I hope my future intern isn’t reading this

29 04 2012

It had to happen sooner or later. The higher-ups at Anonymous Agency have noticed that I’ve been working here for a while, and have deemed that it’s time for me to have an intern.

As an incoming student and intern, I was rather enamoured with the grand social work tradition of giving back and training replacements for when we die the next generation of helping professionals. I recognized that I would be in the position of supervising and teaching at some point.

Now that the point is fast approaching, it sounds a little less noble and a little more terrifying. Being someone’s supervisor, especially when they’re a student, is a big responsibility and a delicate operation. Social workers are needy and insecure (I can say that, I am one) in a tough, emotionally draining field. This is not simply being someone’s boss, assigning them tasks and staying on them to get in on time. It’s nurturing their innate talent, guiding them into a profession that most don’t want, and helping them not to go crazy in the process.

My first supervisor was a dream. I was her first student, and she was adorably excited and enthusiastic. Her door was always open and she brought me cookies on more than one occasion. She believed in my abilities and trusted my judgment. As a result, I was obsessed with not letting her down and pushed myself to do my best work. This was when I was assigned to work with homebound senior citizens, which was far from my chosen field. I was pretty bummed when I first got the assignment. But my supervisor was so encouraging and so clearly loved this population that I was able to see what she saw.

Clearly, I was spoiled.

My next supervisor didn’t return my calls for days, when I was trying to confirm that I would, in fact, be working for her. When I finally started, she continued to pretty much avoid speaking to me.

Remember when I said social workers are needy and insecure? This kind of supervisor turns us into sixteen year old girls going through their first break up. I mean, I just don’t understand what I did! Just talk to me, I think we can work this out! Oh my god, I’m eating this roll of cookie dough, salmonella and my fat thighs be damned!

I was trapped in that classic useless intern role-reading old case files at an empty desk- for the first couple of weeks. I texted my friends and family furiously. I mean, I was paying them to work there. And I was supposed to be preparing for a career that was just around the corner. If there was an opening for a professional highlighter I’d be set, but I hadn’t seen any listings for that on Idealist.

Finally, MIA supervisor revealed that she just didn’t have time for an intern (It wasn’t me, it was her!) and arranged for me to be passed on to her old supervisor. I was assured that my new supervisor was tough, but I would learn a lot from her.

The dating analogy would be too disturbing to continue at this point.

It turns out when some people say “tough,” they actually mean “sociopathic bitch.” Not a term I throw around lightly (or at all) but hear me out.

The first thing this woman ever said to me was “dont wear jeans.” Before “hello, my name is Your Worst Nightmare,” even. This was a Friday, everyone wore jeans, and I never saw a client. But fine.

When I finally started seeing clients, this woman continue to be an asshole tough. I routinely cried after supervision.

For anyone wondering, no, that is not normal. This woman seemed to be kind of like the witch who kidnapped Rapunzel. Instead of my hair, she needed my tears to stay young and vibrant.

I wrote a process recording of one of my more difficult sessions with a young girl I was very stuck with. Strange, as I had almost four weeks of experience as a counselor at that point.

My supervisor laughed while reading it.

“This was a terrible session.”
She could hardly contain her mirth.

“Um…I know. I need help, I’m not sure what to do.”

“Yeah, obviously.”

Am I on a hidden camera version on Horrible Bosses?

Later that year, I hurt my knee while running, and was limping up the stairs to my office. Again, she thought this was a source of great amusement.

“SJ, you have a limp?” She asked as she giggled.

“For the moment. I hurt myself in a race over the weekend.”

“Oh, I was wondering!” She was guffawing at this point.

I would think she had a high tolerance for pain, except I consistently spent half of my time in supervision with her hearing about how I couldn’t imagine how much she suffered due to TMJ, IBS, restless leg syndrome, chronic fatigue, and every other syndrome that can’t be tested for.

Sound really fucking weird? It was.

When she called me at home to tell me I ought to apply for a full time position, because she thought I did excellent work, my response was a genuinely mystified, “You do?” And, even in the horrendous job market, I almost didn’t apply, for fear of working under her again.

Why are some terrible people in social work? I’m not entirely sure. I guess there are bad people in every profession, some people have been in it too long and are too far removed from the people we work with, and some are in it for the wrong reasons. But we can learn from every experience.

That supervisor who gave me nothing and then sent me into this supervisory hell was right. I learned a lot from that supervisor. I learned the kind of supervisor, and human, I never want to be. I learned to appreciate the wonderful supervisor I had before and have now. I learned the importance of providing a supportive environment to an insecure student, and how much an overly critical or dismissive boss can impact a person’s development in the field. I learned that good guidance can not only make or break an experience, but also a new worker’s growth. I learned that it is of the utmost importance for every supervisor to remember that it’s not all about them.

And I learned to never, ever, under any circumstances, discuss digestive issues with an employee.

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Give me a minute to figure out how I can blame myself

19 04 2012

Everyone knows I have a work-appropriate non-sexual crush deep respect for my supervisor. She’s a gifted, knowledgeable social worker, and manages to be fun and have a great sense of humor while being a really fair boss. (And dammit, if I weren’t anonymous I could show this to her and totally lobby for some comp time.) Therefore, when she gives me advice, I take it seriously.

We also all know that I had a grand old time with my self-evaluation. However, that was only part of the process. My supervisor has to evaluate me as well.

Essentially, she thinks I’m pretty awesome. This is good, because a compliment from someone you admire is way better than a compliment from someone you know to be a jackass. (Like when Kanye West told me he liked my shoes.) But it’s an evaluation, you need something to work on. And nobody’s perfect.

So my area to improve? Not taking my work home with me. You know, not taking it to heart so much when things go wrong. Not being overly involved with my families. When bad things happen, not being so devastated that it impacts my work, now or in the long-term.

My supervisor admitted that she is still struggling with this. Probably because it’s impossible.

There’s not even a good consensus on what is and isn’t the right way to handle this. I mean, you need to maintain a professional distance. If you take every set back hard, and every struggle your families go through becomes personal, you’re not going to last. But, you know, you never want to be jaded. You need to care, or you’ll be terrible at this and won’t have empathy.

So care, but don’t care too much. You’ll know if you’re caring too much. You won’t really be able to do anything about it, because you’re in too deep, but you’ll know. If you’re not caring enough, you might realize it, but you won’t care. Because…you know.

When the topic of getting overly involved or caring too much comes up, people usually talk about self care. When we talk about self care, it’s usually meaningless bullshit. Not that self care (which, for the last time, my non-social work friends, is not  our euphemism for masturbation) isn’t important. It is. But everyone knows what works for them. When it’s discussed at an agency event, someone always tries to get me to meditate. No. I don’t meditate. I go to the bar I live above, hang out with my niece, listen to Freelance Whales or Mumford and Sons, write obnoxious blog posts, watch Arrested Development or A Very Potter Musical, or go to the gym. Oddly specific, I know. Did you write those down? Did they help you? No, because you have what works for you.

Anyway, self care is something you do continuously to keep yourself going at work. To avoid burning out. But it doesn’t address how involved is too involved. How you maintain a professional distance while having empathy and feeling, at least on some level, what your clients are feeling.

I realized how much of an issue this is for me particularly after one of my little boys was shot. It’s horrifying, even in the abstract, because that event was so wrong and against everything that should happen. The fact that my supervisor pretty much directed me to go home that day, because she knew I was no good to anyone, made me realize that this was going to be a struggle for me.

I happened to run into his thirteen year old sister in the neighborhood that day. She ran up to me for a hug. I could pretty much hear my casework professor’s voice ring in my ear. “Hugging a client? Unprofessional and confusing to the child. Is this about what you need or what she needs? This child needs boundaries reinforced.” (My casework professor was a known bitch.) But then I could also hear myself. “Who the fuck cares?” We both needed a hug.

My supervisor had talked to me about not overextending myself with this family. They had a ton of issues but the kids have an incredible amount of potential. They’re just so special, and so intelligent, and it kills me to think of some of them wasting it by not going to school or hanging out with gang member assholes. So I did a lot for them. I was always looking for extra ways to help. To a point that I’m pretty sure I’m invited to their guidance counselor’s wedding. Some families just hit you hard.

The problem is, you can’t make people change. I could make things easy for this mother, but I couldn’t make her put her children first. While I was running around killing myself, because I couldn’t stand the thought of something happening to these kids when they were supposed to be in school, or them being screwed over for life because they dropped out in the seventh grade, they didn’t mind all that much. So in addition to them still not doing what they need to do, I had the fun bonus of kind of starting to resent them.

I care deeply about this family, and I love those kids. I love all the kids I work with. I have boundaries. I don’t friend them on Facebook (I will admit to checking a girl’s Facebook, once, because I was afraid she was going to school one day for the purpose of fighting. Fortunately, her guidance counselor had checked it before I did.) I don’t initiate physical contact, though my teen girls are huggers and my toddlers are under the impression that I’m some sort of jungle gym.

But I call my kids sweetheart or shortie. I joke around with the moms. My teens and I have secret handshakes, and on occasion I buy them lunch. When they come in, I tell them how happy I am that they made it in, and I know that they believe me. I think about these kids when they’re not with me, and I worry about them and I’ve cried over them and for them more than once.

My bitchy casework professor would kind of hate all of this.

Friends and family members have a hard time understanding my job, and the hard to explain relationship I have to my families. I know they worry about the effect emotional involvement in my work affects me. So do I. I can have moments of feeling like I can’t do this anymore, but they can only be moments. If I didn’t love and care about my families, or worry about these kids when they leave my office, I’d be no good at this.

There’s some kind of balance between, “You got evicted? Well, probably should have followed through on the program I sent you to” and “You got evicted?! This is all my fault! I’ll stay at work until ten and pay to put you up in a hotel tonight!” Something that preserves my sanity (hey, I could have sanity) while getting people the help they need.

Maybe before I retire, I can figure it out.





You Gotta Fight For Your Right To Meticulously Plan

5 04 2012

In social work, we’re engaged in some pretty serious business. Assessing for safety and risk, helping people cope with crises, trying to tactfully explain why your parenting methods are a nightmare and therefore so are your kids. It doesn’t seem like an atmosphere for fun. But we’re also trying to help people preserve their families and hang on to their children. Sometimes a big part of this is learning to spend time with one another, and to enjoy it.

Therefore, party planning serves a therapeutic purpose. Despite the fact that it’s started to drive me a little insane.

Planning a party is always stressful. Actually, coordinating any activity for more than four people is usually a pain in the ass. What time works for you? Oh, but that doesn’t work for her. How about Wednesday? Oh no, she works late that day. Let’s eat at this restaurant. But we need gluten-free options. Let’s forget it and everyone stay home.

Here at Anonymous Agency, I enjoy throwing parties. It’s fun. Families come and act like families. They eat together and meet people in similar situations to themselves. The kids can play and do arts and crafts. No one turns on a TV or video game for two hours, and the kids discover that this has not, in fact, killed them.

Of course, something always has to come up.

It’s known that I enjoy the parties. Everyone else in the office is happy that we have the parties. As I mentioned, it’s fun, and if their families come in, other staff members get to count that time spent making hand turkeys and snacking as a contact.

Notice that other staff members benefit from these festivities? Remember that. It will come up later.

I think it’s pretty much standard in office culture that if you volunteer to do something once, you become the Person Who Does That Thing. “Oh, SJ, she’s just so good at loading the printer paper.” Huh? Three years ago, I offered to make an Easter party invitation. I snagged some free clip art, pasted it into a word document, wrote “You’re Invited” along with the pertinent information. Now, whenever we have any kind of an event, this is my job. I am the one who knows how to do it. I’m the one who knows how to google and type. Also print.

I’ve also found that, the more people that get involved, the worse things tend to go. Or maybe it’s just that horrible people got involved in the past, I’m not sure. They got very persnickety about doing things their own way. having the food that they wanted, budget be damned. It kind of got away from them that we were doing this for the kids. “I know you really want chicken, but we can only afford cookies and juice, and I’m pretty sure the eight year olds will be cool with that. Are you holding your breath until you get your way?”

So this Easter, a coworker and I met under cloak of darkness to make a pact to plan the party. We decided that we would dye eggs, make Easter baskets (to be filled with candy, which must be hidden from SJ until the last possible minute) and serve some simple refreshments. People were, of course, welcome to help run the party, especially since their clients would be participating, but that’s what we would be doing. Nice and easy.

Nice? Rarely. Easy? Never!

First, I emailed New Director with our ideas for the party. When we would hold it, how many families would be invited, what activities we would have, and what our budget would be. Because New Director can never just say, “sure!” she approved our idea, but objected to calling it a “party.” “Could we say something different? Perhaps an event, family affair, treasure hunt?”

‘Event’ is boring, ‘Family Affair’ is a 1960s sitcom, and treasure hunt makes no fucking sense because we aren’t having one. I wrote “celebration” while cursing her under my breath, because I am amazing at compromise, and left it at that.

But, of course, it wasn’t left at that.

My supervisor sent out an email asking that people come to me if they would like to help. We got zero responses. I have, however, had the following helpful tidbits leveled at me in the past two week:

  • “The party goes until six? But I only work until five.”

Well, that is a pickle. I have no idea how to tackle that one. I mean, you could just work an extra hour and not be an asshole about it. You could even come in an hour late. Personally, I would lean towards not being an asshole, but whatever.

I can’t remember the last time I left at five. Caseworkers be trippin.

  • “I don’t understand why we aren’t serving dinner.”

Did you miss that whole thing where we have no money? Like, none. I’m sitting here cutting up Easter baskets out of construction paper. People eat too much these days anyway. Fruit and crackers never killed anybody.

  • “Who is boiling the eggs and where will they be boiled?”

That was an email from New Director. The lady who runs the agency. Ma’am, I sincerely hope you have more important things to worry about. I also hope that you don’t think that your employees are so stupid as to not realize that we don’t have an oven here.

  • “What about Passover? Why is this only an Easter party? I don’t celebrate Easter, I’m Jewish!”

Well, I’m an atheist, but I’m not going to insist that the children all sit in a circle and listen to Tales of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. This isn’t about us. It’s an Easter party mostly because none of our clients are Jewish. But fine, you want to do something for Passover, go right ahead. Oh, you don’t want to do anything, you just wanted to bitch? Cool.

True story: this particular comment then led to the coworker telling me that she is personally offended by anti-Semitism (um, pretty sure we all are, because we’re not terrible people) and giving me a detailed explanation about the reasons that she is culturally, but not religiously, Jewish. I would have told her I didn’t care, but I think she would have felt that was anti-Semitic.

  • “Can the Easter egg baskets be bigger?”

No.

As the hours tick by until the party begins, I have a creeping feeling of dread in my stomach, along with a bunch of excitement. I mean, I love our Easter party. The kids (and the parents) get so excited about dying eggs, it’s amazing. It drives me a little crazy that such a great event treasure hunt celebration is tarnished with petty infighting, people being lazy, and coworkers being too quick to criticize. I also need to remember that I can be a little bit of a control freak, and I need to let it go. All of this stuff we do, which does include dressing up in bunny ears, is for the kids.

We just need to keep our eyes on the (delicious chocolatey) prize.





Why can’t I just write “SJ=Awesome” and call it a day?

6 03 2012

This past January, I embarked on the exciting experience of filling out my third self evaluation as a proud employee of Anonymous Agency. In the interest of full disclosure, I actually got it done on January 31st. I can’t help it. Normally I have everything done early, weeks before the due date, so I can review and edit, because I’m a giant loser. I struggle, really struggle, with self evaluations, though. My supervisor wants to know why I have such a hard time giving myself credit. I attribute it to Catholic guilt.

Not to mention, I feel like I’m not saying anything substantial. It’s all about trying to make yourself look as good as possible, in order to secure a raise not get fired. Would anyone looking at my evaluation really get to know the real SocialJerk, as a social worker?

I’ve talked about honest progress notes, how about honest evaluations?

Strengths:

  • Sarcasm. Perhaps I should list that as “humor” but it’s important.
  • Writing. Not just snarky blog posts. I’ve seen the notes some other people hand in. You supervisors should be happy to have me. Allow me to demonstrate. “You’re standing over there, holding your dog. They’re standing over here, holding their dogs.” See what happened?
  • Not throttling teenagers.
  • Politely not running out of houses when animals relieve themselves in the living room, or it’s made known that there are bed bugs present.
  • Righteous indignation/rage. It keeps me going.
  • Baking. Are these all supposed to be work related?

Areas for development:

One, I love your phrasing. “Areas for development” is so much better than “stuff you suck at.” Now let’s see, stuff I suck at.

  • I need to stop feeling personally responsible when a family gets evicted, a child gets shot, or a kid skips school. I’m not omnipotent or omniscient, so I need to get the hell over it.
  • I buy candy at the bodega way too much. They know me and it’s getting embarrassing.
  • Maybe I don’t have to do all the work by myself. Or something.
  • Excessive tweeting at work.
  • I could work on my game face. Actually, I need to develop a game face. Apparently I’m quite expressive. Meaning, when I think someone is full of shit, it’s clear. In a field in which people are often full of shit, this isn’t always an asset.
  • Even if I think another worker is an idiot, I need to be able to work with him or her.
  • I make fun of my boss on the internet. This might not be productive.
  • Making excuses for people’s bullshit is not doing them any favors, it just enables their shitty behavior.
  • Not everyone has to like me.
  • Leaving on time is not leaving early. I say this but I don’t know it.
  • Similarly, getting in on time is not getting in late.

Goals for professional growth:

  • Get my LCSW. I know I’m within a few hundred hours of my needed two thousand, but counting them up is time consuming and scary and I don’t wanna. But I will. Also I have a love/hate relationship with standardized tests. I’m a good student, I LOVE being graded. However, part of why I’m a good student is that I freak myself out and convince myself I’m going to fail if I don’t study.
  • Stop rambling.

Of course, we’re not done. I don’t only need to evaluate myself. I need to evaluate Anonymous Agency, as a place to work.

Staff satisfaction survey:

1. Can you see yourself building a career here?

Well, that’s hard to say. I’ll be honest, it’s a little scary. I mean, I’m almost 30. My career should probably be building. Is it? At what point have I learned all that I can from this position? This was my first job out of graduate school. Will someone tell me when it’s time to leave the nest? Am I going to live in New York for the rest of my life? Will I have kids? Will I want to keep them if I have them? Is there someone in HR I can talk to about all of this? Was I just supposed to click “yes” or “no?”

2. Are you satisfied with your benefits?

Yes, I am. But if someone could actually make a dental appointment for me, I’d bump this up to very satisfied. I just can’t stop procrastinating! If they would spring for full sedation so I don’t feel the buzzy teeth cleaning, you guys would get a gold star.

3. Do you feel your salary is competitive with other similar agencies in the field?

Oh, you guys are good. Am I satisfied with my salary–fuck no. But is it competitive for social work? Sure is!

4. What is the best part of working here?

I have learned a lot from my great work experience and my amazing supervisor. There is opportunity for growth and this is a well run agency. I get tons of blog fodder. I love working with people at all different stages of deveopment, and with families as a whole rather than just as individuals.

5. What is the worst part of working here?

New Director led a two and a half hour staff meeting last week, and the only thing I remember is the 45 minute debate over what order progress notes should go into the files. Chronological, or most recent note on top. This was the worst part of everything that has ever happened to me.

Well, the results are already in. But there’s always next year.





Safety First…well, maybe third

23 02 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh Dudley, why didn’t you listen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Who are you and why are you here?

9 01 2012

I get asked pretty frequently why I went into social work. It’s not terribly difficult to come up with an answer, one that varies in sincerity based on my mood and the attitude of the person who is asking.

The problems arise when I find myself asking why some of my coworkers got into this field.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from TV and movies, it’s that the people who are really good at their jobs are mean, and you don’t want to be around them. You know, the only doctor who can diagnose and cure your smallpox is an egotistical dick, and the teacher who gets the best results from those inner-city kids is the one who breaks all the rules and swears a lot.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from social work, it’s that this doesn’t necessarily carry over to the real world.

Some of my coworkers, and people I’ve met in this field that I haven’t had the misfortune of working with, simply mystify me. Of all the professions to enter, you chose one in which you work with people who have been rejected and beaten down by society, and where you won’t get paid enough to make up for it.

If you’re a miserable person, and don’t like others, couldn’t you at least try find work at the DMV?

Some people I work with, I don’t like. I feel entirely justified in this, because they’re obnoxious. I suspect they were raised by pandas, because they have no sense of appropriate human interactions or social graces.

Some are incredibly nosy and think that this is fine, because I’m younger than they are.

Crazy Coworker: “I like that outfit! Did you just go shopping? Did you meet someone?”
SocialJerk:  “Thanks? What? I’m just waiting to use the microwave.”
CCW: “Oh, you haven’t had kids yet.”
SJ: “Yet?”
CCW: “Yeah, you shouldn’t stand in front of the microwave, it might affect your ovaries. And you know that people who don’t have children regret it later in life.”
SJ: “Who are you?”

This is bad, because it negatively affects my day. Me having a nice day is a pretty high priority for me.

My highest priority, though, is that our clients’ needs are served and that they are treated with dignity and respect.

Oh boy.

For the most part, I think my agency does good work. But then there are those people who just make me wonder. I know you didn’t go to social work school, but you have interacted with humans before, right? You took some class in what to expect when working here, didn’t you? Or is this some kind of work release program?

When I first came here, I inherited a number of cases from our Worst Offender, as she was moving to another part of the agency (unfortunately, to do the same job.) We had a joint meeting with a woman with whom I would be working. This new client asked Worst Offender if I was aware that she had a history of depression.

Worst Offender ( and this is true) rolled her eyes behind this woman’s back and said, “Well, yes, we all get sad sometimes.”

Yup. Helpful.

When I say WO went to another part of the agency, I, sadly, mean that she went down the hall, and never fully left my professional life. One of her girls has been a more or less permanent fixture in my teen groups. This girl, who has a long history of trauma and therefore no sense of appropriate boundaries, talked rather graphically in group about her experiences of being molested. She then licked her hand and stuck it into the group bowl of pretzels.

I had a number of concerns. Number one, of course, was this girl’s safety. Number two was this girl not being ostracized in group due to her boundary issues. Number three was that I remember that, even though I love pretzels, they were now off limits.

I spoke with WO about this. I needed to ensure that she was aware of the molestation, so that it was properly reported and addressed.

Again, she rolled her eyes. “That girl has, let’s say, a tendency to get molested. I’m not saying she asks for it, but…”

No no. Just stop. I have a tendency to punch assholes in the kidneys, and we can’t have that now.

That girl, the pretzel licker, came to me after our next group, saying that her worker had told her that the other girls were complaining that she was greedy with the food and ate too much.

Yes. This was what WO decided to do with me telling her, “I’m concerned about this girl and want to make sure she’s getting a sufficient amount of help.” Tell a fifteen year old that her peers are talking shit about her. Maybe throw in that they called her fat? Certainly that will help.

They’re not all this horrendous. Worst Offender is the only one I have felt the need to report (on more than one occasion) to a supervisor, for fear that she was doing much more harm than good to the people whose well being she was entrusted with. (Don’t worry, my concerns were sufficiently ignored.) But there are people who make you wonder, ” what did you think you were getting into?”

The recent graduate who became nearly hysterical when participants routinely did not show up for their sessions, requiring her to go out on visits. “It’s just like any other appointment! Why can’t you call to cancel?” The people who have no problem watching three workers (hint: one of them is always me) frantically set up for a holiday party, while popping their headphones in and explaining, “Oh, I have a lot of notes to write.” The worker who describes a client as, “so fucking clueless” until it is painstakingly explained that this person’s “cluelessness” is a manifestation of their mental illness.

This isn’t a job that people are necessarily banging down doors to get. And we all have our days when we lose patience, and think or say things (in private, or anonymously on the internet, one would hope) that aren’t productive or helpful. But if you’re debating whether or not you can do this job, or if you have the right mindset, please take a little extra time to consider. We’re desperate for workers, but we’re not that desperate. This isn’t a field you go into because your modeling career didn’t work out.

You don’t want to be “that” worker.





“Miss, we’re all gonna die in 2012.” -Actual quote from an eight year old client

29 12 2011

As my outgoing voicemail message, e-mail autoreply, and look of relaxation and glee will all tell you–I’m on vacation. Some people will tell you that taking the week between Christmas and New Years off is just for parents. I’m here to tell you that those people are idiots who want to hog all the vacation days for themselves.

Anyway, I was thinking of taking the week off entirely, and seeing you all in 2012. But then I remembered I wanted to do my 2011 retrospective, and that would just be passé on January second. We’re all a year older (another trip around the sun, if you’re fifteen and thinking that indie music is deep for the first time) but I’m actually a year older, as that’s when my birthday falls. (Oh wait, you didn’t care? How embarrassing.) This, plus being an emotional social worker, means I get a little extra reflective.

Therefore, I present: What SocialJerk Learned in 2011

  • Good supervision matters. A lot.

I’ve not made any secret about the fact that my supervisor is great. She trusts her employees, never micromanages, puts up with my weirdo sense of humor, and she bakes cupcakes.
Perhaps most importantly, she has my back. She is not afraid to break out the Bronx when necessary, in a respectful and professional manner, of course. I have been told that I’m not one to suffer fools gladly (what kind of an idiot said that?) but if someone else’s supervisor is accusing me of handling something incorrectly, there’s only so much I can do.

An ACS worker, who failed miserably at her job by losing track of a case that had been referred to me–literally, the family moved and  she didn’t know where they went–tried to put her massive failure off on me. My supervisor was out, so she spoke with the only other supervisor who was in the office.

We’ll call that supervisor Cruella.

Cruella essentially apologized for me not being clairvoyant, and believed everything this ACS worker fed her. Fortunately, I was able to hand her my carefully dated notes (I think Cruella was a bit upset that I did not curtsy when I did this) and waited for MY supervisor to return. Not unlike a child waiting to be picked up from day care.

When my supervisor came back, I only got the ACS worker’s name out before my supervisor said, “Oh no. You were not responsible for that. I’ll speak with her supervisor, don’t worry about it.”

Told ya, Cruella.

Knowing you have someone to go to, when you’re stuck with a particular case, being railroaded, or having a shitty day makes a world of difference in this field.

  • Document everything.

Write a note  for everything. Write a note when you sneeze. And don’t cut and paste, they’ll know. (For further explanation, see point #1.)

  • Thank your wonderful supervisor, if you have one.

Again, see point #1.

  • Tell people that you need help, and accept it.

I learned this one in teen group. For some reason, I am one of those people who has a hard time with this at work. I have a desperate need to be the hardest working one in the room. I blame my parents’ 1950s style work ethic. (If I hear my dad took a sick day, I assume one of his limbs spontaneously fell off and he was unable to find strong enough thread.)  I somehow got the idea that I should be doing most of the work. I carried this into teen group, for which I have a co-leader. This promptly resulted in me hating resenting my co-leader.

Yes, she should have done more. She shouldn’t have thought that having other work to do excused her from setting up or planning for group. But I should not have been so quick to say, “I can do the note this week. I can bring the materials in from home. Oh, I’ll set up the activities if you’re busy.”

Taking on more than we should, can, or have to, and then feeling run down and complaining about it, does not make us noble. It makes us idiots.

  • Offer to help.

Actually, don’t offer–just help. On the off chance that my co-leader, or anyone I supervised when I first graduated from college, is reading this, please just fucking do it. Standing around and saying, “Well, I’m happy to help! What do you need me to do? Just tell me what to do! OK. How do you want that done? How many do we need?” is actually not helpful. It just creates more work for idiots like me, who eventually get frustrated and tell you to go away so we can do it ourselves. Because really, we don’t mind.

Except we do. We hate you.

  • You are not entitled to an explanation.

This really ought to be “you are only very rarely entitled to an explanation,” but I prefer to be dramatic and deal in absolutes.

I’ve been learning this one my entire life. I have two last names, and cousins who are clearly a different race than I am. People, most often strangers or casual acquaintances, have really, genuinely believed that they had a right to know how these things came to be. Were my parents divorced, or never married? Did my mom keep her name for “professional reasons?” (Whatever the fuck those are. She’s not a Kardashian.) Am I married? Are my cousins adopted, or perhaps racially mixed? Are they Filipino, or what?

In social work, we get these kinds of situations. There are times when we want information, just because it’s interesting, and as humans, we are nosy. I have been asked on two separate occasions, by coworkers, if a twelve year old girl I work with is gay. How could this possibly impact their lives? Unless they have a pre-teen niece who is looking, but still, I think that’s inappropriate.

One coworker, with whom I prefer not to associate, as she is horrible, suggested during group supervision that a fellow social worker lie to a client, saying he needed her children’s birth certificates, in an effort to determine if her brother (who had raped her) was the child’s father. One, I doubt that would work. Two, I repeat–you are horrible. Three, how would that help his practice, and this woman?

In social work, and in life, we need to ask ourselves: is this question going to help us to move forward? Is it going to keep everyone safe? Is it just satisfying my own curiosity? Is the world going to be a better place if I ask this?

We’re not entitled to an explanation, except when we are. We need to think more about when that it.

  • Nice is different than good.

Brilliant advice I wish to impart on everyone, especially my teen girls, taken directly from Sondheim’s Into The Woods. You can learn a lot from musicals. I swear. My girls talk about the importance of being nice, or finding a nice guy. I tell them, as delicately as I can–fuck nice. Be good. Not like E.T., except he was pretty good, wasn’t he? Look for good people. The people who act nice, tell you what you want to hear, are not usually good. Being nice often involves not making others feel bad. But when kids have been victimized as often as ours have, they need to know that they can be a little rude if it makes them safer.

And I know things now
Many valuable things
That I hadn’t known before:
Do not put your faith
In a cape and a hood
They will not protect you
The way that they should.
And take extra care with strangers
Even flowers have their dangers.
And though scary is exciting
Nice is different than good.

  • Take a fucking vacation.

When I took these four days off, my supervisor told me that the amount of vacation time I had banked was “offensive.” I was getting to a point where I knew I was not the best social worker I could be, because I was getting a little burnt out. This is not a fancy vacation. It’s actually a staycation, if you want to be a dick about it. So far today, I have gone running, grocery shopping, hit up the post office, done laundry, vacuumed, and deposited checks at the bank. You know, mostly errands and things that I’m pretty sure should actually still be my dad’s job. Very exciting. But I feel like a new person. And I will, through all the dread, actually be looking forward to getting back to work and seeing my clients again.

There is no prize for making yourself the most miserable. If there were, I would have several worthy candidates to nominate.

See you all in 2012.