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.

“Who would like to share with the class?” This jerk.

12 05 2011

I’ve always been a strong believer in volunteerism. The world isn’t going to change unless we get up and go! I also can’t stand awkward silences. When someone asks a question, I will be the one to respond when no one else will. In ninth grade biology, I was the only one who would admit to knowing the words “penis” and “vagina” and how to say them out loud.

Also, I can’t resist an audience.

These factors combined are what led to me offering to present a particularly difficult case during the agency’s monthly director’s meeting. Just me, standing in front of nine grown-ups people who make more money than me big bosses, explaining what I’m struggling with.

Shouldn’t I keep that to myself? I mean, should I be sharing with all of these people, some of whom could fire me, what parts of my job are really super hard?

But my supervisor asked, and no one said anything. Which led to my, “Oh. Well, I’ll do it. No problem.”

Famous last words? I think so, if Disney Adventures taught me anything.

We’re a fairly small agency, so I know most of the directors. We have also had some recent shake-ups, though, so there were two that I was meeting for the first time. One was a woman in her 40s who had a bedazzled shirt on and bore a striking resemblance to Tina Yothers. I love her. I hope that we can become best friends. The other was a man in his 50s, who I definitely did not catch looking down my shirt. No. That would be gross.

Then there was my direct supervisor, also wonderful. My director was there, redefining adequate as always. My director’s boss was running the meeting, and I’m pretty sure I remind her of her kids. So we’re cool. There’s the intake coordinator, who was my interim supervisor for a little while when the agency was between hires. She’s a Harry Potter nerd. So we’re extremely cool.

There are also the assorted others who are not interesting enough to warrant personal descriptions. They’re social workers, so they certainly have their quirks, but you can all use your imaginations.

Naturally, I broke out the therapeutic toys (that’s right, these guys) to represent the different family members. Like I said, I can’t resist an audience.

My supervisor asked me to present a very complex, closed-system, multi-problem family. Or, if we’re focusing on strengths, a large, close-knit, colorful bunch.

Nine kids, one grandchild, drug abuse, drug sales, truancy, sexual abuse, court involvement, a severely disabled child…a lot to get into. Whenever mom is asked what she wants, she responds with, “I want ACS out of my fuckin’ life.”

Seriously. She would not leave an ACS meeting until the worker included that on the service plan.

They’re very overwhelming, but I also love them. The kids are sweet, and love any individual attention they can get. They dote on the child with cerebral palsy. Mom, for all her anger, is pretty damn funny.

I don’t know if my affection for the family came through my nerves over speaking to all these directors. I always worry about this, with the bosses. Talking to my director makes me think that not doing direct service anymore can really shut a person down to the joys of social work, and being a part of someone’s life like this. There was never an appropriate moment to talk about watching a thugged out 19 year old ex-con carry his disabled sister off her school bus and up the stairs, all the while cooing at her and making her laugh. But that’s also an important part of who this family is.

Overall, yes, we focused on concerns. There was not as much time for strengths, though they were asked about, and discussed meaningfully. But I was impressed with the higher-ups. (Not the boob-looker, but the rest.) It would seem that, some evidence aside, not every here has just failed upwards. They knew what they were talking about, and offered some solid ideas. For concrete services, and approaches to therapy.

So maybe it’s possible to maintain your social work integrity and street cred as a supervisor. Realistically, I’ll be in that position some day. I’ve got the education and license, I guess I’m probably capable, and I need to do that if I ever want to live with fewer than three roommates. It’s nice to see that moving up in the world doesn’t have to mean being disconnected from casework, or forgetting where you came from.

Still–I am never volunteering again.

Moving on up! (But staying in the exact same place)

10 03 2011

I don’t know if you all heard the news, but I think it’s time to share. Here at Anonymous Agency, we’re expecting! That’s right. 150 new families, 13 new case planners, three new supervisors, and a new director.

At a time when a lot of social service agency are hemmorhaging workers, and losing funding to serve clients, we’re getting more. Why, you must be asking, could that be?

For one, we’re very, very good. I say that facetiously, but it’s true. We do good work. This place is less crazy than most agencies.

For another, our proposal promised to do a lot with a little. More than possible, some would say. (I mean, I wouldn’t say that. That would be termination worthy incorrect.)

We had a meeting the other day to discuss, what else, doing more with less. It’s been the topic of pretty much every staff meeting we’ve had since our old director who made us do group-building yoga exercises left.

The main problem is space. We’re getting a lot of new people. And we don’t have anywhere to put them. We’ll be able to use a large room down the hall, but that’s all we’re adding on, in terms of office, cubicle, and counseling space.

Let's try a helpful visual aid.

This is the office as we currently have it. Those smiley faces are workers. The smiley face with the long hair and eyebrow ring is your very own SocialJerk. The one with glasses that make him look like a ninja turtle is my desk mate.

These little diagrams were passed out a staff meeting, which the Big Boss attended. She frightens me. And when I’m nervous, I get extra sarcastic and try to be funny. It’s not the best defense mechanism, I admit.

She came in and told us that we would have to rework our floor plan. The large room down the hall will be divided in half, so one half can be used for groups, and the other can be used for case planners.

In the space we currently use, we would have to figure out how to cram in some extra cubicles, give the new supervisors the private offices that they so richly deserve, and not sacrifice all of our counseling space.

Now, if you ask me, the priority is counseling space. Yes, we need a place to do our paper work, and a spot to keep our files, but without counseling space, what’s the point?

Obviously, I’m an idiot.

“”Can the supervisors share offices?”
“Well, that would make supervision difficult.”
“But they’re not supervising all the time. Maybe they can work on sharing the space, come up with an arrangement.”
“I’m not sure that would work.”

I took “that won’t work” to mean, “We want our own damn offices, Snood isn’t going to beat itself.” I might have just been in a bad mood.

Then one of my coworkers suggested using a potential counseling room as a storage area. I’m sorry, are we running a big box store on the side? I understand that we have a lot of junk here, but let’s try to clear it out and keep what we need in actual closets.

How about our enormous filing cabinets? What if we attached a shelf over everyone’s desk, so they could lock and keep their files there?

“But where will be put the cabinets?”

It was the strangest descent into office life I’d ever experienced. It was as though I’d stumbled upon a primitive culture, who had no idea of the advances going on in the world around them. “That is the rock. The rock has always been there. We cannot move it.” For a moment, I comtemplated taking out my smart phone and convincing them to worship me as a goddess.

Every suggestion that was made, some Debbie Downer, or Negative Ned, I don’t care which one, piped in with why it was terrible. If we use partitions they won’t be soundproof, if we give away the donated clothes we won’t have them when we need them, turning cubicles that way might be a fire hazard, bunk desks are a dangerous and stupid idea, SocialJerk, stop suggesting that.

Somehow we developed impossibly higher standards for our new space. Even higher than the standards we currently have. (To be fair, you’ve seen pictures, our standards are pretty low.)

But changes are coming, whether we like it or not. One thing I’ve always loved about social work is that it allows me to creative and flexible in my practice.

So I’m still holding out for top desk.