My job would be easier if they all drove vans with tinted windows

22 08 2011

May-December romance. It’s a source for fine cinema (Harold & Maude is my nutty roommate’s favorite) as well as good comedy (see Daniel Tosh’s take on Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher’s marriage.) But then it also so often ventures away from the romance, into illegality, assault, and general creepiness. (Mary Kay and friends, grown men telling high school girls that they’re quite mature for their age.)

Such relationships are rather popular with the families we work with. Sometimes it’s clear cut that this is not going to work. Just a hint–if you are forty years old, and sleeping with a fifteen year old, perhaps don’t accompany that teen to her counseling session. You think it makes you look better, but you’re so wrong. And creepy neighborhood guy with a regular rotation of underage boys staying with him, after getting kicked out of their homes for being gay? No one is buying the humanitarian story.

There are also a good number of older women, with children, dating guys just over the age of eighteen. So far I haven’t had any with an underage boy, but they must be out there. Dating a nineteen year old, while caring for pre-teen children…maybe I’m not imaginative enough, but it sounds just dreadful. Whenever there’s a significant other in the home, we try to figure out what his established role is. Is he a father figure, does he provide discipline, is he contributing financially? Frequently in these situations, it sounds like the mom picked up another kid. The children love the boyfriend, because he knows tons of cheat codes for X-Box. Or they bicker and fight like siblings. I tried to figure this out with an old supervisor, who posited, “Maybe it’s just good sex?” We exchanged a look before she said, “Probably not.”

Sometimes, though, you’re at an in-between. A limbo of sexual impropriety. Technically, the relationship is illegal. But there’s a question as to whether or not to make a call.

In a girls group I helped to run, a 15 year old happily shared with us the tale of losing her virginity. To her 19 year old boyfriend. After I cleaned up the confetti I had shot out of a cannon, in celebration of the fact that they used a condom and checked the expiration date, my co-leader and I had to have a conversation.

Age of consent if a big topic in teen groups. People are often under the impression that it’s simply what it sounds like–an age, at which people can consent to sex. But it’s a bit more nuanced than that. Yes, in New York, the age is 17. However, there are degrees. What is considered abuse, misconduct, criminal sexual act, or rape? If the victim is between the ages of 15 and 17, and the perpetrator is under 21, there won’t be a charge of rape. If the victim is between 11 and 15, and the perpetrator is under 18, or less than four years older than the victim, there also won’t be a rape charge. If the victim is under 17, and the perpetrator is over 21, there can be rape charges filed. If what went on between that victim and perpetrator wasn’t what the hetero kids these days are calling “real sex” it gets dropped to a criminal sexual act.

Got it? OK.

These kids already have a lot on their minds when contemplating having sex. Am I ready to do this, will my parents find out, why do I have the voice of that crazy social worker ringing in my ear about not keeping condoms in my wallet? Trying to remember all of these different rules and regulations, writing them out until they resemble a calculus problem, tends not to make it any easier.

But back to that 15 year old. This incident happened when I was an intern, but there have been many since then. The law is clear (I guess) but our best response isn’t always.

You might think being a mandated reporter makes this easier. We don’t have a choice, we just report! But really, it’s more complex. (Of course.) If the parent allowed it to happen, you can report child abuse. Otherwise, you can call the police. Which is, in all likelihood, going to go nowhere.

In the girls group case I mentioned above, the girl’s worker spoke with her supervisor. It turned out that the girl’s mother knew about the relationship, but not the sex. The supervisor told my coworker that she either needed to not discuss this any further, or get all the information she could to go to the police. By the time my coworker got over her internal crisis, (Is reporting a violation of her confidence? Will reporting it protect her or drive her to run away with him? If I turn the boyfriend in, will the girl run from services?) the relationship had fizzled.

We had another girl in that same group who was constantly having sex with men significantly older than her–she was 15, they were in their 20s or 30s. But calling it in never came up, because these guys were randoms, so to speak. There was never a steady boyfriend. We couldn’t get the information on them, because not even the girl who was sleeping with them had it.

In which case, I guess the lesson for creepster guys is to be as much of an asshole as possible, and don’t even friend her on Facebook?

In general, of course, there’s not even a debate here. Sex with someone underage is a terrible, disgusting, dangerous idea, and if you disagree, you really need to take a good look at yourself. And don’t try the tired predator line “Age is nothing but a number.” Yes, it is indeed a number. It is a number that states how many years you have had on this planet, and therefore, how much time you’ve had to accumulate knowledge and experience. So it’s a pretty important number. Try this with the IRS. “Your honor, I know they said I owed $15,000. But income taxes are just numbers!”

At the same time, my first boyfriend was 19 when I was 16. (If my mom asks, he was 18 though. Cool?) Many of my friends and cousins were in similar situations. So I can see how those questionable age differences come about. When you were in high school at the same time, things can be blurry.

Calling the case in doesn’t always fix things. I think back on that 15 year old with the 19 year old boyfriend. They lost interest in one another fairly quickly. I’m fairly certain that Romeo & Juliet style drama would have forced her to realize that he was her one true love. After all, what’s more attractive than an ankle monitor?

Once again, we’re back to using our social work powers– judgment. Hard line regulations are nice, because we can all throw our hands up and say, “Sorry, it’s policy!” But these are situations that supervisors are very often hesitant to get involved in, and frequently throw it back to the worker. “Well, just be careful. Use your judgment.” The admonishment is often that less talk is better, because we don’t want to know, because then we have to do something, is not, I think, the healthiest way to deal with a difficult issue.

I hope that we can at least talk to each other. If for no other reason than those laws are damn confusing.

“I’m a social worker.” “Isn’t that cute.”

23 09 2010

If your ear is to the ground of social worker gossip and controversy (and honestly, why wouldn’t it be?) you might be familiar with this story. Lee Baca is a sheriff in Southern California. I consider myself to be a bit of a Southern California sheriff buff, so it was natural that I would read up on him.

Baca seems like a good guy. Like an officer who is not just concerned with law enforcement, but also with prevention, the very thing that social workers are always going on about. He advocates for mentally ill prisoners, does outreach with homeless individuals, and is concerned about racism, sexism, homophobia…all those -isms and -ias that we social workers complain nobody cares about.

So why are so many social workers calling for blood disagreeing in a polite fashion? This quote:

“I’m not ‘sort of a’ social worker, I am a social worker. Helping people to be the best they can be keeps (the public) safe.”


I mean, the important thing is that the work is getting done, right?

Hmm. I’ve mentioned before that social workers are intensely insecure. We are constantly trying to prove the worth of our profession, that we are well trained and educated, and that not just anybody can do our job.

You might think, based on my wit, wisdom, and grace under pressure, that I am immune from such pettiness.

Think again. (Don’t you know anything?)

This bothers me. It’s a pet peeve of mine. I once heard a 19 year old volunteering in a nursing home call herself a social worker. Well, I helped my cousin yank out her loose tooth when I was 10. When my aunt packed her mouth with gauze and ice, as much to muffle her crying as to soothe her exposed gums, I did not look proudly at her and say, “I’m not like a dentist. I am a dentist.”

That’s not to say Sheriff Baca is doing anything wrong. I’m sure that he’s getting people help that they need, and not mangling anybody’s teeth in the process. The man is doing good work, but now I have to be annoyed with him for a) giving himself a title he doesn’t have and b) making me feel like an asshole for criticizing him.

I went to graduate school. I got my Master’s. For all I talk about insanity and high drama in close encounters of the social kind social work school, we worked hard. I sat for my licensing exam, spending two hours in front of the computer ticking off multiple choice answers. After weeks of memorizing the DSM-IV and the NASW Code of Ethics, I embarassed myself by doing what can only be described as a whooping victory dance when the computer screen flashed “Pass.”

Social work is a specific profession, with specific values, and specific education needed. Social workers are not just well-meaning people out there trying to help people. Can you imagine Sheriff Baca’s sentence with the term “social worker” replaced with “lawyer,” “pediatrician,” or “crossing guard?”

It doesn’t fly with any other profession. And it shouldn’t fly with ours.