The social worker the Bronx deserves, but not the one it needs.

30 07 2012

I remember seeing the 1960s Adam West Batman TV show for the first time when I was six years old, on a rainy day during a family vacation. This was a year after I had seen the Batman movie, starring Michael Keaton, which, as I was five, scared the shit out of me. But I was mesmerized by the cartoon-y, campy version, which led me to fall in love with the grittier film, and even more in love with Batman Returns. Then I just kind of fell in love with Chris O’Donnell (yes please) even though the movies got terrible. During this time, though, I came upon the wealth of graphic novels (or comics, if you want to be a dick about it) that kept my Batman love alive until Christopher Nolan’s brilliance reminded the rest of the world of what Batman had to offer.

So I had been counting down the days until I could see The Dark Knight Rises.

Most of us are only thinking of one thing when it comes to The Dark Knight Rises. I have a few friends who are refusing to see it in theaters. Not out of some sort of protest over violence in film, but because they’re really scared. I understand that. I don’t think it’s sensible, or going to keep them safe, but it’s understandable.

When I talk about Batman here, I’m not going to talk about the shooting. Because, like most people, I don’t believe the shooting had a thing to do with the movie. If it hadn’t been at this movie, it would have been at some other event. It was about a possibly ill, definitely terrible person, who was able to get a lot of weaponry way too easily, finding the easiest way to murder a lot of people. I’m terribly sad for everyone involved, of course, but there’s not really anything more to say here.

My love of comics expanded over the years, particularly to include the X-Men, but Batman always had a special place in my heart. He’s always reminded me of social work.

Back in Two-Face’s lair social work school, I did a presentation in my Social Work and the Arts class about using comics in our work. My main inspiration for that was The Crow. James O’Barr wrote it as a way of coping with the death of his girlfriend, who was killed by a drunk driver. He channeled everything he was feeling, the grief and loss and rage at not being able to protect her, and was able to create a character that could avenge the woman he loved, and protect others.

I mean, comic books are for kids.

The X-Men are part of a minority group, largely hated for the thing that makes them different, debating whether to try to change what they are, to fight the majority with violence, or to embrace what makes them different and use it to help others. Art Spiegelman dealt with the trauma and horror his family had been through, and shared the repercussions with the world, in Maus. One! Hundred! Demons! is all about exorcising those things that haunt you–abuse, bad relationships, weird families–through art.

And of course there are the actual issues that our superheroes tackle–Northstar’s coming out and recent marriage, (Mazel tov, by the way) Magneto’s life as a Holocaust survivor, Iron Man’s alcoholism, and Batman witnessing the tragic death of his parents, then growing up to take back his city from the violent criminals that have taken over.

If there was any question as to why Batman resonates with me so much.

I wrote about the young boy I work with who was randomly shot earlier in the year. There was another awful event in the city recently, in which a four year old boy was shot to death on a playground. Things like this happen a lot. We have random shootings and muggings with depressing regularity, particularly where I work.

Being social workers, we know it’s so much more complex than good versus evil. As much as the people who shot those children are the bad guys (and they are) we also know that they have their own stories. Their own trauma. We often wonder what makes some kids survive whatever they go through, and work incredibly hard to have a different life, as opposed to some kids who take the same path their bad examples and influences did. Sometimes it’s easier to conceive of it all as a choice between Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent, Charles Xavier and Max Eisenhardt.

Sometimes it’s nice to fantasize that one of those kids is going to grow up to reject the drugs and gun violence that plagues our neighborhood and take it back for the hardworking citizens that make up a majority of the population. It’s nice to imagine that it’s a clear choice between good and evil, that good has an unlimited budget and some of the greatest minds in the world working on its side, and that the power of a symbol can unite people in hope.

Until that time, I’ll  keep doing the work, firmly in the grey area. But I’ll keep reading my comics, because we all need to escape, and we all need hope.

There are some problems even bunk beds can’t solve

16 07 2012

Housing is a massive issue in New York City. You might not know that if most of your NYC knowledge comes from TV and movies, where a struggling waitress/fashion intern/unemployed homosexual who gives straight girls love advice/dog walker lives in an apartment large enough to roller skate in. But it is. It’s not easy to afford things like food, clothes, or an occasional $14 movie, if you also want to pay rent.

Paying a lot of money for a tiny amount of space is a New York institution. It’s just what’s done. The things we brag about are kind of hilarious as a result. “Did I tell you we got a pullout couch? We even have enough space to pull it out. Eh?” “My kitchen isn’t an eat-in, but it fits a dishwasher. No big deal.” “I don’t even have to loft my bed anymore.”

That last one was a pick-up line.

For young twenty-somethings trying to make it in the big city (otherwise known as The Insufferables) there is a sense of adventure in all this. Cramming in with your best buds, staggering home from the bar together, having impromptu roomie sleepovers…it’s the stuff dreams are made of.

Once you have a family, the magic is sort of gone.

I’m sort of the Queen of Icebreakers when it comes to groups. One of my favorite icebreakers is Human Bingo. That sounds like medieval torture, but it’s actually delightful and straightforward. The deal is that everyone gets a bingo form with different characteristics, like “I read a book this month,” “I love to dance,” or “I’m an aunt.” Out of sheer stubbornness, I’ve included “I have my own room.” That one has never gotten checked off. As I am also the Duchess of Home Visits, this doesn’t shock me.

In our family assessments, we always have to include a description of the family’s living conditions. It’s very rare that I don’t have to mention that there’s “some overcrowding.” My families have kids. Lots of kids. The largest family I ever worked with had ten children. The current average is five.

When I conducted my first home visit with a family with three children, I was under the mistaken impression that a closet door led to a second bedroom. (Significantly less embarrassing than the times that I’ve thought a closet door was the exit.) The family showed me that no, the apartment was actually a one bedroom. There was a double bed, bunk beds, and a toddler bed all in one room. I think they were trying to avoid giving the two year old milk, in hopes that she’d stay small enough for the toddler bed as long as possible.

The family wanted to move. When we talked about the tension in the household, and how to alleviate this, the parents consistently said that everyone being on top of each other is a big part of what leads to issues. They were far from the first family to say this. Another family I worked with had six children, including newborn twins. Yes, there’s plenty of room for two cribs in a one bedroom apartment! Oh wait, that’s ridiculous. So they had to switch in and out, one in the crib, one in the carseat or being held. Ask any parent of twins-you want them on entirely opposite sleep schedules.

Then there are the brothers and sisters who have been sharing for years, and are getting a bit older and it’s becoming an issue. So many of the teen girls I work with just want to be able to get dressed in their own bedrooms. Or the moms who want to have a boyfriend spend the night (for a game of Sorry, I think) but sharing a room with two children isn’t terribly conducive to this.

It feels like the kind of thing we should disagree with, at least somewhat. I can’t counsel you into a bigger apartment! But obviously, it makes sense. Who wants their bedroom to look like a Dickensian orphanage? Who couldn’t do with a little time to themselves? How do you put a child in timeout when there’s nowhere for him to go? And how do you keep having kids…you know what, never mind.

You might not be familiar with the process of getting an apartment with more than four bedrooms in the city. Allow me to share: first, be fabulously wealthy. If this is not feasible, continue to try. Play the lottery. Borrow eleventy billion dollars from a friend.

If this doesn’t work out, get yourself on the waiting list for a NYCHA apartment. NYCHA is the New York City housing authority. Their buildings are otherwise known as the projects. These are invaluably important to low income families. They also don’t maintain their elevators in twenty story buildings, and the crime rates are shockingly offensive, but we take what we can get.

So get yourself on that waiting list. And wait. Wait. Wait. A year from now you’ll get an appointment! Oh never mind, that was an error. Go back to waiting. The larger the family, the longer the wait. Public housing has regulations regarding how many people can live in a certain size apartments, and five bedroom units are harder to come by than Cadbury creme eggs in July. (Side note: anyone, help me out.)

There’s been some controversy about requiring people to leave NYCHA apartments that they’ve lived in for years. You see, there are some older people who were given large apartments twenty or thirty years ago, whose children have since moved out and now have space for a gift wrapping room. Some of my fellow do-gooders don’t like the idea of them being transferred to another apartment that will likely be outside of their community. I don’t like it either, but come on. I will show up with a U-Haul myself if it will get one of my cramped eight member families in faster.

You can try to get an apartment on your own. Again, not easy in New York, even in the less desirable areas. You need to have some savings–in some cases, first AND last month’s rent, and a security deposit. If your rent is over $1000 a month, that’s not easy. You might get a voucher program to help out, but as I’ve written about previously, that’s even harder.

If all else fails, go into a shelter. Depending on a somewhat mysterious set of factors, you’ll be placed in a shelter apartment. It’s private and has a bathroom, and may or may not have a kitchen. There are curfews and often one bedroom for the entire family, so not exactly a fun option. Some people think that by entering the shelter system they’ll be helped in getting their own, stable housing, but this is less and less often the case.

Really, your only hope is to be willing to move to Staten Island. Sure you’ll have to take a boat home, and your social worker will be a bit put off by a the two and a half hour trek to see you until your case is transferred, and you might never see your friends and family again. But there is a very real possibility that you’ll get a backyard.

There are so many housing issues, but so few solutions. Well, I can think of plenty of solutions, the problem is that I can’t pay for them. It would seem that for the moment, all I can do is keep supporting my families and advocating like hell at the NYCHA office.

And also continue saving for SJ’s Utopian Public Housing (complete with free child care, job opportunities, and a community garden.)

Summertime, and the living is…meh.

29 05 2012

This past week, most of us Americans enjoyed a long Memorial Day weekend. This is a time meant to honor our fallen military. Typically, that means barbecues with red, white, and blue paper plates, and perhaps a furniture sale. For me, it meant a day out on the roof with an Asian American hip hop crew.

I mean, obviously.

The other significance that most people attach to Memorial Day is that it kicks off summer. As a social worker, I can’t wait for summer. However, as a social worker, I’m dreading summer.

Yeah, you read that right. It’s my blog and I don’t have to make up my mind if I don’t want to.

Pro: The weather! It’s glorious!
Con: How sweaty can I be before it interferes with my work?

I like hot weather and, by extension, wearing little clothing. My preferred way to go running is in 90% humidity, 95 degree (Farenheit, don’t worry, foreigners) heat. I know that I’m in the minority, but I love muggy, New York summers.

I don’t like showing up at people’s homes like a deranged sweat lodge escapee.

Pro: School is out!
Con: School is out! (Yeah, I do that a lot.)

This is what I waited eagerly for as a kid, of course. Now, though, I can’t stand it.

It’s not because I don’t think kids should get to have the same fun I did. I would love for them to be able to enjoy Girl Scout camp (where they become lesbians and do abortions) and complete their mother’s educational assignments. (Draw a map of the colonial United States? Sweet!) But a majority of my kids do nothing. They try to work, but it’s not easy to get a job. Some of them scramble to make up credits in summer school. The rest lounge. Then they get back to school, and their teachers work until November to get them back to where they were in June.

Yes, kids need a break. But two to three months off every year is insane and irresponsible. These kids aren’t harvesting crops, so what’s the deal? They’re so far behind as it is, usually. A majority of my kids have been held back at least once. Summer learning loss is real, and it doesn’t help.

Pro: Camp is the best! Better than the rest! THIS IS A REPEAT AFTER ME SONG!
Con: They’re not repeating after me.

Like I said, I loved camp as a child. I loved swimming, learning to set fires, stupid songs, checking for ticks after a long hike…the Girl Scouts were good for this city girl. But getting kids to have this awesome experience? It’s an uphill battle. Day camps fill up incredibly fast. So fast that a many of my kids who attend are usually in more of a voluntary summer school kind of thing. (Meaning not many of them attend.) You pretty much have to be a psychic, or show up to every free day camp program in the borough every day starting in February, asking for an application, child’s current physical in hand.

The Fresh Air Fund is a wonderful option. If anyone if unfamiliar, it’s a free program that pairs low income NYC children up with either a host family, or a sleepaway camp, for a couple of weeks, to give them an outdoorsy swimming-hole type of summer experience. Awesome, except so few are willing to do it. The parents are nervous. They are convinced, often through experience, that child molesters are all around us and they shouldn’t let their kids out of their sight. (Never mind the dangers in their own homes and neighborhoods.) Well, maybe the hyperactive little boys can go, but definitely not the girls. Unfortunately, by the time they realize they at least want their sons to be gone for a couple of weeks, it’s often August, and therefore too late. Did I mention that this is somehow my fault?

Pro: No more teachers! No more books!
Con: Where the hell did everyone go?

I love hearing that my kids are enjoying themselves. That they’re gotten to visit family down south (fun fact: 90% of my families do not know if their relatives are in North or South Carolina. I don’t know how they get there.) or in Puerto Rico, or the Dominican Republic. I love if they have the opportunity to participate in the Fresh Air Fund. I hate roaming the streets aimlessly, poking my head over the fence at public swimming pools like a decidedly creepy adult, desperately seeking an MIA child. Normally I can track them down at school.

Stupid summer.

Parents very often forget to tell me that they or their children will be away. It’s not until I call their emergency contact and hear, “What? They’re in Santo Domingo until next month!” that I piece it together. If Anonymous Agency were willing to send me to the resort to get those contacts, instead of expecting me to intercept my clients’ passports to prevent them from leaving, I wouldn’t mind so much.

Pro: People are outside. Yay community!
Con: People are hot and on top of each other out there. Boo violence!

Wonderful things happen when people are outside in beautiful weather, combatting their boredom. Work together to open that fire hydrant. Share an icee with a neighbor. Play ManHunt (hide and seek in the dark, pervs) until your mom calls you to come home. Take a trip to Coney Island and eat hot dogs and go on rides until you throw up.

But bad things also happen. People are a bit more on edge, because they’re hot, don’t have air conditioning, the kids are running wild, and they don’t have the money to do all those things they want. Things are magical over the summer, but they also get a bit sinister. The street harassment gets more aggressive, and fights erupt more easily. Fights lead to shootings, and we have enough of those in the winter.

There are ups and downs, pros and cons, peaks and valleys, vanilla and chocolate, to everything in life. This is a phenomenon on steroids in social work. We have to take the good with the bad, reveling in good moments, and sarcastically lamenting the bad ones on Twitter.

I hope you’ve all got a well-deserved vacation coming. Or at least a neighbor to open the fire hydrant.

Safety First…well, maybe third

23 02 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh Dudley, why didn’t you listen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes there isn’t much to say

7 02 2012

It’s rare that I run out of things to say. Really, really rare. Especially when I’m writing.

But lately, it seems like there’s nothing to be said.

I recently came in to work, confronted with the worst message I’ve ever gotten. One of my little boys, a twelve year old, was shot while playing basketball. He was in his own neighborhood, in the afternoon, on an unseasonably warm and sunny winter day.

He’s progressing well and is going to be fine. Weeks in the hospital are unpleasant, but he’s walking already and getting back to his usual self.

It’s almost scary how quickly things seem to be going back to normal. How not entirely shocked the family was. They were devastated, of course. But they’ve all been in situations where they had to run from gunfire. Their friends have been shot. There’s almost a sense that it was just a matter of time.

The day it happened, I can’t say I handled it well. At first I walked around the office frantically. No one else was here, and the nervous energy within me couldn’t be burned out. By the time my supervisor got in, I thought I had it under control. I started sobbing in her office, though, and I realized I didn’t.

I held it together when talking to the family, when visiting this child in the hospital. But all I could think of was how completely, disgustingly unfair it was that this child was traumatized, physically hurt, his life changed forever. Kids shouldn’t have to deal with this.

The thing here is that there are no lessons to take away from this. This child did everything right. He is a smart kid, goes to school, is involved in extracurriculars, always tells his mother where he’s going. Going to college and getting out of the Bronx has always been his focus. His building is run by gang activity, but he’s always managed to stay out of it.

He was a child, playing with his friends. His mother was happy to send him out to have a good time.

Hearing the phrase “everything happens for a reason” has sent me into a rage that’s a little shocking, even for me, since this incident. There is no reason for kids to be shot by stray bullets while being kids. There is nothing to take away from this.

He wasn’t in ” the wrong place at the wrong time.” Where exactly do you go when you’re twelve and want to play basketball?

I usually like to wrap things up nicely. I like to end my rambling thoughts with an affirmation that we’re doing the right thing, that I’ve helped someone, that things aren’t all bad.

But how much are we helping, when we’re sending our children back out into a war zone? When these things can happen so easily? When there are human beings still walking around my neighborhood who think nothing of opening fire on a goddamn playground, while little kids are playing there? When others know what happened but don’t come forward?

Better to be complicit in horrifically injuring a child than to be a snitch, right?

I know the right answers, I really do. We can’t just give up. Some things do get better. We can’t control these random tragedies–he could have just as easily been hit by a car if he were living a charmed life in the suburbs.

But this is a time when it feels like I can’t do it anymore. That’s selfish, and it’s wrong, and this whole situation is not about me. It’s a shitty situation that I couldn’t have prevented, and that I can’t fix. All I can do is support the family and this child. Bring them McDonalds and beanie babies and Metrocards.

Even though all that makes me think is, what’s the fucking point?

This Is Halloween

31 10 2011

October 31st. Halloween. All Hallow’s Eve. The day after Mischief Night. High Holy Candy Corn Day.

Whatever you call it, it’s fabulous.

Of course I’m a big fan of Halloween. What’s not to love? It’s completely acceptable to eat your birth weight in sugar, and you get to dress up like an idiot. Great parties are to be had, and somehow I always manage to accidentally wander into the Village Halloween parade.

By the way–I’m all for topical costumes. I’m all for skimpy costumes. But let’s be careful when combining the two? I don’t know that we need a repeat of last year’s “Sexy Chilean Miners.”

Some people do not share my enthusiasm, though. The reasons are numerous. Fortunately, my social work perspective guides me through shutting them down.

  1. Religious objections
    Some people really seem to believe that neighbors handing out candy while marveling at adorable bunny costumes is all about Satan. Some even went so far as to support something called “JesusWeen.” (I’ll wait until we all stop laughing.)
    Halloween isn’t evil. If you want to see evil, the work of the so-called devil, just shadow your local social worker for the day. Parents abandoning babies, beating their children, men attempting to set their wives on fire, women encouraging kids to hate their fathers…there is evil in the world. We don’t need to look for it in a day dedicated to pumpkin carving.
  2. Slutty objections
    We all saw Mean Girls. (If you haven’t, do it now. This is the only time I’ll tell you to stop reading, just go do it now!) If not, we’ve all made the same observation. Some young women see Halloween as a time to wear almost no clothing, slap on some ears and possibly a tail, and say they’ve come to school as a kitty.
    It’s not my style, I’ll admit. If I can’t sew it by hand, or feel superior when someone doesn’t know the obscure cartoon I took my costume from, I simply want no part of it.
    But working with my teen girls’ group reminds me of the importance of not tearing each other down. So many of my girls seem to share the latest “slut” rumors in an effort to join the fun, because they know they’ll be on the other side sooner or later. It doesn’t really matter what they do, everyone has their turn.
    Except the guys who enjoy that “slutty” behavior or outfit.
    It’s incredible to watch my girls in group come to these kinds of realizations and discover their own feminist beliefs. Everyone judges the pregnant girl, even other girls who have had sex, but don’t have the evidence under their sweater (thanks Juno.) No on thinks about the guys. Who decides how much is too much when it comes to Halloween costumes, or everyday wear?
    All us women, let’s try to remember the times it’s been said about us this Halloween, before we start with the judgment. And guys? If you know exactly how many buttons were undone to show off “too much cleavage,” you were probably ogling. So keep it to yourself.
  3. Safety
    This seems to be the hardest one to argue. We’ve all seen those pamphlets about staying safe on Halloween.
    “Treat your child’s costume with flame retardant chemicals.” Yum!
    “Trick or Treat before sunset.” Cool! Spooky!
    “Don’t let your kids walk down the street alone.” So, is that until age 18, or what? What if the kid in question is 14 and has a kid?
    “Tell your kids not to talk to strangers, no matter what this person says.” If I ask a kid which Disney princess she’s dressed up as, and she stares at me in horror, she can forget about getting that Reese’s cup.
    “Put reflective tape on the back of your costume.” Why? So my dad’s headlights will blind him as they hit my back while he tails me and my friends down the street in broad daylight?
    “Have an adult check your candy before you eat it.” I’m an adult. We don’t come with poisoned candy sensing powers. I have no idea what I’m looking for, other than all of the Tootsie Roll pops. Your parents are also just looking for their favorites, don’t let them fool you.

Most of these “safety concerns” (yes, they deserve sarcastic air quotes) don’t apply to my kids. They’re on their own all time, they’re caring for younger siblings, and strangers are often safer than people at school and at home. Yet a lot of the kids I work with plan to skip school on Halloween, with full approval from their parents. The fears of annual “gang initiations” and slashings of random girls keep them inside. These things are so fueled by urban legend and legitimate fear that it’s hard to figure out how afraid it’s actually reasonable to be.

The kids I work with have such rare opportunities to be kids. I want them to have this one night of being silly and overdosing on sugar. But it isn’t always possible. The neighborhood is dangerous under the best of circumstances.

So if you live in a reasonably safe area, please let your kids enjoy it. Let them wear costumes they might trip over and go out in the dark, even talk to strangers. Because honestly, they’ll be fine.

There are enough actual monsters to be afraid of. We don’t need to make them up.


You gotta give ’em hope

22 09 2011

I hate people.

I know a lot of my sarcastic contemporaries who hide behind internet anonymity (see you all at the next meeting, guys) revel in their misanthropy, but I try not to. I really do.

On some days, it’s hard.

I had to walk a few blocks out of my way in order to get to the office the other morning. This was because there was a shootout on the street in the middle of the night, and the block was still roped off by the police.

Apparently, this is what it takes to have a meaningful police presence in the neighborhood.

Often, because of where these types of things take place, they get ignored. If it was Midtown Manhattan, it would be a big deal, but it’s the Bronx. It’s the ghetto. A bunch of gang members want to kill each other? Let them.

Except that in this city, in the past month, we’ve had three children under five (that I’ve heard about) accidentally shot on the street. What the hell kind of human thinks that their ridiculous beef with some other dude in the neighborhood is worth the accidental death of a child?

Earlier, I noticed a candlelight memorial outside a client’s building. Apparently it was for a three year old girl. The parents claimed her death was accidental, but upon further examination, she had been horribly abused for some time. The mother of the family I was visiting showed me pictures of her daughter and this poor girl together at a recent birthday party, while she asked what kind of person could do that to a child? She was just glad that her daughter was young enough to not really understand.

We didn’t discuss the fact that, though we were quite a bit older, we certainly didn’t understand either.

Then I got a call about one of my families. A big, chaotic family, with lots of kids who fight like cats and dogs, and who make me laugh on every visit. Apparently they’ve been removed with no warning, and, as far as I can tell, no real reason. The children’s lawyer called me, mystified, saying she thought everything was improving. That’s what I had thought as well. They were waiting for placement in a domestic violence shelter, because the dad is now out of jail and has been coming by to beat the shit out of mom as often as he can.

By all means, traumatize everyone further. That’ll show them.

There’s a lot of disgust to go around in this case. The city, for refusing to move the family to a new location before the father was released from prison, and again for having an underfunded shelter system, and again for punishing a family for having been victimized. Of course, the “father,” who feels justified in beating the mother of his children in front of those children, pulling a knife, trying to set mother and children on fire.  (Fun fact–you only get a year in jail for that!) An ACS worker, who seems to be primarily focused on how inconvenient this all is for her.

These are the people we’re sharing a planet with.

People are always asking how I manage to do my job, how it doesn’t get me down, how I work with people who do terrible things.

Barely, it does, and I don’t know.

All I know is that if I don’t believe in the people I work with, I can’t do my job. And while my job might not be changing the world, it’s something. If I write everyone off as “bad parents” and “juvenile delinquents” things don’t get better. They stay the same if we’re lucky, they get worse if we’re realistic.

Days like this I can’t do it. Bureacracy, disappointment, inconsiderate people, I can deal with. I have to. On a daily basis. I can get snarky, use my impressive vocabulary and quick wit to get a one-liner in that will make me feel better, and move on. I’ll be annoyed, but I move on.

Today I have to half lie to myself, and say that, despite the tragedy and the people we can’t help, things do get better. As much as I want to quit right now, I can’t imagine doing or being anything else.

Because there are those moments. Moments that make you feel good, like a teen telling you she likes that you listen to her, or a grandma bringing you cough drops because your voice sounded scratchy on the phone. And moments that actually make a difference, like a kid walking away from a fight for the first time, or a parent recognizing that a child’s behavior is developmentally appropriate, and not worthy of punishment.

It really beats the alternative.

“It’s SJ!” “Who? “…the white lady.”

15 09 2011

There are certain things you aren’t supposed to talk about in polite company. The banned dinner party conversations are supposed to be “religion and politics.” That rule leaves the door wide open for discussions of sexually transmitted infections, the Yankees, and other distasteful topics, so we probably want to have a few more guidelines. I think, no matter what, we can all agree that one of the stickiest of topics continues to be race.

It’s tricky subject matter. Few things get people quite as fired up, while simultaneously terrifying them that they’ll come across as a bad person.

My participants don’t seem to have that issue. Especially the kids. Race is something they notice, and they see no need to hold back. If I’m thinking it, I should say it! (I can’t really fault them for this, as this is a flaw that I’m working on myself.)

I am white. None of my current participants are. In the two years I’ve worked at Anonymous Agency, I have not worked with a white family. It’s not a big suprise, considering that I’m usually the only white person I see when walking around the area. As much as I’d like for this to not be an issue, it is something people notice.

I mean, I guess it is. I’ve been surprised at how many people have been confused by my race.

Child:    “You’re Puerto Rican, right?”
SJ:          “Why do you think that?”
Child:     “Because you speak Spanish like one. And you don’t look Dominican.”
SJ:           “I’m actually not.”
Child:     “So…you are Domincan?”

For the record, I’m almost actually white. As in the shade. I have an Irish nose and freckles. People have never been confused by “what I am” before. When this first came up, when I was working at a camp for children in foster care, I mentioned it to the director. Not out of concern, I just found it amusing. She thought it was because I was one of very few white people they had interacted with, and that most of their interactions with white people were not too positive. In that way, it was kind of a good thing.

I’ve gotten lots of these types of comments over the years. In addition to constantly being told by children that I look like their teachers.

16 y/o: “Ugh, I cannot deal with that white lady anymore!”
SJ:          “Oh come on, I’m standing right here.”
16 y/o: “Nah, not you, you don’t count.”

12 y/o: “SJ doesn’t play. She’s mad white, but she lets go when she has to. I’ve seen you get black.”
SJ:          “Thank you?”

Mom: “My daughter told me the worker stopped by, and I thought she meant the ACS worker, I started asking what that bitch wanted. She was surprised, she was like, ‘the white lady’s a bitch?’ I was like, oh, Miss SJ, no, we’re cool.
SJ:       “I’m glad we’re cool. Am I really the white lady, after all our time together?”

13 y/o: “I don’t like black people.”
SJ:          “Wow, that’s a pretty big statement. You know all black people?”
13 y/o: “No, the ones around here.”
SJ:          “Oh, ok, so there are some people you don’t like. Can you dislike someone and not their entire race?”
13 y/o: “I guess.”
SJ:           “Well, we get along, does that mean you love all white people, no matter what?”
13 y/o:  “You’re white?! I thought you were Irish!”

That last one might be my favorite.

I’ve learned to joke about it. I see no reason to let it go on as the (white) elephant in the room. Recently, I walked into an ACS meeting with a mother and daughter, who are Dominican and dark-skinned. The guard asked if I was the worker, and had me sign in with my ID.

SJ:      “How did he know I was the worker?”
Mom: “SJ, you are crazy. You walk in here with two brown women, talking about ‘How they know I’m the worker?'”

They could barely speak for laughing. It lessened the tension when we walked into a pretty difficult meeting. (I’m very good.)

But look at our president, we’re living in a post-racial society!

I’ll give you a moment to laugh at that one.

We all know that race still matters. People aren’t color blind. OK, some people are color blind. Like my dad. Try to get the man to distinguish between blue and grey, it’s a nightmare. But no time to talk about that now.

Even when you love someone, it still matters. My cousins are Native American. They’re all adopted. They’re father is also Native, their mother, my aunt, is a white lady like myself. (“White lady” is cool, I’m taking it back.) But the fact that they look different from half of their family does come up.

They had come to visit in New York once, and my cousin, who was twelve at the time, asked why so many black women had white babies at the Museum of Natural History. I looked at him and asked, “What do you think people think of us?” He told me that they don’t think we’re related. And it’s true. My room in college was essentially wallpapered with photos of these kids, and people regularly asked who they were. When I told them they were my cousins, this simply wasn’t enough. “No, these kids. These ones. They look…Filipino? Mexican?”

How could I expect the random boy my roommate was, ahem, hosting to walk away without a concrete explanation as to how, exactly, these non-white children were my family? He was entitled to an explanation.

As much as I wish me being white didn’t say anything to my participants, it does. It’s the first thing they notice. The second thing is probably that I look twelve. This could lead to the idea that I don’t really have much of an understanding of them.

As usual, I don’t have answers. I didn’t solve the issue of race in America, though I know you were all expecting that to be the conclusion. Interracial adoption? I think it’s a good thing, and necessary, but we have to recognize that love isn’t all you need. (Sorry, John.) White lady social worker, working with non-white lady families? I don’t think there’s another option.

But I do have the option to be open about our differences, and not act like noticing them is somehow shameful. I have the option of challenging assumptions about race, and presenting the idea that not all people who look the same are the same.

It seems to be the best the white lady can do.

Uh-oh, (Spa) Ghettos

25 08 2011

People have certain thoughts when it comes to the Bronx. Some good, lots bad. The positive ones tend to be the Yankees (blech), A Bronx Tale, the Bronx Zoo…that’s about it. I’ve talked plenty about my love of the Bronx in the past. It has plenty of charm, history, good people, and good sights to make up for its shortcomings. (Except for maybe the Yankees.)

But the number one term that people tend to come up with for where I work? “Ghetto.”

It can be a noun: “You work in the ghetto?”

An adjective: “We mad ghetto!”

An adverb: “We ran ghettoly down the street.”

OK, a noun and an adjective.

The actual definition, according to the ever-useful, is “a section of the city, especially a thickly populated slum area, inhabited predominantly by members of an ethnic or other minority group, often as a result of social or economic restrictions, pressures, or hardships.”

We all know there’s much more to the concept than that. It’s a source of both pride and shame. Everyone loves the tales from musicians and athletes who grew up in the ghetto, worked hard, achieved success, and made it out. The absolute best ones never forget where they came from–they return to the old neighborhood to do special free concerts, donate to the Boys and Girls Club, and talk fondly in interviews about what they learned growing up the way they did, usually taking a bizarre sense of pride in their area code.

SocialJerk is representing the 718.

Being ghetto, and from the ghetto, is one of those things that’s a boast when I say it about me, and an insult when I say it about you. Much like I can call my aunts crazy, but if you were to do it, we’d have an issue.

When my coworker and I saw one of our teen group girls wandering lost on the sidewalk, unable to find the building for our first group meeting, she said to me, “I’ll just yell down out the window to her. We can be ghetto.”

Yes, we can be ghetto. This is our neighborhood. Who are we trying to impress? We’re not going to let societal conventions and etiquette keep us from going about things in a convenient, reasonable manner.

That’s one thing we love about identifying with the ghetto. Not caring what people think. Being tough, overcoming, surviving. Handling things yourself. You’re yelling at me on the street? No, I’m not going to call the cops, or politely ignore you. I’m going to confront you, and we’ll put a stop to this now. Unless I know you have a gun. Being ghetto is also about being smart–knowing what situations you can and can’t get yourself out of. Using those smarts to get what you need. Not being a pushover.

But then there are times when it’s not so nice to hear. Like when I went to college in a leafy Connecticut suburb, and answered “Brooklyn” when asked where I was from. “Oh, so you’re from like…the ghetto?” Not said in a, hey, you must have some fun stories about the neighborhood characters we missed out on, growing up in sterile suburban environments. More of an, oh dear, you’re probably going to beat us up, and you’re definitely going to need to borrow money.

Um, fuck you. My mom has a PhD and we live in a house. Don’t judge me.

My clients struggle with this all the time. Ghetto is a part of their identities, and they’re proud of where they’re from. But in the larger world, ghetto ways of dealing with things don’t always pan out.

When you struggle every day to be treated like a full human being, and to get respect, it’s very hard to just turn it off. I’ve had numerous clients proudly tell me that they cursed out their teacher, or their ACS worker, or their new boss. We talk about the fact that this doesn’t seem to be working for them. They’re failing, have no job, or their court ordered supervision has now been extended. But they’re still kind of proud, because the way they see it, they stood up for themselves.

At the same time, my clients try to distance themselves from the neighborhood, and from the ghetto identity. Starting at a young age, they talk about getting out of the Bronx. One mother in particular is always eager to tell me about their station in life. “I tell my kids, we live here right now because we have to financially, but we’re not like these other people here.” “Here” is a housing project in the Bronx.

There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance that goes along with this worldview. People who live in the projects are no good. They are dirty, dishonest, and lazy. But we live in the projects…huh. Well that’s because we’re thrifty! We’re saving up to move to a better address. Perhaps even Westchester.

They’ve got to make it work somehow.

We all need to learn to navigate different situations and environments. The way you act in school is not the way you act at work, the way you talk to your friends is not the way you talk to your parents. (Says the girl who has been repeatedly admonished to stop using the word “douchebag” at family gatherings.) My friends love listening to me talk to my family, because that’s the only time the Brooklyn accent I insist I outgrew (what, people can do that) comes out.

As a social worker, I approach my clients from a strengths based perspective. Everybody has strengths. We all have things we’re good at. Being ghetto, and being from the ghetto, involves a lot of strength. Skills and wisdom develop. A big part of my job is helping my clients to see how they can use these to their advantage. How they can be assertive, a good advocate, a strong parent and role model for their children, without alienating their children’s teachers or getting their housing application mysteriously misplaced, because a worker didn’t appreciate the attitude.

But I always tread carefully. I don’t want to have to get ghetto on anybody.

Tough Love–not just the greatest show in the history of VH1

17 08 2011

People love to simplify complicated problems. Too much unemployment? Um, clearly our president is an idiot. You’re in your 20s and single? You must have never heard of speed dating. The kids you social work are misbehaving? Break out the tough love.

Tough love. It’s what I’m always hearing my clients need. You see, I’m told by people who have never met these kids, that the problem isn’t that they’re not getting enough love and assurance. It’s that they’re coddled. Spoiled, really. Until someone is willing to really make those kids, or parents, face some consequences, things are never going to change.

And it sounds great. It’s kind of hard to argue with. I think it was popularized by Sally Jesse and Maury, who spent much of the 90s marching wild pre-teens across their stages, having them sass their parents and the audience, and then sending them off with a “drill sargeant” (who I maintain was just a body builder in fatigues) to be screamed at. Sometimes they even left the premises for a few hours and ran through tires. At the end of the day, they were fixed. Forever. Problem solved.

Something tells me they didn’t do too much follow up.

The thing about “tough love” in its many incarnations–boot camp, scared straight, locking kids out when they miss curfew, having large men with questionable qualifications yell at them on day time talk shows–is that they’re satisfying. This kid thinks she can swear at me, ignore my rules, embarass me in front of other people? I’ll show her! He thinks he’s got it bad here? Wait until he hears those prison doors lock behind him at Scared Straight!

I see it with one particularly overwhelmed parent I work with. Her twelve year old daughter is being a real pain in the ass. She’s ungrateful, she won’t do chores, and she’s got quite a mouth on her. So mom is trying her best to be “tough.” The problem, she thinks, is that she was too much of a friend to her daughter. (We’re off to a good start.) So she needs to work on setting some boundaries and establishing herself as a parent. (We are so on the right track! This is awesome.) Therefore, mom doesn’t speak to her daughter for days at a time and is refusing to buy her school supplies. (Abort! Abort! This has veered horribly off track!)

Withholding necessities, including love, is not an acceptable punishment. I’d like to skywrite this all over. Mostly over the Bronx, because that’s my catchment area. What exactly will your kid be working for? You being a little bit less of a dick? It’s really not much incentive.

All right then, what about boot camps, or scared straight? I think a lot of people would be shocked to hear how many parents want these programs for their kids. I get asked about them constantly. One of my thirteen year olds was arrested for fighting recently, and so impressed the police officers with her attempts to pick open her handcuffs with a bobby pin, as well as her knowledge of swear words, that they instantly signed her up for Scared Straight. (I’m so proud.)

For anyone unfamiliar, Scared Straight is a program that brings at-risk youth into adult prisons, has prisoners yell at them, allows them to experience life in cells, to scare them…straight. Show them potential consequences, see what they could become.

The problem is, there’s no data to prove that these programs work. Another problem is, who is going to pay for this? The city won’t. You have a much better chance of getting your child shipped off to a residential treatment center.

Wearing uniforms in school, having to call adults, “ma’am” and “sir,” also tend to sound pretty good. People like the look of these things. But again, there’s no hard data. People act like this is common sense, but nothing is proven. Essentially, it looks good. And that’s not the best reason to create policy. (Possibly it’s the worst.)

This also extends to adults. So many of my clients have had their benefits cut off, because they supposedly missed some appointment. The purpose of the appointment is essentially to show the client the importance of keeping appointments. One family is in the process of being moved to a far-away, extremely undesirable shelter, because the mother missed curfew too many times.

I firmly believe that if city agencies could get away with smacking people on the nose with newspaper, they would do it.

I’m also told that I should just be more honest with people. Have the balls to tell them, hey, you’re being a bad parent. And then work with them on improving their parenting over the course of the next year. That should totally work, right?

Very recently, I both read and saw The Help. (If you haven’t already done so, I really suggest it.) One of the maids asks her employer for a $75 loan, to help send her twin boys to college. The employer refuses, saying that good Christians don’t give handouts to the able-bodied, and that the maid will learn from this experience.

Did I mention that this employer was a real bitch?

I get it. People need consequences. Kids especially. And I want to hand them out, especially when I’m constantly being told that I need to understand people–understand why they hit their children, why he abandoned his family, why she refuses to take responsibility for her life. I can understand the reasons, but at some point there aren’t excuses. But telling someone they’re a bad mother, cutting off their benefits, shipping them off to brat camp, is about you feeling good about yourself. Hell yeah, I told her. And where are we now?

I can’t say that I know what will work. I know enough to realize that there isn’t one answer for everyone. I think most people need family counseling, mentoring programs, school issues to be addressed, as well as early (as possible) interventions. Tough love will probably work for some people. But acting like there’s a one size fits all solution just shows ignorance of reality.

Reality is much messier. With room for actual love.