Social work is easy, coworkers are difficult.

3 04 2013

Everyone has coworkers who drive them insane. The fact that I have a few is not really social work specific. It does not make me special.

What makes me special is my ability to turn even a staff meeting into a dance party, but that’s neither here nor there.

Some of my social work colleagues drive me crazy in typical work ways. One plays shitty music in the office (I don’t know why they call it top 40 when there are only six songs, and three of them are by Taylor Swift), some don’t pull their weight at agency events, I am required to stand around awkwardly eating birthday cake much more often than I care to mention, and no one understands my sarcasm but all laugh hysterically when two people wear red shirts because “they got the memo.”

But that’s life. The people I choose to hang out with outside of work do not do these things, and that is what friends are for.

There is something incredibly annoying that is specific to social work, though. It’s hard to believe, but it’s there, and I’ve identified it. It’s hard to bring up without being accused of racism or “ageism.” But the ones I most want to throttle are white social workers in their twenties.

I would feel bad about saying that, but I am a white social worker in my twenties.

Anonymous Agency is a community based organization. We’re a non-profit. We work with people in serious need. “Multi-problem families” sounds either harsh, or like something that can apply to everyone on the planet, but it’s an apt descriptor for our clientele. Poverty, a failing education system, domestic violence, a violent neighborhood…it makes the work difficult and frustrating. But it’s part of the job. The people who are most in need of help are very often not the most punctual, grateful, engaged, hygienic, whatever.

The job isn’t glamorous. Home and school visits are annoying and inconvenient. Chasing clients in order to provide them with voluntary services can be rage inducing. We don’t spend a lot of time stroking our beards and doing innovative therapy in front of a two way mirror, and we don’t usually have the time to be published in scholarly journals.

It’s unfortunate, because the world would be a better place if “Engaging hard to reach teens with cheesy dad jokes and Play-Doh: A strategic approach” were peer reviewed.

There are some who go into social work a little too convinced that they’re going to save the world. But even worse are the ones who think we should be ever so grateful that they’ve decided to work socially. They went to a really good school, and they’re super knowledgeable about the DSM. They get totally jealous that you got the client with schizoaffective disorder, because, ugh, so interesting! They apply for a supervisory position a year in, because, come on, what more could they learn? They dominate group supervision because they have all the answers, and don’t even notice when everyone groans and leaves.

Come on–the longer I spend in social work, the more I realize how much I don’t know. Feeling differently, I’m quite sure, means you’re delusional.

And they are never available to help out with grunt work. Packing up to move, painting faces at the summer picnic, covering so the receptionist can take lunch? It’s not in the job description. You think the person with the $250,000 brain is going to hold the elevator for someone who doesn’t make that in four months, come on! (Sorry. I’m really excited about an Arrested Development movie.)

The good thing is that they usually don’t last too long. They’re constantly chasing the perfect agency ghost. Somehow, they’ll find a position at an agency where the clients keep all their appointments, they don’t have to deal with housing or public assistance issues, supplies are actually supplied, supervision is never canceled because the police and EMTs are called to the office, and the extensive knowledge they’ve gathered in sixteen months is truly appreciated. Someone should probably let them know that these things are a part of the field, not of this particular agency. I always whisper it to them as they leave.

I know I shouldn’t be bothered by a couple of assholes. But it concerns me when it feels like a trend.

One doesn’t become a social worker because it’s an “easy” way to become a clinician. We enter this field because we agree with its values and ethics. We genuinely believe that people are the experts on their own situations, that everybody has strengths, that people cannot improve and do not exist in isolation.

This is not to be translated as “ugh, phDs take forever!”

Arise and Seize the Day

28 01 2013

I am exhausted.

It’s just been one of those months. Suddenly almost all of my families are working (yay!) so I have I stay late to make sure I see everyone each week (boo!) Everything is due at once, lots of new cases are coming in, caseload maximums are rising, paperwork is multiplying, I’m working lots of hours I don’t get paid for, and I’m getting heartburn just typing this.

Really, I can’t complain. I mean, it’s what I signed on for. And everyone in the field is doing the same thing. So it’s ok. Just the way it is.


It was recently suggested to me that this isn’t the way it has to be. That maybe we could unite and agitate for change. Bizarre that this didn’t occur to me earlier. I mean, I helped found Students for Social Justice as an undergrad. And I watched Newsies at least 1054 times. That is a conservative estimate.

It’s ridiculous. We make shitty money for our education level, and it is not possible to get work done in the amount of time we are technically supposed to be in the office. Is it just that we’re not talking about it enough?

Note that I said “talking,” not “engaging in martyrdom.” It’s a fine line to draw, but we must make an effort.

Teachers have been talking about too little respect and money and too much work to do in a school day since the dawn of standardized testing time. Yes, they’re still getting a raw deal. But at least they have a union. And they get discounts at random bookstores, which makes me envy them terribly. They’ve done a good job of putting themselves out there as educated people doing an important job that they deserve to be compensated fairly for. We can argue over how much good it’s done, but at least it’s on people’s minds.

Most people don’t even know who should actually be called a social worker.

I think that’s the first step, actually. Title protection. We don’t have it in New York. I know it’s been implemented in Washington and Virginia, with some success. Of course, people can’t legally advertise that they’re an LCSW if they aren’t. But people can refer to themselves or their employees as social workers when they aren’t, and this happens all the time. It’s the first step to respect. Respect is the first step to sweet sweet cash proper compensation.

I’m quite open to suggestions here, as I have no idea how to make progress in this area in terms of law. I do think being open about this, and educating others about the fact there’s nothing wrong with being a caseworker with an Associate’s degree, but that doesn’t make one a social worker, is crucial and something we can all do. Not everyone who works in a social worky field is a social worker. Refer to a doctor as a nurse, and see what you get. People know to be careful about that. It would be pretty cool if they knew that about us as well.

We need to stop acting like self care is the answer. Let me put this in words social workers will understand–it’s kind of victim blaming. It’s not that there’s too much to be done, you just can’t be arsed to take care of yourself! Go to the gym! Oh wait, by the time you get out of work they’re about to close. Well, take a mental health day! But then you won’t get your contacts in, and you put the agency at risk of losing our contract with the city. Why are you so selfish?

Talking a brisk walk and listening to Mumford & Sons only goes so far. It helps you to deal with a shitty, overwhelming situation, before you’re able to change it.

Self care can help postpone burnout, but it doesn’t make it go away. Support from one another would help. When someone in the office says, “Hey, isn’t it kind of fucked that we’re twenty five percent over maximum caseload?” we should talk about ways to fight it in our agencies. We shouldn’t snort and say, “When I started here, we had nine million cases. Literally. More than the population on New York City, I know!”

To really address burnout, though, we need more fundamental changes.

This is where it gets complicated. The work we do and the programs that help us to do it are always the first to go when we realize the country is Texas with a dollar sign in debt. It puts us in survival mode. At my agency, we work incredibly hard to prove that we can do the most with the least. It’s not just because we were all unpopular in junior high and are seeking approval. It’s because we’re in constant competition for city contracts. When we get a new one, we’re momentarily validated. It’s working!

Contracts are the opiate of the social work masses. We don’t have time to fight for change when we’re treading water. Kind of like how we’d love for our clients to agitate for change to the public assistance system, but they don’t have time what with all their appointments for public assistance.

I know we all hate to hear “evidence based,” but like title protection, it’s an important step. We need to be able, in some way, to identify that what we’re doing is helping. Not just that we’re seeing people for a shorter period of time, but that they’re making measurable improvements and not returning for services a month later.

Social services and caring for society’s vulnerable needs to be a bigger priority. It needs to be recognized as something that needs funding. I realize that this statement is far from revolutionary. I realize that I offer nothing in the way of answers, only more questions. But maybe if we start talking about meaningful change that benefits us all, and therefore our clients, rather than exchanging war stories, we can make some of it happen?

I guess it can’t hurt.

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?

When life gives you lemons, take its comments out of context and mock it on the internet.

15 05 2012

Most of my job is spent trying to meet my clients where they are. However, there are times when things get a little chaotic, crises occur, or a court date is coming up, and we need to meet where no one wants to be–the ACS office.

This office is a thrifty property flippers dream. If there are swamplands in the Bronx, picture them, and that’s where we are. Scenic, and far, far away from that pesky civilization. Inside, the place is rather cheery. Nicely spruced up with grey paint that all social service agencies buy in bulk, as well as many a plastic ficus.

There’s also the playroom, which is separated from the waiting room by plexiglass. It gives me flashbacks to watching the baby chimpanzees at the zoo. Look at him stacking the blocks! He thinks he’s people! Of course, instead of a tire swing, there’s a heavy metal file cabinet.

Kids love those.

I can’t judge, of course (well, I can, I’m really good at it, but I’ll try not to.) Our playroom is just to the left of atrocious. It’s hard. Kids destroy things, and everyone is short on cash.Most social service agencies leave something to be desired in terms of interior design. Anonymous Agency could use a visit from Ty Pennington. No, wait, he blows things up and his hair annoys me. Is that Queer Eye for the Straight Guy dude up to anything? Maybe him.

I get so familiar with the asthetics at this office because most of my time there is spent waiting. Clients often don’t show up. So we wait. We give them time. We’ll give them an hour if we can. I once got a phone call that my client had arrived three hours late, when  was back in the office, and was rather miffed that I hadn’t waited. After all, she had traveled all that way.


Waiting can be frustrating. It means your entire day can be thrown off. It might mean that you don’t get to see a family that is really in crisis, or get in a contact with them that you really need.

However, in the grand scheme of things, there are worse things than waiting. Technology certainly makes it easier. Having a smart phone means you don’t get to complain nearly as much. There are crossword puzzles to do, somethings to draw, and fruits to ninja. Oh, we can also type up notes, I guess. I also have a Kindle in my bag, meaning I can laugh inappropriately at Tina Fey if I’m feeling down, or if I just want those around me to think I’m strange. The city is also kind enough to have kids’ movies (like Despicable Me. HEAVEN) playing in the waiting room. Of course, I did once see the shadow of a man’s head, presumably going on a popcorn run, during one of those DVDs. That’s right. They’re a bunch of bootleggers.

There are lots of ways to pass the time. My number one favorite, though, is eavesdropping.

Overheard in the ACS waiting/playroom:

“Elmo, you don’t shape up, Imma punch you in the face.” – 3 y/o to a stuffed animal.
It’s almost like this kid is trying to tell me something. I mean, Elmo can be annoying…

“No, I don’t have to deal with you. We don’t have to talk. This does NOT go beyond today. Good bye!” – Receptionist to Chinese food delivery guy.
That was weird.

“I wear breakaway pants to these things now, so they can check my legs easy!” – 12 year old on the bruise-checking procedure.
Young man, you are depressingly savvy.

“Look! Look! I tied the Barbie’s legs to the bed!” – A random 9 year old, eager to show off his handiwork.
1. So glad you’re not mine.
2. We need to find who is responsible for you.

“I don’t care where we are, I’ll beat your ass.” – A mom I fortunately don’t work with to her five year old.
Come on, I’m sitting right here. Don’t do that.

“But I have to go now. I really do. Can I piss in the cup here and then take it over there?”
“We are taking the bus. What the hell is wrong with you? Wanting to get on public transportation with a cup full of pee. I’m about to let them have you.” – 15 year old and his mother debating the logistics of getting over to the urine drug testing facility.
I’m just going to say that you both have valid points.

“They have me in here like I’m smoking crack. I’m not smoking crack! I’m not a crackhead. At least I’m not smoking crack.” -A mother apparently feeling she was being treated unfairly.
I get this excuse all the time. Most often from people doing cocaine.

There we have it. We’ve got to wait, there’s just no way around it. We’re busy, and we need to scheduled things back to back, but at times we just have to let go and let clients. As long as there are conversations to eavesdrop on, I’ll be all right.

You Gotta Fight For Your Right To Meticulously Plan

5 04 2012

In social work, we’re engaged in some pretty serious business. Assessing for safety and risk, helping people cope with crises, trying to tactfully explain why your parenting methods are a nightmare and therefore so are your kids. It doesn’t seem like an atmosphere for fun. But we’re also trying to help people preserve their families and hang on to their children. Sometimes a big part of this is learning to spend time with one another, and to enjoy it.

Therefore, party planning serves a therapeutic purpose. Despite the fact that it’s started to drive me a little insane.

Planning a party is always stressful. Actually, coordinating any activity for more than four people is usually a pain in the ass. What time works for you? Oh, but that doesn’t work for her. How about Wednesday? Oh no, she works late that day. Let’s eat at this restaurant. But we need gluten-free options. Let’s forget it and everyone stay home.

Here at Anonymous Agency, I enjoy throwing parties. It’s fun. Families come and act like families. They eat together and meet people in similar situations to themselves. The kids can play and do arts and crafts. No one turns on a TV or video game for two hours, and the kids discover that this has not, in fact, killed them.

Of course, something always has to come up.

It’s known that I enjoy the parties. Everyone else in the office is happy that we have the parties. As I mentioned, it’s fun, and if their families come in, other staff members get to count that time spent making hand turkeys and snacking as a contact.

Notice that other staff members benefit from these festivities? Remember that. It will come up later.

I think it’s pretty much standard in office culture that if you volunteer to do something once, you become the Person Who Does That Thing. “Oh, SJ, she’s just so good at loading the printer paper.” Huh? Three years ago, I offered to make an Easter party invitation. I snagged some free clip art, pasted it into a word document, wrote “You’re Invited” along with the pertinent information. Now, whenever we have any kind of an event, this is my job. I am the one who knows how to do it. I’m the one who knows how to google and type. Also print.

I’ve also found that, the more people that get involved, the worse things tend to go. Or maybe it’s just that horrible people got involved in the past, I’m not sure. They got very persnickety about doing things their own way. having the food that they wanted, budget be damned. It kind of got away from them that we were doing this for the kids. “I know you really want chicken, but we can only afford cookies and juice, and I’m pretty sure the eight year olds will be cool with that. Are you holding your breath until you get your way?”

So this Easter, a coworker and I met under cloak of darkness to make a pact to plan the party. We decided that we would dye eggs, make Easter baskets (to be filled with candy, which must be hidden from SJ until the last possible minute) and serve some simple refreshments. People were, of course, welcome to help run the party, especially since their clients would be participating, but that’s what we would be doing. Nice and easy.

Nice? Rarely. Easy? Never!

First, I emailed New Director with our ideas for the party. When we would hold it, how many families would be invited, what activities we would have, and what our budget would be. Because New Director can never just say, “sure!” she approved our idea, but objected to calling it a “party.” “Could we say something different? Perhaps an event, family affair, treasure hunt?”

‘Event’ is boring, ‘Family Affair’ is a 1960s sitcom, and treasure hunt makes no fucking sense because we aren’t having one. I wrote “celebration” while cursing her under my breath, because I am amazing at compromise, and left it at that.

But, of course, it wasn’t left at that.

My supervisor sent out an email asking that people come to me if they would like to help. We got zero responses. I have, however, had the following helpful tidbits leveled at me in the past two week:

  • “The party goes until six? But I only work until five.”

Well, that is a pickle. I have no idea how to tackle that one. I mean, you could just work an extra hour and not be an asshole about it. You could even come in an hour late. Personally, I would lean towards not being an asshole, but whatever.

I can’t remember the last time I left at five. Caseworkers be trippin.

  • “I don’t understand why we aren’t serving dinner.”

Did you miss that whole thing where we have no money? Like, none. I’m sitting here cutting up Easter baskets out of construction paper. People eat too much these days anyway. Fruit and crackers never killed anybody.

  • “Who is boiling the eggs and where will they be boiled?”

That was an email from New Director. The lady who runs the agency. Ma’am, I sincerely hope you have more important things to worry about. I also hope that you don’t think that your employees are so stupid as to not realize that we don’t have an oven here.

  • “What about Passover? Why is this only an Easter party? I don’t celebrate Easter, I’m Jewish!”

Well, I’m an atheist, but I’m not going to insist that the children all sit in a circle and listen to Tales of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. This isn’t about us. It’s an Easter party mostly because none of our clients are Jewish. But fine, you want to do something for Passover, go right ahead. Oh, you don’t want to do anything, you just wanted to bitch? Cool.

True story: this particular comment then led to the coworker telling me that she is personally offended by anti-Semitism (um, pretty sure we all are, because we’re not terrible people) and giving me a detailed explanation about the reasons that she is culturally, but not religiously, Jewish. I would have told her I didn’t care, but I think she would have felt that was anti-Semitic.

  • “Can the Easter egg baskets be bigger?”


As the hours tick by until the party begins, I have a creeping feeling of dread in my stomach, along with a bunch of excitement. I mean, I love our Easter party. The kids (and the parents) get so excited about dying eggs, it’s amazing. It drives me a little crazy that such a great event treasure hunt celebration is tarnished with petty infighting, people being lazy, and coworkers being too quick to criticize. I also need to remember that I can be a little bit of a control freak, and I need to let it go. All of this stuff we do, which does include dressing up in bunny ears, is for the kids.

We just need to keep our eyes on the (delicious chocolatey) prize.

Why can’t I just write “SJ=Awesome” and call it a day?

6 03 2012

This past January, I embarked on the exciting experience of filling out my third self evaluation as a proud employee of Anonymous Agency. In the interest of full disclosure, I actually got it done on January 31st. I can’t help it. Normally I have everything done early, weeks before the due date, so I can review and edit, because I’m a giant loser. I struggle, really struggle, with self evaluations, though. My supervisor wants to know why I have such a hard time giving myself credit. I attribute it to Catholic guilt.

Not to mention, I feel like I’m not saying anything substantial. It’s all about trying to make yourself look as good as possible, in order to secure a raise not get fired. Would anyone looking at my evaluation really get to know the real SocialJerk, as a social worker?

I’ve talked about honest progress notes, how about honest evaluations?


  • Sarcasm. Perhaps I should list that as “humor” but it’s important.
  • Writing. Not just snarky blog posts. I’ve seen the notes some other people hand in. You supervisors should be happy to have me. Allow me to demonstrate. “You’re standing over there, holding your dog. They’re standing over here, holding their dogs.” See what happened?
  • Not throttling teenagers.
  • Politely not running out of houses when animals relieve themselves in the living room, or it’s made known that there are bed bugs present.
  • Righteous indignation/rage. It keeps me going.
  • Baking. Are these all supposed to be work related?

Areas for development:

One, I love your phrasing. “Areas for development” is so much better than “stuff you suck at.” Now let’s see, stuff I suck at.

  • I need to stop feeling personally responsible when a family gets evicted, a child gets shot, or a kid skips school. I’m not omnipotent or omniscient, so I need to get the hell over it.
  • I buy candy at the bodega way too much. They know me and it’s getting embarrassing.
  • Maybe I don’t have to do all the work by myself. Or something.
  • Excessive tweeting at work.
  • I could work on my game face. Actually, I need to develop a game face. Apparently I’m quite expressive. Meaning, when I think someone is full of shit, it’s clear. In a field in which people are often full of shit, this isn’t always an asset.
  • Even if I think another worker is an idiot, I need to be able to work with him or her.
  • I make fun of my boss on the internet. This might not be productive.
  • Making excuses for people’s bullshit is not doing them any favors, it just enables their shitty behavior.
  • Not everyone has to like me.
  • Leaving on time is not leaving early. I say this but I don’t know it.
  • Similarly, getting in on time is not getting in late.

Goals for professional growth:

  • Get my LCSW. I know I’m within a few hundred hours of my needed two thousand, but counting them up is time consuming and scary and I don’t wanna. But I will. Also I have a love/hate relationship with standardized tests. I’m a good student, I LOVE being graded. However, part of why I’m a good student is that I freak myself out and convince myself I’m going to fail if I don’t study.
  • Stop rambling.

Of course, we’re not done. I don’t only need to evaluate myself. I need to evaluate Anonymous Agency, as a place to work.

Staff satisfaction survey:

1. Can you see yourself building a career here?

Well, that’s hard to say. I’ll be honest, it’s a little scary. I mean, I’m almost 30. My career should probably be building. Is it? At what point have I learned all that I can from this position? This was my first job out of graduate school. Will someone tell me when it’s time to leave the nest? Am I going to live in New York for the rest of my life? Will I have kids? Will I want to keep them if I have them? Is there someone in HR I can talk to about all of this? Was I just supposed to click “yes” or “no?”

2. Are you satisfied with your benefits?

Yes, I am. But if someone could actually make a dental appointment for me, I’d bump this up to very satisfied. I just can’t stop procrastinating! If they would spring for full sedation so I don’t feel the buzzy teeth cleaning, you guys would get a gold star.

3. Do you feel your salary is competitive with other similar agencies in the field?

Oh, you guys are good. Am I satisfied with my salary–fuck no. But is it competitive for social work? Sure is!

4. What is the best part of working here?

I have learned a lot from my great work experience and my amazing supervisor. There is opportunity for growth and this is a well run agency. I get tons of blog fodder. I love working with people at all different stages of deveopment, and with families as a whole rather than just as individuals.

5. What is the worst part of working here?

New Director led a two and a half hour staff meeting last week, and the only thing I remember is the 45 minute debate over what order progress notes should go into the files. Chronological, or most recent note on top. This was the worst part of everything that has ever happened to me.

Well, the results are already in. But there’s always next year.

Who are you and why are you here?

9 01 2012

I get asked pretty frequently why I went into social work. It’s not terribly difficult to come up with an answer, one that varies in sincerity based on my mood and the attitude of the person who is asking.

The problems arise when I find myself asking why some of my coworkers got into this field.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from TV and movies, it’s that the people who are really good at their jobs are mean, and you don’t want to be around them. You know, the only doctor who can diagnose and cure your smallpox is an egotistical dick, and the teacher who gets the best results from those inner-city kids is the one who breaks all the rules and swears a lot.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from social work, it’s that this doesn’t necessarily carry over to the real world.

Some of my coworkers, and people I’ve met in this field that I haven’t had the misfortune of working with, simply mystify me. Of all the professions to enter, you chose one in which you work with people who have been rejected and beaten down by society, and where you won’t get paid enough to make up for it.

If you’re a miserable person, and don’t like others, couldn’t you at least try find work at the DMV?

Some people I work with, I don’t like. I feel entirely justified in this, because they’re obnoxious. I suspect they were raised by pandas, because they have no sense of appropriate human interactions or social graces.

Some are incredibly nosy and think that this is fine, because I’m younger than they are.

Crazy Coworker: “I like that outfit! Did you just go shopping? Did you meet someone?”
SocialJerk:  “Thanks? What? I’m just waiting to use the microwave.”
CCW: “Oh, you haven’t had kids yet.”
SJ: “Yet?”
CCW: “Yeah, you shouldn’t stand in front of the microwave, it might affect your ovaries. And you know that people who don’t have children regret it later in life.”
SJ: “Who are you?”

This is bad, because it negatively affects my day. Me having a nice day is a pretty high priority for me.

My highest priority, though, is that our clients’ needs are served and that they are treated with dignity and respect.

Oh boy.

For the most part, I think my agency does good work. But then there are those people who just make me wonder. I know you didn’t go to social work school, but you have interacted with humans before, right? You took some class in what to expect when working here, didn’t you? Or is this some kind of work release program?

When I first came here, I inherited a number of cases from our Worst Offender, as she was moving to another part of the agency (unfortunately, to do the same job.) We had a joint meeting with a woman with whom I would be working. This new client asked Worst Offender if I was aware that she had a history of depression.

Worst Offender ( and this is true) rolled her eyes behind this woman’s back and said, “Well, yes, we all get sad sometimes.”

Yup. Helpful.

When I say WO went to another part of the agency, I, sadly, mean that she went down the hall, and never fully left my professional life. One of her girls has been a more or less permanent fixture in my teen groups. This girl, who has a long history of trauma and therefore no sense of appropriate boundaries, talked rather graphically in group about her experiences of being molested. She then licked her hand and stuck it into the group bowl of pretzels.

I had a number of concerns. Number one, of course, was this girl’s safety. Number two was this girl not being ostracized in group due to her boundary issues. Number three was that I remember that, even though I love pretzels, they were now off limits.

I spoke with WO about this. I needed to ensure that she was aware of the molestation, so that it was properly reported and addressed.

Again, she rolled her eyes. “That girl has, let’s say, a tendency to get molested. I’m not saying she asks for it, but…”

No no. Just stop. I have a tendency to punch assholes in the kidneys, and we can’t have that now.

That girl, the pretzel licker, came to me after our next group, saying that her worker had told her that the other girls were complaining that she was greedy with the food and ate too much.

Yes. This was what WO decided to do with me telling her, “I’m concerned about this girl and want to make sure she’s getting a sufficient amount of help.” Tell a fifteen year old that her peers are talking shit about her. Maybe throw in that they called her fat? Certainly that will help.

They’re not all this horrendous. Worst Offender is the only one I have felt the need to report (on more than one occasion) to a supervisor, for fear that she was doing much more harm than good to the people whose well being she was entrusted with. (Don’t worry, my concerns were sufficiently ignored.) But there are people who make you wonder, ” what did you think you were getting into?”

The recent graduate who became nearly hysterical when participants routinely did not show up for their sessions, requiring her to go out on visits. “It’s just like any other appointment! Why can’t you call to cancel?” The people who have no problem watching three workers (hint: one of them is always me) frantically set up for a holiday party, while popping their headphones in and explaining, “Oh, I have a lot of notes to write.” The worker who describes a client as, “so fucking clueless” until it is painstakingly explained that this person’s “cluelessness” is a manifestation of their mental illness.

This isn’t a job that people are necessarily banging down doors to get. And we all have our days when we lose patience, and think or say things (in private, or anonymously on the internet, one would hope) that aren’t productive or helpful. But if you’re debating whether or not you can do this job, or if you have the right mindset, please take a little extra time to consider. We’re desperate for workers, but we’re not that desperate. This isn’t a field you go into because your modeling career didn’t work out.

You don’t want to be “that” worker.

I was told someone would put a lampshade on their head

19 12 2011

It’s the time of year for global warming party after holiday party. Notice I said “holiday,” not Christmas. That’s right, it’s time to take sides in that imaginary war.

The parties can really pile up. Between friends, (shit, I still need to get my Kris Kringle gift) family, (much more fun now that I’m allowed to drink) and work (oh, we’ll get to that) your schedule can get pretty packed.

I remember hearing about wild office parties on TV when I was growing up. As a child, I couldn’t imagine why someone would have the urge to photocopy their own buttocks, but I understood that this was an important part of celebrating the holidays with coworkers. People were to get drunk, hook up in supply closets, talk shit about their boss, and then come in the next day reeking of Schnapps, shame, and regret.

Things don’t quite go that way in social work. Our parties are a little…tamer, to say the least.

At Anonymous Agency, we have our “celebration” (yes, those are sarcastic air quotes) in the middle of the day. A normal agency would send its overworked and overpaid workers straight home after all that organized “fun” (yes, again) but they chose not to. After two hours of luke-warm catered wares, eaten while balanced on our laps, and a half-hearted attempt to organize us into groups to sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” we were sent back to our offices. A half an hour away.

Not that I’m still pissed, or anything. (Not in the charming British drunk way–just furious.)

That get together isn’t quite enough. That’s for the entire agency, and we still have to celebrate with just our site. Because we love each other so, so much, and simply don’t spend enough time together.

The debate rages on. Do we go out to eat, or do we have a potluck in the office? A real Sophie’s choice. Whichever side I fall on, I’ll end up hurting someone, it seems.

Honestly, I don’t care. It’s happening in the middle of the day, and booze isn’t allowed no matter where we go. I’ll either be spending time and money baking, or spending money on lunch, because our budget for the Christmas party seems to be that we have no budget.

My only non-stick-in-the-mud coworker and I toyed with the idea of an after-work happy hour. This was primarily a way to get everyone drunk, so we could see if our intoxicated imitations of our supervisors were correct. But I don’t think it’s going to happen.

Whatever, staff. It’s not important. We all know Christmas is for the kids.

We also have a Christmas party for the families we work with. Here’s a word to the wise–when it comes to planning in the office, if you volunteer to do something once, you become the person who does that thing.

My first year here, as an engergetic new social worker, I volunteered to make the flyer for the party, and to run the arts and crafts room for the kids. Three years later, guess what I’m still doing?

They’re kind enough to say, “Oh, well SJ does such a great job with the flyers.” It’s true. I am able to type up dates and times, and steal snowman clipart on Google. It’s a gift, I suppose.

Then we have to discuss how many families we can invite. We work with a lot, and the office isn’t so big, so we have to cut it off somewhere. New Director is fond of advertising any goings-on at the agency, which puts all us workers in the awkward position of telling our families: yes, we’re having a party. No, you weren’t invited.

We’re the mean kid in your elementary school who hands out pool party invites to almost the whole class.

Some families get Christmas gifts through our donors, so we try to invite the families who don’t get gifts. Of course, given some of the gifts we’ve seen come in, I feel a little guilty about that.

Even if you don’t know that a kid has a history of vandalism, who gets an eleven year old a pack of Sharpies as a present? If something says, “small parts–not for children under 3” don’t give it to a fifteen month old. If I indicate that a six year old is a size nine, as her parents have yet to learn portion control, don’t assume that I’m an idiot, and she’s actually a 6x. Also, if you get one kid eight gifts, don’t give her older brother and sister three each, and think they won’t notice. They will. I had spreadsheets comparing what my brother and I got year to year when I was young. Have you ever seen a kid?

Anyway, back to the festivities. The debate tends to rage over what kind of food to get. Should we branch out, and try ham, or turkey? How about Italian food, something our families don’t usually have?

Then we remember we don’t have any money, and everyone will be sad if we don’t have rice and beans, anyway. Fine.

Then we need activities. As I mentioned, I’m the arts and crafts expert. What this actually means is that I am willing to sit in a large counseling room with rowdy children, guiding them in decorating tree ornaments, making cards, coloring snowy scenes, and generally not murdering each other. I do this all while wearing reindeer antlers, because I am festive and whimsical.

At least it’s not Easter, when eggs need to be boiled. Gross.

There’s usually a discussion about sending the kids home with gifts. Our budget is so small, we’d pretty much be sending them each home with a pencil. More than anything, I think this just calls more attention to the fact that we suck, and it’s best to avoid it.

Despite a lack of money, and no shortage of sugared up kids, the parties actually are always fun. It’s nice to see families come together and have a good time. And as much as I bitch about time with my coworkers, who understands the insanity of the job better than them? Once or twice a year, it’s nice to be reminded of that.

Provided we get to leave early.

Social Workers in Space

17 11 2011

The space in which we get our social workin’ on practice our profession plays an extremely important role in how the work gets done. We don’t want to look too much like a doctor’s office, with white walls and uncomfortable chairs. A stereotypical guidance counselor office isn’t really right either, what with all the posters of kittens imploring us to “hang in there” or reminding us that, really, teamwork makes the dream work.

We want a space that is comfortable, yet professional. We want to seem organized, but not sterile. It should be fun, but also get the point across that we’re going to accomplish some work.

Essentially, I need an unlimited Target gift card.

As always, it comes down to funding. More directly, it comes down to the fact that we don’t have money. When you’re struggling to pay salaries, or to provide cookies and juice for group (just once, I want Chips Ahoy, not Krasdale) making the office and counseling spaces look more appealing falls to the bottom of the list.

There are some things that help. Landlords need to paint eventually, and ours got around to it last year. Those boring hospital-white walls were brightened up nicely. To be fair, it was with the cheapest leftovers the paint store had, but still. I like purple.

The walls, though colorful, were still blank. OK, some creative minds though. We have all these kids around here, let’s put them to work! (A mistake, ultimately, as the stitching on my jeans is really subpar. Oh, I’m being told it’s not time for sweatshop humor.)

The thing about children’s artwork–most of it sucks. I know, anything that comes from the creative mind of a child is beautiful, and it’s so sweet and endearing when they make something just for you. But still. You want to decorate your house with it? I have drawings that kids I work with have done all over my cubicle, and they’re fabulous. My co-workers’ kids just aren’t as talented. It’s one thing when it’s from a kid I know and love. Otherwise it’s, wait, is that an elephant or a vacuum?

Then there’s the furniture. In a workshop I attended to help me become a better group facilitator (they didn’t know that I already know everything) we were instructed to have all group members sit in the same type of chair. This way, no one feels different or excluded.

Um, OK. A matching set of chairs. Where do you propose we get those? Was this person social working the queen on England? If we don’t all have to sit on the floor, I mark it as a win.

One of our counseling spaces doubles as a meeting room. And boy, can you tell. From the phone on the wall, to the long, narrow table, this was not a space meant for counseling.

That table is the bane of my existence. I hate it. I dream of setting it on fire. (Note: SocialJerk does not condone arson outside of idle fantasy.) You wouldn’t think that it would make such a big difference, but it does. I work with what I have, but my goodness that table gets in the way. People are spread out, debating for way too long on where to sit and whether or not they can sit next to each other. Sometimes it winds up with many more people stacked on one side than on the other. I feel like I’m auditioning for American Idol when that happens to me. I keep waiting for the family members to judge my singing harshly, while one spaced out kid tells me to keep following my dreams.

Or something.

At least we have some space. During my internship, it was decided that a large basement room filled with toys and sports equipment most often used to host groups would have to do for my counseling sessions. I just want you to imagine what eight and ten year old hyperactive brothers got up to in there.

Yeah. It’s a wonder any of us are still alive.

That’s not to say counseling space isn’t limited at my current office. We recently expanded to hire many new workers, but didn’t get much more in the way of space. For some reason, it was determined that supervisors having private offices was much more important than us maintaining a functional number of counseling rooms. I think they offered a reason, but I was too busy grumbling.

There are evenings we refer to as perfect social work storms. There are two groups running, a parenting class being held, in addition to the normal day-to-day sessions. Workers are dodging screaming children in the waiting room (hey, it’s free child care. You get what you pay for, and she isn’t even bleeding that much) while fighting over a broom closet in which to hold a session.

I’m just kidding. We don’t have space for a broom closet.

You learn to be creative. You learn what to expect. We’ve gotten some pretty decent office decorations out of some kids’ groups and our art therapist. We try to be as organized as possible when it comes to scheduling appointments and reserving counseling rooms (that always works, because our clients are predictable and punctual, right?) Overall, I think our participants understand. For the most part. They can easily see that we’re trying our best, to do as much as possible with not a whole lot.

At least they believe me when I tell them that something isn’t in the budget.

Yes, I am trying to lead the office in quacking

8 07 2011

I’ve always said that this agency is a pretty good place to work. We don’t get paid a ton, but the benefits are good. My supervisor is great. She appreciates my humor and impromptu dances. People get along fairly well. As far as social service agencies go, it’s pretty much the best you can ask for.

But the times, they are a-changing here at Anonymous Agency.

The city has bestowed vast riches upon us. (By that, I mean we got a new contract that requires us to do impossible things with very little money.) We’re going to be expanding to serve a lot more families, so we’re hiring new workers, taking over another office on our floor, and coming up with fun, creative ways to fit too many people into a small space. In the new office space, rolly desk chairs had to have back-up signals installed, so no one was injured. But social workers have always been creative.

All these new workers means a new director.

Change is hard on everyone. It’s uncomfortable, and when someone suggests you change, you can’t help but think, “What the hell was wrong with me before?” It can also be good, and productive, and help us to serve our clients better.

This new director comes with a lot of new ideas. I’m trying to be open to them, because I know that there’s room for improvement. I think a lot of the changes need to be made much higher up, in the child welfare system. The focus on making our numbers, social workers having so little control over which cases to accept and when to close them…these are the kinds of changes I would like to make. But of course, we need to do what we can.

The new director has a strong clinical focus. She’s very into intense family therapy. I think she kind of wants to be Minuchin. Which is fine, because he did important work and developed theories and models that we case our work on all the time.

But he was a little cooky.

So New Director is introducing some changes. Some of these are great. She wants the playroom to be more therapeutic, rather than just a distraction. I love this idea. (Not just because it was my suggestion and I need validation.) Our playroom sucks, to put it clinically. It was clearly thrown together with whatever toys some donor’s kid had outgrown. Many of the toys are musical, or just plain noisy. There’s a talking ATM and fire truck that haunt me in my dreams. “Welcome, to the interactive, ATM.” The kids just push that button, over and over again.

Did I mention that the playroom is adjacent to my cubicle? Kill me.

Play therapy doesn’t get done with these kinds of toys. New Director has agreed to go after some new stuff–a doll house, puppets, play-doh and other art supplies…the kinds of things that kids actually express themselves with.

She also wants to get anatomically correct dolls. Because some of our kids have been sexually abused. Oh dear.

When there are allegations of sexual abuse, we refer the children to a program specifically for this problem. No one here is an expert in working with kids who’ve been through this. Of course it comes up, but it’s not specifically what we do.

Not to mention, plenty of our kids haven’t been sexually abused. I’m thinking of the shenanigans they get up to when they realize Barbies clothes come off, and the hours of giggling this causes. That’s with a naked, notoriously anatomically incorrect doll.

We disagree.

New Director also wants to introduce a lot more trainings for the short-term therapy we’re meant to be doing, in topics like CBT and group work. This is great. It’s something we can all benefit from.

She also wants to film some of our sessions, and then watch them together in staff meetings.

It’s every nightmare I’ve ever had. First of all, if I have to watch myself therapizing, I will only be able to focus on whether or not I look fat. I realize that it’s shallow and immature, but I know myself.

Second of all, I will know I’m being filmed. I’ll use big words that don’t belong in an effort to impress those who will be watching. I will go out of my way to be mini-Minuchin, and not myself. When this doesn’t work, I will become awkward and crack sarcastic jokes.

Then there’s the “dress code.” Of course, it’s not really a code, it never is. Just a suggestion, to dress more professionally, because then our clients will want to “lift themselves up.” The things that’s stopping them from doing this already is apparently my Friday jeans. I like my clients to be comfortable with me. I wouldn’t show up to their homes looking like I’m there to mow the lawn, but I don’t want to show up looking like a lawyer, either. This, to me, does not say, “Talk with me. I won’t judge.” It says, “I’ll be taking notes on what you say.”

The problem is, my supervisor seems to be a bit impressed. Slightly puppy-like. She really sees this new director as the future of the agency. I don’t totally disagree, but it’s a little much to rush in an make all of the changes in one fell swoop. People don’t like that kind of thing.

I know. I’m people.

I just don’t want us to lose the things that are good about this place, and the way we work. The fact that we can all joke around with each other. That my random dance moves earn a laugh. The way YouTube videos of funny cats somehow make their way into supervision every so often. When New Director talks about making our work more clinical, and us being increasingly professional, it worries me. We wouldn’t have been granted all of those new cases and workers if we hadn’t been getting results.

I get the creeping feeling that the agency is changing. It reminds me of social workers in the 1950s, striving to be taken seriously by becoming more and more psychoanalytical. We don’t need to be something we’re not. We aren’t underpaid, undertrained psychologists wearing funny clothes and sharing an office. That’s not what people come to us for. Social work is its own profession with its own standards.

Lately, this place is reminding of the rag tag sports team in every 80s movie ever. We’re unconventional, but scrappy. Then someone new comes along from the outside, gets everyone organized and to play by the rules. But what happens? They lose their heart. We need to cling to what makes our profession unique. I think we can start by rewatching the Mighty Ducks.