Social Workers in Space

17 11 2011

The space in which we get our social workin’ on practice our profession plays an extremely important role in how the work gets done. We don’t want to look too much like a doctor’s office, with white walls and uncomfortable chairs. A stereotypical guidance counselor office isn’t really right either, what with all the posters of kittens imploring us to “hang in there” or reminding us that, really, teamwork makes the dream work.

We want a space that is comfortable, yet professional. We want to seem organized, but not sterile. It should be fun, but also get the point across that we’re going to accomplish some work.

Essentially, I need an unlimited Target gift card.

As always, it comes down to funding. More directly, it comes down to the fact that we don’t have money. When you’re struggling to pay salaries, or to provide cookies and juice for group (just once, I want Chips Ahoy, not Krasdale) making the office and counseling spaces look more appealing falls to the bottom of the list.

There are some things that help. Landlords need to paint eventually, and ours got around to it last year. Those boring hospital-white walls were brightened up nicely. To be fair, it was with the cheapest leftovers the paint store had, but still. I like purple.

The walls, though colorful, were still blank. OK, some creative minds though. We have all these kids around here, let’s put them to work! (A mistake, ultimately, as the stitching on my jeans is really subpar. Oh, I’m being told it’s not time for sweatshop humor.)

The thing about children’s artwork–most of it sucks. I know, anything that comes from the creative mind of a child is beautiful, and it’s so sweet and endearing when they make something just for you. But still. You want to decorate your house with it? I have drawings that kids I work with have done all over my cubicle, and they’re fabulous. My co-workers’ kids just aren’t as talented. It’s one thing when it’s from a kid I know and love. Otherwise it’s, wait, is that an elephant or a vacuum?

Then there’s the furniture. In a workshop I attended to help me become a better group facilitator (they didn’t know that I already know everything) we were instructed to have all group members sit in the same type of chair. This way, no one feels different or excluded.

Um, OK. A matching set of chairs. Where do you propose we get those? Was this person social working the queen on England? If we don’t all have to sit on the floor, I mark it as a win.

One of our counseling spaces doubles as a meeting room. And boy, can you tell. From the phone on the wall, to the long, narrow table, this was not a space meant for counseling.

That table is the bane of my existence. I hate it. I dream of setting it on fire. (Note: SocialJerk does not condone arson outside of idle fantasy.) You wouldn’t think that it would make such a big difference, but it does. I work with what I have, but my goodness that table gets in the way. People are spread out, debating for way too long on where to sit and whether or not they can sit next to each other. Sometimes it winds up with many more people stacked on one side than on the other. I feel like I’m auditioning for American Idol when that happens to me. I keep waiting for the family members to judge my singing harshly, while one spaced out kid tells me to keep following my dreams.

Or something.

At least we have some space. During my internship, it was decided that a large basement room filled with toys and sports equipment most often used to host groups would have to do for my counseling sessions. I just want you to imagine what eight and ten year old hyperactive brothers got up to in there.

Yeah. It’s a wonder any of us are still alive.

That’s not to say counseling space isn’t limited at my current office. We recently expanded to hire many new workers, but didn’t get much more in the way of space. For some reason, it was determined that supervisors having private offices was much more important than us maintaining a functional number of counseling rooms. I think they offered a reason, but I was too busy grumbling.

There are evenings we refer to as perfect social work storms. There are two groups running, a parenting class being held, in addition to the normal day-to-day sessions. Workers are dodging screaming children in the waiting room (hey, it’s free child care. You get what you pay for, and she isn’t even bleeding that much) while fighting over a broom closet in which to hold a session.

I’m just kidding. We don’t have space for a broom closet.

You learn to be creative. You learn what to expect. We’ve gotten some pretty decent office decorations out of some kids’ groups and our art therapist. We try to be as organized as possible when it comes to scheduling appointments and reserving counseling rooms (that always works, because our clients are predictable and punctual, right?) Overall, I think our participants understand. For the most part. They can easily see that we’re trying our best, to do as much as possible with not a whole lot.

At least they believe me when I tell them that something isn’t in the budget.

I’ll be here all week, don’t forget to tip your social worker

5 09 2011

I haven’t wasted any time in complaining about Anonymous Agency’s new director. I have to say, as time goes on…I stand by those complaints. It’s unfortunate. She has a lot of good experience, and some really good ideas to bring to our work. But there are two problems.

One, she seems to think that all of our problems can be solved with more paperwork. Contacts were low this month? Everyone now fill out a form listing how many times you saw your families this week. Purpose of your sessions unclear? All workers will now write in a separate note, detailing the plan for your session. Lunch not as delicious as it could be? Let’s all write up our various snack options to maximize its potential

Two, she loves staff meetings. She whispers sweet nothings into staff meeting’s ear. Staff meeting days are circled in her calendar and decorated with gold stars, and she cries when they’re over. She would marry staff meeting and have half social worker/ half meeting babies if she could.

I can’t effing stand staff meetings. I can count on one frostbitten hand the amount of times I’ve actually gotten anything out of them. Now we’re having bimonthly all-staff meetings and weekly unit meetings, in addition to weekly supervision.

Good thing I don’t have to see clients or anything.

Staff meetings are especially difficult for me because I’m bored, have a captive audience, and people tend to say ridiculous things.

It’s a perfect storm for SocialJerk smartassery. I have a very hard time keeping my sarcastic comments to myself. If I didn’t have such an innocent, young looking face, and if my comic timing was less than flawless, I’m pretty sure I would have been history long ago. (Brilliant social working notwithstanding.)

Maybe if I can get it all out here, it won’t be such  a problem.

First, everybody sign in. Write your full name and title. There are ten of us here now, it will be chaos without this step.

Now, let’s go over the agenda. We start with a welcome. Perhaps not strictly necessary, considering that with all the new workers and no new space, we’ve been sitting on each other’s laps, but it’s nice all the same.  Also there are refreshments. That’s what were calling those seven dead grapes that the budget allowed.

Next we’ll take a moment to acknowledge what we’ve done well this month. We’re invited to share our little successes. How fun. Berating everyone, and telling us that no matter what you do, it isn’t quite enough, is erased by this action. Social work/parenting principal number one. I would like to share that my hoodie matches my Chucks today, and that one of my twelve year olds referred to me as “her girl.” That made me feel hip. Oh, that’s not what you meant. All right, I got all my notes in on time. Right answer?


OK, now on to progress notes. We’ve all been doing these for years, but apparently we’ve been doing them entirely wrong. So we’re going to look at this sample progress note, flawlessly executed by our new fearless leader. She’s talking.

“Everyone just follow along. We start with who was present. Always include yourself. So we’ve got social worker, biological mother, and the children: Darryl, Jenna, and Stacy.”

When we do these fake examples, why don’t they at least make us laugh with the names? I would go with DJ, Stephanie, and Michelle. Something like that.

“All right. The purpose of this meeting was to address Darryl’s truancy and to follow up on…”

Is she…is she reading this out loud to us? Word for word? What the fuck is going on here? This is evil. Ma’am, we all have Master’s degrees, we can read what is in front of us.

“The interventions utilized were brief solutions focused therapy and active listening. SW engaged the family in…”

Active listening. That’s a funny term. I always feel like I should be doing an 80s Jazzercise video when I say that. “Run in place for twenty! Notice how I’m listening, but also staying active! It’s the social work fitness plan! Toe touches–one and two and–you were saying about your mother’s boyfriend molesting you?”

“The family responded well to this intervention. SW was able to assess…”

Funny how we always share an intervention that went well. Next time I’m called upon to do something like this I’m going to talk about the time the two teenage sisters I was sitting between started punching each other, and I had to yell, “If I get hit right now I’m going to be pissed, and then no one will be happy!” Is “use of mom voice” considered a clinical intervention?

“In our upcoming session, SW will follow up with the family on the tasks that were left to them and…”

When the hell was this ceiling last painted? Either there’s a dead body rotting upstairs or we’ve got some plumbing issues. How am I the only one who notices these things? Ooh, reggaeton blasting outside! No one will notice if I dance subtly, to myself, right?

Why is everyone looking at me expectantly? Oh shit, I was asked a question, wasn’t I.

What do I think? I think that a majority of the shit you’re telling us could be sent out in an email. I think that breaking things down to such minute detail is incredibly patronizing, and makes your staff feel that you have very little trust in them. I think addressing every mistake that anyone has made in the past month in this meeting embarrasses people, makes them feel unappreciated, and makes people feel that there’s no room for error and that they aren’t allowed to be human. I think you should listen to your staff and give them the opportunity to tell you what works.

You were just asking me to pass the grapes, weren’t you?

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.

Yes, I am trying to lead the office in quacking

8 07 2011

I’ve always said that this agency is a pretty good place to work. We don’t get paid a ton, but the benefits are good. My supervisor is great. She appreciates my humor and impromptu dances. People get along fairly well. As far as social service agencies go, it’s pretty much the best you can ask for.

But the times, they are a-changing here at Anonymous Agency.

The city has bestowed vast riches upon us. (By that, I mean we got a new contract that requires us to do impossible things with very little money.) We’re going to be expanding to serve a lot more families, so we’re hiring new workers, taking over another office on our floor, and coming up with fun, creative ways to fit too many people into a small space. In the new office space, rolly desk chairs had to have back-up signals installed, so no one was injured. But social workers have always been creative.

All these new workers means a new director.

Change is hard on everyone. It’s uncomfortable, and when someone suggests you change, you can’t help but think, “What the hell was wrong with me before?” It can also be good, and productive, and help us to serve our clients better.

This new director comes with a lot of new ideas. I’m trying to be open to them, because I know that there’s room for improvement. I think a lot of the changes need to be made much higher up, in the child welfare system. The focus on making our numbers, social workers having so little control over which cases to accept and when to close them…these are the kinds of changes I would like to make. But of course, we need to do what we can.

The new director has a strong clinical focus. She’s very into intense family therapy. I think she kind of wants to be Minuchin. Which is fine, because he did important work and developed theories and models that we case our work on all the time.

But he was a little cooky.

So New Director is introducing some changes. Some of these are great. She wants the playroom to be more therapeutic, rather than just a distraction. I love this idea. (Not just because it was my suggestion and I need validation.) Our playroom sucks, to put it clinically. It was clearly thrown together with whatever toys some donor’s kid had outgrown. Many of the toys are musical, or just plain noisy. There’s a talking ATM and fire truck that haunt me in my dreams. “Welcome, to the interactive, ATM.” The kids just push that button, over and over again.

Did I mention that the playroom is adjacent to my cubicle? Kill me.

Play therapy doesn’t get done with these kinds of toys. New Director has agreed to go after some new stuff–a doll house, puppets, play-doh and other art supplies…the kinds of things that kids actually express themselves with.

She also wants to get anatomically correct dolls. Because some of our kids have been sexually abused. Oh dear.

When there are allegations of sexual abuse, we refer the children to a program specifically for this problem. No one here is an expert in working with kids who’ve been through this. Of course it comes up, but it’s not specifically what we do.

Not to mention, plenty of our kids haven’t been sexually abused. I’m thinking of the shenanigans they get up to when they realize Barbies clothes come off, and the hours of giggling this causes. That’s with a naked, notoriously anatomically incorrect doll.

We disagree.

New Director also wants to introduce a lot more trainings for the short-term therapy we’re meant to be doing, in topics like CBT and group work. This is great. It’s something we can all benefit from.

She also wants to film some of our sessions, and then watch them together in staff meetings.

It’s every nightmare I’ve ever had. First of all, if I have to watch myself therapizing, I will only be able to focus on whether or not I look fat. I realize that it’s shallow and immature, but I know myself.

Second of all, I will know I’m being filmed. I’ll use big words that don’t belong in an effort to impress those who will be watching. I will go out of my way to be mini-Minuchin, and not myself. When this doesn’t work, I will become awkward and crack sarcastic jokes.

Then there’s the “dress code.” Of course, it’s not really a code, it never is. Just a suggestion, to dress more professionally, because then our clients will want to “lift themselves up.” The things that’s stopping them from doing this already is apparently my Friday jeans. I like my clients to be comfortable with me. I wouldn’t show up to their homes looking like I’m there to mow the lawn, but I don’t want to show up looking like a lawyer, either. This, to me, does not say, “Talk with me. I won’t judge.” It says, “I’ll be taking notes on what you say.”

The problem is, my supervisor seems to be a bit impressed. Slightly puppy-like. She really sees this new director as the future of the agency. I don’t totally disagree, but it’s a little much to rush in an make all of the changes in one fell swoop. People don’t like that kind of thing.

I know. I’m people.

I just don’t want us to lose the things that are good about this place, and the way we work. The fact that we can all joke around with each other. That my random dance moves earn a laugh. The way YouTube videos of funny cats somehow make their way into supervision every so often. When New Director talks about making our work more clinical, and us being increasingly professional, it worries me. We wouldn’t have been granted all of those new cases and workers if we hadn’t been getting results.

I get the creeping feeling that the agency is changing. It reminds me of social workers in the 1950s, striving to be taken seriously by becoming more and more psychoanalytical. We don’t need to be something we’re not. We aren’t underpaid, undertrained psychologists wearing funny clothes and sharing an office. That’s not what people come to us for. Social work is its own profession with its own standards.

Lately, this place is reminding of the rag tag sports team in every 80s movie ever. We’re unconventional, but scrappy. Then someone new comes along from the outside, gets everyone organized and to play by the rules. But what happens? They lose their heart. We need to cling to what makes our profession unique. I think we can start by rewatching the Mighty Ducks.

“Who would like to share with the class?” This jerk.

12 05 2011

I’ve always been a strong believer in volunteerism. The world isn’t going to change unless we get up and go! I also can’t stand awkward silences. When someone asks a question, I will be the one to respond when no one else will. In ninth grade biology, I was the only one who would admit to knowing the words “penis” and “vagina” and how to say them out loud.

Also, I can’t resist an audience.

These factors combined are what led to me offering to present a particularly difficult case during the agency’s monthly director’s meeting. Just me, standing in front of nine grown-ups people who make more money than me big bosses, explaining what I’m struggling with.

Shouldn’t I keep that to myself? I mean, should I be sharing with all of these people, some of whom could fire me, what parts of my job are really super hard?

But my supervisor asked, and no one said anything. Which led to my, “Oh. Well, I’ll do it. No problem.”

Famous last words? I think so, if Disney Adventures taught me anything.

We’re a fairly small agency, so I know most of the directors. We have also had some recent shake-ups, though, so there were two that I was meeting for the first time. One was a woman in her 40s who had a bedazzled shirt on and bore a striking resemblance to Tina Yothers. I love her. I hope that we can become best friends. The other was a man in his 50s, who I definitely did not catch looking down my shirt. No. That would be gross.

Then there was my direct supervisor, also wonderful. My director was there, redefining adequate as always. My director’s boss was running the meeting, and I’m pretty sure I remind her of her kids. So we’re cool. There’s the intake coordinator, who was my interim supervisor for a little while when the agency was between hires. She’s a Harry Potter nerd. So we’re extremely cool.

There are also the assorted others who are not interesting enough to warrant personal descriptions. They’re social workers, so they certainly have their quirks, but you can all use your imaginations.

Naturally, I broke out the therapeutic toys (that’s right, these guys) to represent the different family members. Like I said, I can’t resist an audience.

My supervisor asked me to present a very complex, closed-system, multi-problem family. Or, if we’re focusing on strengths, a large, close-knit, colorful bunch.

Nine kids, one grandchild, drug abuse, drug sales, truancy, sexual abuse, court involvement, a severely disabled child…a lot to get into. Whenever mom is asked what she wants, she responds with, “I want ACS out of my fuckin’ life.”

Seriously. She would not leave an ACS meeting until the worker included that on the service plan.

They’re very overwhelming, but I also love them. The kids are sweet, and love any individual attention they can get. They dote on the child with cerebral palsy. Mom, for all her anger, is pretty damn funny.

I don’t know if my affection for the family came through my nerves over speaking to all these directors. I always worry about this, with the bosses. Talking to my director makes me think that not doing direct service anymore can really shut a person down to the joys of social work, and being a part of someone’s life like this. There was never an appropriate moment to talk about watching a thugged out 19 year old ex-con carry his disabled sister off her school bus and up the stairs, all the while cooing at her and making her laugh. But that’s also an important part of who this family is.

Overall, yes, we focused on concerns. There was not as much time for strengths, though they were asked about, and discussed meaningfully. But I was impressed with the higher-ups. (Not the boob-looker, but the rest.) It would seem that, some evidence aside, not every here has just failed upwards. They knew what they were talking about, and offered some solid ideas. For concrete services, and approaches to therapy.

So maybe it’s possible to maintain your social work integrity and street cred as a supervisor. Realistically, I’ll be in that position some day. I’ve got the education and license, I guess I’m probably capable, and I need to do that if I ever want to live with fewer than three roommates. It’s nice to see that moving up in the world doesn’t have to mean being disconnected from casework, or forgetting where you came from.

Still–I am never volunteering again.

When Good Social Workers Go Bad 2: Revenge of the Wrath

28 04 2011

Working with people always has potential to be frustrating. Especially when those people have mental health issues, developmental disabilities, substance abuse problems, histories of abuse and neglect, two tons of general chaos in their lives, or all of the above. As social workers, we understand where people are coming from.


I had a particularly difficult case to work with for a brief period of time. A single mother and her five year old son had voluntarily come to the agency due to the five year old’s severe behavior issues. They were assigned a worker, with whom they worked for about six months.

Well, I say “worked.” Mom missed almost all of her appointments. She only showed up at the office when there was a crisis. Most often, when it was too late for anything to be done.

Like I said, this family volunteered for services, and then didn’t show up for them. Somehow, their case wasn’t closed. Their worker left, and guess which lucky jerk they got transferred to?

Ah, yes. Because if the family didn’t engage with their original worker for months, surely they’ll go along with a new worker, in a new office, who is under strict instructions to refer the five year old for mental health services and close immediately, before they bring our numbers down any further.

Somehow, things got done. I had to ambush the family at school and at their apartment (my camoflauge gear is second to none) but I got what I needed. They were referred out. Mom came in for a closing conference, and signed off in agreement to having her case closed.

Then the calls started.

While I was away on vacation, my supervisor received a call from this woman, psychotically politely demanding to know why her fucking case had been closed.

Because that is how we get what we want.

My supervisor reminded her that she had attended a closing conference. No, the mom insisted. She wanted the case to stay open until her son received a formal diagnosis.

This is not an uncommon phenomenon. There are a lot of people who refuse to meet our requirements or engage meaningfully in services, but hate the idea of their case being closed. Essentially, they want a social worker on retainer. Someone they can run to when they have an emergency, but not have the obligations of weekly meetings and regular home visits. Oh, and this should also be free.

My supervisor explained, to this irate, swearing woman, how to go about reopening her case, if that was what she wanted, or how to file a complaint.

The issue was regarded as resolved. Until the next week. When I came in to a voicemail, explaining that our services suck, she had the wrong date for her son’s mental health evaluation, and I am responsible for every bad thing to ever happen, from the Holocaust to jeggings.

Despite showing up on the wrong day for her child’s appointment, the psychiatrist did see the family. (Not a moment to soon…sorry, now I’m just being snarky.) So I thought we were done.

Until next week. Another voicemail, explaining that she had been trying to get in touch with me for two weeks, and I’ve been giving her the runaround. She also reiterated that our agency, and our services, suck.

I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were expecting a call back. Apparently, “y’all suck, y’all should get shut down” in fact translated to, “Please return this message at your earliest convenience.”

I passed it off to my director, as my supervisor was out on vacation.

Yes, I opted not to return the call myself. I just couldn’t see the point. For all I listen to and get blamed for on a daily basis, my job description does not actually include the term “punching bag.” This woman was being irrational and aggressive. As I told my director, unfortunately, I do not get paid enough to sit and listen to a diatribe on why I suck.

Apparently, he does. He called her back, since, you know, it’s kind of his role. He then checked in with me, explaining that we have to bear in mind “the kind of people we work with” and that she “just wants to be heard.” Which is why he invited her in, to berate him in person.

That’s his call, if he wants to listen to that. But I really wanted to explain to him–I know “the kind of people we work with.” Because I work with them, while he is in his office filling out reviews and signing off on service plans. (Necessary work? Absolutely. But he’s not out in the trenches anymore, and hasn’t been for some time.) I am understanding for a living. But I’m also human. I have limits. In this case, I reached it.

Oh, and she doesn’t “want to be heard.” She wants to make a scene. There is a difference. Venting is not always productive. What would come from this powwow? I don’t think we do people any favors when we give them the idea that if they yell and swear loudly enough, the rules will be bent for them.

As I predicted, she never showed up, and we haven’t heard from her since. I wish things could have gone differently, and better, but they didn’t. We can’t win them all, and we can’t beat ourselves up over that.

And maybe it’s ok to give ourselves permission to run out of patience, once every few years.

Soapbox, high horse, whatever you call it, here I am.

11 04 2011

I’ve hesitated to write about the Marchella Pierce case, in which two ACS workers are being charged with criminally negligent homicide. I’m not a lawyer. I’m not well-versed enough in the law to decide what constitutes manslaughter vs. criminally negligent homicide vs. murder, first or second degree whatever. No matter how much Law & Order I’ve watched.

But I am a social worker. So there are some things I can comment on.

This was the case of a medically fragile four year old, who weighed fifteen pounds at the time of her death. (I weighed fifteen pounds at about four months.  True, my family produces fatty hearty babies, but still. At four years old, that’s bad.) ACS was involved with the family due to the mother’s drug history and the child’s medical condition. Mom called the police after her daughter had been unresponsive for about an hour. The child had marks that indicated she had been tied to the bed and beaten. She died in September of 2010.

All around, a tragedy. Of course. And, of course, people are looking for someone to blame.

What’s unique here is not that the child protective agency is being blamed. That happens whenever a child dies from abuse or neglect. What’s unique is that they are being held criminally responsible.

In six months, from March through August, when the ACS caseworker was meant to be conducting biweekly visits with the family, he entered two contacts in the city database. One was a phone call in March. The other was an (unsuccessful) attempted home visit in June.

After the child’s death, he and his supervisor miraculously recalled five other contacts he had with the family, and entered those. What we ethical fucking human beings social workers call, “falsification of records.”

I decided to write about this topic after reading many other people’s reactions. One concern that’s been brought up many times is that fear of criminal prosecution will keep people out of the profession.

Guess what? I’m ok with that. This job is serious. I am not being dramatic when I say that child protective workers have children’s lives in their hands. This man did not take his responsibilities seriously. This child was at risk of death. This isn’t a case of hindsight being 20/20. This isn’t a situation in which no one called the abuse in because they didn’t want to get involved. This was a malnourished child who had visible bruises and rope marks on her body, who had a team of people assigned to protect her.

They failed.

Some people say that the system failed. I’m not often trying to defend our child welfare system. It’s deeply flawed. But this is not an example of that. This is an example of deeply flawed workers.

Six months. Without seeing this child. An eighth of her life.

We hear about these workers being overwhelmed. They’re claiming that they were so overwhelmed and busy that they forgot to enter all of the contacts with the family, but they did, in fact, see them.

Sorry, but that’s bullshit.

The opinion piece I linked to above talks about the need to appreciate the improvements that ACS has made, especially since the death of Nixzmary Brown. Caseloads are smaller, they’re trying to recruit better workers (they make more money than I do, with less education), and more referrals are being made to quality preventive programs.

They’ve got a long way to go, but these points are true. New York City child protective workers have an average caseload of ten. People in other parts of the country would kill for that. I would kill for that. Yes, it’s a difficult, thankless job, often dangerous, with crazy hours. But it’s doable. I have met a lot of CPS workers that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, but I’ve also met some wonderful ones. CPS workers who are dedicated, knowledgeable, and put children first. The idea that this worker only had time to enter his contacts after the death of this child is ludicrous.

Sometimes people fall behind. There is a chain of command, supervisors on top of supervisors, for this very reason. Someone is looking over your shoulder, insuring that things are getting done as they’re supposed to.

Meaning that the supervisor in this scenario failed miserably as well.

Falsification of records happens. It should be unheard of, but it’s not. I’ve seen it. I’ve reported it. And I’ve seen that worker kept on their job. It’s inexcusable. It’s the one thing (well, one of very few things) my supervisor tells us she will absolutely not defend.

Because this is what it can lead to.

What can we learn from this?

  1. We need to take our jobs seriously. Social workers, child protective workers, investigators, preventive workers…we can be the last hope for a child in this type of home.
  2. We can’t defend others just because they share our profession. Our first instinct is so often to stand up for our fellow workers. But in cases of ethical violations, especially when they lead to tragedy, we owe it to the profession not to do this.
  3. Supervisors cannot become so overwhelmed or detached that they ignore their responsibility. Even if their direct contact with clients is limited.
  4. DON’T FALSIFY YOUR RECORDS. It will never be worth it. Some people are told to do this by their supervisors. Some people feel pressure to do this in order to make their numbers. But it’s inexcusable. There aren’t a lot of things I will say that about, but this is one.

So I don’t see this case as an indictment of ACS, or the social work profession. I see it as an indictment of two people who failed to do their jobs, which contributed to the death of a child. A child who was clearly at risk, and should have been protected.

A child who would probably be alive today, if those smaller caseloads had been taken advantage of and those stricter requirements followed.

It’s something we all need to keep in mind.