Objective: to get the hell out of here.

24 09 2012

Those of you who follow me on Twitter, and aren’t sexy spambots (which sound much more interesting than they actually are) will know that I haven’t been thrilled to pieces at work lately.

I was supposed to get my first intern this month, and simultaneously start the class that teaches and qualifies one to supervise. (In social work, we learn as we go, and not a minute before!) This was supposed to happen in September. As you might have noticed, September is drawing to a close, and I’m not freaking out about a grad student being smarter than me or complaining about this class being useless. Something must have gone wrong.

My director, the boss of my fabulous supervisor and underling of my fabulous regional director, came to me to say, “You’re not getting an intern. I sent the paperwork in late. We can try again next year.” That is a direct quote. She then shrugged and walked away.

Here’s a tip: if you’re telling someone that you couldn’t be bothered, for no apparent reason aside from laziness, to do a very simple thing that would be very important for their career, do not end with a shrug.

Let’s just say she’s lucky there were no leftover water balloons from the agency picnic.

It was only one thing. A big thing, granted, as it pushes me back a year in something that’s important and necessary for my future in this field. It also delays my coworker, who was supposed to be the one getting an intern next year. (We only have room for one at a time. I have to respect Anonymous Agency for not pulling the old “we’ll figure it out when they get here, no one mention that this was a broom closet!” trick.)

But it’s kind of pushed me over the edge. Not in the sense of spinning in my chair making barnyard animal sounds on the job, but in feeling pushed out the door, and getting my resume together. Seriously, this time.

What makes our jobs bearable?

For the most part, Anonymous Agency is a good place to work. Benefits and vacation time are good, the place is well regarded, I’m comfortable there, and I have a lot of respect for most people who work above me.

The fact that one person can counteract all that kind of drives me crazy. But feeling like someone doesn’t give you a second thought, and has no respect for your ideas, goals, and schedule, goes a long way.

Now, what does this remind me of?

I’m always telling myself that I have to bear in mind that I’m up against every negative experience a client has ever had with a social worker. Or case worker. Or psychiatrist. Or anyone else who was supposed to help.

We’re different. We’re not like those workers. We care about our clients, and treat them with respect. We know it, and we’ll show it.

Sometimes things come up. Sometimes the bus makes us late, we have to call in sick, a school visit goes way too long and it takes us a while to return a call. Sometimes, for all our efforts, we can’t get a kid a mental health appointment for months. Even worse, sometimes we make mistakes, or forget things.

It seems unfair that this makes all the good fly out the window. Why can no one focus on the positive?!

Especially when someone is coming off of a string of bad experiences, the negative just weighs more. We have to remember that, even when it’s not fair. It takes a lot of good to make up for mistakes.

As my dear director taught me, owning and apologizing goes a long way. If she had said, “I dropped the ball, I’m really sorry,” I still would have been upset. Objectively, some damage had been done. But I wouldn’t have felt the betrayal and disregard for me as a person. If this had been an anomaly in her behavior, I would be able to move on. It wasn’t, so she needs to be ready to lose her most dedicated blogger worker.

We’re going to make mistakes in our work, as social workers and as supervisors. We can get over them if we recognize what’s going on. If we’re too busy being defensive and thinking about ourselves, we won’t.

More importantly, is anyone hiring?

Goldilocks’ School of Social Work (Caring Just Right.)

6 08 2012

There’s a phenomenon in the helping professions. You know when a philandering celebrity, or greedy financial…dude (I don’t have finances) says that the only thing they’re guilty of is “caring too much?” Social workers, teachers, mental health professionals, child protection workers, and the like, are at serious risk if that ever becomes a criminal charge. Though so often, caring too much isn’t sufficient. We have to care the most.

Everyone likes to be the best, right? We all want to win the gold. (Side note: might I pat Gabby Douglas on the head and put her in my pocket, even though she could kick my ass?)

I have run into this a few million times in my work.

At times, it’s with school social workers. Some make a particular effort to reach out to and involve the families, but some don’t. And with the ones that do, the parents often start ignoring their calls. As a result, they work primarily with the children. Twelve year old girls fighting with their mothers tend to err on the side of drama, and complaints about being unloved and unwanted. If you aren’t in the home regularly and don’t know the family, it might sound like emotional abuse.

Most social workers, and adults in general, are smart enough to discern abuse from teen angst. But some seem to have a vested interest in being the hero. You know, the only person in the Lifetime movie who believes the totally rational victim, while everyone else has seemingly gone insane?

Which leads to voicemails like this:

SSW: “I am extremely concerned about this child! She said her mother isn’t speaking to her. Why aren’t you answering your phone? We are having an emergency meeting in twenty minutes, I need you to be here!”

It’s one thing explaining to overwhelmed nineteen year olds that I have fourteen other families who also need my attention. When it’s a fellow professional in a similar situation…I don’t care for it.

Some want to feel like they’re the only one who can really forge a connection with this particular child. Like when your friend in high school was dating that total asshole, because she insisted that he wasn’t that way to her, she was the only one who could understand him? Yeah, like that.

After months of running away, drug use, missing persons reports, and pregnancy scares, a sixteen year old I worked with wound up in a diagnostic reception center. This is a short term, non-secure residential facility. Often a stopover on the way to residential treatment.

This girl needed help, but was an accomplished manipulator. She knew what everyone wanted to hear, and how to get what she wanted. (Trust me, I’d fallen for it for months!) After a week or so, I got a call from a social work intern. She asked if she could escort this girl to her previous placement, to pick up some belongings.

Provide her with a Metrocard, and someone who can’t do anything to stop her from running off, to get the things she wants on the other side of the city. I was, I think, understandably skeptical.

“I understand, but I think this is important for her. We’ve developed a good connection.”

Sigh. All right, intern. Not my call, not my funeral.

Her supervisor approved it (really) and the kid AWOLed. She would have done it sooner or later anyway, it wasn’t the intern’s fault. But I do think it’s something that happens when we don’t listen to each other.

“SocialJerk, how do you stay so perfect and avoid all of these pitfalls?” asks no one. Of course I’ve been guilty of this myself. I remember when a fourteen year old told her ACS worker, “I don’t deal with you anymore. I only talk to Miss SJ,  ’cause she’s my girl.”

Now, everyone likes to be the favorite, and this was tapping directly into my love of working with teens, confirming for me that I’m actually good at it. Also, I was not popular in junior high. Of course I knew that this child was being disrespectful, that her mother was allowing it, and that I needed to put an end to it. But I smiled a little on the inside. Even though, ultimately, being “her girl” didn’t prevent this kid from running away for days at a time, cutting school for months, and fighting in the streets.

A lot of the time, we’re not better with fellow social workers we don’t even work with. We say we want self care, but then we compete in the miserylympics. Try mentioning a mental health day, vacation, chance to read a book or watch a movie, or a momentarily small caseload, to a fellow social worker. We always feel the need to qualify it with, “I’m taking a day because I worked twelve hours unpaid overtime in the past three days, I have the flu, and I’m emotionally exhausted from facilitating two removals and running from three shootouts.”

Still, we get responses like, “Must be nice!” “Ugh, jealous. I’m working seventy hour weeks lately.” Or the backhanded, “You totally deserve it! I can’t wait til it’s my turn :/”

Sometimes it’s ok to just say “have fun” Or nothing. That’s ok too.

You don’t have to be the one who cares the most, or the only one who’s doing any work. There is no prize, believe me. I Googled it. We need to support each other in taking care of ourselves. There’s never been a statue erected in the honor of a social worker who died with the most saved up sick and vacation days.

And we’re all trying to do the same work, even if we’re doing it in different ways. Of course we might be working with a burned out, or just not terribly good worker at times. But I think we owe one another the benefit of the doubt, rather than assuming that we’re on our own, and have all the answers.

Now I have to get back to work. I haven’t had a vacation in months.

Intern-o Inferno

2 07 2012

Not long ago, I lamented the fact that there are so few options for kids who aren’t going to school. The teenagers are most often chased around half-heartedly until age seventeen, when they’re told to go get their GED. Working with then is frustrating. They want their diploma, if not a college degree, and they want to be able to get a good job. They just can’t bring themselves to get to school everyday.

The girl who really spurred me to action had turned seventeen, and only wanted to work. She had spent her life taking care of her younger siblings and their mother, and just didn’t have time for school. All the statistics in the world about how much her lifetime earning potential would improve with college didn’t matter–she wanted to work.

I thought about what might work for her, and then it dawned on me. Interns! Our interns! Duh. How could you be so stupid, SJ?

There are a few great programs for over-age, under-credited high school students once they turn seventeen. They’re given paid internships, some of which Anonymous Agency is kind enough to offer. They make money, which encourages and enables them to stay in school, which is modified to fit their needs and schedule, and they gain valuable work experience. Not everyone has the sick professional connections of high school SJ– I mean, my brother’s roommate’s mom was a librarian.

I was fortunate in my first job. It was pretty easy for me to do well. For one thing, I shelved books, and I know how to count and alphabetize.

For another, my parents set a good example. They have the sort of work ethic that should really only come from growing up in the Great Depression, or being a nun. If they could stand, they went to work. If I wasn’t actively throwing up on myself or others, I went to school. This carried over onto my first job, and all subsequent ones. My mother’s voice saying, “What does that mean, ‘not feeling well?!’ The books will everywhere! It shall be anarchy!” has been internalized. My father’s complaints about the unprofessionalism of his staff who wear flip-flops to work and loudly rehash episodes of Springer have stuck with me.

I hated it when I was younger, and friends told me they had missed a day of school because they had a headache or took a day off from their part-time job were up late the night before (no threats of imminent death, even!) but I realize now that it was a privilege that gave me a good head start. Sure, it would be nice if I could call in sick without feeling even sicker with guilt, but it’s set me up for a successful future.

A majority of the kids I work with miss a lot of school. I’m not talking about the ones who are sent in for educational neglect when they don’t attend thirty days in a row. They just miss days, here and there, consistently. Or they’re late. They oversleep, they stay home to help their parents with something, medical appointments are scheduled on school days, they claim to be sick and their parents ask the kid to report the thermometer reading independently, and don’t follow through with the hard-hitting questions of, “So then we need to go to the doctor?” or “Look at my eyes. You’re too sick for school, really? Honestly?” (Amateurs.)

This gets pretty frustrating when trying to get kids to go to school regularly, and trying to get their parents to understand that they need to support this. It’s even worse when a person who has grown up with the “School? Maybe. Not today” mentality is now working for you.

The seventeen to twenty one year old interns we get are, obviously, young. It’s a first job for most of them. A majority of them have grown up in families like I described, in which getting to school on time everyday was a priority somewhere between “walking the dog” and “buying pretzels.” Also, we’re a social work agency, so we like to be nice, encouraging, and high five whenever possible.

It may not seem like it, but these are ideal conditions for a throwdown of unprofessionalism.

Most of these young people are excited to come in to work. So excited, that they forget to fully dress themselves in the morning. There have been many half-shirts, or sweatpants advertising the wearer’s ass as being “Pink” or “Juicy.” (Yeah, we need to stop that, ladies.)

Some seemed excited to come in to work, but then…maybe weren’t. They started calling in sick, two out of three days, or coming in ten minutes to three hours late with no explanation. As social workers in a rough area, our minds immediately go to the worst case scenario. She’s been mugged! He’s being trafficked for purposes of sexual exploitation! Her boyfriend snapped and beat her! By the time the kid rolls in, offering a shrug but no visible injuries, we’re just so relieved that he or she is all right that we let it go.

Sometimes, the intern in question does have an excuse. “I have a test tomorrow and I need to study.” Hey, school comes first, I respect your education! “My baby is sick.” Oh my, go! Do you need a referral to a good clinic? “The bus was late.” We’ve all been there. SJ tweets about it!

At some point, though, this fades. The excuses are more along the lines of, “I wasn’t feeling well.” Yes, it’s been three weeks, you might want to get that laziness checked out. “The bus took twenty minutes.” Yeah, that’s how long it takes everyday. Why are you three days late?

There are the performance issues as well. Of course people need to be trained for their first job. But at some point, you need to remember to write down the messages that you take, and answer the doorbell when it rings. I don’t know what else to say.

When no one is getting their messages, and the information that was supposed to be shredded was accidentally faxed to strangers, it needs to be addressed. But who is going to do that? Well, I guess I could, because I’m the one who had asked her to do that task. But really, the administrative assistant should, because she’s the direct supervisor. I suppose we could ask our director. I mean, the buck stops with her. Oh, could we call the intern’s program coordinator at her school?!

We’re social workers. The interns have a lot in common with the kids we work with. They tell us all about why things are so difficult for them, and about all the other responsibilities they have. We don’t want to make things worse for them, and we don’t want to be the bad guy. So we grumble quietly, and just do it ourselves.

I’m not blaming the interns (entirely.) We owe them more. We need to have enough respect for their intelligence and abilities to realize that they are capable of rising to meet expectations. Our kids are tough and resilient. They have dealt with much worse than constructive criticism, and they will continue to do so in their future employment. I think it’s pretty clear that we’re not doing them any favors if we send them off into the Real Work of Work thinking it’s ok dress like they’re attending some kind of trampy sleepover, or show up when the mood strikes.

So please, someone, tell the intern that she needs to put on a sweater. Because I really don’t want to do it.

I hope my future intern isn’t reading this

29 04 2012

It had to happen sooner or later. The higher-ups at Anonymous Agency have noticed that I’ve been working here for a while, and have deemed that it’s time for me to have an intern.

As an incoming student and intern, I was rather enamoured with the grand social work tradition of giving back and training replacements for when we die the next generation of helping professionals. I recognized that I would be in the position of supervising and teaching at some point.

Now that the point is fast approaching, it sounds a little less noble and a little more terrifying. Being someone’s supervisor, especially when they’re a student, is a big responsibility and a delicate operation. Social workers are needy and insecure (I can say that, I am one) in a tough, emotionally draining field. This is not simply being someone’s boss, assigning them tasks and staying on them to get in on time. It’s nurturing their innate talent, guiding them into a profession that most don’t want, and helping them not to go crazy in the process.

My first supervisor was a dream. I was her first student, and she was adorably excited and enthusiastic. Her door was always open and she brought me cookies on more than one occasion. She believed in my abilities and trusted my judgment. As a result, I was obsessed with not letting her down and pushed myself to do my best work. This was when I was assigned to work with homebound senior citizens, which was far from my chosen field. I was pretty bummed when I first got the assignment. But my supervisor was so encouraging and so clearly loved this population that I was able to see what she saw.

Clearly, I was spoiled.

My next supervisor didn’t return my calls for days, when I was trying to confirm that I would, in fact, be working for her. When I finally started, she continued to pretty much avoid speaking to me.

Remember when I said social workers are needy and insecure? This kind of supervisor turns us into sixteen year old girls going through their first break up. I mean, I just don’t understand what I did! Just talk to me, I think we can work this out! Oh my god, I’m eating this roll of cookie dough, salmonella and my fat thighs be damned!

I was trapped in that classic useless intern role-reading old case files at an empty desk- for the first couple of weeks. I texted my friends and family furiously. I mean, I was paying them to work there. And I was supposed to be preparing for a career that was just around the corner. If there was an opening for a professional highlighter I’d be set, but I hadn’t seen any listings for that on Idealist.

Finally, MIA supervisor revealed that she just didn’t have time for an intern (It wasn’t me, it was her!) and arranged for me to be passed on to her old supervisor. I was assured that my new supervisor was tough, but I would learn a lot from her.

The dating analogy would be too disturbing to continue at this point.

It turns out when some people say “tough,” they actually mean “sociopathic bitch.” Not a term I throw around lightly (or at all) but hear me out.

The first thing this woman ever said to me was “dont wear jeans.” Before “hello, my name is Your Worst Nightmare,” even. This was a Friday, everyone wore jeans, and I never saw a client. But fine.

When I finally started seeing clients, this woman continue to be an asshole tough. I routinely cried after supervision.

For anyone wondering, no, that is not normal. This woman seemed to be kind of like the witch who kidnapped Rapunzel. Instead of my hair, she needed my tears to stay young and vibrant.

I wrote a process recording of one of my more difficult sessions with a young girl I was very stuck with. Strange, as I had almost four weeks of experience as a counselor at that point.

My supervisor laughed while reading it.

“This was a terrible session.”
She could hardly contain her mirth.

“Um…I know. I need help, I’m not sure what to do.”

“Yeah, obviously.”

Am I on a hidden camera version on Horrible Bosses?

Later that year, I hurt my knee while running, and was limping up the stairs to my office. Again, she thought this was a source of great amusement.

“SJ, you have a limp?” She asked as she giggled.

“For the moment. I hurt myself in a race over the weekend.”

“Oh, I was wondering!” She was guffawing at this point.

I would think she had a high tolerance for pain, except I consistently spent half of my time in supervision with her hearing about how I couldn’t imagine how much she suffered due to TMJ, IBS, restless leg syndrome, chronic fatigue, and every other syndrome that can’t be tested for.

Sound really fucking weird? It was.

When she called me at home to tell me I ought to apply for a full time position, because she thought I did excellent work, my response was a genuinely mystified, “You do?” And, even in the horrendous job market, I almost didn’t apply, for fear of working under her again.

Why are some terrible people in social work? I’m not entirely sure. I guess there are bad people in every profession, some people have been in it too long and are too far removed from the people we work with, and some are in it for the wrong reasons. But we can learn from every experience.

That supervisor who gave me nothing and then sent me into this supervisory hell was right. I learned a lot from that supervisor. I learned the kind of supervisor, and human, I never want to be. I learned to appreciate the wonderful supervisor I had before and have now. I learned the importance of providing a supportive environment to an insecure student, and how much an overly critical or dismissive boss can impact a person’s development in the field. I learned that good guidance can not only make or break an experience, but also a new worker’s growth. I learned that it is of the utmost importance for every supervisor to remember that it’s not all about them.

And I learned to never, ever, under any circumstances, discuss digestive issues with an employee.

Age is nothing but a number. An ever increasing number

12 03 2012

When I was fresh out of a pineapple under the sea social work school, I was 25 years old. I worked for two years after undergrad as a child wrangler coordinator of an elementary after school program, so I wasn’t one of those brutally obnoxious 23 year olds, but I was close. I had also always been a year younger than everyone in my grade, either due to being a genius, or born on January 1st. My brother and most of my cousins are older than I am. In short, I’ve been rather accustomed to being one of the youngest, wherever I go, for quite some time now.

But of course, things change.

There’s a lot of turnover in social work, particularly in the field of child welfare. I mentioned recently that I’ve noticed that everyone in child welfare seems to have either been in the field for fewer than three years, or more than thirty. There’s not much in between. This isn’t terribly surprising. It’s a high burnout field. People get into it when they’re young and energetic. A lot of the time, that doesn’t last. For some, work in child welfare is like me every year the day after the New York City marathon. I think, why don’t I do that? It seems amazing and like lots of fun. Then I run for three miles and remember that I don’t really care for it.

Then there are others who just never seem to leave. Many are talented, and dedicated to the field. They rise within the agency and make changes from the top. Some just stick around long enough and wind up getting promoted because…seniority, or something. No one really knows.

I’m coming up on three years, so I guess we’ll find out which category I fall into.

My first year as an intern, I worked with homebound senior citizens. These are the people we ominously call the “oldest old.” 85 and up, for the most part. They looked at fresh-faced little SJ as though a fetus had been sent to their home. They asked how old I was and reminded me to wear a coat.

The next year, I began working with families. It seemed that all we talked about in supervision and in class was the fact that I, like many of my student contemporaries, appeared to be about 12. Would this be insulting or troubling to families? I mean, who is this kid, telling me how to raise my kids? Would the teens walk all over me because I’m obviously not a real grown up?

For the most part, it was never a terrible issue with clients. Most people seemed willing to take me on merit. What held me back was not my age, but my inexperience. I lacked confidence in my abilities, because you know, I didn’t have much in the way of abilities yet. (By the way, students–it’s fine. Everyone has to learn, and there’s no other way.)

It was, however, a bit of an issue for coworkers, at times. I had a supervisor who condescendingly told me she was too nervous to send me out on home visits, because I looked like I could be her daughter. Cool, I’ll just put my feet up, I guess. People felt free to ask how old I was, which I think is a little rude, unless you’re trying to set that person up on a playdate. My thoughts and opinions, or plans for my career, were often met with a laugh and an, “Oh, you’ll see how it is after a few years!” Will I? Tell me how it will be, soothsayer, I wish to know the future too!

Like I said, though, things change.

I’m 28 now. I’ve always looked young, but I’m old enough now that people who think I’m a teenager are either under eight, over 80, or a little deranged. Last week I did a school visit, and was scolded for not having my school ID. I patiently (or something) explained that I was a social worker, not a student, and was allowed up to the office after a minimally invasive metal detector wanding. (Imagine going through the equivalent of airport security every day, just to go to high school. Ugh.) When I got up to the guidance counselor’s office, I was immediately asked if I was Miguel’s mom.

I have no idea who Miguel is, but I know that he’s not my child, and that he’s a high school student. Meaning that it seemed that I had aged about twenty years on the staircase.

I’m not the youngest around the office anymore. There is a crop of 24 and 25 year olds starting up, and I’m suddenly in the strange position of being considered one of the seasoned workers. (Mmm, paprika!) These new workers are more idealistic and energetic than me. They might even be cuter than me…I’m pretty sure they’re not cuter than me. But it’s weird to no longer have that, hey, I’m the youthful new gal thing to fall back on. I’m legit now. People come to me with questions about paperwork and benefits, and very often I know the answers. They come to me for advice when they’re stuck with a client. The assumption there is that I know what I’m doing, which can be a little scary to live up to.

While I’m still mistaken for a teen or a parent during school visits, at some point it will only be parent. And that will make sense. Then I’ll know I’ve made it.

But I’m pretty sure I will freak the fuck out when I turn 30.

‘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.

Who Social Works the Social Workers?

25 10 2010

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Man, I love being a turtle. Social workers are crazy.

A client even pointed it out to me recently, saying, “You have to be a little…not right…to do this kind of work.”

Granted, I was visiting her in a psychiatric hospital at the time, but she had a point.

I first noticed it at the Big Apple Circus in social work school. I was surrounded by decent, hard-working lunatics. I’ve talked about it plenty before. People who genuinely cared, but wanted to spend time arguing about who was the most oppressed and how you could appropriately introduce a client to the idea of getting his or her aura cleansed.

It became particularly clear when I had my first job interview, shortly before I graduated.

I met the man who would become my new boss. Let’s call him Yakko. I took a half day off from my internship in Brooklyn, and trekked up to the Bronx. It was disorienting. I think it was the first time I had gone there without intention to attend a Mets game, or go to the zoo.

In retrospect, all that time at the Bronx Zoo probably prepared me for the interview.

Yakko appeared normal enough at first. An older man in a tie, he seemed like seasoned social worker. Like he could be anybody’s dad. I sat down in his office, waiting for him to ask me about where I see myself in five years. Then he took out the construction paper and safety scissors.

I’ll give you a minute to process that. It might warrant a re-read.

I guess he noticed the look of horror confusion on my face, because he asked, “Oh, should this be a normal interview?”

Yes, Yakko, I was kind of thinking it should be.

I didn’t get to say much after that. Yakko told me about what they do and how they practice. The populations they typically see and about his love of Minuchin. He told me about the summer carnival the agency recently hosted, and then introduced vertical mapping.

Pay close attention, because this is where the construction paper comes in.

Most social workers use genograms, or culturegrams, or some variation of grams. (My favorite has always been the teddygram…I apologize for that.) You know, where you have squares and circles to represent all of the male and female members of the family, and different lines to represent their relationships. Is this line solid or squiggly? Is it love or hate? Dammit, use colored pencils next time!

Yakko had found a flaw. Family dynamics are constantly shifting. So let’s cut out construction paper shapes so that we can move them around in order to more accurately reflect this.

OK. Why is this vertical, do you ask? 

Because we put the paper up on the wall, and stick the shapes to the paper. This way everyone can see it.

Let that sink in. I’ll give you another minute.

Thus continues the great social work tradition of making mundane variations of the same thing sound intellectual, by giving them a fancy name.

All in all, Yakko was a good guy and a good supervisor. He was nutty, but the clients knew that he cared about them. He was more than willing to make a fool of himself to make other people feel comfortable. If this sounds like an obituary, it’s only because the higher ups saw fit to let him go shortly after I signed on. Apparently his way with the clients did not translate to a way with paperwork.

Now, the big bosses. THOSE people are crazy. But that’s a story for another day, with more time and more job security.

“Take Time for Yourself!” WHEN?!?!

29 09 2010

For as long as I’ve been preparing to be a social worker, people have been preparing me for burnout. Back when I was an undergrad, I would mention that I wanted to work in child welfare. “How long do you think you can do that for?” people would ask.

The implication was always that this is not work that one can do for long. I’ve listed the reasons once or twice: bureaucracy, long hours, low pay, large caseloads, depressing situations, excessive amounts of giraffes…

Sorry, just wanted to be sure you were paying attention.

They talk about it throughout Psycho Beach Party social work school. If you’re at a halfway decent agency, they’ll also talk about it once you begin work. The phrase of the day is “self-care,” which is not nearly as dirty as it sounds.

Though I suppose it could be.

The idea is to take time for yourself. Do things to ensure that you aren’t taking your work home with you. Relax. Take a vacation.

Except you have to work those long hours, and you don’t get paid enough to take much of a vacation. (Though that Barbie kiddie pool on my roof served me rather well during the dog days of summer, thank you very much.) A day at the spa is kind of a tall order when you’re budgeting to pay off student loans so much that Wheat Thins seem like an outlandish luxury.

But still we try.

When I was an intern, I attended what was possibly the most hilarious training on sexual abuse that has ever occurred. That’s right, I said it. And I stand by that statement.

This training was run by a well-meaning lunatic who had established herself as somewhat of an expert in treating girls who had been sexually abused. It was actually a series of trainings, and this particular session was dedicated to, you guessed it, self care.

Working with someone who has gone through or is going through something like that can be very draining. It affects everyone, and if you don’t address it, you’re going to break down and quit sometime soon.

This woman thought it would be helpful if we all shouted out ways we have of “de-stressing.” Soon, the designated note-taker’s hand was flying.

“Go shopping.”
“Call my mom.”
“Listen to music.”
“Dip bread in oil.”
“Get a mani-pedi.”

Ah yes, because nothing takes the edge off incest like a mani-pedi. Seriously? Yes, these stupid things can help us to relax. But I don’t think I need to sit around and share these earth-shattering notions with my coworkers. Hell, during that hour (yes, sixty full minutes) that we spent creating this list, we could have gone out for a shot of Jack walk.

It was even more helpful when we each got a copy of that list, typed up and placed in our mailboxes. Trees died for this.

Our supervisors tell us that they’re concerned about our welfare, and don’t want us to burn out. I believe them. I know that they don’t want to replace staff, and I believe that, for the most part, they care about their workers as people. But I’ll believe it even more when they do something about it.

Rather than email out a list of fifteen new requirements, including extra assessment tools to be completed, more required home visits, and larger caseloads, ending with the sentence, “And remember, our jobs are difficult. Take time to take care of yourself.”

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?

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar…j/k it’s definitely a penis.

6 08 2010

One thing I love about social work is that it combines so many different professions. We study psychology, sociology, child development social policy, community organizing (Republicans taught me that’s not a real job!) amongst other things. The goal is to work with the whole person.

In theater of the absurd social work school, therefore, one of the things we have to study is Freud. I don’t pretend to be an expert. I realize he had a lot of revolutionary ideas and had a huge impact, and knew more than I do. But I also realize that his views reflected the prejudices of the Victorian age. Plus, he did a ton of blow and was obsessed with the sex.

Some social workers put a bit more stock in classical psychology than I do. Translation: nothing is ever what it seems. Everything is complicated, and people certainly do not say what they mean.

This got me into a bit of a debate with a casework professor. She was explaining that we need to get to the meaning behind what everyone is saying. I don’t disagree with that. But I was told that, when someone comes to me saying they need concrete services because they are about to be evicted, I shouldn’t just refer them to a program. They don’t just want money. There’s something else behind them seeking me out. I need to engage them in conversation about how they feel about the impending eviction.

I think the response might be something along the lines of, “How the fuck do you think I feel about it? Pay my damn rent, crazy!” I’m just guessing here.

I was really unable to hold my tongue when she told us that little kids who we see for counseling might want to take toys from our offices. Makes sense, that’s what kids do.

No. They want to take the toy as a transitional object, to comfort them as they leave the safe environment of the office.

I’m not saying this is never true. Some kids will do this. But I have some badass toys. Might the kid not just be a little jealous of my sweet collection?

Apparently this was not possible.

“What if I’m seeing a kid, and I have the one Power Ranger action figure he’s missing, so he keeps trying to snag it?”
“That action figure has some meaning for him.”
“Yeah…it completes the set.”
“No, beyond that.”

It’s always beyond that.

I recently had a four year old girl in my office, and we broke out the family play figures. She told me, “I don’t know how to play family.”

Brilliant insight from this child! Her home is broken, and she is expressing this through the natural childhood language of play!

Or her mom has the TV running at all times, and the kid hasn’t developed much of an imagination.

Of course we need to read into what our clients are doing. It’s what we do. And people don’t always say exactly what they mean, or express exactly how they are feeling. Sometimes they don’t know. At the same time, I’d like to avoid pathologizing a kid because he has his eye on the slinky on my desk. (Side not: I guard that thing with my life, so don’t even try it.)

During a play therapy session with a little boy recently, he made a scary monster out of play-doh, and gave the monster a name.


If only I knew what he was trying to say.