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.

Huh.

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.





“It’s Women’s Day, Rudy.”

7 03 2012

I’ve hardly had time to put away the decorations from last year, but once again, International Women’s Day is upon us! Before we get started, am I the only one who thinks of that episode of The Cosby Show when Rudy gets her first period, and they all go out for “women’s day?” Just me? All right.

The theme this year is “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures.” To which I say: cha-ching! I love those things!

I might have mentioned once or twice that my favorite work to do is with my teen girls’ groups. These groups are fun, challenging, different each time, and important. There is something special about bringing a room full of teen girls together and telling them that what they have to say really matters.

Feminism is an integral part of working with girls. We can act like it’s an option, but it’s really a requirement. Trying to help them deal appropriately with their anger, improve their self-esteem, make good choices, have safe sex, live peacefully with their parents, or anything else would be a lot easier if they weren’t already considered a bit less worthy, simply because they are girls.

It seems especially important since we’re living in a country that is still debating birth control. You know, that stuff that lets you have fewer than seventeen kids? And in which a man with millions of listeners saw fit to publicly declare that an intelligent, civic minded, possibly sexually active law student was a “slut” and “prostitute” because she thinks that universities and employers should not have the right to determine what medications the insurance she pays for will cover.

I just need to get this out, and then we can move on. The entire thing is bull shit. The next person who says, “Well, why should I pay for your birth control?” is getting a foot directly in the ass, as that is the orifice that they are talking out of. We are talking about INSURANCE COMPANIES, not taxpayers, paying for medication. We’ve had enough sexism and misogyny, we don’t need outright lies. Taxpayers do pay for birth control–it’s called Medicaid, everybody. The country hasn’t crumbled into the sea and been sucked into the fiery pits of Mordor just yet, so I think we’ll survive a private insurance mandate.

Oh, and I don’t care if you say birth control is not preventive medicine. Doctors say it is. Insurance companies cover it when not blocked by squeamish employers. That’s kind of it.

I’m also sick of all the false information being spread about birth control. Our kids are misinformed enough, we do not need politicians and drooling radio hosts further confusing them. It’s been said a million times now, but apparently it hasn’t sunk in. IT DOES NOT MATTER HOW FREQUENTLY YOU HAVE SEX, IF AT ALL, YOU STILL TAKE ONE BIRTH CONTROL PILL PER DAY. Rush Limbaugh is thinking of condoms…or Viagra…or those other pills he’s known for being so fond of, I’m not sure.

But way to mislead young people, and make them ashamed for taking control of their reproductive health. Yes, better to just have sex without protection. We wouldn’t want people hearing about my prescription.

Whether or not our girls have ever even heard of Rush Limbaugh (I’m sincerely hoping they haven’t) they are living in a society that has given him a platform. In a society that punishes women for speaking out about their rights and sexuality by shaming them for being sluts. A society that publicly admonishes a woman for daring to have sex, because that’s bad, but then says she should let men watch, because it’s cool when men do it.

Or something. It’s so convoluted I have trouble keeping up.

Working with girls to get them to recognize their own value and worth as women in this society is often an uphill battle. It is complete with peaks and valleys, which I present to you now.

Valleys:

14 y/o: “Wait, you can say you were raped even if you’re married? That’s stupid.”

Yes, so silly. If you say yes once, you say yes always, everyone knows that! And your body is there to be used by a man as he sees fit! I’m going to rock in the corner for a bit.

13 y/o: “My teacher was saying that like, if you get pregnant, it’s your responsibility, so like, you have to have the baby. So that’s why abortion is illegal.”
SJ: “OK. That might be what your teacher feels. But we all know that abortion is legal, correct?”
13 y/o: “No, I don’t think it is.”
SJ: “It definitely is. It’s been legal in this country since 1973.”
13 y/o: “Really? That doesn’t make sense, how is that possible?”
SJ: “I’m not saying you have to run out and have an abortion. But it’s really important to know your options.”

Teenage girls in America, many of whom have mothers who have had abortions (trust me) don’t know their rights. That is how demonized and muddled this issue has become. Scary.

15 y/o: “Miss, if a girl is giving head in a stairwell, she’s a slut! It’s ok to call her that!”

Fine. Now we’ve degraded her, and remained suspiciously silent about the boy involved. Are we better people yet?

“You should consider what people are going to think if you dress a certain way, because you might get a reputation. People will think you’re a certain type of girl.”

That was from my co-leader. Because if there’s one thing teen girls need to consider more, it’s what others think of them. And there are very few, very clearly defined types of girls.

Peaks:

15 y/o: “Do you guys notice that we get in more trouble for fighting than boys do?”
13 y/o: “Yeah, they expect them to be aggressive but we’re supposed to be perfect angels. It’s not fair.”

Wait…yes! That’s a double standard! And you’re noticing it on your own!

16 y/o: “Sometimes I think girls say they just got caught up in the moment and had sex because they don’t want to say that they wanted to do it. Like, because people will think they’re slutty. But that’s not slutty. And if you think about it and prepare then you’ll use condoms.”

No shame in wanting to have sex, and condom use?! High five!

14 y/o: “Slut is such a stupid word, can we please not use that in here?”

We should TOTALLY not use that stupid word in here!

15 y/o: “You know, I think I finished an entire bottle of ranch dressing in here tonight, but I don’t even care.”

It’s not groundbreaking, but comfort is important.

14 y/o: “Yeah, but whatever you do and however you dress someone is going to have something bad to say about you, so you might as well do what you want.”

Accurate.

The valleys, the downfalls, the moments that make me want to tear my hair out, have so much value, even though the peaks are what keep me going. Without that being presented, we can’t counteract it effectively. Feminism, and challenging the status quo, is a point of view that these girls are really not hearing.

A lot of lip service is paid to what in my day was called “girl power” (even when I was 13 and the Spice Girls were massive, I thought it sounded a bit silly.) You’re tough, you’re strong, girls rock! While it’s fun, a lot of it is meaningless. People are very often not talking about the real issues with girls, and educating them on issues that affect them. These girls aren’t stupid. They’re young, they’re easily influenced, but at the same time they’re smart, and they know on some level when they encounter inequality. Talking to them and introducing the idea that things actually can be different is an amazing gift for all of us.

So please, let’s try it this women’s day. For Rudy Huxtable, if no one else.





The State of the SocialJerk

26 01 2012

As good, loyal Americans, I’m sure we all watched the State of the Union address. I know I did. The whole thing. Until just about twenty minutes before it was over, when we realized we were bored and had a stack of Modern Family DVDs. What? Speeches get repetitive.

Before I go on, let me say I like Obama. Like most east coast, liberal, college-educated, fake Americans, when I’m not meeting with my coven over brunch or cavorting with known homosexuals, I’m being inspired by our president. There are some things I wish he had done differently, or at all, but overall, I like him.

As a modern lady (I can be a lady if I want to) I watched the state of the union whilst Tweeting. And I saw that a lot of my fellow American social workers were struck by the same line that I was.

“When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better.  So tonight, I am proposing that every state — every state — requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18. ”

This is an issue that affects my work directly. We work with kids who have effectively dropped out, whether or not it’s legal, all the time. It’s a problem we’re supposed to fix. I could just hear my teens’ reactions to the president’s proposal.

“Wait. I’m supposed to be in school? Heavens to Betsy, I had no idea! I’ll get myself over there post haste.”

I work with two sisters, ages 13 and 15. They’re in 7th and 9th grade, respectively. They have barely attended school all year. They see me for counseling (when I hunt them down.) ACS is involved. The school staff is shockingly dedicated, cares deeply about these kids, and have gone above and beyond to accomodate them.

But they refuse to attend school. They leave the house and go where they please. If they are walked to school, they hang out for an hour and then take off. School staff can tell them to stay, but they aren’t allowed to touch or restrain the kids. They head out to Flying-Spaghetti-Monster-knows-where until the end of the day. Their mother has no control, and has accepted the situation for what it is. They’ve been removed and placed in foster care and returned home more than once, and it made no difference.

They’re already not allowed to drop out, but they kind of have. If the age were raised to 18, would this behavior have been delayed for two years? Maybe. No wait, that’s stupid. Definitely not.

I have worked with other kids who gave up on school because they were so hopelessly far behind. I’m talking about 15, 16, and 17 year olds who were still in seventh grade, and could barely read. If they suddenly passed every year in a row, they would be 22 when graduating high school. And what are the odds that they’ll suddenly get on track academically?

There are some really good programs for kids who have missed a lot of school, are far behind, and want to graduate high school. Young Adult Borough Centers do a great job of accomodating these “overaged, under-credited” kids and getting them jobs and helping them to graduate. There are some wonderful GED programs as well. But the kids have to be in high school, and they have to be at least 17. Prior to that, they’re essentially told to wait it out.

Kids who are already truant in middle school are really lost in the shuffle. For years.

I don’t have all the answers, (it’s true, I know it’s upsetting to hear, but it’s true) but I have seen things work. Some kids have different learning needs and require an IEP, and somehow this goes unnoticed until they’re 13 and running the streets. It’s not ideal, but it’s not too late, and getting the kid in the right setting can make all the difference.

Some kids are afraid to go to school for some reason–threats of violence, fear of being arrested (one of my girls uses this excuse all the time. I think if she were really that afraid she’d stop jumping other students and stealing their stuff, but I digress.) At times this is legitimate, and needs to be addressed either by the school, or with a safety transfer.

A mentoring program or extracurricular activities that require a student to be attending school have made a huge difference in attendance for some kids I work with. One of my girls had zero interest in school, but was sufficiently excited about an afterschool dance program. It got her ass in her seat, which was my goal. Then she realized that class wasn’t quite as terrible as she thought. When kids get to an age where they’re offered, there are alternative schools that do excellent work. We need more of these programs. Desperately.

And we need more options for kids. We have over one million students in the New York City public school system. They’re not all going to graduate. I’m not talking about giving up on kids who are not succeeding academically, but we need to be realistic. There’s just no such thing as 100%. If a young person is really unable to do what is required to get an academic high school diploma, or is so disinterested that the alternative is them getting nothing and being half-heartedly chased by city officials until the age of 16 (or 18) we need another option.

Truancy is an extremely complicated, horribly frustrating problem to work on. There is not a simple solution.

Raising the dropout age, though? That’s just fucked.





I’m Ms. Brightside

19 01 2012

Yesterday was a rough day. Like, the kind your mom warned you about. Or maybe she didn’t. But still, they happen. I had to listen to an awesome twelve year old girl cry about how she wants to go live with her dad, because her mom blames everything on this kid and just can’t be nice. Mom doesn’t beat this child. Her physical needs are taken care of. The mom just has a unique ability to make this kid feel like crap. Dad probably can’t take her, and mom would never allow it anyway, but it was all she could think of.

I am trying to help this kid. Really, really trying. But with a parent who isn’t willing to even think about change, and a situation that doesn’t warrant removal (and really, would removal solve this? Would this child suddenly be in the warm, loving environment she deserves? Maybe. Probably not.) I’m limited in what I can do. A mentor and an afterschool program to get her out of the house, counseling at school, and support from me are kind of all I can do. It happens. There are situations you can’t fix, because the people in charge of them don’t want you to help.

Let’s focus on the good. For a moment

1.) I have been working with a mother and her thirteen year old daughter for close to a year now. They were barely speaking when they started coming in, and it is ridiculously heartwarming to see how much they’ve grown. They do things together and talk to each other. Soon, their case will be closed, which is depressing and thrilling all at the same time.

Anyway, this girl is super smart, and loves school. She just got accepted to the Catholic school of her choice, the one she’s been dreaming of, complete with a full scholarship. As if that weren’t enough (it totally was) she ran to the office to tell me. (After crying with her mom over it.)

2.) The other morning, there was a parenting group meeting at the office for the first time. They assured the clients that child care would be provided, but neglected to tell the workers who provide the child care. As a result, there was a lot of, “Well, I have other work to do. They didn’t tell me. I can’t watch these kids rabble rabble rabble.”

One of the kids in question was from one of my families, so I told the parents to leave their kids with me and go ahead to group. I don’t know how many of you have had the surprise experience of reading “The Cat in the Hat” to a group of toddlers who are extremely rarely read to, but it’s a delight. Trust me.

3.) Recently, we had a holiday celebration for participants that didn’t go exactly as planned. Supervision was lacking, there was a lot of petty infighting, we didn’t have time or money…the usual. But my homemade mancala boards? Were a HUGE hit. Families asked to take them home, so they could play together. Video game addict kids wanted to teach their friends to play. Victory!

Egg carton + beads = no money fun!

4.) In social work, a case being ready to close (not closing because time is up, or because they’re moving on to other services, or the kids are being removed) is a great success. I’ve got a family with an eight year old who is in just that position. They’re doing well. The mother just told me, “Things are still stressful, but I have ways to manage it now.” Yeah. That’s pretty much it.

But that’s not the best part. Here is a pic of me and her eight year old daughter.

See how we get our hair done at the same place?

5.) Another mother just told me that her son had been acting up lately, so she made an appointment with his psychiatrist to see if his ADHD meds needed to be adjusted. This was a woman who remembered to give this child his meds only about half the time last year. As a result, this was a child who spent half the time last year throwing chairs.

6.) My girls’ group ended this week. (Speaking of crying. Oh, we weren’t? I was.) One of our traditions is to have all of the girls write a card to each girl in the group, saying something positive about their participation. Two of the girls decided to write notes to me, and insisted, under pain of death, that I display them in my cubicle.

Yeah. You don't get that often.

We can’t help everyone. There are situations that we work our best on, and then have to admit that there’s nothing else we can do. It’s just reality. The reminders, especially visual reminders, that there are, in fact, people we help, and changes we help bring about, can make quite the difference.





“Take my kids, please!” “For the last time, NO!”

5 01 2012

The baby-snatcher is one of the most enduring social worker stereotypes. The assumption that we steal children away first, ask questions later, is one that most of us confront fairly regularly. Some social workers are able to explain that they don’t even work with kids. Some, like me, try to make people understand that, although we work with families, we’re not authorized to remove children, and this would be kidnapping, whether or not we used a van. Still others have to explain that, while removal might be a part of their job, it’s a bit more nuanced than people tend to think.

You would think that hearing, “I’m not here to take your kids!” would be a comfort to everyone, especially the parents. And it often is. But then there are the parents of teenagers.

I most often get this from mothers of teen girls, but it happens with boys at times as well. These parents come in, sometimes self-referred due to struggling with their teenager in the home, or referred by ACS for “educational neglect.” (This term, when applied to young children, means that the parent is being negligent in getting the child to school. When applied to teens, it means the kid is truant due to 1) unmet special needs 2) problems in the home or 3) being a lazy jerk. These are all technical terms, do try to keep up.)

A lot of parents come in and are fed up. I think we all get that. Teens are exhausting. I work with them, and I was one. Sometimes I wonder why my parents still talk to me. I’ve also had a couple…let’s say, free-spirited youngsters, in my family. So it’s not that I don’t understand how someone could feel like they’re at the end of their rope.

That’s not to say I agree with the desperate “take my kids, please!”

Parents regularly come to us, wanting their teenagers removed from the home. Not forever, mind you. They want them to come home fixed.

I blame Sally Jesse Raphael. Remember that show? Overwhelmed mothers would bring their out of control, swearing, skanky teens on the show. The audience would boo them, get sassy with the teens in question (“Yo momma brought you into this world, she can take you out!” Really? Murder?) and then a “drill sergeant” (sorry, putting on fatigues doesn’t make you a drill sergeant) would yell and make them run through tires. They would cry and hug their moms, happy to be home after a harrowing afternoon. Problem solved.

I sincerely doubt that this works. But hey, television is a powerful medium. People very often believe what they see, especially when they’re feeling desperate.

People who really want help don’t seek it on TV. If you genuinely want to meet someone to spend your life with, or find out who the father of your child is, you don’t do it on The Bachelor or Maury. Unless you are seeking attention, or a complete idiot.

Mom: “She’s out of control. Can’t you send her to one of those boot camps?”
SJ: “What boot camp? You want her to enlist?”
Mom: “No, those programs for bad kids, like on the talk shows.”
SJ: “I think those are rather expensive.”
Mom: “Well, the city can pay for it!”
SJ: “The city doesn’t do that.”
Mom: “Why not?”
SJ: “I don’t know. We can write a letter. This isn’t helping right now.”

Get this kid out of my house, she can come back when she’s ready to listen. (Note: I don’t want to be the one to make her listen.)

I’m not talking about the parents of children with mental illness, looking for residential treatment. I’m talking about parents who have, for lack of a better term, let their kids run wild. Little kids “acting bad” is generally regarded as cute. They swear, they get sassy, and everyone laughs. Then they’re teenagers, bigger than their parents, and it isn’t so cute anymore.

The common thread here is wanting the kids sent away. Wanting someone else to come in and fix things. These are most often the parents who send their kid in for counseling, but refuse to participate themselves, saying they’re not the ones who have the problem. They are genuinely shocked and appalled that they are expected to do some hard work and make changes. “Why won’t you whisk him away to the Good Teen Factory?!”

Like I said, I get it. I understand being overwhelmed, being depressed, or not having supports to turn to. I understand feeling undermined as a parent by systems that you don’t want in your life. But I don’t understand feeling like your child is someone else’s responsibility.

I was raised with a pretty strict, “You made this mess, you clean it up.” If Rudy Huxtable was responsible for cleaning the kitchen when she tried to make jelly in the blender (so cute) then you can at the very least participate in getting your teenager’s life back on track.

I’m always being told by these parents that they have reached out for help, so if we don’t “fix” the child in question, and that child gets arrested or hurt, they’re going to sue.

Seriously. People say this. Constantly.

First of all, if your kid is hurt, dead, or in jail, and your first thought is, “Who is paying me for this?!” just go fuck yourself. This is not a social worky, strengths based statement, but I do think it’s accurate.

Second of all, fine. Bring all the law suits you want. But this kid is your responsibility. First and last. I will never understand a mindset that contradicts this.

I don’t like lamenting a lack of personal responsibility. It makes me feel like a Republican, which isn’t good, because I can’t shower at work. But I need to be honest.

Challenging this mindset is a huge part of my job. And complaining about it on the internet seems to be a huge part of keeping me at it.