‘Tis better to give than it is to etcetera.

7 12 2010

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

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

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

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

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

Ugh. Right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poppable collars, because infants can be preppy too.

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

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

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

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

Junk food + TV – abuse=I leave you alone

11 11 2010

When I started working at my current agency, I inherited a case from a worker who was running away and leaving a social worker shaped hole in our front door offered a position at an agency closer to her home. I worked with the family for about a year. The kids were living with their grandmother, because their mother’s dedication for crack made everyday parenting tasks, like bringing the kids to school, rather difficult to accomplish.

Grandma’s house wasn’t perfect, but it was certainly adequate. The kids were traumatized, but they were getting mental health services. So I filed the necessary paper work, and stepped out. As far as I concerned, this particular family’s case had been closed.

Through the magic of bureaucratic databases, I was proven wrong.

The case was still considered open, because CPS refused to step out. (Because they were involved initially, they get final say. Bastards.)

I can hear it now. “Surely, SocialJerk, if a child protective specialist refused to step out, there must have been some serious safety concerns! That grandmother must have been at least borderline unfit.”

Um, how dare you doubt me. Have I ever steered you wrong?

When we finally got a phone call through to the the supervisor’s supervisor’s  supervisor (the next stop was Obama. Michelle, not Barack) we were told that there were, indeed, outstanding issues that needed to be addressed.

For one thing, the oldest girl needed new glasses. She had broken her old ones, and they had not been replaced.

As far as I know, this child had not been wandering off into the middle of the street, or putting herself at risk by running into stationary objects. But this was considered serious enough to warrant involvement by CPS and a preventive social worker.

It didn’t end there. The younger boy needed more dental work.

I had seen this child weekly. His grandmother had given me notes, documenting many dental appointments. I believe I mentioned elsewhere that I am not, in fact, a dentist. The kids teeth looked fine to me, and the dentist said the same thing. But CPS wasn’t satisfied. Perhaps eight year old boys not having porcelain veneers constitutes neglect?

Here’s the thing–grandma knew how to get these kids the glasses and dental work they needed. The kids had Medicaid, the girl even had a voucher for new glasses. But the grandmother had a lot to take care of, and these two things weren’t terribly high on her list. Ideal? No. But what the hell was I supposed to do about it? I don’t even have a car. I suppose I could sit on the bus with the family for a trip to Lenscrafters, but that doesn’t seem like the best use of anybody’s time.

I’m a social worker. I’m not a babysitter. If this woman didn’t do these things under pressure from ACS and family court, she wasn’t going to do them because I kept up with my weekly home visits. (Honestly, I’m a pleasant houseguest, she really would not have minded.)

There’s also the fact that glasses and teeth are important, but neither of these things compromised the children’s safety. They were otherwise healthy, they went to school, they were happy to be living with their grandmother. They got therapy weekly. If a kid breaking their glasses and going without for a while was reason enough to warrant CPS intervention, I think they’d be even more overwhelmed (and less effective) than they are now.

We see things like this all the time. People raise their kids in ways that we wouldn’t. Does that mean we have the right to step in? It doesn’t fill my black heart with delight to watch a mother feed her three year old Doritos and Windex-blue “juice” for breakfast. I don’t agree with allowing your boyfriend of the week to meet your kids. Watching TV while doing homework makes my skin crawl.

But frankly, those things are none of my business. If something is compromising the kids’ safety, I intervene as appropriate. If some behavior, like not allowing your teenage girl to leave the house unaccompanied, is contributing to the problems that brought a family in for services, I’ll address it.

But it’s not my place to say, “Well, this is how I would raise my imaginary kids! Why aren’t you breastfeeding, ma’am? You owe me an explanation!”

No family is perfect. Including mine. (Mom: just kidding!) Including all families of all social workers. We all have our bad moments, the things we wish we didn’t say, and the things we let our kids get away with. If we had a CPS worker or a social worker observing that, we would probably expect a little lee-way and understanding.

If we wait for perfection, we are going to find those caseloads expanding even more, and length of service growing and growing.

Then again. What the hell do I know?

Let’s count–one! One cranky social worker!

20 09 2010

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television time for children under two.  They prattle on about the need for actual human interaction, developing social skills, and attention spans. (I mean, I watched tons of TV as a kid, and it didn’t affect me…ooh look, a bird!)

This message does not seem to have reached the Bronx. Or if it has, it’s gone excusively to families that I don’t work with.

Do these “pediatricians” even have kids? They’re annoying. They ask questions constantly, and they always want to run around and play. The TV is hypnotic. Turn it on, and they’re zoned out enough to allow for some sweet, sweet Mommy time.

Seriously, it’s hard for a young, single parent to avoid falling into the TV-as-babysitter trap. For one thing, when your first child is a surprise when you’re 16 years old, you don’t usually spend a lot of time googling studies about child development. Your social worker comes in a few years later to do that with you. Also, you’re on your own. You need that break to maintain your own sanity, and sometimes there’s no person available to provide a few hours of structured, robust, educational play.

But we could all do with being a bit more selective.

I have seen my fair share of “Jerry Springer” episodes playing in the background of home visits with a young mother and her four year old. The most distressing part is usually when I am the only one to flinch when Jerry asks, “Were you surprised to find out that your husband had been leading a secret double life as a fluffer?”

Not that I don’t see the appeal. There are times when I stretch out a visit for a bit longer, just to hear Maury tell some deadbeat, “You ARE the father!” And to watch that poor, rejected woman do her classy victory dance.

Then there are parents who limit ther kids’ intake to children’s television. Surely this is better, right?

I will never forget my first visit with the mother of a two and four year old. Their 128 inch flat screen was blaring, when all of a sudden the two year old dove behind me, under the couch cushions, yelling, “No Gabba! No Gabba!”

Apparently, her older sister’s greatest love was this child’s greatest fear. Yo Gabba Gabba.

I can’t imagine where the fear came from. Nope, this looks delightful.

Children’s television has gotten weird. The Yo Gabba Gabba monsters are pretty cute, I’ll give them that. But TV now seems to have gotten away from the idea of providing something for parents and kids to enjoy together. Instead, they’re addictive to kids, and frightening/irritating parents right out of the room.

And what message are they sending, anyway? At least twice a week, I have Dora barking at me during a visit to look for where she left her map. Maybe turn around and put in an effort yourself, Dora. I’m not the one who lost it. A little personal responsibility goes a long way, and it’s time we impart that wisdom on our nation’s pre-schoolers.

But, people tell me, kids love her! And she teaches them to say “feliz cumpleaños!”

Huh. So kids like adorable puppets who teach fun songs and are also bilingual…

Oh right. It’s been done before. Except these guys are doing it right, and have been for over 40 years. Maybe it’s because it’s what I grew up with, but I can’t imagine why anyone else even tries with children’s television. Will anything else ever be that good?

Before you answer, please watch.

It really holds up.

What was his name-o, again?

10 08 2010

That’s right, we’re talking bingo today. It’s not just for stereotypical old people anymore.

As I’ve mentioned once or twice, we spend a lot of time out in the field. Being “out in the field” sounds much nicer than it is. It actually means that we’re walking the streets of the Bronx, not romping in a meadow. All that walking gives a social worker time to think, plan, and get sweaty on the way to a visit. It also gives us all time to notice certain patterns in our beloved Bronx.

This brings us to “Ghetto Bingo.” It works just like regular bingo- get a full line across, up and down, or diagonal checked off, and you win!

But this is a special edition. No “B6” for us. Instead, we at the office compiled a list of things you’re likely to see in the neighborhood, that will earn you a square.

Get honked at by a gypsy cab? That’s one space. A painfully obvious drug deal going on between a guy on the corner and a stopped car? That’s another one. You can also mark down that open fire hydrant, but only once. Checking it off on every block just wouldn’t be fair.

A pit bull on a chain is another available square. A pit bull off a chain means you should start running. (Another option is to push a friend in the path of the oncoming dog. I was once the one being pushed, so I assure you it really does work, though it won’t earn you any good karma.)

Of course, any kind of sexual harrassment is also worth a square. We’re considering a rule that would make it worth two for men. Getting stuck in an elevator in a NYCHA building will not only give you time to mark down everything you’ve seen, but is also a space on your bingo card.

Spotting anyone drinking a 40 before noon is a space. (When I first started working here, there were so many people lined up outside of one store at 7:30 am, I thought that Apple had released a new product. Turns out they were waiting for the liquor store to open. I have since nicknamed them “The Fanboys of 40 oz.”)

The daytime hooker, the rarest of all the prostitute breeds (popularized by “My Name is Earl”) has her own, richly deserved, square on our bingo cards. Lost, frightened tourists desperately seeking out the Bronx Zoo also get a space. Gang fights have their own as well, but have a similar clause to the pit bull square- when gun shots are heard, it’s time to run.

Disclaimer: Bingo cards available by emailing SocialJerk. Play “Ghetto Bingo” at your own risk. Please maintain a sense of humor during play, remembering that this game was developed by people with a deep love and respect for this neighborhood. Also, wear comfortable shoes.

If being a drunk old man is wrong, (you know the rest)

2 08 2010

The most nerve wracking part of starting social work school is finding out your first field placement. The internship.  Free labor for various social service agencies, in exchange for credit and the privilege of writing process recordings. If you’ve never written a process recording, give it a try–remember that hour long conversation you had today? Write it down. Word for word. When you’re done crying, analyze the discussion. How were you feeling? What conversational technique were you utilizing? Have your supervisor dissect it in front of you. Run screaming. Repeat 2-3 times per week.

When I got my field placement information that first year, I cried.

I was to  provide case management services to homebound senior citizens. Essentially I had to go to elderly people’s homes, take their psychosocial information (which is not nearly as wild and crazy as it sounds) and help them to get the services they need.

Does that sound like a party or what?

I wanted to work with kids. It’s what I went into social work to do. It’s what most people I knew went into social work for. I had only ever worked with kids. I knew how to engage them by folding origami cootie-catchers, I knew what they were talking about when they babbled on about SpongeBob and Webkinz. I had patience and was amused by their bizarre behavior.

I didn’t know seniors. I didn’t have grandparents. There was an old man who lived on the corner growing up who yelled at us for walking too fast by his house after school. That was my image of the elderly.

So I was shocked when I loved them.

Old people are hilarious. Especially the “oldest old,” those over 85. Most of them were well aware, and comfortable with the fact that they didn’t have much time left. They took what time they did have to get their affairs in order, spoil their grandchildren, and say and do whatever the hell they way.

Zero filter with these people. “Maybe if you took that ring out of your face you’d have a husband.” “You know you should wear a skirt, show it off a little, trust me, it won’t last forever.” I knew it came from love.

My personal favorite was an 86 year old gentleman, who I only got to meet once. I visited him at the end of my internship year, with my replacement intern in tow for training. We always had to ask the clients about their eating habits. This man told us that he had a light breakfast and lunch, and then “at 5, it’s happy hour.”

I’m sorry, but could you repeat that?

Oh yes. Every evening at 5, this World War II vet broke out the martinis and shrimp cocktail, and had himself a little party.

I could hardly contain my love.

The reaction from my fellow intern was decidedly different.

“I noticed that he said that he has a drink every day. That could be a health risk.”

You’re right. This man survived the Depression, the fuhrer, fifty-two years of marriage and two hip replacements.  It’s time to lecture him on eliminating one of the only remaining joys in his life. I like to think I talked her into a different direction.

I had numerous Holocaust survivors take me through their agonizing histories. I sat with people as they cried over their parents who had died forty years earlier. I saw more class pictures and dance recital videos than I can possibly remember. And, of course, I got to hear amazing stories that cracked me up beyond belief.

I’m back to working with kids (let’s face it, that’s where the millions are) but I hope to return to working with seniors at some point. It’s a field in a lot of need, and I really recommend it. If nothing else, you get to be served cookies on home visits and be a surrogate grandchild every so often.

And you walk away with some great stories.