One never knows

27 10 2011

If I’m writing at midnight, it’s almost never good.

I’ve mentioned before that I used to work in a youth center. I spent two years there before I ran screaming, leaving an SJ shaped hole in the front door. The job appealed to me because I knew I wanted to work in child welfare, but I wasn’t ready to jump straight into graduate school after college.

This place was a neighborhood center with pre-k classes, an afterschool program, and teen groups. I helped out in pre-k, and ran the afterschool program my second year. I was 22 and blown away by the amount of responsibility I was given. It was a massive struggle, but I learned a lot.

I also cried a lot. Ask my dad about those phone calls.

My organizational skills grew. (I still managed to lose a pair of pants this week, but still.) I learned to do more with less. (Twenty dollars to take fourteen kids ice skating? Done!) I developed my scary Teacher Voice. Most importantly, I took on the responsibilities of a supervisor. I helped hire new staff, all of whom had to be approved by the director, and managed them. I delegated not unlike a mofo.

There was one college kid who started volunteering for us as a freshman. We liked him. He was reliable and good with the kids. So we ended up hiring him. My coworker and I advocated strongly for this. (The program was essentially held together with Elmer’s glue, dried macaroni, and dreams, so hires were unusual.)

This was a rare student who wasn’t volunteering to fulfill a course requirement, or for community service hours following a particularly rowdy rugby initiation, or for credit for an internship. He just wanted to volunteer. I had volunteered plenty when I was in college, in similar programs, so this was something I understood.

Of course, when he was hired, he had to jump through all of the hoops. Fingerprinting. Background check.

Nothing came up. So he came on trips with us, helped out in pre-k, coached in the basketball tournament, brought disabled children to the bathroom, supervised swimming trips. All the responsibilities an employee might have.

After jumping through the necessary hoops.

I left over four years ago. I went to social work school and started working at Anonymous Agency. He stayed at the youth center until he graduated.

I got a call from that coworker, who advocated so strongly for this hire with me. She had gotten curious about this kid, after not hearing from him for a while and finding his Facebook page was shut down.

A bit of googling led to her discovering that he’s in jail, convicted of being a part of an international child pornography ring. Further internet sleuthing informed us that he was active in this group while working for us.

This was a guy that we liked. Someone we took out for drinks on his 21st birthday. Who used to noogie me when I was calling for everyone’s attention at staff meeting. Someone who babysat my coworker’s children.

Usually when we hear things like this in the news, we wonder why no one did anything. After it comes out, people always say they had their suspicions. He gave off a creepy vibe, she was too interested in this one kid, he leaned in too close, tried to spend time alone with kids, whatever.

We had no idea. None.

It’s even scarier to think that this is possible. I don’t fancy myself to be some naive shrinking violet who would be oblivious to such signs. I grew up in the Catholic church–there were other people I thought I could trust, when it turned out I couldn’t. I’m not so meek that I would hesitate to go with my gut. I don’t take the safety of children lightly.

But I had no idea. Not even an inkling. He wasn’t creepy, he didn’t make weird comments, he wasn’t even too perfect. Looking back, I’m desperately searching for signs. Something I ignored, something that seemed like nothing at the time. But I can’t think of one thing. Neither can my coworker.

Now we’re trying to figure out if he hurt children we worked with. It seems unlikely, that there wouldn’t have been time, the center was always so open, there was always more than one adult with a child. But then, we never had any suspicions that he was even like this. What else did we miss?

This is all just reminding me of how precious our jobs are. We are trusted with other people’s children. For however long. They are in our care. It’s terrifying to think that we can fail them. That we might be fooled by a sweet nature, cute Joe College looks, a self-deprecating sense of humor, and an ability to fit in with the rest of the staff.

We never know. We never really know. I’ve always been very anti-hysteria, especially when the hysteria-of-choice seems to be directed at men who work with children. Because it isn’t fair.

But this has shaken me in a way I can’t describe. I’m not even entirely sure what the lesson is. At the moment, I feel like it’s “trust no one,” but I know that isn’t possible. We need support. Kids need caring adults in their lives.

But we never know.

But…my mom thinks I’m special.

20 01 2011

My job does not just consist of helping people to get their lives reorganized and back together, or helping them to learn to be better parents. A lot of what I do involves helping people to believe in themselves. Letting them know that they are competent parents, they can succeed in school, and that they deserve good treatment.

A lot of what we’re trying to do is boost people’s self esteem.

You’re special. You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and dog-gone-it, people like you.

Sorry. I had to.

People like to bitch about “the self-esteem movement.” We’re obsessed with making kids feel like they’re unique and talented. Trying is just as meaningful as doing.

We all know that this doesn’t quite fly is “the real world,” as we adults have so narcissistically dubbed our own lives. I’ve tried telling my boss that I really tried to get my service plan done, but it just didn’t happen. The important thing is that I learned something, and I had a lot of fun.
She didn’t go for that. Even when I gave her my drawing of a butterfly.

We’ve all heard the complaints. Everyone gets a trophy, because everyone’s a winner. (Hint: when there are two teams, one loses.) We can’t play dodgeball, because it makes people feel bad. (When I worked at a youth center, I made the kids play. We all need to get our aggression out.) Everyone gets a chance to be Student of the Month. (That used to mean something when I won it! Right?)

We want to raise kids who can tolerate failure and disappointment. Who understand that things won’t always go their way. Who realize that talent is special, and no one has it for everything. That way, our kids don’t become those dreadful people who embarrass themselves on American Idol.

Excessive, meaningless self-esteem breeds arrogance and a sense of entitlement. We can all agree that this is bad.

I don’t deal with that much in my day to day work. Like so many of the latest child-rearing crazes, feeling overly good about oneself seems to go hand in hand with privilege.

The two teen girls’ groups I ran in the past year were focused on improving self-esteem. To hear the girls talk, you wouldn’t think this was necessary. They sounded pretty pleased with themselves.

“Miss, I know I look good.”
“If that boy don’t wanna be with me, it’s his loss.”
“I don’t play with peer pressure. I don’t care what people think.”

Wonderful! We can conclude group! Perhaps these girls can go on some kind of speaking tour, imparting their wisdom to others.

Except, as happens so often with humans, their actions don’t match their statements.

The girls talked a good game. They sounded confident. But their sense of self-worth was superficial. For all they talked about leaving guys who didn’t treat them right, they returned to those boys, or a similar one, week after week.

They don’t care what others think, until they’re the only girl in the group who thinks shoplifting does not sound like a good way to spend the afternoon. Somehow, when security shows up, she’s the one left (quite literally) holding the bag.

The self esteem movement hadn’t reached their parents and grandmothers, who were raising them. When pressed for specifics, these girls could not list one thing that they were good at. And so often, their parents were no help.

One girl’s mother had the common problem of interacting with her daughter as though they were peers.

“You’re looking fat today!”
“I swear, you are my dumbest child.”
“Why are you being such a bitch?”

It was hard to explain to this woman the damage that this kind of talk caused a fifteen year old girl.

“She shouldn’t do those things if she doesn’t want me talking about them. You hear how she talks to me?”

I do hear how she talks to you. I wonder wherever she could get it from.

Newsflash from the desk of the Obvious News Network–kids can be jerks, especially to their parents. As the person who brought them into this world, it’s your job to rise above it.

It’s also your job to make sure that they feel good about themselves. Somewhere along the line this idea got distorted.

We’re either praising our kids every time they successfully use the potty until they reach high school, and preparing for their future in the World Cup due to their skill at three-year-old “let’s all bunch around the ball!” soccer.

Or we’re engaging in “brutal honesty,” a self-serving concept that allows people to  be mean without feeling bad about it, as they should.

Shockingly, I believe there is middle ground. Maybe there is a way to keep your kid from belting out “I Believe I Can Fly” in the school talent show, when you know it will wind up going viral on YouTube, but not for good reasons. And maybe that way does not involve, telling your child the first time he opens his mouth, “Oh no. You suck. May God have mercy on your soul.”

If nothing else, you’ll be keeping your kid off reality TV (and Maury).   And that’s good for everyone.

When Good Social Workers Go Bad

18 10 2010

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

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

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

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

Seriously…how cute is that?

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

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

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

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

This kid drives me nuts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m a social worker.” “Isn’t that cute.”

23 09 2010

If your ear is to the ground of social worker gossip and controversy (and honestly, why wouldn’t it be?) you might be familiar with this story. Lee Baca is a sheriff in Southern California. I consider myself to be a bit of a Southern California sheriff buff, so it was natural that I would read up on him.

Baca seems like a good guy. Like an officer who is not just concerned with law enforcement, but also with prevention, the very thing that social workers are always going on about. He advocates for mentally ill prisoners, does outreach with homeless individuals, and is concerned about racism, sexism, homophobia…all those -isms and -ias that we social workers complain nobody cares about.

So why are so many social workers calling for blood disagreeing in a polite fashion? This quote:

“I’m not ‘sort of a’ social worker, I am a social worker. Helping people to be the best they can be keeps (the public) safe.”


I mean, the important thing is that the work is getting done, right?

Hmm. I’ve mentioned before that social workers are intensely insecure. We are constantly trying to prove the worth of our profession, that we are well trained and educated, and that not just anybody can do our job.

You might think, based on my wit, wisdom, and grace under pressure, that I am immune from such pettiness.

Think again. (Don’t you know anything?)

This bothers me. It’s a pet peeve of mine. I once heard a 19 year old volunteering in a nursing home call herself a social worker. Well, I helped my cousin yank out her loose tooth when I was 10. When my aunt packed her mouth with gauze and ice, as much to muffle her crying as to soothe her exposed gums, I did not look proudly at her and say, “I’m not like a dentist. I am a dentist.”

That’s not to say Sheriff Baca is doing anything wrong. I’m sure that he’s getting people help that they need, and not mangling anybody’s teeth in the process. The man is doing good work, but now I have to be annoyed with him for a) giving himself a title he doesn’t have and b) making me feel like an asshole for criticizing him.

I went to graduate school. I got my Master’s. For all I talk about insanity and high drama in close encounters of the social kind social work school, we worked hard. I sat for my licensing exam, spending two hours in front of the computer ticking off multiple choice answers. After weeks of memorizing the DSM-IV and the NASW Code of Ethics, I embarassed myself by doing what can only be described as a whooping victory dance when the computer screen flashed “Pass.”

Social work is a specific profession, with specific values, and specific education needed. Social workers are not just well-meaning people out there trying to help people. Can you imagine Sheriff Baca’s sentence with the term “social worker” replaced with “lawyer,” “pediatrician,” or “crossing guard?”

It doesn’t fly with any other profession. And it shouldn’t fly with ours.

For “savior,” press one. Para español, oprima numero dos.

30 08 2010

Confession time: I’m a comic book geek. Who doesn’t love a good hero story? My favorite is, of course, Batman. (I was there before Christian Bale, just so we’re clear.) A traumatized child grows up and uses his phobia to rectify his past? What social worker wouldn’t love that?

The truth is, we all want to be heroes. No one goes into a helping profession hoping that it will be a futile, uphill battle. You know it probably will be, but you hope that you’ll have those superhero moments.

“A child care subsidy? I believe I’ve got that right here!” “Domestic violence? Unhand that lady! To the shelter!”

This is particularly acute in social work school. During your internship, you want someone you can save. Just someone who will be able to look back at your time together and say, hey, this social worker helped me. Life is better now.

Sometimes it happens. Some people notice. But often, progress is so gradual, and not at all what clients expect, that they aren’t able to look back and see these things.

And then there are the heroes along the way.

These people are what I call “swoop and savers.” They haven’t been present for the life of the case. They get called in, very late in the game, and things are abundantly clear to them. These people know just what the clients need, and it is oh-so-simple to deliver it.

I have a teenage client who has spent her summer in a psychiatric hospital. Psychiatrists are intimidating as it is. They have medical degrees, they wear white coats, and they have access to all those drugs.

One psychiatrist in particular decided he had my client figured out. The real problem stems not from her mental illness, but from the tense relationship with her mother. Why hasn’t the mother been more involved in counseling?

Well…I…we did, at first, but…I stuttered for a while on the phone, embarrassed at my ineptitude, until I agreed to come in for a family session.

After about ten minutes, the girl and her mother were yelling over each other, while the girl punched a wall and threw anything in the room that wasn’t nailed down. I tried to reason with her while Dr. Saves-a-lot called for help.

Oh right.

That’s why we hadn’t been doing this.

We had done family sessions. For months, when the case first opened. But sometimes there’s a lot to be done before those can be productive. After a year with this family, I knew that. In knowing this family for a week, this psychiatrist assumed he knew better than the social worker. (Note: anti-MSW bias will come back to bite you.)

I’ve gotten lots of questions from other helping professionals, similar to the ones I got from this psychiatrist. “Why hasn’t this child been evaluated?” “Why hasn’t this family been reunited?” “Why didn’t you help this family to find new housing?” “Don’t you know ANYTHING?”

We all want other people in similar fields to know that we’re competent, that we’re doing our jobs, and that we’re doing the best we can. We also all want to be that one person who can change this client’s life.

We each know how hard it is to do that. But why is it so hard to remember that when we’re looking at someone else’s work, and trying to fly to the rescue?

Back to School (or why Billy Madison skipped grad school)

27 07 2010

Here we are, back in social work school. Where the students are crazy and the teachers are enablers. A hint to anyone considering entering the field: tell your professor that you were struck by the “white privilege” or “heteronormativity” in the article you were asked to read. Instant bonus points.

Allow me to take you back to my social policy class. Here we learn the history of social work, how social policy has developed over the course of US history, and how politics affect the work we do.

We also complain. And try to one up each other with our liberalism.

“I’m a socialist!” “Really? I’m an anarchist. Socialism falls short for me.” “Anarchy? Interesting. It’s so male oriented. I’m a radical transfeminist cyberpunk.”

And so on.

One day, a fresh-from-undergrad student who still lived with her parents on the Upper West Side had a thought to share. (I knew that she still lived with her parents, because she put me on her phone one day to tell her maid, in Spanish, not to clean her room.)

“You know, there’s that old saying. I really believe in it. It’s like, don’t teach a man to fish. No, don’t give a man fish…give someone fish, he can eat now, but teach him to fish, and he’ll eat forever. Something like that. But I think that’s, like, what we’re supposed to do.”

Eloquence was not her strong suit. But I wouldn’t regard her comment as controversial.

Because I forgot where I was for a moment.

The focus in social work school is always on the circumstances that created the problem. We don’t want to blame the victim. This sometimes leads to us running to the “victim’s” defense, cloaking him in social work practice and railing against anything that contributed to him getting locked up, abusing his children, or living in poverty–the court system, the police, his parents, racism, too much TV, not enough vegetables, a culturally insensitive education system. (If you can think of at least six more factors, you win the liberal award!)

For this reason, the other, mostly older, more experienced students, felt the need to put this girl (and maybe her cleaning lady) in her place.

“Yes, but we need to consider where the person would be getting this ‘fish.'” “True, and where will they get supplies to ‘fish?'” “Right, and if they can catch any ‘fish,’ how are they going to prepare it?”

Yes, and what about mercury content? You have to be so careful these days. Honestly, some people shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near metaphors.

I don’t know what we accomplished that day. My head was spinning as we all got completely turned around from the issue at hand.

But one thing is certain-as I bit into a spicy tuna roll that evening, I felt, for some strange reason, that I was on the side of the proletariat.

Flashback Thursday (damn you alliteration)

15 07 2010

Social work school is, I think, harder than most people expect. There is an incredible amount of reading to be done, and you have to intern three days a week for the entire two years.

You’re also surrounded by maniacs.

I went to a pretty competitive school with a great reputation. One of the ones that make people say, “Ooh, that’s a good school!” when you mention you attended. And I have to respond with, “Yeah, I’m glad I survived.”

I decided to take a class called “Social Work and the Arts.” It was described as helping students to bring art into their social work practice. I thought it would help me to bring my interest in writing into my work.

What it did was give me some classic stories, that rival those of my friends who went to musical theater school. (These are people who wore masks for an entire semester, for credit.)

On our first day, we were asked to form a circle in the middle of the room. The professor decided that the graduate students needed to participate in an ice breaker. We each had to say our names, and do some kind of movement. The class would then repeat it. Hoping to leave with my dignity intact, I said my name and waved.

The disappointment in the room was palpable.

“Molly” jumped up and down. “Larry” hula-hooped, sans hoop. “Gina” took the cake by turning around and shaking her butt for the rest of the class.

Did I mention that this was grad school? And that I was expected to imitate these people?

Things only got worse when it was explained that this was one of those classes that the students would teach–halfway through the semester, the professor gives up and group projects take over.

I was in the writing group, naturally. Fortunately for me, people who choose writing are reclusive and weird, and were content to take the coward’s way out–Powerpoint. I did a charming presentation on using comic books in therapy. (Side note- if the X-Men don’t help your gay teen to accept him or herself, nothing will.)

Then there was the dance group.

First we had to pass a ball around the room, not using our hands. Then we had to talk about how that made us feel. Powerless? Creative? One girl shared that she almost passed Jack the ball with her knees, until she realized her crotch would be in his face “and I remembered you had a boyfriend.”

Right, because if Jack was single and loved the ladies, crotch-face during classtime would be a-ok.

There’s more to this, I promise. I’m trying to avoid a ‘nam-style flashback by not getting too in-depth here. Social Work and the Arts will be back, but until then, remember: I’m a trained professional.

Awkward with a capital AWK

19 06 2010

No one warned me that social work could be socially awkward (work.) You’re in people’s homes, you’re in people’s lives, and  you see and hear things that you ordinarily wouldn’t. There’s a delicate balance between helping people to see what they could be doing better, and how their family needs to change, and maintaining a good relationship with them. Sometimes you need to gently point out that taking your six year old to the new Freddy Krueger movie might not be the best choice, or that carpeting your hallway with garbage and unwashed clothes might present a bit of a hazard. But you need to do it without seeming like a nosy white bitch.

I was visiting a family with my supervisor, when a mouse ran across the apartment floor. The mother and children didn’t notice, but we certainly did.

It’s not a judgment issue. Everybody in New York has mice. I have them in my apartment. We have them in the office. Both of us typically react by shrieking, running across the room, and causing a huge fuss that gets everyone around us involved.

But we managed to sit silently. Because to do otherwise in someone else’s home would have been rude. And for the rest of our time working together, I would have been the crazy lady who jumped on the table in the middle of the conference.

Last week I stopped by another family’s apartment, because they had missed their appointment. I could hear the young single mother in the hallway, talking loudly to a friend as I walked up. She didn’t notice me as I was coming down the hall, and kept right on with her delightful conversation. “He was like, bitch give me my shit back, and I was like n**** give me my pussy back!”

What in the world does that mean? Honestly. I’ve asked around, and no one has any ideas.

But the immediate question was, how do I react? My response was to be the most lace curtain Irish I’ve ever been. “Oh, I’m sorry for interrupting.” I actually said that. Sorry for interrupting your little chat about n-words and pussy. It sounded like it was just getting good.

Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for social manners, this woman was not in the least bit bothered. She apologized for forgetting the appointment, and brought me in to meet with her son. Before I left, she told me, “I appreciate you. I know we aren’t supposed to be friends, but, we cool.”

Oh, dear.

You’re doing God’s work, they said to the atheist

4 06 2010

The first thing people say when they find out I’m a social worker is usually something along the lines of “You’re really making a difference,” “That must be so rewarding,” or my personal favorite “That’s God’s work.” If it’s so great, why isn’t everybody doing it?

Well, that’s the second thing people say. “Why?” Why do people go into this field? Social workers tend to be underpaid, overworked, and unappreciated. I answer that “Why?” with a resounding “Because we get to complain!”

A lot of people enjoy being martyrs. Social workers tend to be the best at it. (Or the worst, depending on how we’re looking at it.) Teachers can complain about those rotten kids, but whenever they do, we all just think about those sweet, sweet summer vacations. Finance workers and lawyers bitch about their long hours, but I think that spacious apartment in a doorman building kind of speaks for itself.

It starts in the mental hospital social work school. People complain about lack of money and respect in social work school. We haven’t started working for pay yet, but we know we will soon, and we want to be ready with our quips. “Oh, we get treated like crap, but the terrible pay makes up for it.” Oh, ha ha. Ha.

For all the nice things people say when they find out about the work I do, as a field, social work does not get a lot of respect. This wouldn’t matter quite so much if social workers weren’t so damn insecure. That too starts in $20,000 group therapy social work school.

A little history lesson–when the field first started, back with my personal hero Jane Addams, social work was all about the community. Like most female dominated fields, it was seen as a nice pasttime, not a serious profession. In the 1950s, social workers were driven so mad by the thought of their own inadequacy and their peers saying mean things about them that they abandoned their roots and tried to practice Freudian psychotherapy. Reading any social work literature from that time gives you a peek into a sad world of fully grown, well educated professionals clinging to their degrees and shouting “We swear, we know what we’re doing! Why don’t you like us?!”

Social workers are neurotic. They’re almost always well-intentioned, generally well trained, and completely nuts. It starts early (we will get into the insanity I witnessed in the monkey house social work school in future posts) and from what I’ve seen, it doesn’t stop. On behalf of my people, I apologize. But I’m telling you, I’m very good at what I do.