Snarky Blog Title # 1704

10 12 2012

There are things we see over and over again in our work. They’re bad, but we get used to them. You got so frustrated that you beat your kid with a chancla? Yawn. You don’t have an involved dad? Um, who does?! Obviously, jerks, I’m being facetious. These things are never ok, or no big deal. You just grow somewhat accustomed to them. If we were shocked every time something like this happened, ninety percent of social workers would be dead of a heart attack within their first year on the job.

There’s one thing that comes up, time and time again, though, that’s different.

Sexual abuse.

Sometimes, it’s the reason a family is referred to us. This isn’t ideal, as there are agencies that deal specifically with sexual abuse and are really better suited to this work. But there aren’t that many of them, there are long waiting lists, so you get what you get.

Yes, that is how seeking help works if you don’t have money. But I digress.

Very often, it’s not in the referral. Rather, it comes up later. It’s not the main issue. That would be truancy, or the kid having an attitude, or getting into fights, or excessive corporal punishment. The abuse comes out later.

When it comes up, we’re supposed to address it. So I do. Part of this involves asking the kid how they’d like to handle it. Would you like to try sexual abuse counseling? Do you want to talk about it?

A surprising amount of the time, they do. Kids often know what they need, and if they’ve been wanting counseling, they’re relieved to have it offered. Sometimes they don’t want it, though, and I respect this.

Apparently, this is very bad.

Not long ago, a family was referred to me, and on their laundry list of issues was that their teenage daughter had been molested by a family friend. She was very upfront with me. Ever since this incident came to light, it was all anyone had talked about. This child had to talk about it to a guidance counselor, to her parents, to an ACS worker, to the police, to a sexual abuse investigator. She was done talking about it.

Her parents accepted this. They went out of their way to make sure she wasn’t withdrawing from the family, as they knew this was what she turned to, and let her know she could talk about it if she wanted to. But the court insisted she seek counseling. Actually, she was told, “If this child doesn’t get sexual abuse counseling, all of the kids will be removed.”

Or, as she heard it, “If this happens again, keep it to yourself, because it’s going to lead to all of these problems.”

(For the record, she went to the sexual abuse counseling agency, where it was recommended that the family keep doing what they were doing and bring her back for counseling in the future, when she was ready. In other words, in your face, Your Honor.)

Sometimes, when a child is sexually abused, we forget that they’re still a person. They become Sexual Abuse Victim #23489542. Everything is about the abuse.

I’ve gotten numerous referrals for girls who are being “promiscuous” or “acting out sexually.” Victims of sexual abuse most certainly do this. But there’s no technical definition for “promiscuous,” and I can’t always tell the difference between “acting out sexually” and “having sex.” Most troubling, we never get that concern for a boy.

Actually, we got it once. The boy in question was gay. Apparently, if you’re having sex with boys, it’s to be pathologized.

It reminds me of how some people justify “abortion is bad.” They have a friend who had an abortion and has been a total wreck ever since, she just never got over it. You know who else had an abortion? One in three women. They’re not all a disaster beyond repair.

I realize I left myself open for some “heh heh, is that why women are such bitches, amirite bros?” Stop now, you’re better than that.

We notice the squeaky wheels, is the point. But plenty of kids are ok. Overall, kids are resilient. We’re not supposed to say that, because supposedly this denies that sexual abuse is awful and inexcusable. It is awful, it is inexcusable. I have a hard time coming up with reasons why people who even think this might maybe be an ok thing to do shouldn’t, at the very least, be sent to a remote island to live out the rest of their days. (There aren’t that many remote islands, they might figure out how to make a boat…)

But acknowledging that children are resilient is much better than going on and on about how victims’ lives are destroyed. You sound like a real asshole when you do that.

Some kids are ready for counseling. Some aren’t. They might be later. Forcing a kid into it is terrible and can be retraumatizing. Sometimes, a parent or other caring adult believing, supporting, and appropriately protecting a child, assuring them that nothing was their fault, can be sufficient.

Sexual abuse, more than almost anything we face in our work, brings up our own issues. It horrifies and disgusts us, and it makes us feel protective, and it makes parents feel guilty. We need to be sure that we’re addressing what’s best for the child, not what makes us feel better.





Unforgiven: Social Work edition

13 02 2012

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (thank you, as my self esteem is directly proportional to my number of followers) will know that I was a little upset about the Grammys last night. It’s surprising, because I didn’t even watch them.

Was Chris Brown at the Grammys before? I think maybe he was…ah yes, three years ago! He was going to perform, but the night before he punched Rihanna, his girlfriend at the time, leaving her face a bloody and bruised mess.

I’ve already talked about the damage Chris Brown has done. Not only to Rihanna, but to young people across the country, for whom he further normalized violence as a part of romantic relationships. So I’m not going to go into that again. (Though he did. He did a lot of damage, on a problem that was already bad enough.)

Chris Brown is right at the top of SocialJerk’s Shit List. I assure you, it’s an unpleasant place to be.

But he’s not alone. He has the company of Ben Roethlisberger and Roman Polanksi, to name a couple. Michael Vick had set up residence, but he’s done some work in getting himself removed.

A dinner party you’d never want to attend, amiriteladies? These are people that my friends and family members know not to mention in my presence. If they don’t want me to turn red, and them to not have a chance to speak for the next twenty minutes.

Just so we’re clear–Michael Vick, the one who killed and mistreated dogs, got the harshest sentence (a fine and a suspended prion sentence) and has done the most to make up for his crimes (through seemingly heartfelt apologies, and by lobbying for harsher penalties for animal fighting.) He’s also, arguably, the most vilified. He’s the one who mistreated and killed dogs. The others exploited, raped, or beat women and children. In case you weren’t feeling my rage.

I can’t see any of these individuals ever getting off said shitlist. I just can’t.

Chris Brown and Roman Polanksi in particular have acted like and been treated like victims. They have whined like petulant children about how unfairly they’ve been treated. None of these men have made a real, meaningful apology. They’ve all been defended relentlessly in the press.

What do I want from them? So glad you asked. I want this:

“Wow, I appreciate you all caring about me, but I’m a total piece of shit. I hope that by taking some time out of the public eye, I can do a lot of work on myself, and be deserving of your respect. But until then, remember–I’m a real asshole, a danger to society, and I’m just not worthy of it.”

Then, after some time off, they either shut up and stay that way, or, preferably, get out there and educate people as to why they were wrong.

Chris Brown tells young women that real men won’t hit them, and tells young men that he was an idiot for ever putting his hands on Rihanna. Roman Polanksi will explain that it doesn’t matter if that 13 year old got herself wasted and ran around naked begging for him to anally penetrate her (which people seem to believe), he was the adult and should have acted like it. Ben Roethlisberger will tell men the world over that, even if you’re a big star, more physically powerful than women, and a women is drunk, she can still say no to any sexual encounter with you.

The social work connection, and there is one, is forgiveness. Forgiving the unforgivable, excusing the inexcusable.

Not all of the people we work with are exclusively victims. Some of us work with men who abuse women, women who abuse children, people who abuse animals, and many variations thereof.

People who are abused, very often, want to go back to the person who violated them. They want the abuse to stop, of course, but they don’t want that person out of their life. Children love their parents. People love their partners. Teenage girls at least feel like they love their boyfriends, and maybe they do. They want to forgive their abuser. It’s normal. It takes a domestic violence victim an average of seven times to leave an abusive partner, before leaving for good. And the time that victim is most at risk to be killed is when she’s attempting to leave, and right after.

Remember that next time someone offers Rihanna talking to Chris Brown as evidence that we should all get over it.

Many of the women I work with have suffered through domestic violence. This means that their children have as well. One of those women lived with the man who beat her horribly for thirteen years and had five children with him. Just recently, she left him for good. When she says she hopes she never sees him again, I believe her. She made her kids deactivate their Facebook pages so their father couldn’t find them–these days, that’s the ultimate in putting your foot down.

Another woman is, sadly, just at the beginning of this process. She left her abusive partner once, and has considered leaving him many more times. She has one very young child with him, and three older children who are completely fed up with their mother’s relationship.

She keeps bringing this man, who hits and intimidates her, back into her home. This woman forgives this man, for some reason. Her children are in the position of trying to forgive her, because she’e their mother. And I’m doing my home visits, trying not to narrow my eyes and spit every time this dick man looks in my direction.

She’s made her decision. I can make sure that the children are safe, and that this family has somewhere to go when he inevitably does it again, and I can try to help her to understand that what he’s doing is inexcusable and that it follows a pattern. But I can’t make her decide that it’s unforgivable.

She can forgive this man. It doesn’t mean I have to. Rihanna can forgive and Tweet at Chris Brown. That doesn’t mean we should forget what he did and applaud him at award shows. Samantha Geimer can say she’s over what Roman Polanski did to her. Of course she wants it all to go away. It doesn’t make him any less of a sick bastard, and a fugitive from the law.

Don’t let anyone tell you different. Victims can forgive if they feel they need to. We have an obligation to remind them that they deserve better.

I need to figure out a way to work with them all. (My client’s abusive boyfriend, not Brown and Polanski.) Ignoring him and feeling self-righteously angry about the fact that I hate this guy doesn’t move us forward. It makes mom feel like she needs to lie to me about her feelings for him, or her intentions to leave.

I heard a man speak once about telling his friends that street harassment is, for lack of a better term, a dick move. He admitted that it was a while before they took him seriously, because he used to shout sexual comments at strange women right along with them. A friend of mine just stopped using the “f” word (no, the other “f” word) because he realized, “I’m offending an entire group of people that I actually don’t have a problem with when I do that.”

Both of these guys used to do something stupid and offensive. We’ve all made mistakes. Many things can be forgiven. People can learn. And, I think, they can change. We can agree to disagree, but that’s the basis of the profession, and if I didn’t believe that I’d quit and work at Starbucks.

I don’t want to go out for a drink with anyone on my shitlist. They’re bad people, and some of them would probably assault me. But I do honestly believe that they can improve themselves. Michael Vick, even if you still choose to hate him, has taken some steps. Many of us have people in our lives who did as well. Whether we want to deal in forgiveness or not, the reality is that we have to work with it.

And please, if you’re as angry as I am, consider making a donation to SafeHorizon, a wonderful organization that helps  victims of domestic violence. (I swear, I did!) Tell them the Grammy’s sent you.





Chester, this is the last time I’m gonna tell you…

1 09 2011

There’s a very awkward, complicated problem that comes with being an adult who works with children. I bet a lot of you can already guess what it is.

My parents tell stories about growing up in the 1950s and 60s. A nice guy in their neighborhood who used to take them to the World’s Fair for the afternoon, helping adult neighbors who didn’t have children around their houses, that kind of thing. No one batted an eye.

There was the one creepy guy on the corner, who all the children were instructed to run past, but other than that, sexual abuse wasn’t really a thought. Fortunately it worked out all right for them. The well-meaning adults in their lives were just that. But of course, as awareness of sexual abuse rose, it became apparent that a lot of people aren’t to be trusted with children, and they are not always the people you think.

We’ve kind of swung the other way in our culture. From, “You want to take my kid to the movies? And  you’re buying? Hell yeah, do whatever he says, kiddo” to “Don’t post photos of my child on Facebook, the pedophiles are in the computer and they’re tracking her!”

It’s worst for men…what kind of guy wants to work with kids? I mean, there must be something going on. That’s so often the first reaction, and it’s repulsive. Plenty of men want to work with kids for the same reasons women want to work with kids–kids are funny, they’re cute, and it’s nice to think that you can make an impact on someone who is still impressionable.

But this is still a part of the job. It starts at the very beginning. (A very good place to start.) When I was hired at Anonymous Agency, I was required to undergo a background check and get fingerprinted. Curiously, I did not have to do this when I was an intern. At my previous job, at a neighborhood youth center, we required this of interns and all employees. Good thing, because we did once have a convicted sex offender come in looking for work.

Dude, your picture is on the internet. Are you kidding me?

Given that scare, I’m on board with the policy. This is what we do. They’re also not just looking for sex offenders, there are a lot of restrictions, including a history with child protective services, that could make on ineligible for certain jobs with kids.

Then there are the discussions in staff meetings. Is it ever OK to be in a room alone with a child? What about during a home visit? Do you go into a child’s bedroom? What if a teenager is home alone when you show up for a visit?

The assumption isn’t that anyone we work with would want to hurt a child. It’s that you want to avoid the appearance of anything that could possibly be “misinterpreted.” And that’s all anyone will say. Because people get uncomfortable.

I’ve had it happen, on numerous occasions, that I’ve gone to a home and found a teenager there alone. The kids are usually polite and welcoming. There’s no hard and fast rule, so we’re always told to use our judgment. Recently, I went to an apartment and found a sixteen year old girl at home with her twelve year old sister. I stood in the doorway, we talked for a few minutes, and I left a note for their mother. Last Christmas, I tried to do a home visit and found a sixteen year old boy, who seemed to be permanently leering, at home alone. In his eagerness to answer the door, he neglected to put on a shirt. When he asked if I wanted to come in, despite his mother being out, I politely declined.

Actually, I shouted, “NO I DO NOT WISH TO COME IN, WITNESSES, CAN YOU HEAR ME?” and put an SJ-shaped hole in the front door.

That neighborhood youth center that I started at was actually a Catholic organization, which meant that they had to meet certain requirements set by the diocese. One of these was a rather strange day long training that involved videos and discussion. (I won’t say the name here, but I’m sure some people are familiar with it.)

It was well-intended, I thought, given the Catholic church’s history ongoing bullshit on the subject. (I came to feel that they were primarily trying to cover the church’s ass, and to point out that just because there was an epidemic of child abuse and a cover-up of epic proportions within the church, doesn’t mean that all pedophiles are priests. Because that’s what’s important.) The videos were designed to teach us how to spot sexual abuse, and how to avoid doing anything that might lead to false accusations.

Some of the suggestions made sense. Avoid being alone with one child. Meet with kids in rooms with windows.

Some of them seemed to have been written by someone who had never met a child.

“Don’t touch the kids.”
OK, when I have to pull a splinter out of a crying five year old’s foot, I’ll just pat her on the head with a roll of paper towels. And I’ll tell them all that I’m made of hot lava.

“Don’t help the kids change.”
If I could avoid it, I would, but we had 1.) low-functioning autistic children who were not yet toilet trained and 2.) a pre-k program. Parents, I know those little belts, suspenders, and overalls are just adorable, but if you don’t want your child’s pre-k teacher having anything to do with their pants, stick to elastic waistbands.

“Don’t have favorites.”
Well, I can’t help it if some kids are way more awesome than others.

Then there was the “spotting child abusers,” which supposedly contained stories from actual victims of sexual abuse. Interestingly enough, they hadn’t managed to find one child who had been abused by a priest. Strange, because I know many who are willing to say quite a lot about the church. They went through all the usual hullabaloo, informing us that child molesters are not “strangers,” lurking in the bushes, waiting to snatch your children. They’re people you know, people you trust. (Like…priests?)

They then showed a video of a concerned mother watching a greasy-haired man, dressed like a longshoreman, approaching her children in a playground, next to some shrubbery.

I really recommend these videos for home entertainment.

I’m glad that we’re vigilant about child abuse, of course. But it makes me sad to see what a part of my job it’s become. Not assessing for abuse in families I work with, but making sure no one thinks that my coworkers or I am up to no good.

Paranoia doesn’t help anyone. It leads to panic, and good people, men especially, being afraid to work with children because they don’t want the suspicion and hassle. And that doesn’t make anyone safer.





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.





Our bodies, Ourselves (Also, our snacks)

3 02 2011

Last night, we packed up the scented candles and snacks (my goodness, my girls love ranch dressing) one last time. It was our final teen girls’ group.

SocialJerk, you said you weren’t going to cry.

OK, I’m back.

We did the things you usually do when terminating (my, that word sounds kind of harsh) with a group. The girls did evaluations. We reminisced. We talked about what went well, what could have gone better. And we asked the girls what they learned.

They had a lot to say. A lot about confidence, and self-esteem, and making friends. But one thing stuck out to me.

“I learned that I can say ‘no.’ Like, that people should listen to it.”

It’s not a groundbreaking idea, I know. And this girl had definitely heard before that she has a right to her boundaries, and that people should respect them.

But still. This was something important, that she credited group in helping her with.

Weeks earlier, we had a rather memorable sex ed chat with the girls, which was spread over two sessions. A lot of the second week was spent talking about the right to say no. Is “no” ever not enough? Can you ever sacrifice that right?

Some of the girls thought that you can. Quite easily.

We asked the question, “If a girl is wearing something sexy, and she’s assaulted, does she have the right to go to the police?”

Why was I so naive to think that this wouldn’t be a debate?

Almost all of the girls thought that a girl dressed “too sexy” was at least partly to blame for her assault. My co-leader and I challenged this assumption. We talked about self-control. Why are we constantly degrading men, acting like they’re dogs who can’t help but hump anything that will hold still for long enough? It seemed like these girls legitimately thought that a man could not be expected to have any restraint if he saw a woman showing too much skin.

I then pointed out how subjective “too sexy” is. Have you ever seen footage from Afghanistan? Saudi Arabia? They would be scandalized by you showing your arms, your ankles, your neck. Does your grandma ever think your clothes are too revealing, when you know they’re exactly what everyone else is wearing? OK, so how could one possibly regulate this?

“Well, maybe the guy AND the girl should go to jail.”

Oh, dear.

One girl (there’s always one) looked at the rest like they were crazy. “I don’t show off my body, but no one has a right to touch you if you don’t want them to.”

Thank God for you!

The other girls came around a bit. And I think they will continue to. I’m glad they were exposed to some different ideas. It’s important to challenge those immediate assumptions, because people really just don’t realize how silly the knee-jerk reaction is. Oprah showed us all when she interviewed Trisha Meili, “the Central Park jogger,” who was raped while out jogging. She asked her what she was doing in the park at that hour, alone?

We’ve all heard it. Most of us have thought it. “It’s terrible what happened, don’t get me wrong. But what was she doing in that area/out at that hour/walking alone/going home with that guy/drinking that much/dressing like that?”

Um, she was probably looking for someone to assault her horribly. I mean, obvi.

We need to teach girls that they have control over their own bodies. That they have rights, and are entitled to their boundaries. That their bodies are not on loan.

A lot of us have been hearing about HR 3, a charming bit of legislation that would make it more difficult for low-income women to have Medicaid pay for their abortions in cases of rape.

Stay classy, Republicans (and one Democrat.)

They want to limit Medicaid funded abortions to cases of “forcible rape.” You attorneys out there will recognize the term “forcible rape” from your second year law class, “Legal Terms That Do Not Exist and In Fact Make No Sense.”

All rape is forcible. What they’re saying here is, you weren’t really raped. Unless a stranger jumped out of the bushes and assaulted you while you were walking to the library in a safe neighborhood at a reasonable hour, preferably while you were wearing a nun’s habit, it simply doesn’t count. Saying “no” isn’t enough. You are not in charge of your own body.

I don’t delude myself into thinking that my girls are C-Span junkies, hanging on John Boehner’s every word. But they are getting this message. It’s a part of our culture.

And let’s bear in mind, in our work, that this is something we need to challenge. Making sure that women are aware that they have agency over their lives and bodies is crucial to what we’re trying to do. The idea that one of these girls, my girls, could be victimized in the future, or think of how they’ve been victimized in the past, and see it as something they brought on themselves, breaks my heart.

Which is enough to get me preparing for our next group already. I’ll get the ranch dressing.