10 06 2013

When we get a referral, it (usually) specifies why the family is being referred. Sometimes it focuses on the parent. “The mother is hitting the children with a belt.” Sometimes it’s more about the child. “The teenager is staying out all night and the parents suspect she’s using drugs.” Often it’s a combination of both. “The teenager is staying out all night, and the mother is responding by hitting her with a belt.”

When they focus on the kids, it’s usually that they’re “acting out.” Something is dysfunctional. They’re doing something they shouldn’t be doing.

Sometimes, it’s OK. Doing things you aren’t supposed to is a developmental phase. It lasts from age two until death, but is usually a bigger problem at around fifteen. There are ways that kids test boundaries, and while it’s annoying, it’s appropriate.

At other times, kids are really acting out. They’re setting fires, they’re staying out for days at a time, they’re hurting themselves, hurting someone else, getting so stoned every day that they can’t function…there are many, many options.

When it’s standard acting out, “catching an attitude” and wanting independence, a lot of the work is on getting the parent to understand that this is what they signed on for when they brought that cute little baby into the world. They need to work with it, and their kid is far from the worst.

When it’s the more intense stuff, there’s a reason. Routinely, we know what it is.

“The teenage daughter was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. The mother did not believe her. The case did not become known to us until the child told a teacher who called the case in. The child has been extremely angry and leaves the home without permission. She refuses to speak to her mother.”

She does? That’s so weird. Why wouldn’t she want to talk to her? Clearly this kid has problems.

Or is she doing exactly what she’s supposed to do in that situation? Who would handle it better? And how?

“Family was referred by the child’s school. She is easily distracted and fights frequently. It is believed she suffers from ADHD and needs a mental health evaluation. Child witnessed her mother’s death in another country eighteen months ago and moved to the Bronx to live with her father.”

Definitely medicate her. There’s no other explanation.

Mental health counselor: “This boy refuses to even admit that he was sexually abused.”
SJ: “He never admitted it?”
MHC: “No, he told when it was happening, and he testified in court. But now he refuses to talk about it.”

And the problem is…? Wouldn’t we be more concerned if a kid nonchalantly told everyone he met about being orally raped by a family member?

“The children have been truant for the past two months.”

Sounds like straightforward bad behavior until you find out that their secondary caregiver was dying in the home during that time.

We label and pathologize behaviors that are so understandable. Grief? Fuck grief, get it together! (Or so says my obscenity ladened parody version of DSM-V. Look for it in bookstores this fall!) It’s not to say that not going to school, or running away, or fighting, are ok and we should let it go on. They’re not, and we shouldn’t. People need to be getting help and working through these things.

But they need to be getting the right kind of help. Working with someone who thinks your behavior makes sense, and that you don’t just need to knock it off or take the right pills (I’m not against medication, I swear, except when I am) can make all the difference. Especially when that person is willing to advocate on your behalf to the powers that be–someone else saying that you’re not crazy, you’re not bad, you’re just traumatized can be a pretty powerful way to develop the therapeutic relationship.

We’re rarely the only service providers involved in our families’ lives. There are mental health professionals, school staff, child protection specialists, and more. There’s often a lot of talk about taking a no-nonsense approach, and not letting a child “make excuses” for their behavior. That’s fine if we’re talking about a spoiled kid whose led a charmed life and has decided she doesn’t want to go to school.

Am I the only one who doesn’t work with many of those?

Understanding trauma, how it changes the brain and affects behavior, and how long it can take someone to feel safe again is something that everyone in this field (caseworkers, social workers, supervisors, receptionists) need to take upon ourselves. Otherwise we’re just spinning our wheels.

Flames on the side of my face…

13 08 2012

I remember first hearing the term “baptism by fire” back in my catechism days. (They focused on baptism by water, and I started an argument over whether or not you could use ketchup. I was always a jerk.) My religion teacher meant something a bit different from how I, and most social workers, would use that term now.

By the end of my first week at Anonymous Agency, over three years ago, I started to feel like I knew what I was doing there, at least a little. I knew where the bathroom was, had met most of my clients, and I hadn’t gotten hopelessly lost. But that Friday…baptism.

That day, I got a call from one of the families I hadn’t managed to meet yet. I couldn’t entirely understand what the mother was talking about, but it had to do with her fifteen year old daughter and red juice. Would I come with them to the kid’s school for a meeting?

Sure. Only…what?

I was in the city (the Bronx is part of the city, but Manhattan is “the city,” for my foreign readers) for a new employee training that day. The teenager’s school was also in the city (again, Manhattan) so it worked out that I would meet them at the school.

Remember when I said I hadn’t met them yet? Yeah. This led to awkward, blind date style statements. “I’ll be the frightened looking white girl with the oversized purse. Will you carry a rose?”

Somehow, I managed to find them outside the school. The mom had all five kids with her, and was walking down the sidewalk saying, “Miss SJ? Miss SJ?” so it wasn’t as hard as I’d anticipated.

We got to the meeting with the principal, assistant principal, and guidance counselor. This was the first of many lessons that day: if they all show up, your kid of That Kid.

I finally managed to piece together what we were there for. Apparently, this young woman, we’ll call her Faith (that is a Buffy the Vampire Slayer reference, if you’re wondering) had a habit of skipping school. Earlier in the week, she’d done just that and gone to a classmate’s apartment. Just her and two boys. She was then deposited back at the school, incoherent and slurring, by those two boys, in a cab that immediately left.

Not a good sign.

She had gone to the hospital that day, but apparently there were new concerns.

All the time, this girl was insisting that she had just drank a cup of red juice (so that’s what her mom was talking about!) and nothing else. They must have drugged her! (Side note: I worked with this girl for a year afterwards, and she did not go to this apartment to drink Hawaiian Punch.) The school rumor mill was churning it out that she had been taken advantage of sexually assaulted.

So a walk to the precinct was in order.

Wait. Am I allowed to go there? Of course, my cell phone battery had died, so I had to use the school phone to call to ask my boss if I was allowed to go, like a third grader who forgot her permission slip.

Except I first realized I didn’t know my phone number. (So, not as good as a third grader.) I had to rifle through my New Employee Information Packet to figure out a way to get through, under the watchful eye of a skeptical, and I think, overly judgmental, receptionist.

My boss was out, so I spoke with another supervisor. The conversation was less than reassuring. “Yeah, you can go, but don’t spend all your time on this one case, you have other families.” Way to be where the client is! Also it’s 3:30 on a Friday, and I’m an hour away from the rest of my clients. Deal with it.

We went to the precinct, which is always an adventure. I hadn’t done that since I was little and my aunt dated a cop. Watching people report petty crime is pretty fun!

Faith and her mother went to talk to the officers in private, leaving me with four kids I had never met. I learned what schools they all went to, which My Little Ponies were their favorites, and three new Miley Cyrus songs. Or the same song over and over, I’ll never be sure.

At this point, my work day was over. I was off the clock, not getting paid. But the police said that a trip to the hospital was in order, so off we went.

Wait, am I allowed to do that?

This time I spoke with my actual supervisor, who said those words we’re all longing to hear. “You’re doing a good job. You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.”

Another lesson from that day: an ambulances is really the best way to travel in New York City traffic!

The hospital involved more waiting, more getting-to-know-you-getting-to-know-all-about-you, and more difficult questions. They asked if we were there for a full rape kit, or just an STD test and some prophylactic medication. Mom said, “just do everything” as though she were ordering the pu pu platter, but Faith decided against it.

I sat with the family in that waiting room, talking to nurses, doctors,and other social workers (real ones, who knew what they were doing and what their phone number was) until it was nearly ten p.m. and we were all starting to fall asleep. At that point I remembered that there was nothing more I could do, and said good bye.

I went home and cried for a while, over sadness for whatever the bell happened to this girl, and what she was going through, and from sheer exhaustion. My roommate brought me Cheez-Its, and I was back at work on Monday.

That day threw me into my job, and my profession, head-first. It also threw me into this family’s life. Hey, Faith, you can say nobody cares about you, but remember that day at the precinct?

It became a favorite family story for the kids, and something the mother always referenced when she talked about me appreciatively.

“Remember the first day we met? You were with us for like ten hours!” “We got to know each other so well that day!” “That ambulance was awesome!”

It was the first of many truly crazy, exhausting days. But it’s always good to have a reference point for hectic–is this really so bad? At least I’m not at the hospital! It taught me what being where a family is and sticking with them can do for you, and replaying that day reminds me of how I was when I started, and how not to get burned out.

And if nothing else, Cheez-Its can go a long way in getting me through.

I use clips from The Breakfast Club in my work

12 07 2012

When you’re studying groupwork in Village of the Damned social work school, they prepare you for certain things. You know, the doorknob effect, mutual support, a lot about the importance of snacks. (Disclaimer: I was a casework major.) You learn about the need for each group to have defined goals, and a purpose.

I’ve run groups with the themes of self-esteem and communication, mostly. I tend to go with those because they kind of incorporate everything, so I can do what I want.

Each group tends to take on a theme of its own, in addition to what I had planned, which guides and tweaks our curriculum. In the first group I ran, the girls were all obsessed with losing their virginity. It bordered on teen movie style fanaticism. So that group was my introduction to the importance of sex ed, and was the first time I asked a room full of people if they knew where their uterus was. Another group, the girls jokingly called “gay club.” By the second day, 80% of them came out as gay or bisexual. So we went with that, talked about dating, dealing with parents…also Naya Rivera came up a lot, but that’s neither here nor there. My last group could have had the Maury Povich style title “I hate my stepfather!” All of the girls were dealing with their mother’s husband or boyfriend, and he was always a massive tool. We spent a lot of time role playing different scenarios, and trying to figure out what would make Mom listen.

In the fiery pits of Mordor social work school, we also learn about the various roles group members take on. There might be a scapegoat, a ringleader, a deviant…whatever. (Again, casework major.) These roles certainly make sense in a group setting. But I’ve noticed some other titles that pretty much always apply. Boy bands and eighties movies need types, and so do girls’ groups.

1) The Good Student. This is the one who all the girls use on their Human Bingo cards for “I love to read.” Very often she has a somewhat quirky interest that the other girls don’t quite get, like anime or death metal. She needs to be encouraged to stop raising her hand before talking.

2) The Comedian. This is the one who must make others laugh in order to know she exists. Everyone loves to laugh, but it’s not the best when you’re trying to lead a group bonding activity or someone is revealing their history of sexual abuse. Great for breaking the ice, not too helpful in staying on task. (See also: SJ, ninth grade.)

3) The Cuckoo Bananas One. This girl reads things on the internet, and believes them. To a degree that’s alarming even for an adolescent. Like, more so than that aunt of yours who keeps forwarding you $250 cookie recipes, or warnings about how murderers are using recorded crying baby sounds to lure women to their deaths. (Snopes is giving out “don’t look ridiculous” for free, people.)

But really. Did you know the government is going to move us all into tiny compounds by the end of the year? And of course 9/11 was an inside job. You can see the strings, people!

At first I thought this was just one wacky girl in my first group. But it’s continued over the years, and I think it belongs in a textbook.

4) The Youngest Child. This one may or may not be the youngest in the group, or even the youngest in their family. They’re just perceive themselves to be at risk of being left out at all times, and as a result laugh a little too hard at the Comedian’s jokes and agree a little too quickly with Cuckoo Bananas’ theories…and then with the people who disagree with her. She needs to be assured that people like her for her, then learn that it doesn’t matter as much as she thinks.

5) The Teacher You Wish Would Stop Teaching. This girl might be a little bit older, have done a group before, or just be a little more experienced than the other girls in the group. She fancies herself a bit of a mentor, which is great until she gives advice like, “you should just do sex once to get it over with” or “make him wash it off first.” (Those are actual quotes. Actual.)

6) The One Who Drives You Insane, Out Of Love. Oh wait, that’s all of them. They love Chris Brown, they idolize Snooki (“she’s herself!” Yeah, and her self is terrible) they disappear for a couple of weeks and return seemingly minus all the progress they’ve made.

But you keep going, welcoming them back and telling them you’re thrilled to see them (because you are!) and remember that, while it’s way too trite and Hallmark movie to say, “you get even more out of group than they do”–the Comedian does make you laugh, the Good Student gives you hope for the future, Cuckoo Bananas keeps you on your toes and comes out with a gem every so often, the Youngest Child is endearing as hell, and the Teacher You Wish Would Stop Teaching just wants to help her friends and is actually learning.

Also, there are always snacks.

Intern-o Inferno

2 07 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drama Llamas are pack animals

26 06 2012

I’m gearing up for another girls’ group. These are generally the highlight of my professional life, so I’m rather excited. The thing that I don’t particularly enjoy about the girls, though, is the drama.

Now, I love drama. As in theater. The other kind of drama, though, I would prefer be saved for yo mama. (As a keychain I once saw instructed.)

Drama is free-flowing with teenagers, and not just girls. They can’t trust anyone, because everyone is two-faced. My girls really accuse people of being “two-faced” all the time. I kind of enjoy this because it sounds olden-timey. Like Sandy might have called Rizzo this.

They start spouting cheesy quotes that I assume they got from day-time talk shows and Jersey Shore.

“I like that people are talking about me, that I’ve got haters. It means I’m more interesting than they are.” “I know it’s just them being jealous.” Everyone is a jealous hater or has a staring problem. I remember being accused of these things in high school. I’m sorry, classmate, but I could see your underwear out the bottom of your skirt. I assure you it wasn’t jealousy.

“I’m the best friend you’ll ever have until you cross me.”  “I fight to the death to protect my family.” What does that mean? You’re talking like we live in Kabul. I believe the topic was infidelity.

“We’ll never be friends again, but if she calls me at three o’clock in the morning I’ll be there.” Why not if she calls you in the afternoon, like a normal person? You mean if she calls you because she’s being held against her will, or is on fire, or something? Is there a person you wouldn’t be there for in that situation? Is this such a likely scenario that everyone is always talking about it?

I can accept it from teenagers. It’s annoying, sure, but it’s developmentally appropriate. They’re becoming more independent, friendships take on increasing importance, and it’s normal to think that everyone is watching you with a hidden camera. When you haven’t experienced all that much, this minor nonsense feels huge.

When it comes from people my age, I start to have a problem.

I don’t know if this is more common with my clients than it is with the general population, or if I just don’t associate with people in my free time who get into this sort of thing. I suspect it’s a little of both.

Here’s a free tip–the easiest way to tell that someone LOVES drama is to hear them say, “I can’t stand drama.” It would be like me saying, “I hate line dancing.” I mean, I might, but since it doesn’t interest me, it’s not a part of my life, and doesn’t require a comment. Certainly not a Facebook status.

I hear it from my adult clients all the time. The parents are worse than the kids with the Facebook shenanigans. My constant refrain is, “If you won’t delete your profile, will you at least unfriend your ex/ex’s new girlfriend/former friend/asshole cousin?” No. They need to keep that person around. Know your enemy, and all that. “This way I can see what she’s up to.” Oh. Ok.

WHY THE HELL DO YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT SHE’S UP TO?!? You talk about how you can’t stand this person, thank goodness they’re out of your life, you wouldn’t touch them with a thirty nine and a half foot pole, but heaven forbid you not get to see the Instagram picture they uploaded of the bundt cake they made last night.

But you can’t reason with drama.

This is also what happened after I tracked down a father after his cell phone had been shut off. He begrudgingly gave me his new cell phone number, under strict instructions not to give it to anyone else. (You know, because I would do that.) He didn’t want people having that new number, because he didn’t want to deal with any drama. (You know, because people are banging down his door.)

I have a few theories as to why more of the adults I work with seem to attract drama. One is the lack of traditional employment. Most of my clients work, for sure. But most of that work is off the books, quasi-self-employment like Avon, or more casual like baby-sitting and odd jobs. The thing that helps some people reign in their nuttier impulses, especially on the social networks, is the need to keep up a professional appearance. If that’s not there, there’s less incentive to hold back.

Related to this is a lack of hobbies or activities. I would never say the families I work with have too much free time on their hands, because they don’t, but they don’t have enough mental stiumlation. A lot of the people I work with are very intelligent but under-educated, and can’t entertain themselves quite enough. Or they spend a crazy amount of time waiting for hours for appointments, and a fight might be just the think to break up the monotony.

Another is, of course, mental illness. I don’t work specifically with a mentally ill population, but of course, mental illness is everywhere.

Then there are poor examples. Growing up with violence and inappropriate anger in the family can make it easy to seem like that’s the best way you can show your love. Saying you’ll physically fight someone if they look at your kids or your partner sideways could feel like a nice compliment to let someone know you care.

And some of it is just lack of maturity. That sounds really judgmental, and it is, but I have a social work-y explanation. So many people I work with don’t get to be children. They don’t have the opportunity to experience that developmentally appropriate period of safely asserting their independence (and maybe their bitchy side.) Or this is when they launch themselves into the adult world, before they’re properly prepared, and they get a bit stuck in that phase. I hear parents tell me all the time that the kids need to get themselves together and stop acting up because, “this is my time. I raised her, and now it’s time for me to do me.” I don’t know what exactly “doing me” means in this context, but I usually have to remind these parents that the kid in question is seven, and their job as parent is far from over.

As annoying as it can be to hear about it, because it would be so easy to avoid it I have to remember that it’s worse for the person involved. As much as they might seem to glory in it, that is a stressful way to go through life. Never knowing who your real friends are, not trusting anyone, your guard always being up. If nothing else, it makes me grateful for my boring life.

But not so grateful for Facebook.

Do we like boy bands again?

12 06 2012

Very often, families end up working with us when entirely normal developmental tasks go wrong. Essentially, kids are designed to be a pain in the ass in a variety of different ways throughout their lives. If parents aren’t ready for this, they might handle it badly enough that they need some outside help. Infants are supposed to scream. Toddlers are supposed to have tantrums and occasionally pee on the floor. Teens are supposed to test boundaries. Not understanding this contributes to shaken babies, toddlers smacked around during potty training, and mothers insisting that someone take their teenage daughters and return them when they’re back to normal.

Since I started this work, I’ve been particularly fascinated by the relationships between moms and their teenage daughters. Those are a writer’s goldmine. (Ask Judy Blume. Or whoever did “Thirteen.”) It’s a fascinating mess, almost every time. And almost every time, it catches us by surprise.

Every mother I work with is astonished by what an ungrateful little bitch her teenager has turned into, seemingly over night. As always, we look for patterns in the family. “What was your relationship with your mom like when you were 15?” Inevitably, it was terrible. The mother’s mother was unsupportive,didn’t listen, treated her daughter like a slave…the mothers I’m working with think they’re doing a better job, and can’t understand why this didn’t prevent nightmare teenagerdom. I mean, my daughter doesn’t have to do everyone’s laundry like I did, and I don’t beat her with an extension cord! What more do kids these days want?

I’m always struck by this. Don’t they ever think back on the dramatic thoughts and journal entries they kept as teenagers and cringe? Do they remember how seriously they took everything that came to their friends and popularity, or the stupid nonsense that made them laugh until they snorted? Didn’t they ever read Judy Blume?!

Working with teenagers, I spend a lot of time relating to them. I reflect on myself as a teenager more than “normal” adults–you know, those people who spend a majority of their time with people their own age. Not to mention the whole writer thing. Writers are notoriously weird and reclusive introspective and observant, so I wind up writing about teen characters a lot. The two kind of feed into each other. Not to mention the fact that I don’t have a teenager at this point. As much as my teenage cousins have put me through the ringer once or twice, it’s not quite the same.

So I remember, I think better than a lot of people, the turmoil and agony that accompanies mundane, normal stuff when you’re a teenager. Are my friends hanging out without me? Why did my “best friend” tell that guy that I liked him? Now I look like an idiot and I can never leave the house again! This is just the normal stuff. Throw in abuse, homelessness, mental illness, and shit gets real quite quickly.

I’m only telling you this because I feel this is a safe space. High school SJ had a journal entry that contained the line “we’re not allowed to be in love.” Ugh. Everything I did was so dramatic and flamboyant. It just makes me want to set myself on fire.

It sounds so silly now. But when you’re living it, it’s of the utmost importance, and the only thing that makes it worse is being told how ridiculous you’re being.

My mom and I had a rough relationship when I was a teenager. I was a nightmare, and she was personally insulted by what a nightmare I was being to her. Par for the course. Dr. Mom was aware of this, which helped, but that didn’t make it all that much easier when the kid who last year begged for you to play Clue with her all of a sudden is mortified by everything you do.

She picked me up from junior high one time, and rolled down the window and screamed from across the street, “SJ! Over here!” I must be the messiah, readers, because I died. Actually died. And rose again. What to her was a nice thing to do–not making me walk home when she had a day off, and letting me know she was there–caused me extreme mortification and probably led to a surly silent treatment.

My mother was also a bit distressed by my choice of idols. My undying love for Kurt Cobain said to her, “My child can’t get enough of a suicidal drug addict.” As an adult, I get it. As a kid…oh my. Why couldn’t she understand how much Nirvana spoke to me?

But the thing is, she tried. She really tried to get me. When I managed to obtain all nineteen episodes of My So-Called Life on VHS (you kids with your DVD collections, you have no idea how good you have it) she told me she wanted to watch it with me. And she actually did. When I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower on Christmas Day 1999, and proclaimed I had never related to something so much in my life (I said I was dramatic. I also really wanted to have grown up in the early ’90s) she asked to borrow it, and talked about it with me.

Despite the disapproval of the genuinely stupid things I did, I knew my mom liked me as a person and thought I was an interesting kid. She talked to me like a person, when I allowed it, and defended me to strangers who criticized my purple hair. That went a long way towards me being able to be one of those adults who is friends with my mother, and likes hanging out with my family.

So moms, social workers, countrymen, it’s going to suck. It just is. It comes with the territory. You can’t be your daughter’s friend (not until she’s through college and in her 20s) but you can find things that you genuinely like about her. Even if you have to wrack your brain, the kid has good qualities. The more specific the better. “You’re a good kid” doesn’t mean a whole lot, but “you’re creative and a good baker” does. Taking an interest in the things they like is incredibly important. Not to the point of being a weirdo who doesn’t give your child space and knocks other children out of the way for the last One Direction t-shirt, but in a way that lets your kid know that what matters to them matters to you. One of my chronically crabby thirteen year olds was the happiest girl in the world when her mother took her to see that god forsaken Justin Bieber movie, and actually had a nice time.

It’s worth a try. It really can only get better. And then maybe, when your child is a reflective grown-up, she’ll write a nice blog post about you.

You Gotta Give ‘Em Hope, Jr.

17 05 2012

A groundbreaking article was recently released on the subject of teen pregnancy and parenting, that is apparently based on new research. I say “apparently” because it’s possible that it was actually based on one of my rants from when I worked at Anonymous Youth Center, and began my relationship with pregnant and parenting teens. The article states that getting pregnant and raising a child is not typically the thing forcing young women into poverty. They start off in poverty, and this makes them more likely to become pregnant and choose to parent, for a variety of reasons.

And everyone who works with these young women kind of knew that already.

We talk about how likely it is for young parents and their children to live in poverty, for the parents to not finish school, and to work in menial jobs. For a lot of the girls I work with, that’s not all that different from the future they see for themselves without a child. It’s what their experience and examples dictate. While I certainly believe that young people who work really hard and have the right support, opportunities, and talents can create a different life for themselves, it’s incredibly difficult. We ask a lot of these kids, much more than we ask of those who were lucky enough not to be born poor.

If I had a child at seventeen, it would have meant giving up the scholarship I had to go away to college. It would have meant no study abroad. It would have meant not getting to do the things that most of my friends were doing. For my girls, this isn’t the case.

I recently went a high school to visit a sixteen year old girl I’ve been work with for the past year. She was in quite a mood, saying she was exhausted and nauseated. My mind started racing. “Weren’t you exhausted and nauseated two weeks ago?” “Yeah…”

Oh boy.

Now, I’m very positive when it comes to teen mothers. I have worked with many wonderful young moms. (Sorry I don’t write about teen dads, but I don’t have any!) I have written about it extensively, as I adore them and their kids, and feel that they can do a wonderful job, provided they have some chances and support.

This girl does not want to be a mother, teen or otherwise. She has said this for as long as I’ve known her. Her own family is, in her words, a disaster. She’s never felt taken care of, and has experienced all too frequently the many ways in which this world can suck. The kid wants an abortion.

But she’s being pressured, by her mother, by her boyfriend, not to take that route. So she’s considering what life would be like as a mother. I worked with her on taking some time to consider her options, as it’s still very early. What would be good about having a baby and raising it? What would be good about having an abortion? Can we even talk about adoption?

The answer to the third question is no, we can’t. Why you so crazy, SJ?

The answer to the second question is that she doesn’t want a child. No one is taking care of her, and she’s trying to focus on taking care of herself.

The answer to the first question was, essentially, meh? Why not? Things aren’t going to get any worse, and maybe it would motivate her to get up and get things done. The rationale that most people utilize to decide to chug a Five Hour Energy.

I was once informed that, because I expressed the hope that my teen girls would focus on developing interests and goals for furthering their education and careers, I did not have the necessary respect for motherhood, which is rooted in sexism. I would take a moment to address that point, but it’s so obviously stupid.

I have tons of respect for motherhood parenthood. I also have tons of respect for dismantling bombs. I don’t think either of these activities should be entered into lightly, or without preparation. At age 28, the idea of being responsible for another human (they don’t stay babies for long, do they?) blows my mind and terrifies me. Most parents I know say the same thing. It’s not that I don’t respect having children. It’s that I respect it too much.

Sometimes a pregnancy is a welcome surprise. I get that. I saw “Knocked Up” I also know actual humans who got pregnant before they intended to, but decided to go with it, because they realized it was what they wanted, and the time might never be exactly right, but they could do it. Mazel tov.

The idea of going into having a child the same way I go into having edamame for dinner four nights in a row is what’s troublesome to me. “Eh, why not? There are really no other options, and it doesn’t make a difference one way or the other.” It’s also sad. Profoundly sad. Because this girl honestly believes what she’s saying. That there’s no hope for her. Taking care of herself is not enough of a motivation. A child might be worthy of that, but she’s not.

This is a rare instance in which I wish I could take a child home.

I have faith that this girl could be a wonderful mother if that’s what she wanted, whenever she wanted it. I have faith that she could be amazing at whatever she chooses to do. Chef, rocket scientist, sanitation worker, poet, kickboxer, literally anything. She is smart, capable, and has proven over and over again that she is crafty as hell, and has essentially been responsible for herself and her siblings since adolescence. But she doesn’t have hope.

I have hope for her, and faith in her. Getting her to have that for herself is much more difficult. That is the hardest part, for me, about working with teen pregnancy.

Much harder than talking to a roomful of teenagers about condoms.

Teens are fad-ulous.

26 04 2012

I was fourteen years old when Bill Clinton was impeached. It was a changing moment in every young woman’s life. Well, that’s what I was told by the elderly nun who taught my global studies class. I just thought the world had gone crazy.

On a day home sick in 9th grade, I indulged in that grand sick day tradition–day time television. It’s offensive, it’s terrible, it’s an overall delight. The ladies of The View were yammering on and talking over each other about the negative effects that the impeachment was having on our society’s youth. Yes, like me having to hear Sister Marie talk about the sanctity of the Oval Office being desecrated by “the oral sex?”

No. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Kids are blowing each other left and right.


I also heard this on an episode of Boston Public. (Anyone else remember that? I had the misfortune of watching it with my parents. That was awesome.) In the episode, a couple of students were busted while engaging in the oral sex. They explained that they weren’t doing anything intimate, and one of the kids was running for class president, so it was cool, y’know?

The kind of dialogue written by someone who last spoke to a teenager when they were one. And even then, the conversation was brief.

All of a sudden, everyone was hysterical about how every kid my age couldn’t go a day without going down on a casual acquaintance. I was confused, because I was a kid my age. I wasn’t doing any of these things, and neither were any of my friends. Some people were, but they seemed to be pretty quiet about it, and I doubt their behaviors would have changed if Sister Marie had been president. Certainly, no one I knew had talked to Barbara Walters about any of it.

When I got older, I heard new stories about trends started by this new, terrifying generation.

Law & Order informed me that every child on my caseload had at least attended, if not hosted, a “rainbow party.” That’s when all of the girls wear a different shade of lipstick, perform oral sex on a boy, leaving a rainbow behind. (The logistics of this make no sense and I can’t believe it was ever featured on network television.) Though they might have been too busy at a pill party, when they cleaned out their parents medicine cabinets, dumped the pills in a bowl, and passed it around like Karen Walker party mix. All while wearing bracelets that indicate what sexual activities they’ve engaged in recently (probably sexting), which gained them entrance into their morning after pill based sex cult.

None of this applies to my children’s lives.

One, because most of these panic trends are about upper middle class white kids. Because then it’s shocking, news-worthy, and something must be done. Recently there was talk of kids somehow extracting alcohol from hand sanitizer in order to get drunk. My coworker said that this was old news. The teens she worked with in prison used to do it, ultimately causing them to eliminate Purel altogether. No one gave a shit when it was those kids, but if there’s a possibility that it’s spreading, then it’s interesting.

Two, because they’re mostly made up and stupid. If there is a ridiculous thing on the planet, someone has done it. That doesn’t make it a trend. Of course there are weird trends that catch on for no reason. Back in the day, people used to attempt to cram everyone on their block into a phone booth. Now, I believe people are inhaling cinnamon on the internet. But whatever, it’s a fad. They are fads because they come and go quickly.

The parents I work with so often freak out about trends. The hysteria they hear about. The mother of an acting out, extremely hyperactive eight year old didn’t want to accept that her son might have ADHD. She was, however, concerned that he would be a serial killer, because she read an article in Time magazine that listed bedwetting as a surefire symptom. All of my parents now worry about bullying, which is good if that’s what their kid is dealing with. But most of them aren’t. A lot of their kids are fighting, or jumping other kids. “So, it’s not bullying? All right.”

There are actual problems that our kids are getting into. They might not be new or remarkably creative. A lot of my teens are having sex. Some of them are having unprotected sex. It’s not some new-fangled colorful dick-in-her-ear sex, it’s just the same old pre-marital, maybe-we-have-a-condom, quick-before-my-parents-get-home sex that kids have been having for generations. It shouldn’t have to be something we’ve never heard of to get our attention. We shouldn’t be relieved by the fact that they’re just doing the stuff that can lead to pregnancy and STIs.

Things change, of course. But I don’t think people do. Parent now talk to me about how different things were “when we were kids.” Young people weren’t perfect, but they didn’t dress/talk/act/dance like kids these days! Except we did. I heard that I was a new breed of awful and a part of the most self-centered and reckless generation the world had ever seen. Now I’m supposed to look back on what I was a part of as the last era of childhood with any respect. It goes on and on. Watch Rebel Without A Cause. 1955–they’re juvenile delinquents! Their parents can’t control them! Eek!

Like I said, things change. There are more guns, so fights are more dangerous, and there is more technology, so the urge to take a naked photo of your hot teenage form won’t be impeded by the notion of having to get it developed at your local Walgreens. Overall, though, teens are teens. They experiment because they’re supposed to. If they’re testing boundaries and doing dangerous things, they’re right on schedule. We don’t need to be so concerned that they’re reinventing the sexy, drunk wheel. Think of what interested you as a teen, and what you were doing that you didn’t want your parents to know about. Apply it to the kids you know. Repeat.

Kids know buzzwords and parental hysteria when they hear it. It makes them realize that you’re talking to them as part of an age group that you learned about on TV, rather than as a person. It’s our jobs as the adults in their lives to be aware and talk to them about these things.

Whether or not what they’re doing has ever inspired a Lifetime movie.

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.

Age is nothing but a number. An ever increasing number

12 03 2012

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

But of course, things change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like I said, though, things change.

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

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

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

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

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