SWAAFI (Social Workers Against Acronyms, for Irony)

17 06 2011

In high school, my friends and I went through the early motions of starting an official group called, “SAA: Students Against Acronyms.” We thought we were smart and funny. I’d say we were half right, but it seems like a bit too much credit. We were also lazy, so it never got off the ground.

Little did I know that my future would be AF. That’s acronym filled, for those of you not in the know.

Social workers, or SWs, as I refer to them in my progress notes, simply adore acronyms. We use them in the referral process, in writing up intakes, assessments, and service plans. That all makes sense. Condense everything as much as possible, because we’ve got enough to talk about.

Family was referred by ACS (Administration for Children’s Services) following a CPS (Child Protective Services) investigation. BM (Biological Mother, not Bowel Movement, though it always makes me giggle) reports a history of DV (Domestic Violence) with BF (Biological Father.) MGM (Maternal Grandmother) took custody when children were placed in FC (foster care.) BM (tee hee) denies a history of MH (Mental Health) and SA (Substance Abuse.) Contact information for the children’s GAL (Guardian Ad Litem) is included.

Oh dear. So much work to be done. I’ll have to include it all in my FASP (Family Assessment Service Plan.) What if BM (sorry, it’s still funny) wants to pursue a PINS (Person In Need of Supervision) warrant on the oldest teen? Is the family receiving PA (Public Assistance)? BM (OK, I’m done) is attending a BTW (Back To Work) program, but she missed a few days because her ACD (I honestly don’t even know) child care voucher didn’t come through. If they’re sanctioned, she might need an EVR (Eligibility Verification Review) and that’s a huge pain in the ass. Are they asking for a PE (Psychiatric Evaluation) for any family members? Did we talk to the CM (Case Manager)? Or was it the CW (Case Worker)?

Do any of the children identify as LGBT? Is the family going home to DR for the summer? Do the kids know their ABCs? Are they posting on FB? Do I have time to stop for cash at the ATM? What did I get on my SAT?

After a while, you start to go a bit mad. (We all go a little mad sometimes.)

Using these acronyms says something. It says, hey, I’m busy and important! I have things to say, and very limited time in which to say them. It also might say that you’re well-versed in the world of Twitter.

The acronyms say more than that, though. As I’ve said, social workers are insecure and annoying. Speaking in jargon lets people know that we know the system. I am a professional, dammit! I know what I’m talking about. Oh, you have to ask what PINS or CASAC means? I’ll explain it. And you will recognize that I know more than you.

This sends a message, and often not the message we want to send. I’ve seen workers, social workers and protective workers, or psychiatrists and case managers, or any other variation of well-intentioned helpers, talk in circles in front of their clients. Most of the clients we work with know public assistance lingo. They often know some child protection speak, as well. Odds are, they aren’t familiar with all of it, though. Public assistance, child protection, mental health…it’s a lot of language to be up to speed on.

I felt incredibly out of place when I first started in this field. I thought I sounded like an idiot when I had to ask what one of these things meant. I try to keep that in mind, before I drop initials on a client. I can’t stand when doctors prattle on in medical terminology about…whatever it is they do (I don’t often go to doctors, but I did watch ER) and act like a patient who never saw the inside of a medical school should know exactly what they mean.

I think it does us all well to remember what it’s like to feel like the newbie, like the dumbest person in the room. Some of us feel like that more often than others, but that’s not the point. There are reasons we sound like this sometimes. Sometimes it becomes second nature, sometimes we want to sound like we know the drill, sometimes we try to make ourselves look better than an obnoxious worker, or someone talking down to us.

But sometimes, being so comfortable with the jargon shows how comfortable we are on the inside track, which makes others feel that they’re on the outside. Sometimes making ourselves look better makes someone else look worse.

SA, DV, MH and the rest aren’t technical terms, but they are confusing when you’re the new guy, as a worker or a client. And to be honest, since we’re all friends here–they’re kind of obnoxious. Occasionally, they make us sound like a bunch of douches.

So please, join me in fighting back. Talke back entire words along with me. I’ll be emailing out an invite to SWAAFI later today. Let me know if you want me to CC you.

Social Workers Run More Numbers Than the Mob

7 02 2011

I talk about my clients all the time. I’m sure you’re dying to know how someone gets so lucky as to work with me. Well I’ll tell you!

The vast majority of our referrals come from ACS (New York’s Administration for Children’s Services, which includes CPS) or from PINS (Person In Need of Supervision) diversion.

Go acronyms!

An ACS referral means that there has been a credible allegation of abuse or neglect, but that the children will not be removed. In order to prevent foster care, which is the last resort, families are referred to us for counseling.

PINS is a warrant parents apply for if their child is “out of control.” Skipping school, engaging in dangerous behavior, all the tomfoolery the kids these days get up to. The warrant makes it so that the child can be sent to a residential treatment facility, or something similar.

Because that’s expensive, and the city is a little short on cash (I think they’re going to start charging sidewalk rental fees for walkers) before the courts will grant these warrants, they send the families in for preventive services. So social workers such as myself can fix everything.

Our services are voluntary. However, the ACS workers tell families, “You need to sign on for preventive services.” I then tell them that services are voluntary. The ACS worker looks at me with hatred in his or her eyes, because if the case is not moved to preventive, it stays with that ACS worker. The families are often threatened with returning to court, and ultimately, they sign.

PINS diversion cases are also voluntary. Parents are willing to sign on, often under the assumption that counseling will fail, and then they’ll be granted the magical warrant. These families have been through a lot, and feel that they’ve tried everything. They’re not eager to meet for weekly counseling to explore alternative disciplinary methods, and discuss their own childhoods.

A lot of people who initially seem eager to sign on for services disappear after a couple of weeks. We’re required to see each family at least twice a month, at least once in the home. The goal, of course, is to see them weekly.

This doesn’t sound too hard. But oh, it can be.

I had one family who was at home for a visit by myself and their ACS worker, then came to the office for two visits before singing on. After that, they promptly disappeared. This was over the summer, and it turned out that the mom had sent the two kids to California to visit family for six weeks.

I’ve gone to Staten Island for visits. I could swing San Diego. But my proposal was rejected.

There are people that you need to chase on this job. It’s one if the most frustrating things we deal with. I understand it. These are people who have had negative experience with service providers, and “people just trying to help” in the past. They associate us with ACS, and think I’m there to check up on them. What could be more frightening than the idea that someone is judging you, making a case that you don’t deserve your kids?

But come on. I’m fun! I really am here to help! And for the last time, I cannot take your kids! Even if I really like them. When I haul myself out in a blizzard to try for a home visit , only to find that no one is there when they said they would be…I have to struggle to stay empathetic.

Numbers are incredibly important at my job. I recall one conversation I overheard between my director and my supervisor.

“She’s only seen this family once this month.”
“I know. But she went to the house four times.”
“Yeah, she needs to see them again.”
“I know, she’s trying.”
“OK. She needs to see them again.”

Apparently he’s a believer in The Secret. Just keep saying it, it’ll happen.

A valid excuse doesn’t matter. What matters is results. Stereotypical tough football coaches in movies about high school in Texas are more accepting of, “Well, I did the best I could!” than social work bosses.

My director once decided that a monthly competition would get everything in gear. The person with the most contacts wins a prize!

We can’t afford juice boxes for kids’ group, but we’re going to give out incentives to the workers. Fortunately, it never happened.

I had something to do with this. My supervisor had warned me that I was in the lead during supervision (oh yes, I’m very good.) We wound up talking about how uncomfortable this made me.

I understand that numbers are important. We need to document that we are seeing these families. We need to make sure that everyone in the home is safe. We need to meet our funding requirements.

But there are times that it feels like that is what being a good social worker is. I have run into a family in the bodega and counted it as a contact. (Casework, and Sunchips? Yes please!) Did I get any work done? What did we accomplish? The idea that my work is often judged at my agency based on how many times I see these families, rather than the quality of the sessions, is rather disheartening.

This is what frightens me when I think of being in a supervisory role at some point. How do you achieve a balance between the requirements for funding, and what’s best for clients? When these things are at odds, how do you decide what is most important?

No matter what, at least I know what the answer is not–a monthly contest in which grown professionals compete for a (proverbial?) cookie.