IEP, as simple as 7 3 9.

1 10 2013

We’re back to school. Pencils, books, teachers’ beautiful looks, all that. It’s a delight.

I’m also back to fighting with school staff. I swear, they started it!

I’ve mentioned before that I am a product of the New York City public school system, among other things. I got a good education. Partly because I had access to quality gifted programs, partly because we weren’t in the absolute worst district (we’re number two!) and partly because I had a mother who worked in education, knew the system, and knew her kids’ rights. She also knew not to believe us when we said we didn’t have homework.

Most of the kids I work with aren’t so fortunate. We can talk about kids getting lost in the shuffle, who don’t get to live up to their potential, all that. But then there are the kids who just get completely left behind, because they’re not even in the right classroom.

Not the little weirdos who wander into the wrong room well into December. (That wasn’t just me, right?) The kids with special needs who are expected to sit in a mainstream class that’s in no way suited to their needs. The kids for whom individualized education plans (IEPs) were created.

“Oh, come on SJ. They’re saying everyone has ADHD these days, they don’t all need a special class!”

For the last time, who are you and how do you keep getting access to my blog? If you don’t spend much time in schools, you might think I’m talking about kids with a slight behavioral problem whose parents want the latest, hippest diagnosis.

I hope “she’s caught the vapors” makes a comeback, I really do.

But I’m talking about kids who, no question, need services.

I work with a visually impaired child who was expected to take his state exams without any special equipment and without any additional time.

I work with a girl who was told that she had dyslexia from the time she was in kindergarten, whose mom couldn’t get the school to evaluate her for three years.

I work with parents who were told that they didn’t need to request an evaluation in writing, only to find out months later that yes, they did.

I work with parents who were told not to bother having their child evaluated, they need to transfer them to a special school because the current school can’t meet their needs. (What do you need to effect that transfer? An IEP!)

I work with kids whose 504 plans (IEP lite) have been completely ignored.

And I work with many, many children whose parents had concerns, and wanted their kids evaluated, and were made to wait and wait and wait. It can take a full year.

It’s not supposed to, legally. But what’s to stop the school from losing (I am giving them the benefit of the doubt and not using sarcastic air quotes) the letter the parent wrote requesting the evaluation? Three times, in one case.

Parents can pursue outside evaluations. But for people with no money to pay out of pocket, chronic insurance problems, and little time and money to travel to even more appointments, it’s not usually an easy option.

The most important thing, I’ve learned, is to know what your kid is entitled to. Know the law. Tell them they have sixty days to get this done. If they disagree (“oh no, it’s actually ninety”) let them know you’re happy to use the Google right there until you sort this out. That phone in your pocket is not just a Candy Crush machine, don’t be afraid to break it out! Ask staff members, “is the case still in compliance?” They will get chills, and know you mean business.

And get other people on your side. I have seen the way some school staff ignore parents I work with. I’ve seen how they change when I walk in with that parent. Some parents are intimidated by their kids’ schools. Maybe they didn’t graduate themselves, and feel out of place. As much as we want to empower families to do it themselves, sometimes we need to advocate.

That’s how my weekly calls to one school started. I just wanted to check in on progress! My hope is generally that they’ll get so annoyed with me that they’ll give me what I want just to shut me up.

School SW: “Well, I told the mom we’ve had a lot of requests and are extremely busy with IEPs.”

SJ: “Yes, I understand. You have sixty days to complete it, correct?”

SSW: “Yes, that’s right.”

SJ: “Ok, great! So she submitted it the first day of school…let me just get my calendar out and we can count to exactly when we can expect this to be done…”

SSW: “Sure…I mean we are really swamped with requests…”

SJ: “Oh, I understand, we’re all so busy. November 8th! That sounds doable. I will look forward to hearing from you. I wasn’t able to talk Ms. M into filing a complaint with the city when the school failed to have this done last year, so I’m so glad we’re doing the evaluation now!”

Then I had to reassure this meek, deferential woman that there is a fine line between rude and assertive. Occasionally I cha cha slide across it, but there’s nothing wrong with strongly advocating for your kid.

Now, was it this school social worker’s fault? No. The school has a psychologist one day a week. The psychologist has four other schools to serve. She’s there to provide services, and she’s not the enemy. So we need to demand better for our kids (whenever the government comes back.)

In the meantime, we need to do for our kids. We need to work with the system we have now, while agitating for change. Know your rights. Don’t take no for an answer.

And don’t be afraid to get a little rude if you have to.


27 06 2013

If you have teacher friends, surely you know what Wednesday was. (Aside from marriage equality day–yaaaay!) It was the last day of school here in New York. Those kids and teachers were all out celebrating the fact that they won’t have to see each other or bubble in an answer sheet until September. Or until next week, in cases of summer school.

Some kids, of course, won’t be back in September. Because they’re graduating!

If I may wax poetic for a moment, graduation is a big fucking deal. Especially in the Bronx, where we consider fifty percent of high school students graduating within four years to be a glorious improvement. A sad few of my teens have graduated high school, or are on track to do so. More are successful with GEDs, but that’s still a tough route. As for college…all who graduate college while working with me will get a free vacation to Fiji.

Graduation is rare. It matters. A lot of families don’t get to experience it. Their kids don’t walk across the stage and get their diloma as the entire family cheers for them, despite being specifically told to save their applause for the end. So, it seems, people kind of take what they can get.

I recently stopped by to conduct a school visit during kindergarten graduation. Had I known, I would have made it another day, but News 12 doesn’t mention these things. Yet.

At least, I think it was kindergarten graduation. It might have been some sort of baby prom. The five year olds were decked out in three piece suits and floofy dresses. There were balloons, talk of parties, and kids were handed envelopes of cash and prizes by family members.

I get being proud. And of course some kids struggle in school from the beginning, and their accomplishments should be lauded. But completing pre-k and kindergarten? Kids shouldn’t really even be aware of promotion at that point. “Hey I can write my name!” “Check out my rocking color wheel!” “I’ve met my developmental requirements!” Huh?

I actually worked at a pre-k, including graduation, back at Anonymous Youth Center. We made paper hats, the kids sang a couple of songs, and we said something nice about each kid. (Even the one who kept passing around lice.) The parents took a few photos. It was an adorable photo op. We said graduation with sarcastic air quotes. Before anyone brings up culture (I know one of you is itching to!) Anonymous Youth Center and Anonymous Agency serve a very similar demographic. There just wasn’t that expectation.

I wouldn’t care, but it has an impact. One of my more low key mothers, who is extremely involved in her children’s education, was horrified at her newly six year old daughter’s kindergarten graduation. She picked a nice new skirt and t-shirt for the kid. Then she was informed she’d be getting tickets for the event. She heard other parents comparing what restaurants they’d be going to afterwards, and if they were getting a hall (oh yeah) for the celebration. “I was going to take her for ice cream, just the two of us.” Um, yeah. That sounds pretty good.

I would have brought up what we did for my kindergarten graduation, but I certainly don’t remember it. I think my parents went, but who knows? I know they witnessed my debut as The Little Engine That Could. But that was an accomplishment. It was really one of the finest performances in a Canarsie auditorium in 1989, but I digress.

Obama even got into it a while back, admonishing parents not to make such a big deal out of eighth grade graduation. “It’s just eighth grade, people.” (He doesn’t have my gift for words.) You’re supposed to finish eighth grade.

It’s hard. You want to be encouraging. You want to tell kids they’ve done well, and to keep going. They need to know how good academic achievement can feel. But we don’t want it to be an “everybody gets a trophy” scenario. (By the way, stop blaming my generation for that nonsense, it was our parents’ idea.) We don’t give out prizes for the shit you’re supposed to do, to paraphrase Chris Rock. No plaque for not getting arrested, no Certificate for Participation in Breathing. We need to strike a balance.

It starts with remembering that ice cream with your mom is almost always the best way to celebrate.

We might need some education.

26 03 2013

I am a proud product of the New York City public education system. I know there’s supposed to be a joke in there, something about a criminal record, or the misspelling “edumacashun.” Classic stuff. But I choose to skip it. I get a little defensive. I got a great education, I swear! I was fortunate enough to have the benefit of quality gifted programs, a mother who was familiar with the Board of Ed, and parents who…y’know…made me go to school everyday. (Even when it meant that I threw up in class. Twice. In seventh grade. Really secured my popularity, guys.)

I have a soft spot for public schools, is what I’m saying. Despite all of their issues.

But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t a hotbed of crazy.

I visit schools a lot. I have spent more time in Mrs. Whoozywatsit*’s third grade class than I ever did in eleventh grade physics. (Sorry mom.)

Overheard in school:

“Miss, I like your piercing. Did that hurt? You got tattoos, right? I want a tattoo. I want a butterfly on my back.”

This was a second grader. A child unknown to me. During reading time. No one noticed she was talking to me. No one noticed the strange adult in the room, either. Hold off on tramp stamps, kiddo, there will be time.

“Um, I don’t know. I guess so? Whenever?”

A school secretary, when I asked if I could come visit a child. Seriously.

SJ: “What are your other triggers for your anger?”
13 y/o: “FIGHT!”
SJ: “Seeing fights?”
13 y/o: No. FIIIGHT!

The point was moot, as the child I was quietly counseling ran past me to observe and heckle a brawl in progress. I slipped out shortly after.

Then there was the time I was present for a fire drill. Well, I say fire drill, it was actually some little jerk pulling the alarm and fucking my shit up.

I had to evacuate, of course. With 4200 excitable teenagers.

“Hey, you need to be escorting your kids away from the building.”

What’s that? “My kids?? Oh, right. Why would an assistant principal know who his teachers are? Yes, he thought I worked there. It was a chaotic situation, and I have a helpful nature, so I just did it.

“Hey, put that phone away!”

A security guard, chastising me for live tweeting the event. Because I had suddenly become a student.

“I’m here to see Reginald Von Gooberschmidt*.”
“Well his class is in gym.”
“OK, can I see him?”
“We don’t know where he is.”
“I thought he was in gym.”
“They don’t usually go.”
“Can you check? I mean, I called and you told me to come in.”
“We don’t know where he is. He probably left the building.”
“This is a fourteen year old child, no one can tell me where he is?”
“Probably not.”

Me and a guidance counselor. I’d go on, but my spleen ruptured.

There are, of course, great moments too. Watching a veteran third grade teacher redirect a chaotic group of thirty two kids, many of whom are supposed to be getting one on one help but aren’t, with nothing but rhythmic clapping? That’s amazing. A pre-schooler requesting that I go down the elephant-shaped slide, then excitedly introducing me to all of her friends is a dream. (Hint: she is friends with everyone.) Getting to be on a first name basis with a guidance counselor who is constantly, heroically available to every kid in that school. It’s rather rocking.

Public school employees and social workers have a lot in common. We’re underfunded, most people don’t have a clue what we do, our jobs are way more dangerous and they should be, and however we might feel on a rough day, we’re doing it for the kids. So let’s remember our common goals, and laugh and work together. I suggest we start with high fives.

Everyone loves high fives.

*Not a real name, unfortunately.

Intern-o Inferno

2 07 2012

Not long ago, I lamented the fact that there are so few options for kids who aren’t going to school. The teenagers are most often chased around half-heartedly until age seventeen, when they’re told to go get their GED. Working with then is frustrating. They want their diploma, if not a college degree, and they want to be able to get a good job. They just can’t bring themselves to get to school everyday.

The girl who really spurred me to action had turned seventeen, and only wanted to work. She had spent her life taking care of her younger siblings and their mother, and just didn’t have time for school. All the statistics in the world about how much her lifetime earning potential would improve with college didn’t matter–she wanted to work.

I thought about what might work for her, and then it dawned on me. Interns! Our interns! Duh. How could you be so stupid, SJ?

There are a few great programs for over-age, under-credited high school students once they turn seventeen. They’re given paid internships, some of which Anonymous Agency is kind enough to offer. They make money, which encourages and enables them to stay in school, which is modified to fit their needs and schedule, and they gain valuable work experience. Not everyone has the sick professional connections of high school SJ– I mean, my brother’s roommate’s mom was a librarian.

I was fortunate in my first job. It was pretty easy for me to do well. For one thing, I shelved books, and I know how to count and alphabetize.

For another, my parents set a good example. They have the sort of work ethic that should really only come from growing up in the Great Depression, or being a nun. If they could stand, they went to work. If I wasn’t actively throwing up on myself or others, I went to school. This carried over onto my first job, and all subsequent ones. My mother’s voice saying, “What does that mean, ‘not feeling well?!’ The books will everywhere! It shall be anarchy!” has been internalized. My father’s complaints about the unprofessionalism of his staff who wear flip-flops to work and loudly rehash episodes of Springer have stuck with me.

I hated it when I was younger, and friends told me they had missed a day of school because they had a headache or took a day off from their part-time job were up late the night before (no threats of imminent death, even!) but I realize now that it was a privilege that gave me a good head start. Sure, it would be nice if I could call in sick without feeling even sicker with guilt, but it’s set me up for a successful future.

A majority of the kids I work with miss a lot of school. I’m not talking about the ones who are sent in for educational neglect when they don’t attend thirty days in a row. They just miss days, here and there, consistently. Or they’re late. They oversleep, they stay home to help their parents with something, medical appointments are scheduled on school days, they claim to be sick and their parents ask the kid to report the thermometer reading independently, and don’t follow through with the hard-hitting questions of, “So then we need to go to the doctor?” or “Look at my eyes. You’re too sick for school, really? Honestly?” (Amateurs.)

This gets pretty frustrating when trying to get kids to go to school regularly, and trying to get their parents to understand that they need to support this. It’s even worse when a person who has grown up with the “School? Maybe. Not today” mentality is now working for you.

The seventeen to twenty one year old interns we get are, obviously, young. It’s a first job for most of them. A majority of them have grown up in families like I described, in which getting to school on time everyday was a priority somewhere between “walking the dog” and “buying pretzels.” Also, we’re a social work agency, so we like to be nice, encouraging, and high five whenever possible.

It may not seem like it, but these are ideal conditions for a throwdown of unprofessionalism.

Most of these young people are excited to come in to work. So excited, that they forget to fully dress themselves in the morning. There have been many half-shirts, or sweatpants advertising the wearer’s ass as being “Pink” or “Juicy.” (Yeah, we need to stop that, ladies.)

Some seemed excited to come in to work, but then…maybe weren’t. They started calling in sick, two out of three days, or coming in ten minutes to three hours late with no explanation. As social workers in a rough area, our minds immediately go to the worst case scenario. She’s been mugged! He’s being trafficked for purposes of sexual exploitation! Her boyfriend snapped and beat her! By the time the kid rolls in, offering a shrug but no visible injuries, we’re just so relieved that he or she is all right that we let it go.

Sometimes, the intern in question does have an excuse. “I have a test tomorrow and I need to study.” Hey, school comes first, I respect your education! “My baby is sick.” Oh my, go! Do you need a referral to a good clinic? “The bus was late.” We’ve all been there. SJ tweets about it!

At some point, though, this fades. The excuses are more along the lines of, “I wasn’t feeling well.” Yes, it’s been three weeks, you might want to get that laziness checked out. “The bus took twenty minutes.” Yeah, that’s how long it takes everyday. Why are you three days late?

There are the performance issues as well. Of course people need to be trained for their first job. But at some point, you need to remember to write down the messages that you take, and answer the doorbell when it rings. I don’t know what else to say.

When no one is getting their messages, and the information that was supposed to be shredded was accidentally faxed to strangers, it needs to be addressed. But who is going to do that? Well, I guess I could, because I’m the one who had asked her to do that task. But really, the administrative assistant should, because she’s the direct supervisor. I suppose we could ask our director. I mean, the buck stops with her. Oh, could we call the intern’s program coordinator at her school?!

We’re social workers. The interns have a lot in common with the kids we work with. They tell us all about why things are so difficult for them, and about all the other responsibilities they have. We don’t want to make things worse for them, and we don’t want to be the bad guy. So we grumble quietly, and just do it ourselves.

I’m not blaming the interns (entirely.) We owe them more. We need to have enough respect for their intelligence and abilities to realize that they are capable of rising to meet expectations. Our kids are tough and resilient. They have dealt with much worse than constructive criticism, and they will continue to do so in their future employment. I think it’s pretty clear that we’re not doing them any favors if we send them off into the Real Work of Work thinking it’s ok dress like they’re attending some kind of trampy sleepover, or show up when the mood strikes.

So please, someone, tell the intern that she needs to put on a sweater. Because I really don’t want to do it.

Summertime, and the living is…meh.

29 05 2012

This past week, most of us Americans enjoyed a long Memorial Day weekend. This is a time meant to honor our fallen military. Typically, that means barbecues with red, white, and blue paper plates, and perhaps a furniture sale. For me, it meant a day out on the roof with an Asian American hip hop crew.

I mean, obviously.

The other significance that most people attach to Memorial Day is that it kicks off summer. As a social worker, I can’t wait for summer. However, as a social worker, I’m dreading summer.

Yeah, you read that right. It’s my blog and I don’t have to make up my mind if I don’t want to.

Pro: The weather! It’s glorious!
Con: How sweaty can I be before it interferes with my work?

I like hot weather and, by extension, wearing little clothing. My preferred way to go running is in 90% humidity, 95 degree (Farenheit, don’t worry, foreigners) heat. I know that I’m in the minority, but I love muggy, New York summers.

I don’t like showing up at people’s homes like a deranged sweat lodge escapee.

Pro: School is out!
Con: School is out! (Yeah, I do that a lot.)

This is what I waited eagerly for as a kid, of course. Now, though, I can’t stand it.

It’s not because I don’t think kids should get to have the same fun I did. I would love for them to be able to enjoy Girl Scout camp (where they become lesbians and do abortions) and complete their mother’s educational assignments. (Draw a map of the colonial United States? Sweet!) But a majority of my kids do nothing. They try to work, but it’s not easy to get a job. Some of them scramble to make up credits in summer school. The rest lounge. Then they get back to school, and their teachers work until November to get them back to where they were in June.

Yes, kids need a break. But two to three months off every year is insane and irresponsible. These kids aren’t harvesting crops, so what’s the deal? They’re so far behind as it is, usually. A majority of my kids have been held back at least once. Summer learning loss is real, and it doesn’t help.

Pro: Camp is the best! Better than the rest! THIS IS A REPEAT AFTER ME SONG!
Con: They’re not repeating after me.

Like I said, I loved camp as a child. I loved swimming, learning to set fires, stupid songs, checking for ticks after a long hike…the Girl Scouts were good for this city girl. But getting kids to have this awesome experience? It’s an uphill battle. Day camps fill up incredibly fast. So fast that a many of my kids who attend are usually in more of a voluntary summer school kind of thing. (Meaning not many of them attend.) You pretty much have to be a psychic, or show up to every free day camp program in the borough every day starting in February, asking for an application, child’s current physical in hand.

The Fresh Air Fund is a wonderful option. If anyone if unfamiliar, it’s a free program that pairs low income NYC children up with either a host family, or a sleepaway camp, for a couple of weeks, to give them an outdoorsy swimming-hole type of summer experience. Awesome, except so few are willing to do it. The parents are nervous. They are convinced, often through experience, that child molesters are all around us and they shouldn’t let their kids out of their sight. (Never mind the dangers in their own homes and neighborhoods.) Well, maybe the hyperactive little boys can go, but definitely not the girls. Unfortunately, by the time they realize they at least want their sons to be gone for a couple of weeks, it’s often August, and therefore too late. Did I mention that this is somehow my fault?

Pro: No more teachers! No more books!
Con: Where the hell did everyone go?

I love hearing that my kids are enjoying themselves. That they’re gotten to visit family down south (fun fact: 90% of my families do not know if their relatives are in North or South Carolina. I don’t know how they get there.) or in Puerto Rico, or the Dominican Republic. I love if they have the opportunity to participate in the Fresh Air Fund. I hate roaming the streets aimlessly, poking my head over the fence at public swimming pools like a decidedly creepy adult, desperately seeking an MIA child. Normally I can track them down at school.

Stupid summer.

Parents very often forget to tell me that they or their children will be away. It’s not until I call their emergency contact and hear, “What? They’re in Santo Domingo until next month!” that I piece it together. If Anonymous Agency were willing to send me to the resort to get those contacts, instead of expecting me to intercept my clients’ passports to prevent them from leaving, I wouldn’t mind so much.

Pro: People are outside. Yay community!
Con: People are hot and on top of each other out there. Boo violence!

Wonderful things happen when people are outside in beautiful weather, combatting their boredom. Work together to open that fire hydrant. Share an icee with a neighbor. Play ManHunt (hide and seek in the dark, pervs) until your mom calls you to come home. Take a trip to Coney Island and eat hot dogs and go on rides until you throw up.

But bad things also happen. People are a bit more on edge, because they’re hot, don’t have air conditioning, the kids are running wild, and they don’t have the money to do all those things they want. Things are magical over the summer, but they also get a bit sinister. The street harassment gets more aggressive, and fights erupt more easily. Fights lead to shootings, and we have enough of those in the winter.

There are ups and downs, pros and cons, peaks and valleys, vanilla and chocolate, to everything in life. This is a phenomenon on steroids in social work. We have to take the good with the bad, reveling in good moments, and sarcastically lamenting the bad ones on Twitter.

I hope you’ve all got a well-deserved vacation coming. Or at least a neighbor to open the fire hydrant.

Age is nothing but a number. An ever increasing number

12 03 2012

When I was fresh out of a pineapple under the sea social work school, I was 25 years old. I worked for two years after undergrad as a child wrangler coordinator of an elementary after school program, so I wasn’t one of those brutally obnoxious 23 year olds, but I was close. I had also always been a year younger than everyone in my grade, either due to being a genius, or born on January 1st. My brother and most of my cousins are older than I am. In short, I’ve been rather accustomed to being one of the youngest, wherever I go, for quite some time now.

But of course, things change.

There’s a lot of turnover in social work, particularly in the field of child welfare. I mentioned recently that I’ve noticed that everyone in child welfare seems to have either been in the field for fewer than three years, or more than thirty. There’s not much in between. This isn’t terribly surprising. It’s a high burnout field. People get into it when they’re young and energetic. A lot of the time, that doesn’t last. For some, work in child welfare is like me every year the day after the New York City marathon. I think, why don’t I do that? It seems amazing and like lots of fun. Then I run for three miles and remember that I don’t really care for it.

Then there are others who just never seem to leave. Many are talented, and dedicated to the field. They rise within the agency and make changes from the top. Some just stick around long enough and wind up getting promoted because…seniority, or something. No one really knows.

I’m coming up on three years, so I guess we’ll find out which category I fall into.

My first year as an intern, I worked with homebound senior citizens. These are the people we ominously call the “oldest old.” 85 and up, for the most part. They looked at fresh-faced little SJ as though a fetus had been sent to their home. They asked how old I was and reminded me to wear a coat.

The next year, I began working with families. It seemed that all we talked about in supervision and in class was the fact that I, like many of my student contemporaries, appeared to be about 12. Would this be insulting or troubling to families? I mean, who is this kid, telling me how to raise my kids? Would the teens walk all over me because I’m obviously not a real grown up?

For the most part, it was never a terrible issue with clients. Most people seemed willing to take me on merit. What held me back was not my age, but my inexperience. I lacked confidence in my abilities, because you know, I didn’t have much in the way of abilities yet. (By the way, students–it’s fine. Everyone has to learn, and there’s no other way.)

It was, however, a bit of an issue for coworkers, at times. I had a supervisor who condescendingly told me she was too nervous to send me out on home visits, because I looked like I could be her daughter. Cool, I’ll just put my feet up, I guess. People felt free to ask how old I was, which I think is a little rude, unless you’re trying to set that person up on a playdate. My thoughts and opinions, or plans for my career, were often met with a laugh and an, “Oh, you’ll see how it is after a few years!” Will I? Tell me how it will be, soothsayer, I wish to know the future too!

Like I said, though, things change.

I’m 28 now. I’ve always looked young, but I’m old enough now that people who think I’m a teenager are either under eight, over 80, or a little deranged. Last week I did a school visit, and was scolded for not having my school ID. I patiently (or something) explained that I was a social worker, not a student, and was allowed up to the office after a minimally invasive metal detector wanding. (Imagine going through the equivalent of airport security every day, just to go to high school. Ugh.) When I got up to the guidance counselor’s office, I was immediately asked if I was Miguel’s mom.

I have no idea who Miguel is, but I know that he’s not my child, and that he’s a high school student. Meaning that it seemed that I had aged about twenty years on the staircase.

I’m not the youngest around the office anymore. There is a crop of 24 and 25 year olds starting up, and I’m suddenly in the strange position of being considered one of the seasoned workers. (Mmm, paprika!) These new workers are more idealistic and energetic than me. They might even be cuter than me…I’m pretty sure they’re not cuter than me. But it’s weird to no longer have that, hey, I’m the youthful new gal thing to fall back on. I’m legit now. People come to me with questions about paperwork and benefits, and very often I know the answers. They come to me for advice when they’re stuck with a client. The assumption there is that I know what I’m doing, which can be a little scary to live up to.

While I’m still mistaken for a teen or a parent during school visits, at some point it will only be parent. And that will make sense. Then I’ll know I’ve made it.

But I’m pretty sure I will freak the fuck out when I turn 30.

Days like this (in a good way!)

21 02 2012

Is it me, or have things been depressing around here lately? A crappy awards show encouraging America to embrace an admitted domestic abuser, children being shot, three days of useless trainings…

That last one was just me.

My twelve year old, the victim of the shooting, deserves all sorts of awards for being an incredibly tough, resilient kid, and is doing amazingly well. He is home and recovering perfectly. We’ve discussed the fact that this college essay will be flawless. I greatly appreciate all the support from readers, and I know he would as well.

So I think it’s time for some happiness.

A couple of weeks ago, I got a frantic phone call from a school social worker demanding that I get over to the school, as there was an emergency with one of my thirteen year olds. She went so far as to insist that I give her my personal cell phone number, so she could be sure I was on my way.

I pride myself on my trustworthiness and punctuality. Doubting them is a really good way to get on my bad side.

I asked what was wrong with Jackie Roberts (obviously not her real name, as I am not an asshole) but the school social worker told me that there was no time to explain. Honestly, explaining would have taken less time than that dramatic, Jessie Spano style “THERE’S NO TIME!!!!!!!!”

I seem to have a different definition of the word “emergency” than many people. If it doesn’t warrant a call to 911, I wouldn’t call it an emergency. If it is a real emergency, don’t call me, as I get queasy easily and will just try to put ice on things.

When I got to the school, Jackie was crying in the office.. The AP was impressed that I had gotten there so quickly, so the school social worker assured her it was because she threatened to come get me if I didn’t get over there right away. I said, “I don’t know about that, I’m here for Jackie,” and reminded myself that this school social worker has been a positive influence in my girl’s life and that dropkicking her would be a poor example to set.

Jackie tearfully told me that her mother didn’t care about her. There may be a thirteen year old girl somewhere on the planet who hasn’t felt that way, I just haven’t met her. Jackie said that her mother favored her other siblings.

The school staff explained that they had called Mrs. Roberts because Jackie kept having problems with one particular girl in her class, and they wanted the parents to meet. Jackie’s mother got frustrated and refused, saying she wasn’t dealing with Jackie causing problems anymore.

Not ideal. But let’s remember–mom has nine kids, one of whom is severely disabled, she has been clean and sober for five years, didn’t make it beyond the seventh grade, and has a terminal illness.

“Overwhelmed” doesn’t quite scratch the surface.

Mrs. Roberts is an extremely tough woman. She loves her children fiercely, but her favorite word is “fuck,” and they communicate their love via sarcasm and humor. Obviously, I love them dearly, but I can see how other people might misinterpret the family’s intentions.

My dear school social worker also told me that mom had a problem with Jackie being a “tomboy” (translation: gay) and objected to her having a “little girlfriend” (translation: no, really gay.)

This, I couldn’t understand. I was at the home when one of the older girls brought her girlfriend home for the first time, and mom’s only question was, “OK, you gonna be nice to her?” Mom has also always let Jackie spend time with her aunt and aunt’s girlfriend.

The school social worker started talking about the feasibility of removing the children, and whether they could find a foster home for all of them together. I thought that this was the equivalent of showing a man wedding reception seating charts while speed dating–jumping the gun just a bit.

We determined that Jackie was not afraid to go home (safety first!) and formed a plan. I went over to the home a few hours later, shortly before Jackie got home from school. I was prepared for one of “those days.” I figured I would leave with a child safe, but unhappy and feeling unloved. I was ready for Jackie’s mom to tell me that she didn’t care what I or anyone else thought, that Jackie was just fine and the family would do what they wanted.

That’s not what I got.

Mrs. Roberts was, in her words, fucking pissed. She didn’t understand why Jackie couldn’t stay out of fights. We talked about Jackie’s need for her mother’s love, and the fact that mom could relate to Jackie’s difficulty in controlling her temper. Mrs. Roberts agreed that she wanted to spend more time with Jackie and talk more openly with her.

I asked about the gay issue, as I had to. Maybe I had completely misread this woman, and she was a violent homophobe who was damaging her daughter’s self esteem.

“I know she likes girls, I don’t give a shit. I worry about her getting teased at school but there ain’t shit I can do about that. That’s why I got to be friends with her girlfriend’s mother, because the two of them spend so much time together. You know I like gay people, Ms. SJ. All my kids can be gay.”

She turned to Jonathan, her eight year old. “Jonathan, you like boys? You can like boys, you know.” He looked mildly scandalized. “Ma, I like girls.” “I know, you’ve said that, I’m just saying you can like whoever you want.”

Her seventeen year old son Anthony walked in. “Anthony, you wanna like boys?” “Ma, for the last time I’m not gay! Thanks for the offer, though.”

I guess I can see how her feelings on the subject were misconstrued…

Jackie got home, and the three of us sat down in her bedroom. Jackie was still emotional, because she’s thirteen and it is therefore in her nature. She initially sat at the opposite side of the bed, but her mother put her arms out and told her to move closer.

That cold hearted bitch.

Mrs. Roberts spoke openly and from her heart, more so than I’ve ever heard her. She was still mom, of course. Her speech was still sprinkled with obscenities, but Jackie and I both knew how it was all meant.

Jackie tearfully told her mother that she felt that she got blamed for everything. Mrs. Roberts told Jackie that she was sorry, and needed to try to yell less. This was the first time I heard this woman acknowledge that she had something to work on.

They talked about how the children used to get hit, when mom drank. Mrs. Roberts told her that she’s working on yelling less as well, but that it was a process. She told Jackie that she wanted to have more “girls’ nights” with Jackie and her sisters. They talked about Jackie’s girlfriend. “I don’t know what you did to that little girl, but she’s obsessed with you. Did you kiss her? Did you touch her butt?”

Jackie giggled furiously. “Ma, that’s gay.”

At this point, I couldn’t help it, and laughed out loud. “Jackie, you did not just say that. You are ridiculous.” Jackie and her mother, tough women of the Bronx, giggled right along with me.

I saw Jackie at school the next week, and she cheerfully told me about the night before spent chatting and play fighting with her mom. We also discussed Valentine’s Day gifts, as it was time for serious business, and what could be more serious than that?

That session with Jackie and her mom was one of my favorites I’ve ever had. This mother wants to love her child, and just needs some support in showing it. This girl does not want to leave her home, though it’s imperfect. They are far from a sitcom family. If one were to hear half of the things they say out of context, that person would probably catch the vapors.

But they love each other, and they’re making it work. They crack each other, and their social worker, up. They’re exactly what we’re working for. Families face crises and bad days. They’re not fun, but sometimes great things can come from them.

And that can turn one of “those days” into one of these days.

The State of the SocialJerk

26 01 2012

As good, loyal Americans, I’m sure we all watched the State of the Union address. I know I did. The whole thing. Until just about twenty minutes before it was over, when we realized we were bored and had a stack of Modern Family DVDs. What? Speeches get repetitive.

Before I go on, let me say I like Obama. Like most east coast, liberal, college-educated, fake Americans, when I’m not meeting with my coven over brunch or cavorting with known homosexuals, I’m being inspired by our president. There are some things I wish he had done differently, or at all, but overall, I like him.

As a modern lady (I can be a lady if I want to) I watched the state of the union whilst Tweeting. And I saw that a lot of my fellow American social workers were struck by the same line that I was.

“When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better.  So tonight, I am proposing that every state — every state — requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18. ”

This is an issue that affects my work directly. We work with kids who have effectively dropped out, whether or not it’s legal, all the time. It’s a problem we’re supposed to fix. I could just hear my teens’ reactions to the president’s proposal.

“Wait. I’m supposed to be in school? Heavens to Betsy, I had no idea! I’ll get myself over there post haste.”

I work with two sisters, ages 13 and 15. They’re in 7th and 9th grade, respectively. They have barely attended school all year. They see me for counseling (when I hunt them down.) ACS is involved. The school staff is shockingly dedicated, cares deeply about these kids, and have gone above and beyond to accomodate them.

But they refuse to attend school. They leave the house and go where they please. If they are walked to school, they hang out for an hour and then take off. School staff can tell them to stay, but they aren’t allowed to touch or restrain the kids. They head out to Flying-Spaghetti-Monster-knows-where until the end of the day. Their mother has no control, and has accepted the situation for what it is. They’ve been removed and placed in foster care and returned home more than once, and it made no difference.

They’re already not allowed to drop out, but they kind of have. If the age were raised to 18, would this behavior have been delayed for two years? Maybe. No wait, that’s stupid. Definitely not.

I have worked with other kids who gave up on school because they were so hopelessly far behind. I’m talking about 15, 16, and 17 year olds who were still in seventh grade, and could barely read. If they suddenly passed every year in a row, they would be 22 when graduating high school. And what are the odds that they’ll suddenly get on track academically?

There are some really good programs for kids who have missed a lot of school, are far behind, and want to graduate high school. Young Adult Borough Centers do a great job of accomodating these “overaged, under-credited” kids and getting them jobs and helping them to graduate. There are some wonderful GED programs as well. But the kids have to be in high school, and they have to be at least 17. Prior to that, they’re essentially told to wait it out.

Kids who are already truant in middle school are really lost in the shuffle. For years.

I don’t have all the answers, (it’s true, I know it’s upsetting to hear, but it’s true) but I have seen things work. Some kids have different learning needs and require an IEP, and somehow this goes unnoticed until they’re 13 and running the streets. It’s not ideal, but it’s not too late, and getting the kid in the right setting can make all the difference.

Some kids are afraid to go to school for some reason–threats of violence, fear of being arrested (one of my girls uses this excuse all the time. I think if she were really that afraid she’d stop jumping other students and stealing their stuff, but I digress.) At times this is legitimate, and needs to be addressed either by the school, or with a safety transfer.

A mentoring program or extracurricular activities that require a student to be attending school have made a huge difference in attendance for some kids I work with. One of my girls had zero interest in school, but was sufficiently excited about an afterschool dance program. It got her ass in her seat, which was my goal. Then she realized that class wasn’t quite as terrible as she thought. When kids get to an age where they’re offered, there are alternative schools that do excellent work. We need more of these programs. Desperately.

And we need more options for kids. We have over one million students in the New York City public school system. They’re not all going to graduate. I’m not talking about giving up on kids who are not succeeding academically, but we need to be realistic. There’s just no such thing as 100%. If a young person is really unable to do what is required to get an academic high school diploma, or is so disinterested that the alternative is them getting nothing and being half-heartedly chased by city officials until the age of 16 (or 18) we need another option.

Truancy is an extremely complicated, horribly frustrating problem to work on. There is not a simple solution.

Raising the dropout age, though? That’s just fucked.

You just got schooled

23 06 2011

I swore to myself I was done with school after getting my MSW. I just couldn’t bear the thought of going back. Of course, now I’m starting to feel like I miss higher education. Whenever I get this feeling, I think of my day-to-day experience with schools.

School visits are a necessary part of social work. If parents don’t come in, or aren’t home for visits, one place you can often track the kids down is at school. With teens, this is a bit tricky, because God knows where they run off to, but it generally works for elementary age kids.

Getting a school worker on the phone is so often a treat. Just the other day, I called to find out if a brother and sister were in so I could come see them. I called the attendance office, where I got no answer, so I transferred to the main office. She transferred me to the attendance office. There was still no answer, so I called back. This was apparently a breach of etiquette, according the the secretary. I mean, I had just called. Granted, my call had been transferred to an empty office, and I had not gotten the information I needed, but still. So she transferred me to the guidance counselor. Who was also not in her office. I gave up and went to the school in person.

The kids weren’t there. Sigh.

Several other times, I’ve called to find out if a child was in school, and if I could visit. I’ve been told yes, only to show up to find out that that the child was marked present, but is on a field trip, or in the middle of a test and can’t be pulled out of class. Do I really need to specify that when I ask if a child is in school and I can come to see them, that I mean that the child is actually in school, and available to be seen? When I make plans with a friend, I don’t say, “Hey, let’s meet at the bar around 8. By that I mean, we will both be at the agreed upon location at the agreed upon time. We’ll actually be there. Physically. We will then spend time together. At the bar. Got it?”

Teenagers are tricky. A lot of them are referred to us due to truancy. So you would think that school visits wouldn’t work. However, even chronically truant kids get random urges to go to school. You know, visit some friends, maybe get a free meal. When you’re gone for so long, the surprised looks and greetings you get from classmates and teachers can make you feel like a returning hero. Some kids who don’t attend class are still in school all day long. Which I have never understood. I knew one girl who went to school, and then spent a majority of the day in the bathroom. A public school bathroom.

Just go to class, kid.

When these teens are in school, the problem is tracking them down. Now, I have met some wonderful staff, most often guidance counselors or school social workers, but also secretaries or principals, who really care about these kids and have a sixth sense for where why might be hiding out. However, I have also met plenty of school staff who look at me like I have just asked them to produce a corporeal patronus (side note: OMG July 15th!) when I ask if they can find a student who cuts class frequently.

I was once told, “Oh, I don’t know the students. I’m the principal.”

Play that sentence back in your head, and ask yourself if you’re ok with it, ma’am. Not to play the “good ol’ days” game, but when I was in high school, way back in 1999, the septuagenarian principal in my public, 4000 student school spent the entire day walking the halls, and knew all of us, at least by face. Or at least he had the decency to pretend to.

Then there’s obtaining school records. We usually start out by faxing over a request and a release of information. When this is inevitably ignored, we call. Often we’re told that the fax number on the DOE website is incorrect, or that the fax machine is broken. One school had no functioning fax machine for a record five months. Keep reaching for the stars!

At other times I have been told, “You have to ask the teacher for the report card.” Um, it’s 11 am. I’m fairly certain she’s teaching right now. You don’t have this in some kind of computer system? I mean, the report card is printed out. I think it came from somewhere. Apparently, no. I’m an idiot for even thinking this.

One mother is desperately trying to get in touch with her 9th grader’s school to find out if he will be attending summer school, and where. (Such a helicopter mom. Why does she need to know every little detail?) See, the kids was in a District 75 school throughout his childhood, which is a school specifically for special education. He was then placed in a regular high school, with no supportive services. You’ll be shocked to hear that he’s failing all of his classes. Mom wants him re-evaluated and given services. She and I call so much that we are both on a first name basis with the school secretary. Barbara is a doll, but I would really appreciate it if the principal could pick up his damn phone.

We’re all busy. But once again, I must bring up the fact that we are all working towards the same goal–helping these kids. It’s the job we all chose.

We can start by checking the fax machine.

And you do…what, exactly?

17 03 2011

Social work can be a hard field to describe. Not to sound like Forrest Gump (SocialJerk fact: I’m one of six Americans who does not like that movie) but you never know what you’re going to get. Every day is different. Sometimes you’re doing therapy, sometimes you’re advocating, sometimes you seem to be babysitting.

People tend to have very specific ideas about what “social work” entails. We’re either therapists, baby snatchers, or bureaucrats.

The truth is we do some of everything. That’s what I love so much about this job. Part of “starting where the client is,” one of the core values of the profession, is doing what they need, at that moment.

Within reason, of course. I was once asked, by an overwhelmed mother, to take her hyperactive eight year old son for the weekend because she needed a break. I admit, I was tempted. This kid was hilarious, an awesome freestyle rapper, and he had sweet video games. I think that would have been a bit unethical, though, so instead we arranged for the kid to stay with his uncle.

I was also once asked to take a fifteen year old girl back to school shopping, because the mother thought they would fight if they went together, and that the daughter would pick inappropriate clothes if she went by herself. It was a bit awkward to explain that I am not, in fact, a personal shopper, and would not be able to do this. But I put my foot down nonetheless.

Most of the time, though, I try to be where I’m needed. Often that involves keeping someone company as they wait…and wait…and wait for their public assistance or housing appointment. Today it included having breakfast with a four year old in pre-school. (Apple slices? Yes please!) And last week, it was homework help.

I was doing a home visit with a particularly overwhelmed mother of three. The dad is around, but is usually at work, and therefore not much help with chaotic afternoons. And that’s exactly when I was doing this visit.

Mom and I hustled the three kids, ages eight, five, and eighteen months, up to the fifth floor walk up. (Ask me about the home visit diet and exercise plan! Elevators are broken, but my butt has never looked so good!) The kids got changed while mom and I talked. She’s really trying to implement a regular routine with them, and is doing a pretty good job. The eight year old boy has been diagnosed with ADHD, though, and really struggles with homework time.

So I’d heard. This was my first time seeing it.

Mom sat each of the kids down at the table to do their homework, and tried to keep the eighteen month old entertained with blocks.

The five year old wanted us to look at her coloring. Then she wanted to narrate her every move for us, and to get approval for it. The eight year old wanted to eat his chips. Mom said he could have chips when he finished his homework. He got a little wobbly, saying he was hungry. Mom said if he finished faster, he could eat sooner. He sniffled but got back to his work.

Mom and I started to talk, about parenting, politics, something like that, when the kids were distracted by “CAAAAAWWWW!” The family has a pet bird, which the eighteen month old has taken to imitating.

I don’t see why this would present a problem for an eight year old with ADHD, trying to get his science homework done.

Said eight year old ran over to look at the bird with his baby sister. The five year old, naturally, felt left out, and ran over as well. Mom wrangled both kids back into their seats, sat the eighteen month old in her high chair, and gave her a snack.

The eight year old started crying over how easy his five year old sister’s homework was. Mom and I explained that he had easy homework when he was in kindergarten, and she’ll have hard homework when she was in third grade. (Honestly, though, the five year old had coloring for homework. That is totally easy. I would have been done in like, five minutes.)

The eighteen month old started to make her great escape, wriggling out of the high chair, and her older brother came to the rescue. Mom took the baby out of the high chair, chased the eight year old back to his seat, and was immediately asked for help by the five year old. (Um, like I said, she just had to color. Get it together, kid.)

Watching this made my head spin. This lady does this, in a one bedroom apartment, five days a week. Her eight year old son needs someone to stand over him while he does his work. He’s very intelligent and perfectly capable of the work, he just gets way too distracted. Add in no space, an eighteen month old getting into everything, and a five year old asking if she should make the girl’s hair green or pink (green, obviously)…how are we getting anything done?

SocialJerk to the rescue. Or, SocialJerk being mildly helpful. While mom helped the five year old, and the eighteen month old was temporarily entertained by crayons, I worked on third grade science homework. I was able to stand at the table with this kid, point to a question, listen to him read it, and work through it with him. I told him we were going to finish the packet he was assigned together, and we did. No more tears, even.

By the time I left, homework time was done. Mom still had play time and bed time to look forward to, but she was grateful that her afternoon was a little bit easier. It was nice to actually leave knowing that I had made a concrete improvement, however small.

Even though “tutor” is outside of my job description.