Be half that you can be

2 04 2012

I can’t speak for all social workers (never mind, I will) but my job is very cyclical. When I started, I inherited about six cases from another worker. In an inappropriately short period of time, I had signed another six. As a result, a lot of my cases are on a similar time frame. And for some reason that can never be known, everyone falls into crisis at the same time. Oh, you’ve been evicted? That means someone else is going to be hospitalized, someone is going to have a new CPS case called in, and I’m going to hear from a school that one of my kids is setting fires.

This month, four of my cases are ready to close. We say “ready.” The city gives us a twelve month window to work with families. When I started as an intern, we had up to two years. Following this logic, you’ll want to stay tuned for the development of our social work time machine, in which we go into the past to prevent the problems from ever happening, saving the government millions.

Of course, a case being open for a year is not an acceptable reason to close. A family isn’t sent on their merry way on their one year anniversary with Anonymous Agency. We can keep cases open longer, and we do, we just get penalized for it. Never mind that it’s very hard to do meaningful work with resistant, unmotivated families in less than a year. So sometimes, we take what we can get.

I’m really happy about two of these cases that are closing. “Really happy” might not be exactly the right term. I’m sad because I love these families and I’ll miss them, but I’m thrilled that they’ve made so much progress and done so much work that they are really, genuinely, ready to move on from having services.

Two out of four. Fifty percent. I’ll be honest, I’m kind of elated with those numbers. Doing it right half the time is really only a moment for celebration in New York Mets baseball, and social work. If your dentist told you that half of the time he doesn’t pull out healthy teeth, or your mechanic bragged that 50% of the oil changes she performed didn’t result in the car catching fire, you’d probably be looking for another professional. In social work, though, there are so many variables (new crises, family’s involvement, personalities of everyone involved, other helpful services in the family’s life…) in addition to the fact that we’re dealing with things as fluid, unpredictable, and subjective as mental health, family relationships, and parenting skills.

One family that is having their case closed was referred by ACS, due to excessive corporal punishment. The case was called in by the school, and while the parents didn’t totally agree with the call, they wholeheartedly accepted the help. “No one wants to hear that someone is worried about them being a good parent, and you get defensive. But then we thought, yeah, maybe we are hitting and yelling too much, and things can be better.”

I love them. Don’t take them from me.

This family is my crowning achievement. Except they’re not, of course. They’re awesome, but they’re not my creation. They did the word, because they wanted to and they wanted better for their kids. That meant that I could really do my job. We worked together beautifully. If only I could produce a video of us all holding hands and skipping into a meadow. (I should probably ask my friends where they’re all taking their engagement photos they keep putting on Facebook.)

The next family that is closing and actually ready for it came in of their own volition. They had been referred by ACS in the past, but returned voluntarily when the oldest daughter turned 13 and the family members thought she might be possessed by demonic beings.

This family is in the unfortunately common position of sliding back a bit into old habits, particularly acting out behaviors for the now 14 year old hellspawn daughter, just as the case is closing. They’re hesitant, but they can recognize that they’ve done a lot of work. The teenager who wasn’t doing a thing around the house now gets her baby sister ready in the morning and walks the dog twice a day. The mother who could barely look at her child without speaking cruelly, now laughs with her and plans activities for the two of them.

Another family is moving on to foster care services. This is often considered our greatest possible failure, as we are in the business of prevention, but this scenario is a bit different. The children are moving into their grandmother’s care, the person they stayed with almost exclusively as it was, and still have their mother in their life regularly. Foster care was something that needed to happen. But it doesn’t create much of a change for these two young girls. It does give their grandmother, who I would like to submit to the Vatican for sainthood (that’s how it works, right?) or at least send flowers, a bit of money and a major headache. Grandma asked if I could remain with the family, as she’s not connecting well with her foster care worker and she and I had a good working relationship. (Note: this is due to the fact that the family is delightful.) She needs some support, especially now that her daughter is pregnant with a third child, and is still mentally ill and on drugs. Bureaucratically speaking, though, this can’t happen. So we’re done.

The last family has been a roller coaster, and not the fun kind. They’re a great family, but the violent boyfriend is still in the home. He’s on his best behavior for the moment and has never hit the children, so all of the people who have any power in this situation (I’ll take ‘people that aren’t SocialJerk for $500,’ Alex!) have decided that it’s fine for him to stay. Because domestic violence is a total mindfuck, mom doesn’t want to leave him, even though she’s afraid he’ll go back to his old ways as soon as the case is closed. We can’t keep it open to babysit forever. That’s just not how anything works. All I can do is safety play, safety plan, safety plan with mom and the kids, talk with mom about the importance of continuing her individual counseling, and make sure that they know that they can always come back if they need to.

Fifty percent success this month. Maybe a bit more or a bit less, depending on how you look at it. Some months are better, and some months are worse. Realizing that you can’t help everyone, and that some families will leave your life the same way they came in, or maybe even worse, is a frustratingly important thing to understand about social work. We are in the business of helping people, and, at the risk absolute certainty of sounding painfully cliché, helping them to help themselves. As much as we want to, we can’t fix people. I can’t stay with that 14 year old and her mother until things are perfect, because I don’t know if I’ll be at this job until 2026. I can’t move in with another mother to protect her and her children from a potentially violent man. I can only care about my families as much as I can, and work as hard and as well as I can to make sure that they get the best I can give. If that’s fifty percent, then that’s what it is.

At least I’m still better than the Mets.

Remember when doorknobs were just for closing doors?

10 11 2011

When I was about fifteen, I learned about the phenomenon of “doorknobbing.” What can I say, I’m very advanced.  It’s a rather unpleasant thing. I learned about it from my younger cousins. I’m still a little unclear on the details, but it has something to do with being the last to claim a fart, meaning your friends can all punch you until you touch a doorknob.

Kids are weird.

In Narnia social work school, I learned about a different phenomenon with a similar title. Doorknobbing, doorknob therapy, the doorknob effect. Whatever you call it, getting punched by a bunch of eleven year olds in a room that smells like farts is probably easier to deal with.

It happens often in sessions. You sit there for a fake hour, trying to draw anything out of a person. You hear that things are fine, things are improving, nothing’s new. You probe, you ask, you scale, you break out the miracle question. But it’s same old, same old.

The door has a magical effect on some people. Their hand reaches it, and you get a casual glance over the shoulder, “Did I mention that my fourteen year old is pregnant? OK, thanks!”

This happens. Seriously. I once had forty five minutes of chatting away, about school, doing chores, improving communication with mom. A really delightful session. Good job by that social worker. Until this girl was on her way out the door, and mentioned that she was a little nervous going home, as she’d just recently been sexually assaulted in her building. Don’t tell her mom. Cool? See you next week!


Of course, they did think of it. There is a multitude of reasons why people might engage in this type of behavior. They’ve spent the entire session getting comfortable, or working up the courage to blurt this out. They’re avoiding the conversation. They’re seeing how you react. They’re not planning to return.

The doorknob effect doesn’t only happen at the end of a session. It can be even worse when it happens at, what is supposed to be, the end of your time together.

I’ve been working with one family in particular for just about a year. Now, as social workers, we’re supposed to pay attention to the life of the case, see when the family’s needs have been met, there are no outstanding safety issues, and proceed with termination as appropriate.

However, we get public funding, so there are other forces at work. The time for which we are encouraged to have a case open gets shorter and shorter. I’m expecting that a drive through window will be installed in the coming months. (I mentioned this at a staff meeting once. It got a few laughs.) Our limit, our strongly, strongly encouraged limit, is a year. Of course, if there are outstanding needs or concerns, anything that rises to the level of a safety concern, you can’t close. The agency will just be penalized.

Everyone confused? OK, moving on.

So, this family has been with me for a year. They’ve made a lot of progress. They didn’t do things exactly the way I hoped, but they made changes that seemed to be working for them. I felt like they were getting along better, the kids were safe, and we could move ahead with closing.

I brought this up with mom. She got a little nervous.

I explained my feelings, and why I thought they were nearly ready to be on their own. Mom explained to me that she didn’t quite agree. You see, she had been feeling really moody. She gets angry, for no reason. Feels a little like she’s going crazy.

OK, we can deal with this. It’s something that’s come up a bit before, but she said was getting better. We had talked about mental health services. This woman’s daughters had encouraged her to do it, but she wasn’t ready. She told me she finally was. She wanted a referral for an evaluation, and to start mental health treatment.

Well, that’s no problem! Done and done. On to the next. I was saying, about closing…

Oh wait. Apparently the sixteen year old has been staying out much later than curfew. And mom is concerned she’s having unsafe sex. I was shown a Facebook message exchange, that the mother got off of the girl’s page.

Not a whole lot of things make me blush. I’m going to leave it at that.

This case isn’t closing anytime soon. And really, it’s fine. As much as I want to help the agency live up to city standards, my priority is serving my families. I mean, it would be a lot easier if they wouldn’t wait until the last minute to let me know what the hell is going on. No time to object to that, though. I’m meeting them where they are.

But still. It’s ok to be mystified. Or annoyed. Seriously. Admitting it might even make you feel better.