Safety First…well, maybe third

23 02 2012

Recently, I was reading an article by a fellow social work blogger. DorleeM interviewed a former police officer who worked in the mental health field, on the topic of social worker safety.

Safety is an important topic in social work. We work in volatile situations with people who have difficulty controlling themselves. We often work in high crime areas. Very often, we have parents who worry about us. (Who can maybe skip over this post.)

Upon coming across this article, I thought, “What could this guy possibly have to teach me? No one would mess with that hat and mustache combo. What could he know about being a lone white girl wandering into situations where she’s not wanted?”

In a moment usually reserved for mandatory trainings, I got something out of it when I wasn’t expecting to. The best thing he did was confirm what I knew.

Be aware of your surroundings. Listen to your instincts. Get out of the situation if you feel unsafe.

When I was eight, some puppets came to my elementary school to teach us how not to get molested. They talked about the importance of listening to what you’re feeling. They termed it the “uh-oh feeling” that you get in your tummy. The one that caused Arnold Drummond to book it out of that bicycle shop.

Oh Dudley, why didn’t you listen?

But that’s essentially what listening to your instincts is. This situation feels weird…why is that? Maybe I should figure it out and be on my way.

I have had some mildly scary sessions. Homes where domestic violence is present are always a bit dangerous. Mentall illness is, by nature, unpredictable.

I once had “white dick sucking bitch!” yelled at me by a client’s adult son. This was shortly after he was released from prison for attempted murder.

In my head, I was thinking, “Watch your adjective placement, you’re saying something slightly different than you intend to. Also, I object to your slut shaming tone. Sexual behaviors are not relevant here.” In practice, I listened to his mother and left the apartment with her.

Those scary experiences with clients are pretty limited, for me. More often, I get nervous on the street.

Not long ago, I was walking to the bus after work, and noticed something was off. A minute later, everyone started running and my brain processed, “they’re going to start shooting.” I essentially did a cartoon double take–THEY’RE GOING TO START SHOOTING!!! A bus driver saw me running towards the stop and waited for me, the modern day Bronx equivalent of a knight riding up on a noble steed, and I was perfectly safe.

Safety is, supposedly, an important topic to our directors and supervisors. They often remind us to “be careful.” (Thanks. What they fuck does that entail?) Or to bring along a coworker if we feel unsafe. (Because they all have so much free time.)

We need to figure out ways to make ourselves feel safe. So, like any sensible lady, I’ve procured some pepper spray and invested in comfy shoes.

I’m familiar with the area. I know when something’s out of place. I’ve seen people get their phones ripped off them enough times to know what someone who is about to do some mugging looks like. If you’re dressing in a manner that doesn’t let me see your face, I’ll grant you that privacy and book it.

I’m so aware of my surroundings you might think I have some sort of weird eye twitch. I also always have my head phones on, so I can ignore you, but they’re on low, so I can hear you. It’s only mildly crafty, but it works for me.

I also know who I can trust. I have been in the neighborhood long enough and forged enough positive relationships that I know where I can run to, need be. One of my moms adores and is always really sweet to me, but I’ve seen her talk to people she feels have “messed with her” and she’s fucking scary. Her door is always open. The deli and bodega guys have sent their kids to summer camp on my Starbursts purchases, so they’re always willing to help. My supervisor grew up in a housing project in the Bronx, and has street smarts and experience that I just don’t. If I plan ahead, she’s happy to work being my back up into her busy schedule. (I’ve only used this once, but it’s good to know it’s an option.)

There was a time in my life when I gave a shit about looking like a crazy person, or insulting someone, by crossing the street when I saw them coming. That time is long gone. As annoying as it is, often the shortest way home is not the safest. I will walk out of my way in order to take the busier, better lit route. Even if I’m racing home to catch Glee.

Note: taking the deserted, poorly lit, shorter route to make it home in time for my favorite show was an actual internal debate I had at one point.

I recently canceled a home visit for the first time ever due to safety concerns. This was the home of my young boy who was shot. The building is awful and run by a gang on a normal day. I’ve had one issue, in which some charmingly terrrifying dude on the elevator yelled at me as I got off, “ACS bitches gonna die!”

Again, my inner monologue was quite sassy. “I’m not ACS, and we’re all gonna die one day, sir. Bitch…I’ll let you have that one.” Again, in practice, I hid behind someone’s mom. My dear client was waiting for me at her door, shot Elevator Tough Guy a look, and there were no further issues.

Aside from that, everyone in that building knows me and greets me like I’m a beloved regular. When I walk in the front door, people hanging out or waiting for the elevator tell me if my client is in.

But that day, I had the uh-oh feeling. There were no creepy bike shop owners trying to ply me with liquor (I really hope you all watched Diff’rent Strokes) but I felt weird about the guys on the elevator.

I got on, though, because I didn’t want people to think I was scared, and I wanted to make my appointment in time, and those elevators suck. You know, those things that seem important at the time?

That feeling crept up on me again, when going to visit my littlest shooting victim. So my badass supervisor came with me, and the day was without incident.

We don’t want to listen to that feeling. One client told me how her son’s court appointed drug counselor was terrified to go to their building. “And I told her, Miss SJ walks right in! Miss SJ is bold.” In that moment, I was proud. I’m bold! I’m not scared.

I’m not bold. I’m dumb. Sometimes you get so used to a place you don’t see it from the outside. I have moments when I’m walking to the train in the dark, wondering what my parents would think if they saw me. My mind essentially replays the scene from Armageddon when Liv Tyler is crying at the TV monitor, begging her father not to go.

I got in a little debate about safety with a fellow student back in la-la land social work school about child protection workers bringing police officers to do removals. This fellow student, a well-intentioned lunatic, said that she didn’t think it was right. “Our clients don’t get police escorts home!”

Um, no shit. Because they’re going to their home. We’re going into someone else’s home. Obviously it’s still dangerous to live in these high crime areas, but there’s a difference between belonging there and being a good-doing interloper. Especially if you’re there to take someone’s kid. You might feel like you belong, as I often did at the building I mentioned earlier. But I was reminded that I actually don’t, by those helpful elevator assholes.

The “one of these things that’s not like the other” is the easiest to pick out, and sometimes, we look like targets. (That’s far from exclusively a race thing, by the way.) We need to remember that feelings of unconditional positive regard and an understanding of the socioeconomic factors that lead to gang violence aren’t going to protect us.

So let’s buddy up, check in, tighten those shoelaces, and make sure your mace is facing away from you.

Happy World AIDS Day! No, that doesn’t sound right…

1 12 2011

I was born in 1984. (There’s a book about it.) I grew up learning about HIV/AIDS. I read now about the years leading up to that point. Ronald Reagan refusing to mention to word, activists desperately trying to draw attention to the fact that people were dying horrible deaths by the thousands.

When I was a kid, we were past the “won’t anyone talk about it?!” point, and had moved onto combatting hysteria. People were scared, and when people are scared, they’re likely to believe stupid shit. Shun others first, ask questions later.

I remember watching a Nick News special (Linda Ellerby? Remember those? Anyone?) on the subject. Magic Johnson sat with a bunch of kids and talked about how not only gay people get HIV, not everyone who has HIV has AIDS, and you can’t catch it from hugging someone. A similar topic was tackled on Mr. Belvedere (Right? Oh, come on!) with one of Wesley’s friends.

The same year Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive, my aunt was discouraged from letting her infant son crawl around on the hospital bed her best friend was dying in. (She didn’t listen.) A few years later, fourth grade SJ got into a heated debate with a classmate over whether or not you can, in fact, catch AIDS from a toilet seat. (I hope he’s reading this–suck it, Rick, I was right!) And around that same time, I experienced the righteous indignation that would become so familiar to me during a family viewing of “Philadelphia.” (My parents had weird movie nights.)

It’s strange to talk to kids about HIV/AIDS as a social worker now. It’s still a part of their lives, and it’s still a very real risk factor. Many of the people we work with are in higher risk groups than the general population.

In college, I indulged my innate need for social work by volunteering at a camp for children with family members living with HIV/AIDS. As an intern, a mother came to me for help in telling her ten year old son that both of his parents are HIV positive.

That was not overwhelming in the slightest.

For most of the kids and teens, though, it’s not really on their radar. Bringing up this epidemic as something that could easily affect them or someone they love, as something they need to be aware of and protect themselves against, is met with strange resistance.

A lot of them don’t seem to know what I’m talking about. They’ve maybe heard of it, they know AIDS isn’t good, but they have no real understanding of how it’s transmitted, that HIV causes AIDS, and that they should be wearing condoms around their necks à la Blossom, just in case.

I watched a lot of TV in the ’90s.

A lot of them think of HIV/AIDS as an African concern. Not something for us healthy Americans to fret about. Or, they think it’s been cured. At least, kind of. I mean, don’t you see all those prescription drug ads on the bus shelter? And haven’t you heard of Magic Johnson?

If our young people aren’t taking this seriously, we really only have ourselves to blame.

At the youth center where I worked, I frequently had to reprimand our high school and college workers for cleaning children’s cuts or putting band-aids on them without gloves.

This child of the ’80s does not touch bodily fluids without a full hazmat suit.

People acted as though I thought badly of the children we served, or thought they were dirty. Or that comforting the children immediately was more important than our own health and safety.  I was blown away by this mindset. I was always taught that you treat everyone as if they’re infected. I’m not going to let someone bleed to death, but I’m pretty sure that the eight seconds (twelve if I’m sweaty) it takes me to slip on a latex glove isn’t going to kill a child or irrevocably damage their self esteem.

Why would those kids who saw that behavior think it wasn’t OK to make an exception too, when it came to safe sex, or some other risk?

I went to the Dragon Lady my former supervisor for help when that mother I mentioned above came to me. This mother and I spent a lot of time talking about the stress and anxiety knowing she was positive had on her. She talked about being afraid of death. My former supervisor was mystified. What is she so afraid of? It’s HIV, not AIDS. Isn’t she on medication? Hasn’t she heard of Magic Johnson?!

I sometimes take for granted the fact that I grew up being educated on this subject at home, at school, and through awesome family sitcoms. Kids today don’t. And they’re still at risk. They need us to remind them of that, and to not stop teaching them how to be safe and smart.

I’m thrilled to pieces that we’re beyond the denial and hysteria (for the most part.) But it seems that we might have entered the “just shut up” phase. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that I’m entirely against that.

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.