dad bought it.

Anyway, these are things that landlords and managment companies are supposed to provide. In my entirely correct and unbiased opinion, landlords and management companies are terrible and seek to do ill, so this isn’t always done. We might need to note that the detectors aren’t present, or aren’t working. Did the family request a new one? Did they check the battery? Well, the ceilings are high and the don’t have a twelve foot ladder. Whose responsibility is this? Wasn’t this just supposed to be a checkmark!?

We move on. Is there adequate space and privacy for everyone?

The short answer, especially if you talk to the teenagers, is no. (Personally, I bitched about my room being too small from the time I could talk until I moved out to share a much smaller college dorm room which I loved.) Most of our kids share rooms. I’ve worked with multiple families who have lived in a one bedroom apartment. So no, space isn’t adequate, and many of the girls I work with lock themselves in the bathroom for a few minutes of privacy.

But you don’t just say that. You talk about how the family makes “good use of their space” and throw in the magic words “bunk beds.” The place looks a bit like a Dickensian orphanage, but everyone has a place to sleep, and what else are they supposed to do?

Then we get on the the trickiest question. “Is the home neat and clean?”

Well, by whose standards? If my boyfriend were judging, the answer would just be yes. Every time. Perhaps a “maybe” if there the dishwasher was overflowing with dirty clothes. If it were my grandmother, it would be “absolutely not,” every time, because she would just know that you hadn’t really vacuumed under the furniture.

For me, it depends on the day. I usually think if how my apartment looks. If I’ve just gone on a cleaning spree, I might judge a bit more harshly. Why didn’t you dust your TV screen, eh? Mine is positively shiny. If I’m in that phase where I’m trying and failing to maintain the cleaning spree, I’m more sympathetic. Yeah, I know how annoying it is to keep putting every single thing in its place, every single time. If I’m at a point where I keep coming up with excuses not to put away my clean laundry, or turn on the vacuum, I write that the client’s home looks lovely, hoping to hide my shame.

It’s always relative, and it’s always about how people manage. When I worked with seniors, we had some borderline hoarders. This was before that horrible TV show where they’re always finding dead roosters in people’s homes, but I did encounter stacks of newspapers that I’m fortunate I wasn’t crushed beneath. If a person was really unsafe, then of course we’d do what we could to address that. But a lot of our job was to figure out how they made it work. They set up pathways that they stuck to, their kids came over once a week and left with garbage bags full of old junk, and the elderly parents allowed it on the condition that they weren’t told what was taken.

It’s all about the story. Maybe the home is super clean, with nothing out of place. You can’t even tell kids live here! Oh, maybe that’s not the best. One of the moms I worked with prided herself on keeping up her apartment, until one week it was such a disaster that even I judged. It got us talking about what was going on with her, and the fact that she was having a hard time with her depression again. That’s the thing–it was about what a messy house meant to her, rather than what it meant to me.

“Is the home neat and clean?” is a loaded question that I’ll never be able to answer properly, at least not by ticking one of two boxes. Filling out a checklist like that makes a lot of us feel judgmental, or like we’ve been handed a copy of “Social Work for Dummies.” And it can be this way, if you let it. Those kind of forms, lame as they are, really are not the worst starting off point, though. Everything in social work is about drawing out that narrative. I’m not just going to count how many bedrooms you have. The kids and I will talk about what sharing is like and how they manage it. I’m not just going to check for window guards, we’re also going to talk about what safety means to you and if your landlord is as big a jerk as mine.

Yeah, it takes me a long time to get those assessment forms done.

Chester, this is the last time I’m gonna tell you…

1 09 2011

There’s a very awkward, complicated problem that comes with being an adult who works with children. I bet a lot of you can already guess what it is.

My parents tell stories about growing up in the 1950s and 60s. A nice guy in their neighborhood who used to take them to the World’s Fair for the afternoon, helping adult neighbors who didn’t have children around their houses, that kind of thing. No one batted an eye.

There was the one creepy guy on the corner, who all the children were instructed to run past, but other than that, sexual abuse wasn’t really a thought. Fortunately it worked out all right for them. The well-meaning adults in their lives were just that. But of course, as awareness of sexual abuse rose, it became apparent that a lot of people aren’t to be trusted with children, and they are not always the people you think.

We’ve kind of swung the other way in our culture. From, “You want to take my kid to the movies? And  you’re buying? Hell yeah, do whatever he says, kiddo” to “Don’t post photos of my child on Facebook, the pedophiles are in the computer and they’re tracking her!”

It’s worst for men…what kind of guy wants to work with kids? I mean, there must be something going on. That’s so often the first reaction, and it’s repulsive. Plenty of men want to work with kids for the same reasons women want to work with kids–kids are funny, they’re cute, and it’s nice to think that you can make an impact on someone who is still impressionable.

But this is still a part of the job. It starts at the very beginning. (A very good place to start.) When I was hired at Anonymous Agency, I was required to undergo a background check and get fingerprinted. Curiously, I did not have to do this when I was an intern. At my previous job, at a neighborhood youth center, we required this of interns and all employees. Good thing, because we did once have a convicted sex offender come in looking for work.

Dude, your picture is on the internet. Are you kidding me?

Given that scare, I’m on board with the policy. This is what we do. They’re also not just looking for sex offenders, there are a lot of restrictions, including a history with child protective services, that could make on ineligible for certain jobs with kids.

Then there are the discussions in staff meetings. Is it ever OK to be in a room alone with a child? What about during a home visit? Do you go into a child’s bedroom? What if a teenager is home alone when you show up for a visit?

The assumption isn’t that anyone we work with would want to hurt a child. It’s that you want to avoid the appearance of anything that could possibly be “misinterpreted.” And that’s all anyone will say. Because people get uncomfortable.

I’ve had it happen, on numerous occasions, that I’ve gone to a home and found a teenager there alone. The kids are usually polite and welcoming. There’s no hard and fast rule, so we’re always told to use our judgment. Recently, I went to an apartment and found a sixteen year old girl at home with her twelve year old sister. I stood in the doorway, we talked for a few minutes, and I left a note for their mother. Last Christmas, I tried to do a home visit and found a sixteen year old boy, who seemed to be permanently leering, at home alone. In his eagerness to answer the door, he neglected to put on a shirt. When he asked if I wanted to come in, despite his mother being out, I politely declined.

Actually, I shouted, “NO I DO NOT WISH TO COME IN, WITNESSES, CAN YOU HEAR ME?” and put an SJ-shaped hole in the front door.

That neighborhood youth center that I started at was actually a Catholic organization, which meant that they had to meet certain requirements set by the diocese. One of these was a rather strange day long training that involved videos and discussion. (I won’t say the name here, but I’m sure some people are familiar with it.)

It was well-intended, I thought, given the Catholic church’s history ongoing bullshit on the subject. (I came to feel that they were primarily trying to cover the church’s ass, and to point out that just because there was an epidemic of child abuse and a cover-up of epic proportions within the church, doesn’t mean that all pedophiles are priests. Because that’s what’s important.) The videos were designed to teach us how to spot sexual abuse, and how to avoid doing anything that might lead to false accusations.

Some of the suggestions made sense. Avoid being alone with one child. Meet with kids in rooms with windows.

Some of them seemed to have been written by someone who had never met a child.

“Don’t touch the kids.”
OK, when I have to pull a splinter out of a crying five year old’s foot, I’ll just pat her on the head with a roll of paper towels. And I’ll tell them all that I’m made of hot lava.

“Don’t help the kids change.”
If I could avoid it, I would, but we had 1.) low-functioning autistic children who were not yet toilet trained and 2.) a pre-k program. Parents, I know those little belts, suspenders, and overalls are just adorable, but if you don’t want your child’s pre-k teacher having anything to do with their pants, stick to elastic waistbands.

“Don’t have favorites.”
Well, I can’t help it if some kids are way more awesome than others.

Then there was the “spotting child abusers,” which supposedly contained stories from actual victims of sexual abuse. Interestingly enough, they hadn’t managed to find one child who had been abused by a priest. Strange, because I know many who are willing to say quite a lot about the church. They went through all the usual hullabaloo, informing us that child molesters are not “strangers,” lurking in the bushes, waiting to snatch your children. They’re people you know, people you trust. (Like…priests?)

They then showed a video of a concerned mother watching a greasy-haired man, dressed like a longshoreman, approaching her children in a playground, next to some shrubbery.

I really recommend these videos for home entertainment.

I’m glad that we’re vigilant about child abuse, of course. But it makes me sad to see what a part of my job it’s become. Not assessing for abuse in families I work with, but making sure no one thinks that my coworkers or I am up to no good.

Paranoia doesn’t help anyone. It leads to panic, and good people, men especially, being afraid to work with children because they don’t want the suspicion and hassle. And that doesn’t make anyone safer.

Dr. Dolittle failed out of social work school

2 05 2011

We all got into social work to work with people. Strange choice for a misanthrope like myself, but it happened. I signed on to work with all sorts of people–young, old, mentally ill, violent, funny, pleasant, everything in between.

I was ready for all sorts of possibilities. I was not, however, prepared for the role that animals would play in my work.

Animals are a part of people’s lives. Pets, trips to the zoo, Animal Planet marathons (I just need to know what those guys on Whale Wars are up to, don’t judge me) whatever it may be. If they’re a part of people’s lives, they’re a part of our work.

Lots of people have dogs, but often don’t seem to think ahead when getting one. Hint: if you bring home a small plant, animal, or person, it’s probably going to get bigger. I had the misfortune of conducting a home visit one afternoon when a family came to the realization that the cute puppy they had brought into their one bedroom apartment had reached a weight of 65 pounds and was still growing.

Never again will I allow myself to be subjected to children crying over their dad bringing their ginormous dog back to the shelter. You can’t make me.

Nobody worry. The following month the family brought in a ferret and a parakeet. The parakeet provides a lovely background screeching to our visits. And the ferret’s interactions with the family’s smaller dog gives mom plenty of opportunity to explain the birds and the bees (ferrets and the spaniels?) to the kids.

Incidentally, ferret–no means no.

For some reason, my clients either want massive dogs or tiny ones. There’s no in between. I’ve always been a fan of big dogs. Growing up I had a husky/collie/retriever mix. That, to me, was a “real” dog. Yappy chihuahuas were not.

However, I have kind of fallen in love formed a bond with a Pomeranian named Paris. She seems like exactly the type of dog I’d normally hate, but I’ve grown accustomed to her face. She has the misfortune of living with a three and five year old who have not yet learned that Paris does not like to wear hats and is too small to be ridden. As a result, she seems to be plotting a great escape. I have to check my purse before leaving any visit, for fear that she’s trying to make a break for it. Probably to start a better life. In Canada.

Pit bulls are the ultimate status symbol. Walking a pit bull (usually male, never fixed) on a chain through the neighborhood is a great way to say, “I’m a real asshole man.”

Pit bulls are a touchy subject for people. Personally, I adore them. They’re beautiful dogs, and I’ve known incredibly sweet, well-behaved pit bulls. In the Bronx, though, people aren’t usually trying to break the bad reputation put bulls have gotten. That bad reputation seems to be what makes them such symbols of bad-assery.

As a result, people have these dogs in tiny apartments, hit them in public, and, all too often, breed them for fighting.

Two families on my caseload who have had a child attacked by their pet pit bull. A four year old was bit on the face after jumping on the dog. Somehow, she got away with only needing one stitch, and is perfectly fine now. The dog belonged to mom’s sister’s boyfriend’s, and is now out of the apartment.

More recently, I went to a home for an initial home visit, and found myself faced with three full grown pit bulls. They were gorgeous, and two came over to say hello immediately. The biggest one, though, was tied to a doorknob. The three year old was kind enough to inform me, “That one bites. Hard.”

When her sixteen year old sister hobbled in on crutches and showed me two holes in her leg, I was inclined to agree.

Some opt for cats, which seems to be a more sensible option given the realities of NYC apartment living. They’re also less likely to do bodily harm. Or so one would think. I was once meeting with a mom and daughter in the bedroom they rented on the second floor of a house. While discussing the daughter’s school enrollment, I realized that I had been shot in the back with eight tiny darts.

Actually, it turned out that they had gotten a kitten and neglected to tell me. And that kitten liked to climb. I was able to scrape myself off the ceiling after a few moments, and I think was made a better person for it.

Until the mom thought that it would be a good idea to bring said kitten into the office in her purse. Spoiler alert: it was not.

Then there are the animals no one welcomes into their home. After spending a half hour in one apartment, the five year old girl volunteered to show me her bedroom.

“I love your princess sheets!”
“Thanks. Mommy got them for me after we sprayed for the bugs.”

The bugs…oh, the bedbugs. Shit, is my purse on the couch?! Sorry, I have to run!

“What is that noise? Is someone in the bedroom?”
“Oh no, that’s just Mickey.”

Mickey? Is that a boyfriend? Oh, no, that’s a cuter way of saying, “we have giant rats who live in the sofa you’re sitting on, and they no longer fear man.”

Jumping up and running would have been rude. So I sat there and completed our visit, jumping and shrieking whenever I saw a “little animal.” That’s what my former landlord who didn’t want to pay for an exterminator called them.

Accepting people’s pets, welcome or unwelcome, is just another part of accepting our clients.

As long as they don’t try to eat us. Hungry pit bulls? Climby-cats? Sexually assaulted ferrets? I repeat my social work mantra: it could always be worse.

I refuse to believe that TV rots my brian

18 04 2011

Home visits, as we’ve learned from this blog and others, are full of opportunity. Opportunity to learn how the family functions in their natural habitat, to see how they interact when not in a stuffy office, and to get a better sense of how they live.

They are also an opportunity for social workers to embarrass themselves, fail at counseling, and suffer awkward moments.

Often, television is a part of this.

I’m not one of those people who claims to not watch television, or thinks all TV is mind-numbing. Some of it is (that’s the point) but some of it is great. Dexter? Modern Family? Glee? 

Sexy serial killers, blended families, high school rejects who sing…we’re not going to analyze my choices today.

Point is, I’ve always liked TV. I wish I had time to watch more of it. Home visits often give me occasion to do this. Personally, I would find it to be socially awkward if someone came to visit me and my imaginary children, perhaps with a prepared list of topics to discuss, and I couldn’t be bothered to turn the TV off.

I once had a woman turn the volume up. I kind of had to respect that.

Never one to let an opportunity for assessment slip by, I try to take what I can from what people choose to do, in terms of television viewing, when I’m visiting. If they leave it on and only focus on me during commercials, I assume I’m not high on their list of priorities. If they’re so absorbed in Snookie’s latest drama that they don’t notice their two year old trying to cook pasta, it might be time to place a phone call to the hotline.

What they choose to watch is also, always interesting. As I’ve mentioned previously, I love children’s television. And the number one show is always Yo Gabba Gabba. One of my young moms often has it on when I visit, to distract her two toddlers so we can talk.

But what keeps us from getting distracted?

“OK, so you received the eviction notice…is that Jack Black?”
“Yes, I think I can get emergency housing because of the DV history…oh, wait SocialJerk, I love when the kids do, ‘I like to dance!'”
“Right, so we’ve got a back up plan, and…I’m sorry, the orange guy makes me nervous.”

Another time, I was visiting a single mother and her teenage son. Naturally, the Tyra Banks Show was on.

The topic? “Women with two vaginas!”

That’s right. Not only is this a thing, but a former model, who now hosts a reality show in which skinny girls fight one another in a house wallpapered with photos of said former model, was able to assemble an entire panel. An entire panel of women with two vaginas. An entire panel of women with two vaginas willing to discuss this on daytime television.

No wonder that woman won an Emmy.

“So your son’s attendance has improved.”
“Yeah, he’s doing well, but…women with two vaginas? That’s what they’re talking about?!”
“Yeah, that’s interesting. Back to your son…”
“Oh no, we missed it! You need to Google this when you get back to the office! Unbelievable.”
“I don’t think I should Google ‘two vaginas Tyra Banks’ from my work computer.”

At least those scenarios were brief.

A few months back, I did an emergency visit at 7:30 at night. A mother I work with had just been reported for neglect. I went to the apartment she was staying in with her sister, to meet with her and the new ACS worker.

My client said she was on her way home with her children. She called a couple of times to confirm. This is why we waited.

Me, an ACS worker I had never met, and a client’s angry sister. For an hour.

My client’s angry sister allowed us to wait in the apartment. She had a right to be angry. Her sister’s vindictive ex had called in an unnecessary case against her as well. So while she was nice enough to allow us to wait, she wasn’t going to chat with us.

OK. That’s fine. So she turned on the TV.

To Gigli.

Has anyone else ever seen that? Some probably feel like they have, after hearing about it being the worst film of all time so much. That movie destroyed lives and careers. But I don’t think many people are actually familiar with it.

First of all, it’s pretty deserving of its reputation. It’s a giant pile of shit. Jennifer Lopez plays a lesbian who ends up sleeping with Ben Affleck. Hey, Ben Affleck, maybe do one movie where lesbians can resist you, OK?

There’s something about them kidnapping an autistic kid, and the mafia, and blah blah mind-numbing blah.

But the real emotional weight of the film is carried by J.Lo, when she does yoga and tells Ben Affleck why she loves vagina so darn much.

That’s almost a direct quote. She goes into detail. And she uses the word “pussy” quite liberally.

Did I mention that I was sitting with an ACS worker and a client’s sister, two virtual strangers? For an hour? The only thing that broke the awkward silence was my occasional, “Well, perhaps we should try calling your sister again. Wherever could she be?”

I talk like a grandma when I’m nervous. “Heavens to Betsy, let’s move along before this former Fly Girl recites another ode to oral pleasure!”

So yeah. TV is fun. It’s good in moderation, and when it’s thoughtful and well-done. But there is a time and a place for everything.

Except for Gigli. Never Gigli.

Soapbox, high horse, whatever you call it, here I am.

11 04 2011

I’ve hesitated to write about the Marchella Pierce case, in which two ACS workers are being charged with criminally negligent homicide. I’m not a lawyer. I’m not well-versed enough in the law to decide what constitutes manslaughter vs. criminally negligent homicide vs. murder, first or second degree whatever. No matter how much Law & Order I’ve watched.

But I am a social worker. So there are some things I can comment on.

This was the case of a medically fragile four year old, who weighed fifteen pounds at the time of her death. (I weighed fifteen pounds at about four months.  True, my family produces fatty hearty babies, but still. At four years old, that’s bad.) ACS was involved with the family due to the mother’s drug history and the child’s medical condition. Mom called the police after her daughter had been unresponsive for about an hour. The child had marks that indicated she had been tied to the bed and beaten. She died in September of 2010.

All around, a tragedy. Of course. And, of course, people are looking for someone to blame.

What’s unique here is not that the child protective agency is being blamed. That happens whenever a child dies from abuse or neglect. What’s unique is that they are being held criminally responsible.

In six months, from March through August, when the ACS caseworker was meant to be conducting biweekly visits with the family, he entered two contacts in the city database. One was a phone call in March. The other was an (unsuccessful) attempted home visit in June.

After the child’s death, he and his supervisor miraculously recalled five other contacts he had with the family, and entered those. What we ethical fucking human beings social workers call, “falsification of records.”

I decided to write about this topic after reading many other people’s reactions. One concern that’s been brought up many times is that fear of criminal prosecution will keep people out of the profession.

Guess what? I’m ok with that. This job is serious. I am not being dramatic when I say that child protective workers have children’s lives in their hands. This man did not take his responsibilities seriously. This child was at risk of death. This isn’t a case of hindsight being 20/20. This isn’t a situation in which no one called the abuse in because they didn’t want to get involved. This was a malnourished child who had visible bruises and rope marks on her body, who had a team of people assigned to protect her.

They failed.

Some people say that the system failed. I’m not often trying to defend our child welfare system. It’s deeply flawed. But this is not an example of that. This is an example of deeply flawed workers.

Six months. Without seeing this child. An eighth of her life.

We hear about these workers being overwhelmed. They’re claiming that they were so overwhelmed and busy that they forgot to enter all of the contacts with the family, but they did, in fact, see them.

Sorry, but that’s bullshit.

The opinion piece I linked to above talks about the need to appreciate the improvements that ACS has made, especially since the death of Nixzmary Brown. Caseloads are smaller, they’re trying to recruit better workers (they make more money than I do, with less education), and more referrals are being made to quality preventive programs.

They’ve got a long way to go, but these points are true. New York City child protective workers have an average caseload of ten. People in other parts of the country would kill for that. I would kill for that. Yes, it’s a difficult, thankless job, often dangerous, with crazy hours. But it’s doable. I have met a lot of CPS workers that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, but I’ve also met some wonderful ones. CPS workers who are dedicated, knowledgeable, and put children first. The idea that this worker only had time to enter his contacts after the death of this child is ludicrous.

Sometimes people fall behind. There is a chain of command, supervisors on top of supervisors, for this very reason. Someone is looking over your shoulder, insuring that things are getting done as they’re supposed to.

Meaning that the supervisor in this scenario failed miserably as well.

Falsification of records happens. It should be unheard of, but it’s not. I’ve seen it. I’ve reported it. And I’ve seen that worker kept on their job. It’s inexcusable. It’s the one thing (well, one of very few things) my supervisor tells us she will absolutely not defend.

Because this is what it can lead to.

What can we learn from this?

  1. We need to take our jobs seriously. Social workers, child protective workers, investigators, preventive workers…we can be the last hope for a child in this type of home.
  2. We can’t defend others just because they share our profession. Our first instinct is so often to stand up for our fellow workers. But in cases of ethical violations, especially when they lead to tragedy, we owe it to the profession not to do this.
  3. Supervisors cannot become so overwhelmed or detached that they ignore their responsibility. Even if their direct contact with clients is limited.
  4. DON’T FALSIFY YOUR RECORDS. It will never be worth it. Some people are told to do this by their supervisors. Some people feel pressure to do this in order to make their numbers. But it’s inexcusable. There aren’t a lot of things I will say that about, but this is one.

So I don’t see this case as an indictment of ACS, or the social work profession. I see it as an indictment of two people who failed to do their jobs, which contributed to the death of a child. A child who was clearly at risk, and should have been protected.

A child who would probably be alive today, if those smaller caseloads had been taken advantage of and those stricter requirements followed.

It’s something we all need to keep in mind.

Honesty is the best policy. Right?

7 04 2011

I’ve written about my love of progress notes before. Truly, nothing gives me greater joy than reliving a session, remembering who was there, why we met, what I planned to discuss, and how everything was derailed what was accomplished. I know I speak for all of us.

Sometimes, though, I feel like I’m being dishonest. Reading my notes, or the notes of other workers at the agency, you get the picture of a calm, collected social worker, in control of the situation at all times.

I don’t lie. I just don’t use direct quotes. (I don’t have to do process recordings ever again, and you can’t make me.) I don’t include my hesitations, my random stutters, or perhaps the occasional look of fear.

What would an honest progress note look like?

“SocialJerk conducted a scheduled home visit with the family. Visits have been scheduled the past two weeks, but no one was at home for these. This visit was conducted in sheer desperation and with little hope for a positive outcome.

SocialJerk apologized for being late, which the family thought was weird because she was supposed to be there at 4:30, and arrived at 4:33. SocialJerk needs to chill.

The children were appropriately groomed and dressed, for the most part. Teen 1 is doing some kind of experiment with his hair, and let’s just say it’s not working. Braids were his friend. Toddler 2 didn’t have pants on, but SocialJerk supports freedom of expression within the home. Also, no marks or bruises were observed, except for “Bitch” written in (magic, not permanent) marker on Teen 2’s hand. Eh, kids are weird. Mom was in jammies, which is a little odd considering it was so late, but she’s grown and can do what she wants. Also, they were Tweety Bird PJs, which is kind of cool.

The home was neat and clean. Well, by SocialJerk’s standards. You should see that bedroom. SocialJerk needs to keep up on her laundry, but it’s hard to always have enough quarters. SocialJerk digresses…

The TV was on. Mom was kind enough to reduce the blaring volume, but left it on Oprah. SocialJerk was mesmerized by the topic of suburban housewife prescription drug dealers, and had to request that it be turned off. This did not go over well. SocialJerk pretended not to notice.

We discussed the children’s absentee fathers. Mom tends to blame them for the teens acting out. Mom also blamed the teens falling in with the wrong crowd. SocialJerk attempted to introduce the idea that Teen 1 and Teen 2 are the wrong crowd that the other parents are blaming their kids’ bad behavior on. However, SocialJerk was distracted by Teen 2 calling Teen 1 a “fucking retard” and Teen 1 threatening to set Teen 2 on fire. SocialJerk had a moment of panic and considering making a break for it out an open window. Cooler heads prevailed and SocialJerk reminded the teens of our anger management techniques. Teens clearly humored weirdo SocialJerk, which is enough for her.

Toddler 1 tripped over the carpet. Teen 1 and SocialJerk laughed. Toddler 1 insisted that it was” not funny,” while SocialJerk pointed out that it was, in fact, a little funny.

Wacky Neighbor popped in and spoke rapid fire Spanish, clearly not wanting SocialJerk to follow. SocialJerk nearly got a contact high from his jacket. Wacky Neighbor left, and Mom apologized. She then took a phone call. SocialJerk enjoyed her Notorious B.I.G. ringtone. Brooklyn represent.

We got back on track and discussed Teens 1 and 2 and their attendance. They missed two days last week. We celebrated this as a victory, which SocialJerk secretly felt sad about. Teen 2 then said she had something she wanted to share with SocialJerk. SocialJerk was terrified that she was going to be presented with a positive pregnancy test, until Teen 2 produced a science test with an 86 at the top. SocialJerk praised Teen 2 as if she had cured polio. Mom rolled her eyes and SocialJerk encouraged her to be proud of Teen 2, while thinking that Mom was kind of being an asshole. SocialJerk then remembered the time Teen 2 stole Mom’s credit card, and cut her a break.

Next steps- SocialJerk will plan to see the family in the office next week. SocialJerk will call in vain to remind them, but their phones will be disconnected. SocialJerk will be tempted to Facebook Teen 1 or 2, but recognizes that would be inappropriate. SocialJerk will ultimately conduct more home visits than necessary, to ensure that contact is made, and will question the therapeutic value of her work, which will lead to a personal existential crisis.”

I think it could work.

I don’t know whether the weather will improve.

21 03 2011

Friday was a magical day here in New York. No, the Mets didn’t do something good (I said magical, not miracle). But we did have borderline record-setting beautiful weather. 78 degrees and sunny. For those outside the US, that would be around 25 degrees. Doesn’t sound quite as impressive, but there you go.

I had the foresight to request the day off (did I mention that it was also the day after St. Pat’s?) so I got to spend the day roaming the city. In New York, those first gorgeous days send everyone the same message–get half naked and get to the park!

Clients aren’t exempt from these urges. When it’s finally beautiful out, who wants to spend the day cooped up in a counseling office? Kids want to hit up the playground, parents take their frighteningly untrained pit bull for a walk, teens want to walk around in packs of ten for some reason.

So we blame it one the lovely weather, and chase our clients down.

Then it gets to be July and August. 100 degrees, hot and muggy. Well, who wants to come see their social worker then? It’s time to try to catch the shuttle bus to the pool, drink a 40 on the stoop, run through an open fire hydrant.

Still, it’s the weather’s fault. So we keep on chasing.

Sometimes it rains. Who wants to go out in that? Little known fact: a majority of my clients are made up of a combination of sugar and salt. They melt in the rain. Also, umbrellas do not exist in the Bronx, so that simply isn’t an option. The same goes for snow. And who wants to go outside when it’s so damn cold?

I’ve gotten all of these excuses from my clients, generally all in the interest of the kids. “It’s too cold to take the baby out.” “I don’t want to take the kids out in the rain, you know my oldest has asthma.” “My mother’s going to take them to the pool, it’s so hot outside.” “I don’t take my kids out in the rain.”

That last one is a direct quote. I’m sorry, but I’m allergic to ridiculous.

The weather is one of those many variables that hugely impacts out work. I can’t help getting a little cranky when someone calls to say, “Oh, I don’t think I can bring the kids, it’s so nasty out. Would you mind coming to the house instead?” Certainly. Upon obtaining my license, I was also made weather-proof. It’s one more thing that social workers and boots have in common.

As much as I try not to let such things impact how I feel about my clients, walking to someone’s house in freezing rain, or sweltering heat, and finding that they’re not there and didn’t have the courtesy to call…well, I’m only human.

“The courtesy to call” is something I wish people had a little more of. I don’t know exactly what the problem is. We make an appointment, you come to it. I think that’s a pretty basic part of being a person and living in society. It’s weird. If I had an appointment as a kid, I was going. If I broke a bone on the way over, one of my parents was calling. Just not showing up wasn’t an option. It simply was not done.

Of course things come up. Kids get sick, babysitters cancel, and I have had more than one person call to tell me that they have diarrhea (hint: excuses don’t necessarily have to be specific.) A phone call goes a really long way.

Just the other day, a fairly new client did have the courtesy to call. Unfortunately, his appointment was at 4 pm, and he called around 6. His mother told me this, and also explained that it was pretty much my fault for not having been there. I explained that my work day ended at 5, but I was there until 5:45. “Well he tried to call.” If a woman has not learned by age 42 that calling two hours after a missed appointment is not sufficient effort, then I don’t think there’s anything I can do.

I try to work with people. I explain that I have other families I need to see, and I can use a cancelled appointment for one of them, if I know said appointment is going to be cancelled. I try to make people understand that if they show up hours or days late for their scheduled sessions, I might be unavailable, and that it’s nothing personal.

I also put forth the notion that we live in New York, not San Diego. Hibernating when it is too hot, cold, or wet only leaves us with about twelve days in which we can leave our homes. Sorry, but I’ve got things to do.

Except, I’m not sorry. I really do have things to do. And even though the NYC weather seems to be working on a bipolar diagnosis (yeah, it’s kind of snowing now) life goes on.

Even though I’m freezing.

Please stand clear of the closing doors. Before SocialJerk makes you.

14 03 2011

Mattress commercials urge you to spend up and buy a comfy bed, because you spend a third of your life sleeping. Between living in New York, and being a social worker, I should probably invest in a Tempurpedic subway seat, as that seems to be where I spend the other two thirds.

If I could perfect a social work teleporter, I’d get so much more done.

I take two subways and a bus to get to work. Then I travel to home visits, school meetings, and ACS ambushes conferences via train and bus as well. They used to pay for cabs for visits that were particularly far away, but that’s no more. I once had a family that moved to Staten Island, and I had to do a home visit before we could transfer the case. That was particularly exciting, because I got to take a bus to a train to a boat to a bus.

I’ve gotten to know the public transportation system better than I’ve ever wanted to. I realize I’m fortunate to live in New York. Sure, trains are dirty, the schedules get a little crazy over the weekends, and the fares are increasing to a point that I suspect my monthly Metrocard will soon involve some sort of blood tribute. But at least our trains don’t stop running over night. (Boston, I’m looking in your direction.)

Some, though, would say that my close affiliation with public transit has started to drive me a little mad.

When I’m on the bus, I feel like a total chump. Am I the only person in the Bronx who actually pays their fare? I stand near the driver, scrambling through my oversized entirely necessary purse to get my Metrocard out. Everyone else, young and old alike, sneaks on through the back door. Some even get on in the front, pretend to look for change for a moment, then shrug and sit down. So many people seem to think that the $2.25 was not a fee, but a suggested donation, like at the museum.Perhaps it’s residual guilt from my Catholic upbringing, but I just can’t imagine.

It’s not any better on the subways. Unaccompanied teenagers are routinely ticketed for jumping the turnstile, that’s true. But children with their parents duck under the turnstile unnoticed.

Infants and toddlers in strollers, anyone small enough to sit on their parent’s lap or be held, are not expected to pay. But some of these kids riding for free are filling their mothers in on their big day at junior high while sipping a latte. My mother still considers me her baby. If I’m traveling with her, will the MTA consider me that as well?

This wouldn’t be so bad if the eleventeen year old fare jumpers were sitting in a lap and not taking up space. But no. Somewhere along the lines, the expectation shifted from giving seats to the elderly, pregnant, or disabled, to giving seats to seven year olds.

When I took started taking the public bus to high school, I had a daily routine. My friends and I would get on, sit down for one stop, then be booted out of our seats by old ladies. I have not been allowed to sit in an actual seat at a family event, on a routine basis, since getting out of a high chair. The younger generation is expected to allow the older to sit. It’s a little show of respect. (In return, we get to imitate the aunts’ accents for the amusement of friends, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Now I see middle aged people giving up their seats for elementary school kids, while the parents smile and nod. It’s quite puzzling. And yet, when the most pregnant woman I have ever seen (she might have been crowning) got on a crowded train recently, the only person willing to give up their seat was a less pregnant woman.

And then there’s the entertainment.

If you live in New York, or, I imagine, any city with a large system of public transportation, you’ve had the experience of almost getting kicked in the head by a dance crew of 15 year olds who do back flips down the aisle  and swing around poles. It’s entirely normal for an entire mariachi band to enter a train car and play between stops.

Some entertainment is unintentional. Just the other day I got to listen to a street preacher, who started off extoling the virtues of love, and gradually worked himself into a frenzy over the fact that, “You people don’t want to hear about HELLLLL??! Because you’re going to HELLLLL!!!!”

I switched cars, but he followed me. Someone must have given him my name.

I have seen adults clipping their (finger)nails, mothers cleaning out their children’s ear wax, quick diaper changes, and a bull dog in a child’s stroller.

That last one was kind of awesome.

Overall, public transportation is kind of my home away from home. Come to think of it, the subway system is an actual home for many people. So let’s try to act like it. Walk on the right, and just be considerate.

You wouldn’t clip your nails in someone else’s house, now would you?

This is what you get for lack of IT.

17 12 2010

All right, loyal readers, friends, Mom. We’re due for an update, but computers are down office-wide. So this is my first ever post coming at you from my phone (hint-it was the Droid I was looking for.) I apologize in advance for any autocorrect errors that might turn participants into presents, or groups into gropes.

But it got me thinking-this is a pretty regular occurrence. What else happens so often in this field that you can pretty much count on it? Add to that the fact that we’ve got our agency Christmas party this afternoon, and I saw only one option-SocialJerk drinking game. (Completely different from ghetto bingo.)

Let’s get crunked up.

  1. Computers go down- take one shot.
  2. Computers go down during the only free time you blocked off for writing notes- take two shots.
  3. Client is late-one shot.
  4. Client shows up at a completely made up time-one shot.
  5. Client is right on time-call me and I’ll take you out for a drink, so you can teach me.
  6. Distressed coworker calls the office for directions, after getting lost on the way to an initial home visit-one shot. If you manage not to laugh at them, treat yourself to a beer.
  7. A public assistance or child protective specialist is rude to you- a shot, plus a beer to share with the cranky worker. Maybe that will help?
  8. A parent or referral source seems to be under the impression that you have magic powers and will “fix” difficult children- a six pack should do the trick
  9. You get a nervous call from your mother, because you forgot she follows you on Twitter and posted about being harassed in a sketchy neighborhood- a bottle of wine, to be split with Mom.
  10. A little kid cracks you up, by saying something hilarious like “I’m the best!” or “I love marine life.”-the joy of a child’s laughter should be enough. If not, take a shot.
  11. You find out you can still be surprised- have a Flaming Dr. Pepper. (This was a SocialJerk college specialty, email me if you need details.)

All right. Computers are back up and running, so it’s time for this Jerk to be on her way. Happy drinking, and try not to slur in your progress notes!