Under pressure

28 11 2011

One of my favorite parts of running girls group, aside from the sound of children’s laughter, seeing the participants grow and mature, the availability of snacks and impromptu dance parties, is watching the girls form friendships with one another.

It’s often assumed that the girls we work with are out running the streets. Their parents don’t care what they do, there’s no curfew, they drink and smoke with their grandmas.

Of course, this often isn’t the case. I wish some of the parents of girls I work with would lighten up. I understand their fears. Teen pregnancy is rampant where we live and work, and the neighborhood is dangerous. Shootings, gang violence, and drug deals are a part of everyday life. The idea of letting your child out of your sight is frightening, to say the least.

But at some point, you have to. Otherwise you end up dealing with what I see every day–these girls know that no matter what, they’re not going to be allowed to go out. So when they have the opportunity, they seize it. Stay out all night, do all the things they aren’t allowed. They don’t really have anything to lose.

So it’s nice to get them together with some other girls who are dealing with similar issues. No reason to be embarrassed about having an ACS case or a social worker, because everyone here does. Your mom doesn’t trust you? Mine doesn’t either! Your dad is constantly worrying about you getting pregnant? Ugh, I know. But they let the boys do whatever they want!

It’s easy for them to find common ground. We see the bonds start to form, the exchange of information, the mentions of seeing each other over the weekend or after school. It’s usually a little easier on the parents to let this happen. You want to hang out with someone you met in Miss SJ’s group? I guess it’s better than some trouble maker from the building.

It’s something I love to see. But it’s also something I’m very wary of.

Eating disorders can be very difficult to treat. They often don’t make sense to outsiders–just have a sandwich, what’s the issue? It sounds like it might be helpful for people suffering from eating disorders to have others to talk to, who know what they’re going through, who let them know they’re not alone. Group work, anyone?

But groups are actually rather dangerous for the treatment of eating disorders. I know some particularly skilled workers are able to make it work, but the fact is that whatever support participants get in those groups is generally counteracted by what they learn from other group members. New tricks, ways to hide what they’re doing, and the like.

That negative influence and sharing secrets is also a concern in our group. When we were first planning our group, we talked about the common problems we saw amongst the girls we worked with. One that came up frequently was shoplifting. Hey, stuff is awesome, but it’s also expensive!

I was nervous about focusing on shoplifting for precisely this reason. I didn’t want to girls to learn from each other in this way. I was afraid that those already into it would get better at it, and those who hadn’t considered it might give it a try.

Shoplifting came up anyway. And my oh my, we all learned a few things. Someone threw out the names of a couple of stores that have rather lax security, and another went on in great detail about how to hide things in one’s bra. One girl had to be cut off before she was able to complete her speech on the importance of developed thigh muscles in smuggling stolen goods out of electronic stores. Fortunately, it wasn’t too difficult to remind them that this was girls’ group, not thievery class, and get us back on track.

In a previous group, a young girl, Callie, who had just lost her virginity became close with another girl, Anna, who had a long history of sexually acting out. Callie asked Anna about performing oral sex on her boyfriend. Callie had tried this, and simply could not see the appeal. Anna told her that “it’s just something you do, even though you don’t really want to.” As glad as we were that Callie and Anna could relate to one another and talk, but this wasn’t advice we were going to endorse. It was fortunate that Callie confided this to her worker, who was able to discuss this with her, and bring it up to the group in a general way that didn’t violate confidentiality. But it doesn’t always happen that way.

Rebecca and Madison, two girls on my caseload who are also both in my group, recently became friends. Rebecca is the classic “problem child,” while Madison was disappointed to hear that she couldn’t go to school on Thanksgiving day. (Seriously, she needs to lighten up.) They seemed like an odd pair, but I was tentatively hopeful that Madison would positively influence Rebecca.

Of course, Madison came to me saying that Rebecca was pressuring her to go to parties with twenty year old guys (excellent place for thirteen year old girls) and was threatening to defriend her on Facebook. (I’m fairly certain that this is the equivalent of erasing a teenager from life, much like the McFly children disappearing from photographs in Back to the Future.)

When the kids come to us with these issues, or we see them in group, we can address them. But how? Peer pressure is not going anywhere.

Our best friend seems to be positive peer pressure.

I always get annoyed when people clap for a pilot landing a plane. It was literally the least he could do. What’s the alternative? Yay, thanks for not killing us all! It’s the pilot’s job. I don’t get a round of applause when I successfully lead a family in a scaling exercise.

But it’d be nice.

So we clap in group. We clap for a girl saying no to sex she didn’t want, we clap for a girl telling her mom how she really feels, we clap for walking away from shoplifting. Girls take turns telling each other the improvements they’ve noticed.

Praise is powerful. Your peers and group leaders giving you a standing ovation? It can help.

Groupwork is amazing. It’s incredibly important for these girls, and they’re able to learn a great deal. There are drawbacks, of course, as there are drawbacks to everything in work and life. But looking out for those negative influences, and jumping all over the positives, can make it worthwhile.

They might even clap for you.

This Is Halloween

31 10 2011

October 31st. Halloween. All Hallow’s Eve. The day after Mischief Night. High Holy Candy Corn Day.

Whatever you call it, it’s fabulous.

Of course I’m a big fan of Halloween. What’s not to love? It’s completely acceptable to eat your birth weight in sugar, and you get to dress up like an idiot. Great parties are to be had, and somehow I always manage to accidentally wander into the Village Halloween parade.

By the way–I’m all for topical costumes. I’m all for skimpy costumes. But let’s be careful when combining the two? I don’t know that we need a repeat of last year’s “Sexy Chilean Miners.”

Some people do not share my enthusiasm, though. The reasons are numerous. Fortunately, my social work perspective guides me through shutting them down.

  1. Religious objections
    Some people really seem to believe that neighbors handing out candy while marveling at adorable bunny costumes is all about Satan. Some even went so far as to support something called “JesusWeen.” (I’ll wait until we all stop laughing.)
    Halloween isn’t evil. If you want to see evil, the work of the so-called devil, just shadow your local social worker for the day. Parents abandoning babies, beating their children, men attempting to set their wives on fire, women encouraging kids to hate their fathers…there is evil in the world. We don’t need to look for it in a day dedicated to pumpkin carving.
  2. Slutty objections
    We all saw Mean Girls. (If you haven’t, do it now. This is the only time I’ll tell you to stop reading, just go do it now!) If not, we’ve all made the same observation. Some young women see Halloween as a time to wear almost no clothing, slap on some ears and possibly a tail, and say they’ve come to school as a kitty.
    It’s not my style, I’ll admit. If I can’t sew it by hand, or feel superior when someone doesn’t know the obscure cartoon I took my costume from, I simply want no part of it.
    But working with my teen girls’ group reminds me of the importance of not tearing each other down. So many of my girls seem to share the latest “slut” rumors in an effort to join the fun, because they know they’ll be on the other side sooner or later. It doesn’t really matter what they do, everyone has their turn.
    Except the guys who enjoy that “slutty” behavior or outfit.
    It’s incredible to watch my girls in group come to these kinds of realizations and discover their own feminist beliefs. Everyone judges the pregnant girl, even other girls who have had sex, but don’t have the evidence under their sweater (thanks Juno.) No on thinks about the guys. Who decides how much is too much when it comes to Halloween costumes, or everyday wear?
    All us women, let’s try to remember the times it’s been said about us this Halloween, before we start with the judgment. And guys? If you know exactly how many buttons were undone to show off “too much cleavage,” you were probably ogling. So keep it to yourself.
  3. Safety
    This seems to be the hardest one to argue. We’ve all seen those pamphlets about staying safe on Halloween.
    “Treat your child’s costume with flame retardant chemicals.” Yum!
    “Trick or Treat before sunset.” Cool! Spooky!
    “Don’t let your kids walk down the street alone.” So, is that until age 18, or what? What if the kid in question is 14 and has a kid?
    “Tell your kids not to talk to strangers, no matter what this person says.” If I ask a kid which Disney princess she’s dressed up as, and she stares at me in horror, she can forget about getting that Reese’s cup.
    “Put reflective tape on the back of your costume.” Why? So my dad’s headlights will blind him as they hit my back while he tails me and my friends down the street in broad daylight?
    “Have an adult check your candy before you eat it.” I’m an adult. We don’t come with poisoned candy sensing powers. I have no idea what I’m looking for, other than all of the Tootsie Roll pops. Your parents are also just looking for their favorites, don’t let them fool you.

Most of these “safety concerns” (yes, they deserve sarcastic air quotes) don’t apply to my kids. They’re on their own all time, they’re caring for younger siblings, and strangers are often safer than people at school and at home. Yet a lot of the kids I work with plan to skip school on Halloween, with full approval from their parents. The fears of annual “gang initiations” and slashings of random girls keep them inside. These things are so fueled by urban legend and legitimate fear that it’s hard to figure out how afraid it’s actually reasonable to be.

The kids I work with have such rare opportunities to be kids. I want them to have this one night of being silly and overdosing on sugar. But it isn’t always possible. The neighborhood is dangerous under the best of circumstances.

So if you live in a reasonably safe area, please let your kids enjoy it. Let them wear costumes they might trip over and go out in the dark, even talk to strangers. Because honestly, they’ll be fine.

There are enough actual monsters to be afraid of. We don’t need to make them up.


Dating’s all fun and games, until someone loses their self respect.

24 10 2011

Dating is a funny thing. Older people, and people in relationships, tend to talk about it like it’s fun and exciting. Nights out on the town, meeting new people, the thrill of the chase. (Or is that a safari?) I blame romantic comedies. Terrible movies sending a bad message. Why do they even make those things?

In reality, I hope we all know that it’s pretty horrible. Debating whether or not you should call, or if you should be waiting for the other person to text. If he texts, rather than calls, what does that mean? What is she really saying with that Facebook friend request? How soon is too soon to introduce this person to friends? And why do we all get so pissed when we’re rejected by someone we weren’t even interested in? (Side note: if the son of a friend of my aunt’s happens to be reading this: when she gave you my email address eight years ago, I didn’t even know that she was doing that. I didn’t want to talk to you either.)

OK. Glad I got that out there.

Dating drama has always been fairly minimal in my own life. But my clients manage to bring it back, and remind me of what I missed.

Thank goodness I missed it.

I have to give most of my female clients credit for being hopelessly optimistic. “Hopelessly optimistic” is my strengths-based translation of “blindly in denial.” One young mother I worked with had two children by two different fathers. She presented as being rather tough, and had in fact had a very difficult life. Her father was a drug addict, her mother was abusive, and she was in and out of foster care. She was extremely intelligent, and really trying to be a better parent for her children.

All that intelligence, experience, and toughness, though, didn’t stop her from wanting the storybook romance. I was thrilled to pieces when she finally seemed to be putting those restraining orders against her violent former partners to use. She talked about needing to focus on her children, work on herself, get back to school.

When she came in to the office with stars in her eyes, telling me that she and a friend were suddenly more than friends, I think she could sense my apprehension.

I wanted her to be happy. I wanted her to have the best friend, boyfriend, whatever she wanted. But I also really wanted her to see that the problem wasn’t just that men turned out to be assholes. It was that the men she chose turned out to be assholes. It wasn’t a matter of getting out there and trying more and more, and eventually you’ll find the right one. It was a matter of saying, hey, I’m attracted to scumbags. Let’s rectify that.

But it’s not an easy thing to do. I had to close her case when she moved herself to a foreign suburban land to be with this man. He seemed like a genuinely good guy, so I’m hoping they made it work. Realistically, I assume he either turned out to be hiding his jackass nature really well, or he remained a good guy, so she got bored and left.

Hopelessly optimistic I’m not. But unfortunately, I’m often correct. (I might need to make that my new tagline.)

The world of teen dating is just as torrid, dramatic, and unpredictable as I remember. My goodness, they don’t learn and they don’t give up. No matter what their parents and social workers try to teach them.

Teenagers, particularly girls, are always talking to me about their latest romantic fiascos. The boys are involved in these too, but they like to act as though they’re only interested in sex. They also have a hard time getting their viewpoints across, once I explain to them that they have to say “women” or “girls,” rather than “bitches” or “hos.”

I hear these kids complain about their significant others all the time. One fifteen year old I’ll never forget kept going back to this one boy in particular, always assuming he’d change at some point. He cheated on her, made fun of her in public, swore at her, called her names, and set her up to get jumped by his friends.

He claimed that he tried to get back the jewelry they stole. Apparently that made everything better.

When he said he wanted a baby with her, she was pretty heavily considering it. I mean, who wouldn’t? She’s only human.

We tried to figure out what she liked about him. It took a long time to identify even one thing, though she vehemently defended this boy to her mother. It finally came down to her saying that he was nice to her when it was just the two of them. Sometimes.

This boy being “nice” once erased a thousand wrongs. Just the opposite of this girl’s relationship with her mother.

The mothers are always very concerned about their daughters’ dating. The concerns for “reputation” start very early on. My personal view is that the neighbors can talk all they want, as long as you’re healthy and not pregnant. But I seem to be in the minority.

Yes, your thirteen year old daughter has a hickey. OK, your sixteen year old daughter admitted to letting her boyfriend, in her words, “grab her titties.” (Sounds like a lovely experience, by the way.) My concern is that the relationships they’re involved with are respectful, and that they’re being safe. The moms had other concerns.

“People could have seen them. What are they going to think about what kind of a parent I am, that I’m letting my daughter run around like this?”
Well, your daughter is running around with their sons, so they don’t have a leg to stand on.

“I just need to know if she’s still a virgin.”
Is the priority knowing the answer to that question? Or is it about finding out if you know what your daughter is doing, knowing if she’s at risk, and if she can handle the activities she’s engaging in? P.S. I’ve heard about what some “virgins” get up to. The entire concept is useless and far from exact.

“Can I take her to the doctor to find out if she’s still a virgin?”
NO. For the last time. That is not possible, shows a poor understanding of female anatomy, and is wrong and ridiculous.

“Can you ask her if she’s a virgin?”
All right, I don’t know if we’re getting anywhere with this.

The best handling of a teen relationship I’ve witnessed was a few months ago, during a home visit. The sixteen year old daughter, who is very sweet, quiet, and a wonderful student and artist, had brought her girlfriend home to meet her family for the first time. She was appropriately mortified. Her mother asked, “Oh, you’re Shawna’s girlfriend? OK. You’re gonna be around? You’re gonna be good to her? You’re a junior too, right?” The tattooed gang member twin brother hopped around like a hyperactive goober, making empty, joking threats about what would happen if this girl was mean to his sister. The two then left to take Shawna’s six year old sister to the park. And apparently returned with her intact.

Apparently it can be done. Dating, romance, all that crap, can be gotten through with minimal injuries, physical and otherwise. We can learn from it, and occasionally enjoy it.

But that’s no excuse for the existence of romantic comedies.

I don’t even think I have bootstraps

29 09 2011

I was a sociology major as an undergrad. It made sense to me, as I knew I was going into social work. I stand by that major, though I’ve heard many people disparage it as an easy way to get through college. Hint: everything’s easy if you don’t do any work.

Learning about society and how we function together as a unit to avoid killing and eating each other (it’s possible I just read Hunger Games) has been very helpful to me as a social worker. One professor in particular made a major impression on me, and made me think about some things that inform my practice in a different way.

This professor was old. Really old. He told us stories about growing up during the Depression. And of course, he had way more energy than any of the 20 year olds in the room. He talked about how people should work long past 65 now, because we live so much longer. He told us about his trips to South America, climbing mountains and hiking in rainforests with native people.

You’d think a tough guy like this would be pretty into that whole “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. (I don’t really know what that means. My boots have a fashionable and convenient side zipper.)

But he was the first person I heard say, “Some people are born on third base and grow up thinking they hit a triple.” Lots of those people were in the room, so it was a pretty cool moment.

I think we’re all familiar with this attitude when it comes to financial issues. People who think they’ve worked so hard to get where they are, and maybe they have, but who fail to recognize how lucky they were. To have parents who supported them, to have been able to go to college, to not have had to drop out to care for a sick relative.

My professor was fascinated with what he described as the American ideal–pushing through adversity. Not admitting weakness. Not admitting defeat. He told us a story about a time he almost died giving a lecture, because he decided to ignore severe abdominal pain until his appendix ruptured. The man running the event he was speaking at talked to my professor’s wife, after he had been rushed to the hospital. “Your husband’s quite a guy,” he said with admiration.

“You think so?” said his wife. “Well, I think he’s an asshole.”

I want to be friends with her.

I have to deal with this attitude from parents, teachers, and other workers all the time. Many parents have told me that they understand that their child has a mental illness. However, that is no excuse for poor behavior!

Well, it kind of is. Not that we should let it go. But you have to adjust your expectations. If we’re not going to do that, then what does a diagnosis even mean? You have ADHD, you have bipolar disorder, you have PTSD, but we’re going to act like you don’t. Hmm…

These parents always tell me that their children know right from wrong. I’m sure that they do. But the voices in their head don’t seem to. And when your brain is rushing so fast that you don’t have a minute to slow down and take in and process new information, you’re bound to make some bad decisions. We have kids evaluated and diagnosed when they’re struggling with these things so they can get treatment, so adults in their lives can be a little more patient, and so those same adults can learn what’s effective with this child’s unique ways of thinking and behaving. And yet it’s so hard to let go of the idea that clinging to those same expectations, and resisting medication and other treatments, is somehow superior.

I remember talking with a fellow student back in college, who had an IEP in high school and was entitled to extra test time. However, he was embarrassed and always refused to take it. The other girl we were talking to said, “I’m proud of you for not taking the extra time!”

1. You’re not his mom.
2. Why? Because he jeopardized his academic career for the sake of appearances? Because failing in the face of unfair standards is better than passing, if it means admitting you need help?
3. Why are you still talking. She doesn’t even go here! (Anyone? Come on.)

“If we admit that something is wrong, then we’re coddling him!” You’re right. You there, in the wheelchair! Up, now! If we give in to this desire to be pushed around everywhere, she’s never going to get up and walk.

Of course that’s ridiculous. But we say things like that all the time. To people with disabilities we can’t see, to people with histories we don’t know. They’re doing this incredibly destructive, unproductive thing. Why don’t they just stop it? I don’t know. Why don’t we work together? Simply saying, “Stop. Get yourself together. Do things this way” doesn’t make you a purveyor of tough love.

It makes you, in the words of my dear professor’s wife, an asshole.

If I hear someone ask about “that ACS bitch” one more time…

12 09 2011

It’s very difficult having ACS, or whatever child protective/social services are call in your area, involved in your life. They drive me crazy, and I just have to work with them. I can’t imagine them being a part of my family.

ACS involvement starts out as an investigation. Investigations are, by definition, invasive. The kids get interviewed away from their parents. ACS workers look at their bodies to check for marks. The fridge and cupboards are rifled through to ensure there’s enough food. Workers might show up late at night, for a surprise meeting.

It can start to feel like you have no privacy. Like your life isn’t your own.

As a social work agency, we approach our clients from a strengths-based perspective. Meaning we start with what’s working, and build on it. That’s the goal, anyway. Sometimes we start by chasing clients down the block, or getting yelled at from windows. But the goal is to work together.

ACS comes from a different perspective. It seems more of a checklist than a philosophy, actually. Are you doing this? Do you have this? No? OK. Do this and this and I’ll leave you alone. First let me see your children’s beds. You brought the kids to the doctor? All right, I’m going to call to make sure. What are you getting so cranky about?

Because they’re investigating and putting services in place, the focus is on deficits. What’s going wrong. The parent isn’t disciplining the child appropriately, the child isn’t going to school, there isn’t a reliable child care provider, the home is too chaotic and messy. If someone came into my apartment and pointed out that I was unfit to be an adult, based on the fact that the only groceries I currently have are Cheerios and ice pops, my bed isn’t made, and it’s 2011, take down the framed Nirvana poster, I wouldn’t take to it too kindly.

In fact, I’d lash out at the person in question, then begin to doubt myself. Especially if those things that were pointed out were things I was already ashamed of. (When it comes to my Nirvana poster, I, of course, feel no shame.) This is, not surprisingly, the reaction we see from a lot of clients.

One of my families was referred to preventive services through ACS, and continues to have ACS involvement due to an ongoing court case. It’s challenging, because the family hates ACS. Not “please don’t stay in my home any longer than strictly necessary” hate, but “get the fuck out of my house, bitch, before I let this pit bull out of her cage” hate.

I’m always trying to understand my families’ feelings about ACS. At one meeting, I realized how insightful this mother was, and she made it incredibly easy for me. I’m tempted to get her to write a book. You know, when she’s not trying to get ACS off her back, meet with me, attend parenting classes, move where her abusive ex can’t find her, find a job, and get her kids back in school.

At this particular meeting, the mother, we’ll call her Ms. S (for strength, and sass) showed some vulnerability to me, and her ACS worker. The ACS worker was insisting that the children needed to undergo psychiatric evaluations. (The official chant is: 2, 4, 6, 8, when in doubt, medicate!) Ms. S opened up about her difficulties in getting the children to do what she wanted. “I tell them to go, I wake them up, you tell me I’m not allowed to beat their asses, so what am I supposed to do if they refuse?”

Yes, that was Ms. S being vulnerable. She’s tough.

The ACS worker then started explaining her side, in what she felt was a reasonable manner. “I have to go back to court, Ms. S. And if this hasn’t been done, the judge is going to be asking me why. My supervisor’s going to be asking me why. If I say we just made the appointment and they didn’t go, that’s not going to be enough, it’s going to be on me.”

This is when things got interesting.

“Are you talking to me about your job? Your job. I don’t give a shit about who you have to to talk to, this is my life. Do you think I’m not worried about my kids acting crazy? I’m the one who has to deal with them. I don’t care what a judge says, these are my kids.”

It was probably the most honest outburst I’d heard. It led to the ACS worker wrapping up her end of the meeting, and leaving me and Ms. S to it.

We talked more and more about her feelings about ACS. And it became more and more apparent that there is a fundamental flaw in the way our parents are being approached.

Ms. S told me about the supports in her life, particularly her sister and her cousin. They were always the people she could turn to in times of crisis, and when she was feeling overwhelmed. The kids got along well with these women. But when the case got called in, the kids were no longer allowed to pop over to their relative’s home to crash for the night, when things got too hectic at home. The relatives needed to be interviewed by ACS, to make sure they were appropriate.

“I’m not allowed to be their parent. This lady met my kids two months ago, she decides what’s best for them? I can’t say you can go sleep at your aunt’s house? And then she’s coming into my house, looking at my fridge. When I tell her, yeah, I am low on food, she tells me to go to a food pantry. Like I need someone coming in to tell me that.”

They way Ms. S was being approached put her on the defensive, because it undermined her as a parent. It told her that she wasn’t good enough. It didn’t make her think, OK, I’ve made some mistakes, and bad choices, but I’m a good mother, with smart, healthy kids. I’ve done something right. I’m not clueless.

If the goal is to preserve families, and foster independence, this is not the way to do it. This is the way to keep people moving from services to services–ACS case closed, preventive case opened; preventive case closed, mental health treatment opened. This doesn’t inspire our parents to utilize what they know, what they can do, to call in their existing resources and supports to meet their needs and improve the lives of their children. It creates dependent parents who question their every choice, feel that they have no say in their family’s life, and believe that they need outsiders to control their children.

Keeping us in business is not the goal.

…or SocialJerk will give you something to cry about!

8 08 2011

Spanking is a hot topic in my field.

Typing that made me feel a little gross. So let me just say now, some of you may have been directed here by search terms, when you were in fact looking for something a bit different. It happens. The boyfriend and I debated this very topic at a restaurant once, and the waitress definitely did not believe we were talking about child welfare. Please be on your way if this is the case.

It can be a difficult topic to discuss. People have strong feelings about physical discipline. They love it or they hate it. It’s one of those times when we feel the need to defend our parents. “My father never laid a hand on his children!” “Well, my parents spanked me, and I turned out just fine.”

I know lots of people on both sides. Plenty of them didn’t turn out fine, despite their claims to the contrary. But that might just be misanthropic SocialJerk talking.

Just because something went all right in your life, it doesn’t mean that it’s OK. My parents thought bike helmets were silly and unnecessary when we were kids. My brother and I never had them, but we never got into a horrific accident that involved our brains being splattered across the Brooklyn sidewalk. So they’re stupid, right? I mean, I just proved it!

No. This doesn’t mean that if I ever have children, I won’t buy them helmets. It means that I acknowledge that my parents did the best they could, with the knowledge available at the time, and that we were lucky not to be hurt. It’s not going against Mr. and Ms. Jerk to buy my hypothetical kids bike helmets. It’s learning from additional experience and advancements.

So we’re leaving that behind. If you’re going to tell me, “My parents did it!” save yourself the time. I’m not interested.

We often get families referred to us by ACS due to “excessive corporal punishment.” ACS tells the family that they are not allowed to hit the children with an object, and they are not allowed to leave marks or bruises. I guess this is an OK guideline. It doesn’t seem to be making much of a difference, but we need some type of cut off.

Most of the parents I work with come to me seeing their options as corporal punishment, or letting the kids do as they damn please. Working with parents to develop other methods of discipline is a huge part of my job. Explaining that half-assedly trying something for a day does not mean that you’ve exhausted that strategies potential. Showing them that behavior charts are not bribery. Talking about how they felt when they got hit as children–angry, ashamed, aggressive.

One particularly honest parent got  into detail with me about spanking her children. We talked about the feelings she experienced when she spanked her kids. She told me that she spanked her ten year old son (on the butt, with an open hand, therefore ACS approved) one day, because he wasn’t listening. The mom told me that she thought this would get his attention. And it did. He behaved for the rest of the day. He was scared, and embarrassed, and wouldn’t look at his mother, but he behaved.

Success story? Mom went on to explain why she really spanked her son, beyond thinking that she had tried everything else. “I was so frustrated. I was angry. I didn’t really do it because I thought it was what he needed. I thought it would make me feel better.”


This woman changed the way I talk about discipline. Discipline is about getting your child to listen, to do what they need to do, so that when they grow up they can make good decisions, be a productive citizen, and be able to take care of themselves.

It’s not to get your frustrations out. It’s not an outlet, no matter how much of a nightmare little pain in the ass your child is being.

I do, despite not having kids, get how an adult could get that frustrated. When I worked in a neighborhood youth center, there were days that those little jerks (not the good kind) brought me to tears. When they wouldn’t listen, when they were blatantly disrespectful, when they were thoroughly ungrateful, when they fought, cursed, broke rules, ran off, and laughed about how angry I got.

But it still wasn’t about me.

Because of that incredibly honest mother, I approach discipline with my families by telling them they have to be ready for it. They need to have those consequences in their back pocket. If the consequence is a spanking, then fine. That’s their right to run their home that way if they choose. Personally, I don’t agree with it, but that doesn’t matter. But it can’t be delivered in a fit of rage or frustration.

“Because my dad did it” or “because my mom said so” is a fine reason to do things until age twelve. As we get older, we think for ourselves. We learn from what our parents did well. We also learn from what they royally fucked up could have done better.

“Because he pissed me off” is an acceptable reason to punch your third grade classmate, or flip off a cabbie. (Not that I have ever done either of those things.) But it’s not a very good reason to change your disciplinary strategy.

Parents all make mistakes, and that’s fine. Kids are resilient, they get over things. (Seriously.) But we do a great disservice to ourselves and our children if we aren’t honest with why we do the things we do, why we make the choices we make, and don’t acknowledge that we make mistakes.

“Take care of your damn kids” is strengths based advice

6 06 2011

I recently tweeted my frustrations (oh, modern life) over assholes deadbeat dads. It went a little something like this: “‘I don’t have a job’ is not a valid excuse to not pay child support. Your employment status has no impact on your child’s need to eat.”

Most people seemed to agree with this sentiment. Lots of people are out of work. Plenty of people have difficulty paying their bills. However, your number one responsibility is your child. This is a human being who would not exist if it weren’t for you. So you need to figure something out, as soon as possible, rather than expect sympathy for how rough you have it.

I was surprised that some people (actually, only women) objected to my statement, and came to the defense of the fathers in question.

Before anyone tells me that I’m being sexist, or stereotyping, or any other nonsense, let me explain. I don’t care. I can only talk about what I see. I work with thirteen families at the moment. Three have a father in the home. In two of those three families, there are other fathers outside of the home. This leaves me with twelve out of thirteen families with at least one father each out of the home, not paying child support. The ones who are paying do so because public assistance brought them to court. One of those families has a dad who at least comes to see the kids regularly. But that’s it. These kids are being raised and supported by their mothers, or, in one case, their grandmother.

I will acknowledge that there are deadbeat moms in the world. I don’t deal with any, so I’m not talking about them.

In the past two years, I’ve heard lots of excuses for non-payment of child support. Most of them come from the fathers. Some, however, come from women defending the man they used to be with. (We’re still working on that.)

Deadbeat:   “It’s a hard time right now, I can’t find work.”
SocialJerk: “How are you supporting yourself then?
DB:                 “My mom is paying my bills now.”
SJ:                  “Child support doesn’t count as a bill?”
DB:                 “I fell behind because the credit card company was coming after me.”
SJ:                  “Oh, the credit card company doesn’t care about your mom and your unemployment, but your baby should?”
DB:                 “She’s got a new man now, why isn’t he paying?”
SJ:                  “Because they’re your kids! Do you hear yourself?”
DB:                 “I never get to see the kids, so why should I pay?”
SJ:                  “You didn’t show up for visitation! Do you want to reschedule?”
DB:                 “She just wants to spend it on herself.”
SJ:                  “Oh, I get it, you’re being willfully obtuse. Moving on.”

Now, if these men were living on the streets, I might have some sympathy. If they were starving to death, I might agree. If they were having a rough month or two, OK, they might fall a bit behind.

But four, seven, ten, seventeen years? Of not being able to find steady work and being unable to contribute meaningfully to your child’s life?

That’s bullshit.

Not to mention that, though they are at a complete loss as to how to support their children, they seem to be doing all right themselves. They have an apartment, and based on the fact that they are not dead, I gather that they are eating regularly.

One gem actually had the balls to ask the mother of his child for their four month old’s social security number, so he could claim the son he hadn’t seen since the day he was born, or provided a cent for, on his taxes.

Way to go, sir.

Then there is the idea of bringing your child things, like sneakers or toys. Isn’t that important? And isn’t it most important that the child gets to see his or her father?

I hate to break it to these guys (never mind, I actually love it) but their kids can’t eat sneakers and quality time. Yes, it’s great to do those things. You absolutely should do those things. Actually, I’d say that in becoming a father, you agreed to do those things.

But your child also needs food (everyday!) and a place to live. A place with electricity, preferrably. Popping around once every other month for a trip to the movies or Chuck E. Cheese might make you a hero in the eyes of your five year old. But as an adult, you should understand why it makes that child’s mother just think you’re kind of a dick.

I can’t imagine thinking that supporting your children is optional. These men aren’t disputing that the children in question aren’t theirs. They just seem to genuinely think that child support is not a top priority.

People asked me, “How are you supposed to pay for anything if you don’t have a job?” There are some options. The most obvious being, go get a job. I know it’s not easy. But it’s possible. People have made things work throughout history, under worse circumstances. Many of the mothers I work with find time to work, even as they care for their children on their own. I also happen to know that a lot of these dads are, in fact, working, though it’s off the books.

Another option is to talk to the mother of your child. She has figured something out. She had to. She has a kid. And no one would make excuses for her.

Kids are needy. They can be a pain in the ass. But they are innocent, they don’t get to choose their parents, and they deserved to be cared for appropriately. The custodial parent, usually, but certainly not always, the mother, deserves support. Financial support at the very least. It’s one thing that I will forever be hard-line jerk about.

“Do you have kids?” “Do you have my foot in your ass?”

23 05 2011

I spent Saturday, May 21st, the day we all heard would be the end of the world, at my cousin’s baby shower. I thought that I might be hoping for a little rapture action an hour or so in, but it was actually delightful. No gross games involving adults eating baby food or guessing what candy bar has been melted into a diaper (apparently, people do that.) Just a bunch of ladies hanging out, eating too many snacks, and squealing over the tininess of baby clothes every so often.

But then, of course, someone had to harsh my buzz.

“Oh, there’s going to be two babies in the family this summer! That’s going to be good practice for you.”

Naturally, I responded, “Practice? You mean like for football?” I did a little pantomime to get my point across. (Note: SocialJerk does not endorse spiking babies.)

Once I entered my mid-20s, people somehow decided that my uterus and its goings-on were up for discussion. I cannot say that I am tired, hungry, nauseated, or emotional without some helpful soul asking if I could be pregnant. This woman at the shower was a friend of my aunt’s. I did not ask her how menopause was treating her, so I thought it was overstepping a bit for her to tell me that I was planning for babies.

One prize-winner at work brings this up with me regularly. When I explain that I have no plans for children, for a very, very long time (that second “very” is for any family members reading) she will say something charming like, “Well, you never know. It could be a surprise!”

I’m sorry, are you wishing an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy on me? That’s certainly in line with social work values. My responses have gotten progressively more biting. From a simple, “No,” to, “I love my birth control. I tuck it in at night,” to “Surprise pregnancies happen, not surprise babies.” (She had to think about that last one.)

As so often happens, I seem to just be generally ranting. What does this have to do with social work?

Whether or not you have children is of great interest to clients. Just last week a new client asked me about this.

It’s tricky. A lot of times clients ask questions about our personal lives–where we live, how old we are, what we like to do, all of that. I think “do you have kids?” though, is the most loaded question, when one is working with parents. The implication being, if the answer is no, you can’t possibly know anything about raising children.

I usually wriggle around these questions. (Social workers are notoriously slippery, and I am no exception.) Because, really, it’s not relevant. If you want to know about my education or qualifications, you’re certainly entitled to that. If you want to know where I got my awesome new sunglasses, I will tell you, because they were a sweet deal.

But there’s no going back from, “No, I don’t have kids.” I would have to fake a pregnancy like that failed Lindsay Lohan movie no one saw. Including me, obviously. Anyway…

Until you have kids, you can’t understand what it’s like to be a parent. I am willing to acknowledge this. I don’t know what it’s like to have a child, to be completely responsible for another person and have that person consume your every waking thought.

At the same time, this doesn’t mean I have nothing to offer. I have never gone skydiving, but I understand that you should probably have a parachute and an experienced jumper with you. I’ve never gone scuba diving, but I hear that an oxygen tank is rather helpful.

I spent a good portion of my teenage summers babysitting my four much younger cousins on a farm in New Mexico. I did plenty of babysitting throughout college. I worked in a pre school and an afterschool program for a couple of years after I graduated. I have studied child development and psychology. I also spent the first 17 years of my life (and some would say even more) as a child.

Not only do I have experience with kids, but I can assist with sheep herding if you’re really in a pinch.

It might be easier to get around the “Do you have kids?” question if so many social workers with children were a little quieter about it.

“Oh, I know, my son’s school is very similar.”
“My daughter wanted to date when she was that age, I was the same way as you are.”
“I need to get home to cook dinner for my kids now! Start my second job, hahaha!”

That last one is particularly clever. (A rant for another time: leave jokes to funny people.) “My son,” or “my kids” is generally emphasized almost to the point of shouting. Translation: Hear that? I have kids! We’re both parents! So much in common, you should definitely listen to me.

No, I don’t have children. At the end of the day, I have time to hit up the gym, or watch goofy movies (sometimes, A Goofy Movie) with my roommates. I don’t have to pack lunch or do laundry for anyone but myself.

In a way, I think that’s a pretty good example to set. No, I don’t know exactly what your life with children is like. I wouldn’t know exactly what it was like if I did have children, either. But when I have disclosed a bit of personal information to my teen girls, they like what they hear.

“You live with your friends, miss? And you had popcorn for dinner last night?!”

When you spend your formative years caring for your mother and sisters’ children, the revelation that such a thing is possible can be kind of thrilling. We all have aspects of our personal lives that inform our practice and allow us to help our clients in meaningful ways. Focusing on that, rather than one-upping each other, is probably the way to go.

When Good Social Workers Go Bad 2: Revenge of the Wrath

28 04 2011

Working with people always has potential to be frustrating. Especially when those people have mental health issues, developmental disabilities, substance abuse problems, histories of abuse and neglect, two tons of general chaos in their lives, or all of the above. As social workers, we understand where people are coming from.


I had a particularly difficult case to work with for a brief period of time. A single mother and her five year old son had voluntarily come to the agency due to the five year old’s severe behavior issues. They were assigned a worker, with whom they worked for about six months.

Well, I say “worked.” Mom missed almost all of her appointments. She only showed up at the office when there was a crisis. Most often, when it was too late for anything to be done.

Like I said, this family volunteered for services, and then didn’t show up for them. Somehow, their case wasn’t closed. Their worker left, and guess which lucky jerk they got transferred to?

Ah, yes. Because if the family didn’t engage with their original worker for months, surely they’ll go along with a new worker, in a new office, who is under strict instructions to refer the five year old for mental health services and close immediately, before they bring our numbers down any further.

Somehow, things got done. I had to ambush the family at school and at their apartment (my camoflauge gear is second to none) but I got what I needed. They were referred out. Mom came in for a closing conference, and signed off in agreement to having her case closed.

Then the calls started.

While I was away on vacation, my supervisor received a call from this woman, psychotically politely demanding to know why her fucking case had been closed.

Because that is how we get what we want.

My supervisor reminded her that she had attended a closing conference. No, the mom insisted. She wanted the case to stay open until her son received a formal diagnosis.

This is not an uncommon phenomenon. There are a lot of people who refuse to meet our requirements or engage meaningfully in services, but hate the idea of their case being closed. Essentially, they want a social worker on retainer. Someone they can run to when they have an emergency, but not have the obligations of weekly meetings and regular home visits. Oh, and this should also be free.

My supervisor explained, to this irate, swearing woman, how to go about reopening her case, if that was what she wanted, or how to file a complaint.

The issue was regarded as resolved. Until the next week. When I came in to a voicemail, explaining that our services suck, she had the wrong date for her son’s mental health evaluation, and I am responsible for every bad thing to ever happen, from the Holocaust to jeggings.

Despite showing up on the wrong day for her child’s appointment, the psychiatrist did see the family. (Not a moment to soon…sorry, now I’m just being snarky.) So I thought we were done.

Until next week. Another voicemail, explaining that she had been trying to get in touch with me for two weeks, and I’ve been giving her the runaround. She also reiterated that our agency, and our services, suck.

I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were expecting a call back. Apparently, “y’all suck, y’all should get shut down” in fact translated to, “Please return this message at your earliest convenience.”

I passed it off to my director, as my supervisor was out on vacation.

Yes, I opted not to return the call myself. I just couldn’t see the point. For all I listen to and get blamed for on a daily basis, my job description does not actually include the term “punching bag.” This woman was being irrational and aggressive. As I told my director, unfortunately, I do not get paid enough to sit and listen to a diatribe on why I suck.

Apparently, he does. He called her back, since, you know, it’s kind of his role. He then checked in with me, explaining that we have to bear in mind “the kind of people we work with” and that she “just wants to be heard.” Which is why he invited her in, to berate him in person.

That’s his call, if he wants to listen to that. But I really wanted to explain to him–I know “the kind of people we work with.” Because I work with them, while he is in his office filling out reviews and signing off on service plans. (Necessary work? Absolutely. But he’s not out in the trenches anymore, and hasn’t been for some time.) I am understanding for a living. But I’m also human. I have limits. In this case, I reached it.

Oh, and she doesn’t “want to be heard.” She wants to make a scene. There is a difference. Venting is not always productive. What would come from this powwow? I don’t think we do people any favors when we give them the idea that if they yell and swear loudly enough, the rules will be bent for them.

As I predicted, she never showed up, and we haven’t heard from her since. I wish things could have gone differently, and better, but they didn’t. We can’t win them all, and we can’t beat ourselves up over that.

And maybe it’s ok to give ourselves permission to run out of patience, once every few years.

I’m being sincere…no, seriously

21 04 2011

We all have cases that get to us. They take up more of our time than they should when we’re with them, and we continue to think about them and wonder how they’re doing, even after they’re closed. Cases like this kind of define our experience as workers. We wish Steven Spielberg would direct a film about our triumphs and tribulations with them.

My defining case came to me my first week on the job, almost two years ago. A mother was pursuing a PINS petition for her supposedly “out of control” (oh, aren’t they all?) 14 year old daughter. The 14 year old, let’s call her Angelica.

Angelica was an intimidating kid. She was big, and looked much older than 14. She got in fights on the street and at school. She had a mouth like a sailor. (At least, that’s what I’ve heard, I don’t know many sailors.) There were allegations that she was engaging in, what I documented as, “inappropriate sexual activity.” Meaning her mom heard rumors that she was blowing older guys in the stairwell.

Mom…mom was a treat. When they first came in, she wanted nothing to do with me, or our services. She just wanted Angelica out of her house. She was fed up. She told me that her daughter was the only one to give her trouble. Her three older sons were always respectful. (I later learned that they all served jail time. Two for robbery, one for attempted murder.) At times, mom was just nasty to Angelica. They fought like teenage girls.

But for all mom said about being done with her daughter, she still “kidnapped” her the day of her eighth grade graduation and brought her to IHOP, a surprise they couldn’t afford. She worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week, as a home health aide. She slept on a mattress  in the living room. Angelica had a bedroom, which she retreated to often to write poetry. Her brother, his girlfriend, and their two children had the other bedroom.

This kid just got to me. I had her for individual counseling, mostly. After she threw a chair in a mom and daughter counseling session, we decided it would make sense to work individually for a while. Not to mention that mom had no time for counseling, and really didn’t think that she had anything to do with the problem.

This girl was difficult, but she was also hilarious. We laughed in session more than is at all appropriate. And I never had to chase her down. She always wanted to tell me what she had done well–when she avoided a fight, poems she had written, times she made her bed or prepared dinner for her mom. This kid ate praise up like no one I had ever met. It seemed like she had never heard anyone say that she was good before.

But it was always two steps forward, one step back with this family. Or three steps back. Sometimes it seemed like they were running backwards. Angelica would stay out all night. Mom would respond by calling her a slut. Angelica would roam the street, waiting for someone to look at her the wrong way.

One of Angelica’s older brothers came home from prison over the summer. Mom made Angelica give up her room, and sleep in the living room with mom.

Eventually Angelica had such a fit at home that mom called 911, and she was admitted to a children’s psychiatric hospital.

It was supposed to be brief. She had been brought into the ER before, but never admitted. But the days turned to weeks. Angelica was admitted at the beginning of the summer, and talk of getting her home by the fourth of July eventually turned into hope that she would be home in time to start the new school year. She celebrated her 15th birthday there. I brought her a journal, which she kept with her the rest of her stay.

Mom didn’t visit Angelica at first, saying it was too far and she couldn’t afford it. So she started traveling with me. We went for weekly meetings with the psychiatrist, which often resulted in Angelica having to be restrained. I visited even when mom decided she couldn’t make it. Angelica would call me with her food order every week, telling me if she was in the mood for Chinese or McDonald’s. We had lunch together in the tiny visiting room, while Angelica asked for updates on her nephews.

Every time it came close to Angelica being discharged, something happened. Once, she returned from a day pass, saying that she had smoked marijuana over the weekend. The test came back negative. She was sabatoging herself.

Angelica befriended a girl on her unit, who had been sexually abused. Angelica confided in this girl, who encouraged her to tell her psychiatrist, the secret that Angelica had been holding on to for ten years–her older brother, the one who recently returned home from prison, the one Angelica was pushed out of her bedroom for, the one who mom enlisted to help discipline Angelica, had raped Angelica when she was five.

Angelica told us this with a blank face. She started having nightmares and flashbacks. Mom was distraught and didn’t know how to react.

The psychiatrists villified mom. She hadn’t protected Angelica, she wasn’t reacting properly now. They compared the situation to the movie “Precious.” (Because that helps. A lot.) They pretended as though Angelica’s mother could be written out of her life, and Angelica could become a grand, triumphant success story without her.

It was easy to blame this woman. She was far from perfect. But she was incredibly damaged herself. She was the kind of mother that Angelica would probably become, if she hadn’t gotten all the help she was getting in the hospital. Though she warmed and opened up to me over the course of our time together, going so far as to call me for support when she felt that she needed to be hospitalized for her own depression, she refused to discuss her own childhood.

I have no idea what happened, but I have some pretty good guesses.

Shortly after all this, I had to close the case. There was no child in the home, and  the family had been evicted, and moved out of the Bronx. My supervisor held off on this for as long as possible. For a long time, I was the only one Angelica had any contact with that she had known before her life in the hospital. But the time had come for us to close.

Angelica cried when I told her. She told me how everyone leaves her, and she didn’t want to get to know anyone else. Somehow I held it together. But I cried plenty afterwards.

We had our last meeting a few weeks later. We shared french fries and she made fun of me for drinking diet coke, as usual. She gave me an art project she had been working on. I told her I’d be thinking of her, always, and that I wanted to hear from her when she was on the supreme court. She laughed and hugged me good bye.

I’m at peace with the way things went. I wish they could have gone differently, but that’s the job. You can’t stay with people until the end, because there is no end. You can just hope that you’ve done everything you can, let them know that someone cares about them, and, at best, send them off with better tools and skills to cope with what life hands them.

I ran into one of Angelica’s psychiatrists on the train recently. We approached the case from different professions, and somewhat different values, but we both cared deeply for this girl. Neither of us had heard from her family, and we didn’t know where she was or how she was doing.

I just hope she knows that we’re both still thinking about her. I think she’d appreciate that.