Nobody worry, I’m back! Please hold the confetti.

27 03 2012

I’m sure this past week you all sat at your computers, despondent and tearing your hair out due to lack of SocialJerk updates.

No? Maybe a little? I’m being told you were actually all fine. Well, all right then.

Point is, I was gone. For a week. Vacation is important for people in stressful jobs. Unfortunately, “social worker” didn’t make it onto Tina Fey’s work related stress level chart, but I think we’re somewhere between “business guys who do stuff with money” and “managing a Chili’s on a Friday night.” We need to vacate every so often, in order to maintain our sanity.

So the boyfriend and I packed it up for a few days in Orlando. That’s right, Disney, Universal Studios, Pirate’s Cove mini golf, and lots of churros. It’s not what you would necessarily call a relaxing vacation, of course. First of all, the girl who wrote this went to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I saw Hagrid’s hut, drank pumpkin juice, toured Hogwart’s, and pretty much turned into Kristen Bell meeting a sloth.

Plus there are crowds, heat, lines, and children. Some moments make you think, “aw, doing this with kids would be so fun!” But more make you think, “thank Jesus we’re the weird adults waiting way too long for the Peter Pan ride.”

You see a lot of sweet family moments, and a lot of nominees for the Terrible Parenting Hall of Fame. (It’s located in Cleveland.) Your two year old is having a tantrum after spending a fourteen hour day in direct sunlight with no nap? Why, that’s practically unheard of! You’re encouraging your seven year old to stomp on adult’s feet to cut to the front of the line at the Haunted Mansion? I can’t identify a single bad lesson there, good work!

But through all the exhaustion, all of the instances of wishing people wouldn’t try to sneak their kids onto rides they’re too little for, there’s one think you have to love–kids are enthusiastic. Whether it was the nine year old next to me on the Test Track at Epcot, yelling, “Now that’s what I call a roller coaster!” or the six year old next to me on the Tower of Terror gleefully informing me that she didn’t scream at all (I could not say the same) kids enjoy things to the fullest and let you know what they’ve achieved. They’re not worried about looking dumb.

It stops at some point. They become cool. Or at least, they want to be. And there’s nothing worse than a child trying to be cool. At one point, in Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, I looked to my left and saw a four year old dressed in a full Buzz Lightyear costume. He was in heaven and thought he looked amazing. Directly in front of me were three overindulged pre-teens, saying to their father, “Oh my God, this is just birds talking? Can we go? Whose idea was this?”

Yeah, it’s birds talking. It’s awesome, kid, and you’ll do better to enjoy it.

Because taking a vacation from thinking about work would actually make my brain explode, of course I had to relate it back. This probably most accurately sums up what I love about working with children, before they get prematurely interested in dating and therefore way too concerned about looking cool. They just think they’re good at everything. We always talk about what a person’s strengths are in social work. Ask an eight year old what they’re good at. I hope you have a while. All five year olds are good at drawing. Maybe two of my friends will say they are. Singing, dancing, acting, playing the kazoo, training dogs, doing imitations of cartoon voices? All viable career options for the under ten year olds I work with, based on their stunning talents.

Then I ask my teenagers. As much as I love them, the answers of what they’re good at are decidedly different. (Unless they’re trying to be brash and obnoxious, but you can tell they don’t really mean it.) “Um, I don’t know. What do you mean, what am I good at?” “Nothing, not really.” “I guess I do well in school?”

So, some of my favorites, in no particular order.

1.) Back at Anonymous Youth Center, I had the five to nine year olds out on the playground. A seven year old boy came up to me, unprovoked, to let me know, “I’m really good at running backwards. See, like this.”

He then proceeded to run. Backwards. I’ll be honest, it was mediocre. Because no one is good at running backwards. But he was thrilled to pieces and way proud of himself.

2.) More recently, at Anonymous Agency, one of my eight year old girls started talking about her dreams from the future after a counseling session. “Do you want to hear me sing? I want to be professional. Like, on The Voice.”

As we walked through the office, back to the waiting room where her mom was, past all of my coworkers whom she had never met, she sang something I now unfortunately know to be “Baby” by Justin Bieber. (I’m not linking to it. You’re welcome.) This kid sang with one finger on her ear, because that’s how Christina Aguilera does it.

3.) A six year old girl, when I was an intern, told me, “I think I want to be an archaeologist and a chef and a ballet dancer. But also, I should be an artist, because I’m the best at drawing.”

She owed it to the world.

4.) A nine year old boy insisted on reciting his times tables to me, because he was the only one who had memorized all the way up to twelve. It took a long time, but I was pretty damn impressed.

5.) “Breakdancing? I’m really good at breakdancing!” A ten year old boy, who of course got down on the ground to dance in the waiting room. He was undeterred by the fact that no one had mentioned breakdancing.

My social work advice for the week? If you’re feeling down and bored, try for a minute to look at the world and yourself through the eyes of a latency age child. There’s probably something to get excited about.

If not, find a child to laugh at. That should work too.





The monster at the end of this blog

2 03 2012

When I mention that I work in child welfare, there are a couple of questions that people instantly have. One is how I afford to live in New York on that pathetic salary. Well, I managed to afford not one, not two, but THREE awesome pairs of Chuck Ts, so there you go. The next is how I manage to work with those monstrous parents.

I think this is one of the greatest misconceptions of what we do. When I talk about working with parents, utilizing their strengths, and helping them to find their own solutions, people often get a bit tetchy. “Do you really think they deserve that?” “They’re abusive, their children should just be taken away!” Sometimes they throw in an eye roll and condescension, free of charge! “Yeah, I’m sure thinking about what they’ve done and getting in touch with their feelings will fix everything.”

I blame television.

The fact of the matter is, most people do not wake up and plot to torture their children throughout the day. It happens.  There are terrible people in the world. When it happens, you typically hear about it on the news. Years later, you see a special on Dr. Phil, now that Oprah is no longer with the daytime viewers. It’s a big deal because it’s so rare. Commonplace stuff we all deal with doesn’t make it to the box. “Today, you’ll see a family squabble momentarily over what cereal to buy, before realizing that Cap’n Crunch and Honey Nut Cheerios are actually both on sale.” Chilling.

Abusive monsters exist. So do serial killers. (I swear there’s a parallel, so bear with me.) If you get your information on the topic of crime from Law & Order, Criminal Minds, Bones, and their ilk, you would think that 90% of murders are committed by a brilliant, deranged longer who has a secret room wallpapered with pictures of women, with lots of pins in them, leading a team of equally brilliant, extremely good looking federal agents in a game of cat and mouse.

But when we look at what actually happens, that doesn’t reflect reality. Most people are killed by someone they know. It’s usually unplanned and involves that whole “heat of the moment” “in a rage” thing. Those criminal minds aren’t nearly so brilliant, as the initial defense is often something along the lines of, “she stabbed herself? I mean, she asked me to stab her!”

Child abuse is frequently similar. According to Law & Order: SVU and Lifetime movies, abuse often involves international intrigue, plots to sell babies, and kids being chained to radiators. The “chained to a radiator” thing just will not go away. For the amount of times I’ve heard that one, I would estimate that upwards of half of all American children have spent at least an hour of their day secured to a heating appliance.

That’s just not the case. Parents who hit their kids are most often people who were raised with physical discipline, and are using it excessively themselves, or are parents who have snapped. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Physical discipline is not illegal. You’re allowed to spank your kids. (Personally, I think it’s a bad idea, but that’s an entirely different…I won’t say “can of worms,” because that’s gross, but you know what I mean.) You’re not allowed to beat them with objects or leave marks or bruises on them. But when people are overwhelmed, stressed, don’t have realistic and developmentally appropriate expectations of their kids, and don’t have a lot of support, sometimes they lash out in an effort to make themselves feel better.

Before any righteous smartasses jump in, I’m not defending murder, child abuse, spandex, or any other horrors. As in the case of typical murderer vs. serial killer, losing one’s temper doesn’t make it OK. There are still consequences, and the injured parties are still equally hurt. But pretending that people are, in fact, monsters, just doesn’t help.

We can look at these parents as evil caricatures. It makes us feel really good about ourselves. I might make mistakes, but I’m not like those people! It often makes those who hear my touchy-feely social work talk feel quite righteous and superior to say, “Well, I think those parents should be in prison! Those children should be removed!”

Because that solves everything, right? It has to happen sometimes, of course. But it’s generally best for kids to not have to go through removal, and to not have parents in prison.

If there were some magical farm run by happy, plump grandmas, who spent the day baking cookies, reading aloud, and raising puppies, where we could send all of these children, it might be a bit different. Magical farm doesn’t exist. Believe me, I’ve checked.

When we acknowledge that these things–abuse and neglect, which unchecked and at their worse lead to the death of a child–are usually not the deliberate acts of evil individuals, they become much scarier.

I routinely have nightmares that I am somehow complicit in someone’s death. I see them drowning in Jell-O and do nothing, I drive a monster truck into a playground, I accidentally throw peanut butter at someone with a severe allergy on the bus. (Hey, I said they were dreams.) In those dream moments, I have these thoughts. “Holy shit, how did that happen?” I think it’s because I have seen, time and again, how things get out of hand.

Also, I’m addicted to Dateline.

It’s not about rationalizing or explaining away a parent’s behavior. Having the good intention of trying to potty train your toddler doesn’t mean that it’s OK that the child wound up with a dislocated shoulder. But it does make a difference in how we address it.

An evil monster doesn’t learn and change. A person with the right intentions, but few skills and poor self control, can. Often they want to. But they’re defensive. I hear it all the time. “I lost my temper and I hit her. I’m not one of those abusive parents you see on the news, though!”

I’m sure they’re not. And that’s why I got sent in, not Nancy Grace. Before we go any further, let’s all just agree that she’s bad for society. OK? Great.

Not everyone deserves a second chance. (I think we all know what singer/dancer’s direction I’m looking in.) But a lot of people do. From a practical standpoint, even if we think it’s not for the best, they’re very often getting their children back. So we need to work with them, because so often, things can get better.

And no one can work well with monsters.





Dating’s all fun and games, until someone loses their self respect.

24 10 2011

Dating is a funny thing. Older people, and people in relationships, tend to talk about it like it’s fun and exciting. Nights out on the town, meeting new people, the thrill of the chase. (Or is that a safari?) I blame romantic comedies. Terrible movies sending a bad message. Why do they even make those things?

In reality, I hope we all know that it’s pretty horrible. Debating whether or not you should call, or if you should be waiting for the other person to text. If he texts, rather than calls, what does that mean? What is she really saying with that Facebook friend request? How soon is too soon to introduce this person to friends? And why do we all get so pissed when we’re rejected by someone we weren’t even interested in? (Side note: if the son of a friend of my aunt’s happens to be reading this: when she gave you my email address eight years ago, I didn’t even know that she was doing that. I didn’t want to talk to you either.)

OK. Glad I got that out there.

Dating drama has always been fairly minimal in my own life. But my clients manage to bring it back, and remind me of what I missed.

Thank goodness I missed it.

I have to give most of my female clients credit for being hopelessly optimistic. “Hopelessly optimistic” is my strengths-based translation of “blindly in denial.” One young mother I worked with had two children by two different fathers. She presented as being rather tough, and had in fact had a very difficult life. Her father was a drug addict, her mother was abusive, and she was in and out of foster care. She was extremely intelligent, and really trying to be a better parent for her children.

All that intelligence, experience, and toughness, though, didn’t stop her from wanting the storybook romance. I was thrilled to pieces when she finally seemed to be putting those restraining orders against her violent former partners to use. She talked about needing to focus on her children, work on herself, get back to school.

When she came in to the office with stars in her eyes, telling me that she and a friend were suddenly more than friends, I think she could sense my apprehension.

I wanted her to be happy. I wanted her to have the best friend, boyfriend, whatever she wanted. But I also really wanted her to see that the problem wasn’t just that men turned out to be assholes. It was that the men she chose turned out to be assholes. It wasn’t a matter of getting out there and trying more and more, and eventually you’ll find the right one. It was a matter of saying, hey, I’m attracted to scumbags. Let’s rectify that.

But it’s not an easy thing to do. I had to close her case when she moved herself to a foreign suburban land to be with this man. He seemed like a genuinely good guy, so I’m hoping they made it work. Realistically, I assume he either turned out to be hiding his jackass nature really well, or he remained a good guy, so she got bored and left.

Hopelessly optimistic I’m not. But unfortunately, I’m often correct. (I might need to make that my new tagline.)

The world of teen dating is just as torrid, dramatic, and unpredictable as I remember. My goodness, they don’t learn and they don’t give up. No matter what their parents and social workers try to teach them.

Teenagers, particularly girls, are always talking to me about their latest romantic fiascos. The boys are involved in these too, but they like to act as though they’re only interested in sex. They also have a hard time getting their viewpoints across, once I explain to them that they have to say “women” or “girls,” rather than “bitches” or “hos.”

I hear these kids complain about their significant others all the time. One fifteen year old I’ll never forget kept going back to this one boy in particular, always assuming he’d change at some point. He cheated on her, made fun of her in public, swore at her, called her names, and set her up to get jumped by his friends.

He claimed that he tried to get back the jewelry they stole. Apparently that made everything better.

When he said he wanted a baby with her, she was pretty heavily considering it. I mean, who wouldn’t? She’s only human.

We tried to figure out what she liked about him. It took a long time to identify even one thing, though she vehemently defended this boy to her mother. It finally came down to her saying that he was nice to her when it was just the two of them. Sometimes.

This boy being “nice” once erased a thousand wrongs. Just the opposite of this girl’s relationship with her mother.

The mothers are always very concerned about their daughters’ dating. The concerns for “reputation” start very early on. My personal view is that the neighbors can talk all they want, as long as you’re healthy and not pregnant. But I seem to be in the minority.

Yes, your thirteen year old daughter has a hickey. OK, your sixteen year old daughter admitted to letting her boyfriend, in her words, “grab her titties.” (Sounds like a lovely experience, by the way.) My concern is that the relationships they’re involved with are respectful, and that they’re being safe. The moms had other concerns.

“People could have seen them. What are they going to think about what kind of a parent I am, that I’m letting my daughter run around like this?”
Well, your daughter is running around with their sons, so they don’t have a leg to stand on.

“I just need to know if she’s still a virgin.”
Is the priority knowing the answer to that question? Or is it about finding out if you know what your daughter is doing, knowing if she’s at risk, and if she can handle the activities she’s engaging in? P.S. I’ve heard about what some “virgins” get up to. The entire concept is useless and far from exact.

“Can I take her to the doctor to find out if she’s still a virgin?”
NO. For the last time. That is not possible, shows a poor understanding of female anatomy, and is wrong and ridiculous.

“Can you ask her if she’s a virgin?”
All right, I don’t know if we’re getting anywhere with this.

The best handling of a teen relationship I’ve witnessed was a few months ago, during a home visit. The sixteen year old daughter, who is very sweet, quiet, and a wonderful student and artist, had brought her girlfriend home to meet her family for the first time. She was appropriately mortified. Her mother asked, “Oh, you’re Shawna’s girlfriend? OK. You’re gonna be around? You’re gonna be good to her? You’re a junior too, right?” The tattooed gang member twin brother hopped around like a hyperactive goober, making empty, joking threats about what would happen if this girl was mean to his sister. The two then left to take Shawna’s six year old sister to the park. And apparently returned with her intact.

Apparently it can be done. Dating, romance, all that crap, can be gotten through with minimal injuries, physical and otherwise. We can learn from it, and occasionally enjoy it.

But that’s no excuse for the existence of romantic comedies.





List my strengths? How much time do we have?

3 10 2011

The importance of working from a strengths based perspective is one of the first things I learned in social work school.

For those of us not familiar with this, it’s exactly what it sounds like. When people come to us for help, they come to us with problems. Especially if they’re referred by another source due to parenting problems. (ACS, family court, I’m looking in your direction.) They’re constantly hearing: you did this wrong. You should have done it this way. You’re deficient in this area.

So it can be pretty empowering when they come to us, and the first thing they hear is: what’s working for you guys? What are you good at? What are you doing well?

Abusive monsters are fairly rare. That’s why they make the news. Most of the people we work with have some strengths. It can be disheartening, at times, to see how hard it is for some people to name one of their strengths. They just draw a blank. What do you mean, something that the family is good at? Would we be here if we were good at things? One of my most important social work skills is helping them to start small, so they can build on that.

SocialJerk: “Well, you’re here. That’s a strength.”
Mom:           “Only because the judge said I had to come.”
SocialJerk   “But she didn’t carry you here. And you brought the kids. They all have clothes on and they seem to have been fed.”
Mom:          “Um, yeah. You’re saying me not bringing in naked, hungry kids is a good thing? What do you see in this office?”

Ma’am, you have no idea.

It’s true. Everybody has strengths. And many things can be viewed in a more positive light. Yes, you hit your kids, but you did it because you were worried about them getting hurt because they stayed out all night. It doesn’t make what you did OK, but the fact that you had the right motivation means that you can change. You can learn ways to discipline your children that will be less destructive and more effective.

Sometimes, though, kids are in danger. And sometimes, strengths need to take a back seat.

A coworker of mine, back at my second year field placement, had a rather tricky family. The parents had joint custody and a contentious relationship. In this situation, the father was more together than the mother, who rarely prioritized her child and was rather unpredictable in her moods.

A conference was held, due to the father’s concerns about inadequate guardianship and medical neglect when the five year old was with her mother. Apparently, when the little girl was with her mother, she complained about chest pains one night. The mother told her that it was “just her boobies growing,” and to go back to bed.

We all remember hearing those motherly words of wisdom, don’t we ladies? Almost amusing. But this kid had a pre-existing heart condition, and this could have been really bad.

As an agency, we approach our families from a strengths-based perspective. Like geometric proofs, though, this has its limits. (I apologize for that. Sincerely.)

My coworker was horrified by a number of things. One, that the mother was not worried about her daughter’s heart health. At least, not enough to take her to the emergency room that night, or even to make an appointment with the pediatrician the next day. Two, that the mother could not admit that this might have been an error in judgment.

Unfortunately, her supervisor did not help with the horror.

“So what I’m hearing is, you have a different view of when children should be taken to the doctor?”

Yes. Her view isn’t “wrong,” it’s “different!” She believes children should only be taken to the doctor when healthy or dead. Not when they’re ill. Maybe it’s cultural?

No. It was just wrong. And people using this empowering approach incorrectly and irresponsibly makes us all look like whackjobs who don’t put children’s safety first.

I don’t believe in focusing only on what a family is doing poorly, or how they are putting their children at risk. But there is pretty much always some place to meet in the middle. I have to remind myself that just because I dislike the child protective worker’s approach, it doesn’t mean he’s entirely wrong.

Most of my philosophy of work, life, relationships, and eating cheetos boils down to moderation. It is our friend. A happy medium does, in fact, exist. We can keep more than one idea in the forefront of our minds. Safety, and strengths. Guidance, and empowerment. Cheesy snacks, and not having to buy new pants.

We can’t be so married to any one philosophy that it clouds our common sense. Because I’m finding more and more that it isn’t as common as I thought.