It’s a bird, it’s a plane…no, it’s definitely a monkey.

4 08 2011

It’s possible that I’ve been a bit down on the job lately. There are so many changes, so many new deadlines, so much pressure…plus, it’s summer. I miss summer. Actual summer, where you have time off to get hideous tan lines, develop beach hair, catch fireflies, all that whimsical shit. The fact that I’m an adult and am never going to have that again hits me occasionally, with depressing reality. This is compounded by a job where I’m faced with the realities of poverty, abuse, and neglect on a daily basis.

Where is the joy in this job? We all talk about the victories, big and small that we experience, as the things that keep us going. But if we’re being honest, we might go a long time without one. It’s been a rough month for me. My biggest victories have been my teen girls thinking I’m cool and wanting to paint their toenails purple like me. While that’s a nice feeling, it doesn’t change the fact that they’re failing school and about to be kicked out of their houses.

It doesn’t change the fact that I work in the Bronx. It’s certainly improved since the ’70s, when it was literally on fire and I think you were handed crack upon entry, but we’ve got a long way to go. The level of poverty is astonishing and, quite frankly, offensive in modern America.

And yet, there is something about being a social worker in the Bronx that I love.

I think the following sums it up.

I saw this one day while walking to a home visit. As much as I appreciate living in a city with arguably absolutely the best public transit in the world, I love walking. I love that my job doesn’t keep me stuck in an office all day long.

While out walking, I saw this awesome stuffed money, chilling by a streetlight. One of those things that you think, “Ooh, so cool! It probably has bedbugs.” I carried on, not knowing that the odyssey of Bronx Tree Monkey had begun. (I know it’s not a brilliant title, but the Twitter hashtag worked well.)

A few days later, I was walking that same familiar route. And I noticed something–Bronx Tree Monkey was on the move.

Apparently, he decided it was time to branch out. (Please forgive me for that one.) See the great big world that the Bronx has to offer.

The following week, I walked by with my supervisor, and alerted her to what I had seen the previous week. Well, she was certainly in for a treat.

Bronx Tree Monkey had started a family! Congratulations were certainly in order.

Until the following week.

Holy. Shit. Could this get any better?

Apparently, no. Because things kind of petered out from there. But it was really fun while it lasted.

I mean, really fun. I keep thinking about how it started. Someone tossing a big stuffed animal their kids no longer had any use for. A passerby thinking it would be funny to stick it up in the tree, with help from a friend. Neighbors noticing, climbing up to add their own superfluous monkeys to the mix, perhaps with the aid of a stepladder or cocktail.

It’s kind of everything I love about social work. And the Bronx.

No-money-fun. An important concept. Life is giving fun away. And in the Bronx, we know where to seek it out. I have family members who grew up in communities where everyone had their own pool. Where I work, that would be frowned upon, as there are no backyards and you’re likely living in a high-rise. So the kids all gather at the community pool, especially those days when it cracks 104 degrees in July. (No more…please, no more.) Kids don’t have their own swingsets, so they go to the playground and actually interact with each other. Walking around for work, I have seen games you’d expect, like pick-up basketball, and ones you would think had died out, like hopscotch and skully. Every street has an open fire hydrant, with entire families gleefully playing in them.

When you actually need people, you can develop community.

We hear so much about the negative aspects of neighborhoods in the Bronx and other, similar, urban areas. They’re overcrowded, with high rates of crime and pollution, and devastating poverty. Of course it’s true. But there are wonderful aspects that we should take a moment to be proud of.

Social work is a profession that arose from need. People in impoverished, urban communities needed services, needed help, and empowerment. Social work developed from that, with little money or training at first. Things grew more sophisticated as time went on, but that early model of doing what works never left us.

It’s why we’ve all had experiences of taking families grocery shopping, bringing kids McDonald’s, helping with college applications, holding counseling sessions in the park, looking over homework assignments…when we do our jobs well, we do what needs to be done.

When we do our jobs well, there is plenty of sorrow. Fights, removals, violence, and deaths. But there’s also plenty of joy. Forgiveness, adoptions, new jobs, reunions, graduations, births, and funny little kids. Sometimes a teenager wanting to be just like you is enough to get you through the day.

Sometimes it takes a person, or persons, dedicated enough to making the neighborhood laugh, that they risk life and limb to put stuffed monkeys in a tree.

You + Me = Us (Calculus)

11 07 2011

Remember learning how to identify the lowest common denominator in math class during elementary school? I always liked that. It was like a fun puzzle.

A lot of my work reminds me of that: picking apart the pieces of the puzzle. OK, your kid always drives you crazy and never listens. But he does, sometimes. Things aren’t always bad. Let’s talk about the last time things went well. When he listened, what had you done? Ah, you hadn’t screamed at him! Interesting. Or, his sister was there. Another time, he didn’t quite listen, but he also didn’t storm out and tell you to go fuck yourself.

Once you figure out what pieces of the puzzle make things work, you can bring them into play more often, and replicate those times that work out well. It sounds simple, but when most of your day is spent alternating between berating and begging your child to go to school, or do anything around the house, you might miss those times when things are actually calm.

At times, it’s something strange. A particular time of day when kids and parents tend to get along, or after a certain family member visits. At other times, it’s really damn obvious. Especially with my teens.

Teens tend to have hidden camera syndrome–the idea that people are watching you, constantly. Why wouldn’t they? You are the most interesting person to currently, and possibly ever, exist. People want to look at you, talk about you, and quite often, they get jealous.

At least, this is what I’m told.

A lot of my teens are angry. Particularly the girls. They’re constantly getting into fights, both verbal and physical. They have throwdowns with their teachers and mothers. They even get into it with the cops.

Despite this, they can never identify that the common denominator in all of these altercations is themselves.

Teen: “My teachers just don’t like me. Everyone else is talking and running around, and I’m sitting there doing my work,                  and my teacher only yells at me.”
SJ:      “Wow. That’s just bizarre. What must your teacher be getting out of this? Tell me exactly what happened.”
Teen:  “Well, this other kid was talking shit, and I ignored him but then I punched him in the face, and I got suspended.”
SJ:       “Right. Because of the face punching.”
Teen:  ” No, because my teacher hates me.”

I know I have a lot of readers who are teachers. I’m sure you guys all fondly remember the first day of school, picking out that one student who seems perfectly nice, average, and willing to listen, and deciding to make that child’s life miserable. Saying to yourself, “I don’t care how good she is, or how hard she works. I will not rest until she is punished without cause!” Then you laugh evilly to yourself while thunder crashes.

It’s the same thing with other students. I witness it on the train, and then hear about it in sessions as well. Apparently there is some sort of staring epidemic in the Bronx, and I believe it’s spread elsewhere. The thought that someone might be looking at you for any extended period of time is unacceptable. The only way to cope with it is by becoming irate, yelling, and calling attention to yourself.

You know, because you just want to be left alone.

I can’t count how many shirts I’ve seen that declare, “I see you staring. Hi hater!” Um, what? Your shirt had a message on it, I took the time to read it, and this means I hate you? I’m consumed with jealousy? I kind of hate your ugly shirt, but the rest of you seems rather unremarkable, and I really have no opinion.

To listen to my teen girls talk, you would almost feel bad for them. It sounds like they all just want to be left in peace to study, read, perhaps engage in volunteerism. But bitches and haters keep bringing them down. I’ve heard it a million times. “Miss, I don’t have a problem with them, they have a problem with me. I’m nice to everyone until they start with me.”

It’s a very dramatic way to go through life. Always looking out for a slight, always getting embroiled in drama. Even though everyone involved absolutely detests drama. You know this because they posted it on Facebook. But somehow it follows them.

Or are they just the common denominator?

The idea that everyone who glances your way is staring, or that everyone who giggles is making fun of you, or that everyone who whispers is “talking shit” is all part of that unique teenage paranoia, a combination of self-absorption and poor self confidence. We’ve all been there.

Throwing into the equation my teens’ inadequate home lives, and need to assert themselves as “tough” to make it in a rough neighborhood, this leads to what we social workers call “epic smackdowns.”

It’s a difficult worldview to throw a wrench in. Despite previous experience, and despite the horror that is any adolescence, the world is not out to get you. Not everyone who tells you that you’ve done something wrong hates you. In fact, a lot of them care about you. Acknowledging that you have a role in the problem, and aren’t just a victim standing up for himself, is not an easy leap to make.

But we all know math class is hard.

Let’s hear it for New York (the rest of that quote makes no grammatical sense)

27 06 2011

I’m sitting here, prouder to be a New Yorker than I have been in a long time. No, we didn’t get a new theme store in Times Square. The Mets didn’t do anything remarkable, and the Yankees haven’t been traded to Guam. But Friday night, we achieved marriage equality within my state.

Watching the state senate vote yes on same sex marriage was one of those rare, special moments when you know you’re witnessing history. Even rarer, because you know you’re witnessing history in a good way, not watching events like Columbine or 9/11 unfold on TV. It was like hearing Jon Stewart call the election in favor of Obama, or seeing the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I’ll be honest, I haven’t witnessed that much history.

But Friday night was enough. Sitting and watching anxiously with my roommates, after convincing one of them that Anchorman on TNT could wait. (I mean, we have three copies on DVD.) Trying not to get our hopes up, but saying things like, “I think it’s actually going to happen.”

And then it did! Celebratory ciders all around, victory shouts heard throughout the neighborhood, and it was as if things had always been this way. “Remember way back this morning, when same sex couples couldn’t get married? Weird.”

Of course, there were some downers. State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., mostly. I took a drink every time he was asked to wrap up his rambling speech, which was the only thing that got me through it. It contained such gems as, “God, not Albany, set the definition of marriage.” I would say he should stay at his church, not in Albany, if he really feels that way, but unfortunately his church is located in the Bronx. We don’t want him. Though it is gratifying to watch him be left behind by history. It’s nice to think of him being remembered as an even less effective George Wallace of this civil rights movement, an embarrassment to his family and district.

There were others, most notably Senator Grisanti, who really summed up not only being a good politician, but also a pretty decent  person. Grisanti’s speech essentially stated that, though he was raised to personally believe that same sex marriage was wrong, he had to separate this from his work and recognize that all people were deserving of fair and equal treatment.

My social work sense was tingling the entire time.

It doesn’t make everything perfect. We don’t have full equality and acceptance, things aren’t magically better. This is one step, a massively important step, towards inclusivity.

I am already excited for the way that this affects not only the lives of my friends, family, and all New Yorkers, but for how it affects my work as well.

A lot of the LGBT people we work with are young, struggling with their identity, and dealing with being only marginally accepted, or outright rejected, by their families and communities. Some social workers I know, particularly workers I met in Japanese Game Show social work school who fancied themselves the Most Out Of The Box Left Thinking Social Worker There Ever Was, talked about marriage equality as an issue of privilege. Something that didn’t matter to a homeless teen.

But people who say that are kidding themselves. The right to marry might not mean a whole lot to a teenager recently kicked out of his parents home and struggling to make it day to day. But living in a state that grants that teenager his basic rights and recognizes him as a full citizen counts for a lot. Just listen to couples who have been together for ten, twenty, fifty years, talk about what marriage means to them. Being recognized as a legitimate couple and family, having equal rights…that’s good for everyone.

I certainly hope that, if I had been around during the 1960s civil rights movement, George Wallace and other segregationists would have pissed me off just as much as Ruben Diaz did. Because stripping people of their rights and humanity goes against our values, personally and professionally.

As social workers, and decent people, we need to keep fighting for equality. And we also need to celebrate this victory.

Cider’s on me!

I think this calls for a Rod Stewart sing-along

16 05 2011

We’re coming upon an interesting, exciting time in the Bronx–summer. It’s fun wherever you go, but in the lower-income, multi-problem areas known colloquially as “the ghetto,” it’s time to wild out.

The warm weather does something to people. Especially after a long, harsh winter like the one we just had. Talking about it, I start to sound like a pioneer wife who neglected the canning the previous autumn. Once the temperatures heat up, people are outside more, drinking on stoops, playing basketball in the street, wearing less clothing.

All in all, it’s a fun time. But there’s one thing that brings me down.

Street harassment.

For people who don’t deal with it in their day to day lives, it tends to sound kind of funny. People say ridiculous things to you, in some lame attempt at a hook up, or any reaction, really. For those of us who do deal with it all the time, it’s decidedly less amusing.

I don’t flatter myself into thinking that this is because I’m so distractingly hot. (I mean, I am, but I don’t think that’s the main factor at play here.) I’m very often the only white person on the street. I stand out. I’m also usually dressed (somewhat) professionally. People assume I’m a social worker, teacher, something like that. I’m young, and I look even younger. There are also a lot of unemployed guys in the neighborhood where I work, who have nothing better to do than stand outside and annoy passing women.

The combined factors of my race, age, and perceived profession seems to make people think I’ll be easily intimidated.

Take a moment to guffaw at that one.

Part of my job is being out in the community. I am always walking to people’s homes, or going to see kids at schools. Being familiar with the community, and being a part of it, is an important part of social work.

So I get lots of comments. They’re often some variation on “lookin’ beautiful, mami,” “hey, white girl,” “baby, you can’t stop and talk to me?”

If I may quote the great Ms. Jackson, my name ain’t baby. I do not know you sir. I have my headphones on, I’m walking with a purpose and clearly on my way somewhere. There is no way that you have misinterpreted my body language to mean, “I’m walking the streets of the Bronx, looking for a date or perhaps a random sexual encounter. I hope a strange man on the sidewalk will approach me with a backhanded compliment!”

Men have a difficult time understanding why women feel offended or afraid of this kind of behavior. “If I couldn’t walk down the street without someone telling me how good I look, I’d take it as a compliment!”

I’m sorry, but someone leaning into my space and saying, “Hey snowflake, you look sexy, you lost?” is not a compliment. It’s an attempt at intimidation, and at making me feel out of place. It’s a way of a man asserting his superiority through sexual aggression.

I mean, that’s how I take it.

There’s no consensus on the best way to respond. Some friends and I were discussing this recently. They said that sometimes they felt that just saying hello made people leave them alone.

My feeling is, you can’t win. If you ignore the guy, you’re a bitch, and he’ll let you know. Often, in one of the great mysteries of the universe, you’ll be called a slut for not dropping everything to blow this stranger in public. If you say hello, that’s rarely satisfactory. Then we need to have a conversation. This guy will feel at liberty to follow me. When I walk away, again, I’m a bitch.

You might not believe this, but sometimes I think a snarky response is in order.

Recently, I was doing a home visit and had to walk through a crowd of young men standing in front of the building. I had my headphones on, as always, and said “excuse me.” They let me pass, but one asshole always has to ruin it. He leaned over, asking where I was going, why wouldn’t I stop to talk to him, all that nonsense. I just walked by and ignored him.

Of course, guys like this tend not to have a ton of social engagements to attend to, so he was still there when I walked out. He tried saying hello to me again, and ignored my polite attempts at letting him know I was not available for conversation. I was putting my headphones on, and he asked, “What kind of music you listening to, snowflake?”

He had nothing to say when I replied, “Lesbian folk rock.”

What an idiot. I was actually listening to mind altering indie.

Did my sarcastic retort change this man? I’m sure not. But it shut him up for a minute. I don’t like the idea that I should play nice with someone who makes me uncomfortable, because that’s the best way to stay safe. I’m not generally in the mood to smile demurely and say “thank you” when strangers comment on my physical appearance. Whatever gets you through these kinds of encounters, and makes you feel better, I say go for it.

I don’t owe anyone anything, not even a hello, just because I’m walking down the street. This is my neighborhood too. If I feel like talking to someone, I’ll let them know. By talking to them. Guys can talk about how they think they’re just being nice, but I’m quite sure that they know exactly what they’re doing.

So if you need a witty, mildly obnoxious comeback, you know where to find me.

Dr. Dolittle failed out of social work school

2 05 2011

We all got into social work to work with people. Strange choice for a misanthrope like myself, but it happened. I signed on to work with all sorts of people–young, old, mentally ill, violent, funny, pleasant, everything in between.

I was ready for all sorts of possibilities. I was not, however, prepared for the role that animals would play in my work.

Animals are a part of people’s lives. Pets, trips to the zoo, Animal Planet marathons (I just need to know what those guys on Whale Wars are up to, don’t judge me) whatever it may be. If they’re a part of people’s lives, they’re a part of our work.

Lots of people have dogs, but often don’t seem to think ahead when getting one. Hint: if you bring home a small plant, animal, or person, it’s probably going to get bigger. I had the misfortune of conducting a home visit one afternoon when a family came to the realization that the cute puppy they had brought into their one bedroom apartment had reached a weight of 65 pounds and was still growing.

Never again will I allow myself to be subjected to children crying over their dad bringing their ginormous dog back to the shelter. You can’t make me.

Nobody worry. The following month the family brought in a ferret and a parakeet. The parakeet provides a lovely background screeching to our visits. And the ferret’s interactions with the family’s smaller dog gives mom plenty of opportunity to explain the birds and the bees (ferrets and the spaniels?) to the kids.

Incidentally, ferret–no means no.

For some reason, my clients either want massive dogs or tiny ones. There’s no in between. I’ve always been a fan of big dogs. Growing up I had a husky/collie/retriever mix. That, to me, was a “real” dog. Yappy chihuahuas were not.

However, I have kind of fallen in love formed a bond with a Pomeranian named Paris. She seems like exactly the type of dog I’d normally hate, but I’ve grown accustomed to her face. She has the misfortune of living with a three and five year old who have not yet learned that Paris does not like to wear hats and is too small to be ridden. As a result, she seems to be plotting a great escape. I have to check my purse before leaving any visit, for fear that she’s trying to make a break for it. Probably to start a better life. In Canada.

Pit bulls are the ultimate status symbol. Walking a pit bull (usually male, never fixed) on a chain through the neighborhood is a great way to say, “I’m a real asshole man.”

Pit bulls are a touchy subject for people. Personally, I adore them. They’re beautiful dogs, and I’ve known incredibly sweet, well-behaved pit bulls. In the Bronx, though, people aren’t usually trying to break the bad reputation put bulls have gotten. That bad reputation seems to be what makes them such symbols of bad-assery.

As a result, people have these dogs in tiny apartments, hit them in public, and, all too often, breed them for fighting.

Two families on my caseload who have had a child attacked by their pet pit bull. A four year old was bit on the face after jumping on the dog. Somehow, she got away with only needing one stitch, and is perfectly fine now. The dog belonged to mom’s sister’s boyfriend’s, and is now out of the apartment.

More recently, I went to a home for an initial home visit, and found myself faced with three full grown pit bulls. They were gorgeous, and two came over to say hello immediately. The biggest one, though, was tied to a doorknob. The three year old was kind enough to inform me, “That one bites. Hard.”

When her sixteen year old sister hobbled in on crutches and showed me two holes in her leg, I was inclined to agree.

Some opt for cats, which seems to be a more sensible option given the realities of NYC apartment living. They’re also less likely to do bodily harm. Or so one would think. I was once meeting with a mom and daughter in the bedroom they rented on the second floor of a house. While discussing the daughter’s school enrollment, I realized that I had been shot in the back with eight tiny darts.

Actually, it turned out that they had gotten a kitten and neglected to tell me. And that kitten liked to climb. I was able to scrape myself off the ceiling after a few moments, and I think was made a better person for it.

Until the mom thought that it would be a good idea to bring said kitten into the office in her purse. Spoiler alert: it was not.

Then there are the animals no one welcomes into their home. After spending a half hour in one apartment, the five year old girl volunteered to show me her bedroom.

“I love your princess sheets!”
“Thanks. Mommy got them for me after we sprayed for the bugs.”

The bugs…oh, the bedbugs. Shit, is my purse on the couch?! Sorry, I have to run!

“What is that noise? Is someone in the bedroom?”
“Oh no, that’s just Mickey.”

Mickey? Is that a boyfriend? Oh, no, that’s a cuter way of saying, “we have giant rats who live in the sofa you’re sitting on, and they no longer fear man.”

Jumping up and running would have been rude. So I sat there and completed our visit, jumping and shrieking whenever I saw a “little animal.” That’s what my former landlord who didn’t want to pay for an exterminator called them.

Accepting people’s pets, welcome or unwelcome, is just another part of accepting our clients.

As long as they don’t try to eat us. Hungry pit bulls? Climby-cats? Sexually assaulted ferrets? I repeat my social work mantra: it could always be worse.

Same old woman, different shoe: The housing saga continues

23 03 2011

Monday, March 21st was a rough day in this office. Phones were ringing off the hook. There was also a surge in people being directed to my blog (OK, so it wasn’t all bad) by search terms including the words “Advantage voucher” and “FEPS,” or “Family Eviction Prevention Supplement.”

That’s because letters went out the previous week, informing clients that the Advantage voucher program was ending. No more rent checks would be issued after April 1st. The Advantage program is a program that helped people to move out of shelters and into their own apartments. The idea is that the program pays your rent for two years, then either ends or tapers off, converting into a Section 8 subsidy.

Except, Section 8 is no longer available. OK. And the waiting list for public housing is still years long. Oh, and rent in NYC, even in the Bronx, is still just a bit high.

Did I mention that people were informed of this March 21st? That their rent would no longer be paid as of April 1st? Not, “Oh, we won’t be honoring your two-for-one yogurt coupon.” We won’t be paying for the place that you and your children live.

We had a bit of a heads up at the office. The New York Times (let’s face it, all struggling parents have the time and energy to read the Times cover to cover, daily) ran this article explaining that this was happening due to the city’s financial crisis.

It’s cool. We’re short on funds, so we’re making people homeless.

In case you’re wondering, this is not SocialJerk being dramatic. It’s not my style. (Not entirely true, I was a fierce Little Engine that Could in 1989, but I digress.) The NYC Department of Homelessness website explains that if you have an active public assistance case, and are receiving cash assistance, you might qualify for a rental allowance. It might not be enough to cover your current rent; in fact, it almost definitely will not be enough. But it will be something. If you have sanctions, due to missing a recertification date, or skipping a Back to Work program in favor of attending college, or you only receive food stamps, too bad. Not happening. You are responsible for your rent, and you have a week to come up with it.

Now, SocialJerk, these are adults. Shouldn’t they be responsible for their own rent? I mean, is that asking so much? I certainly pay my own rent!

Shut up. Hear me out. Certainly, independence and self-reliance is the goal. But that’s not what our public assistance system is set up for. It’s set up to give people the least amount of help and comfort for a limited amount of time before cutting them loose. The Advantage program helped a lot of my clients get out of shelters. That’s great. And it paid their rent for a while. Also great. But their excessive public assistance appointments, the constant sanctions and fair hearings, the difficulty getting themselves enrolled in school (b-t-dubs, higher education is actively discouraged) in favor of attending pointless “work programs,” and the hoops they have to jump through just to get their kids into day care? Shockingly, none of this gets people educated and into a job that will pay their rent.

Maybe you don’t care. Maybe you think people deserve this, because their poor women minorities lazy. But a vast majority of these people have kids. And all that money the city doesn’t have? Is being spent on building new shelters. Very cost effective, I foresee no issues with this plan.

I spent a lot of time on the phone yesterday with a 22 year old mother of two. She wound up in a shelter after leaving the abusive father of her children. She got out with the help of the Advantage program. This woman described herself as being “on top of the world” when she moved into a one bedroom apartment with faulty plumbing and broken windows.

She was at her local PA office all day yesterday, missing a day of college classes, trying to figure out what to do. She knows that this is going to interfere with her completing her education, and with her daughters continuing at their current day care. She doesn’t want to return to the shelter, but she doesn’t have anywhere else to go.

This woman doesn’t have until April 1st, because, due to budget issues, the Department of Homeless Services started missing rent payments for her a few months ago. Now the arrears are her responsibility. She’s missing school, and almost forgot that it was her youngest child’s third birthday today, because of all the stress.

But really, the mom is irresponsible. That toddler doesn’t deserve presents or cake.

You can think what you want about these types of programs. But to tell people that they’ll be helped, to promise them a service, to provide them with something as basic as a place to live, and then yank that away with minimal warning, is cruel and inhumane. To go after people who are too busy, too overwhelmed, to wrapped up in struggling to survive to protest and call attention to their plight, is wrong.

New York social workers are now in the position of receiving these calls, and having to tell people that there’s nothing to be done. I knew the system was broken before, but it never hit me in this way.

It’s our job to fight this.

I don’t know whether the weather will improve.

21 03 2011

Friday was a magical day here in New York. No, the Mets didn’t do something good (I said magical, not miracle). But we did have borderline record-setting beautiful weather. 78 degrees and sunny. For those outside the US, that would be around 25 degrees. Doesn’t sound quite as impressive, but there you go.

I had the foresight to request the day off (did I mention that it was also the day after St. Pat’s?) so I got to spend the day roaming the city. In New York, those first gorgeous days send everyone the same message–get half naked and get to the park!

Clients aren’t exempt from these urges. When it’s finally beautiful out, who wants to spend the day cooped up in a counseling office? Kids want to hit up the playground, parents take their frighteningly untrained pit bull for a walk, teens want to walk around in packs of ten for some reason.

So we blame it one the lovely weather, and chase our clients down.

Then it gets to be July and August. 100 degrees, hot and muggy. Well, who wants to come see their social worker then? It’s time to try to catch the shuttle bus to the pool, drink a 40 on the stoop, run through an open fire hydrant.

Still, it’s the weather’s fault. So we keep on chasing.

Sometimes it rains. Who wants to go out in that? Little known fact: a majority of my clients are made up of a combination of sugar and salt. They melt in the rain. Also, umbrellas do not exist in the Bronx, so that simply isn’t an option. The same goes for snow. And who wants to go outside when it’s so damn cold?

I’ve gotten all of these excuses from my clients, generally all in the interest of the kids. “It’s too cold to take the baby out.” “I don’t want to take the kids out in the rain, you know my oldest has asthma.” “My mother’s going to take them to the pool, it’s so hot outside.” “I don’t take my kids out in the rain.”

That last one is a direct quote. I’m sorry, but I’m allergic to ridiculous.

The weather is one of those many variables that hugely impacts out work. I can’t help getting a little cranky when someone calls to say, “Oh, I don’t think I can bring the kids, it’s so nasty out. Would you mind coming to the house instead?” Certainly. Upon obtaining my license, I was also made weather-proof. It’s one more thing that social workers and boots have in common.

As much as I try not to let such things impact how I feel about my clients, walking to someone’s house in freezing rain, or sweltering heat, and finding that they’re not there and didn’t have the courtesy to call…well, I’m only human.

“The courtesy to call” is something I wish people had a little more of. I don’t know exactly what the problem is. We make an appointment, you come to it. I think that’s a pretty basic part of being a person and living in society. It’s weird. If I had an appointment as a kid, I was going. If I broke a bone on the way over, one of my parents was calling. Just not showing up wasn’t an option. It simply was not done.

Of course things come up. Kids get sick, babysitters cancel, and I have had more than one person call to tell me that they have diarrhea (hint: excuses don’t necessarily have to be specific.) A phone call goes a really long way.

Just the other day, a fairly new client did have the courtesy to call. Unfortunately, his appointment was at 4 pm, and he called around 6. His mother told me this, and also explained that it was pretty much my fault for not having been there. I explained that my work day ended at 5, but I was there until 5:45. “Well he tried to call.” If a woman has not learned by age 42 that calling two hours after a missed appointment is not sufficient effort, then I don’t think there’s anything I can do.

I try to work with people. I explain that I have other families I need to see, and I can use a cancelled appointment for one of them, if I know said appointment is going to be cancelled. I try to make people understand that if they show up hours or days late for their scheduled sessions, I might be unavailable, and that it’s nothing personal.

I also put forth the notion that we live in New York, not San Diego. Hibernating when it is too hot, cold, or wet only leaves us with about twelve days in which we can leave our homes. Sorry, but I’ve got things to do.

Except, I’m not sorry. I really do have things to do. And even though the NYC weather seems to be working on a bipolar diagnosis (yeah, it’s kind of snowing now) life goes on.

Even though I’m freezing.

Please stand clear of the closing doors. Before SocialJerk makes you.

14 03 2011

Mattress commercials urge you to spend up and buy a comfy bed, because you spend a third of your life sleeping. Between living in New York, and being a social worker, I should probably invest in a Tempurpedic subway seat, as that seems to be where I spend the other two thirds.

If I could perfect a social work teleporter, I’d get so much more done.

I take two subways and a bus to get to work. Then I travel to home visits, school meetings, and ACS ambushes conferences via train and bus as well. They used to pay for cabs for visits that were particularly far away, but that’s no more. I once had a family that moved to Staten Island, and I had to do a home visit before we could transfer the case. That was particularly exciting, because I got to take a bus to a train to a boat to a bus.

I’ve gotten to know the public transportation system better than I’ve ever wanted to. I realize I’m fortunate to live in New York. Sure, trains are dirty, the schedules get a little crazy over the weekends, and the fares are increasing to a point that I suspect my monthly Metrocard will soon involve some sort of blood tribute. But at least our trains don’t stop running over night. (Boston, I’m looking in your direction.)

Some, though, would say that my close affiliation with public transit has started to drive me a little mad.

When I’m on the bus, I feel like a total chump. Am I the only person in the Bronx who actually pays their fare? I stand near the driver, scrambling through my oversized entirely necessary purse to get my Metrocard out. Everyone else, young and old alike, sneaks on through the back door. Some even get on in the front, pretend to look for change for a moment, then shrug and sit down. So many people seem to think that the $2.25 was not a fee, but a suggested donation, like at the museum.Perhaps it’s residual guilt from my Catholic upbringing, but I just can’t imagine.

It’s not any better on the subways. Unaccompanied teenagers are routinely ticketed for jumping the turnstile, that’s true. But children with their parents duck under the turnstile unnoticed.

Infants and toddlers in strollers, anyone small enough to sit on their parent’s lap or be held, are not expected to pay. But some of these kids riding for free are filling their mothers in on their big day at junior high while sipping a latte. My mother still considers me her baby. If I’m traveling with her, will the MTA consider me that as well?

This wouldn’t be so bad if the eleventeen year old fare jumpers were sitting in a lap and not taking up space. But no. Somewhere along the lines, the expectation shifted from giving seats to the elderly, pregnant, or disabled, to giving seats to seven year olds.

When I took started taking the public bus to high school, I had a daily routine. My friends and I would get on, sit down for one stop, then be booted out of our seats by old ladies. I have not been allowed to sit in an actual seat at a family event, on a routine basis, since getting out of a high chair. The younger generation is expected to allow the older to sit. It’s a little show of respect. (In return, we get to imitate the aunts’ accents for the amusement of friends, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Now I see middle aged people giving up their seats for elementary school kids, while the parents smile and nod. It’s quite puzzling. And yet, when the most pregnant woman I have ever seen (she might have been crowning) got on a crowded train recently, the only person willing to give up their seat was a less pregnant woman.

And then there’s the entertainment.

If you live in New York, or, I imagine, any city with a large system of public transportation, you’ve had the experience of almost getting kicked in the head by a dance crew of 15 year olds who do back flips down the aisle  and swing around poles. It’s entirely normal for an entire mariachi band to enter a train car and play between stops.

Some entertainment is unintentional. Just the other day I got to listen to a street preacher, who started off extoling the virtues of love, and gradually worked himself into a frenzy over the fact that, “You people don’t want to hear about HELLLLL??! Because you’re going to HELLLLL!!!!”

I switched cars, but he followed me. Someone must have given him my name.

I have seen adults clipping their (finger)nails, mothers cleaning out their children’s ear wax, quick diaper changes, and a bull dog in a child’s stroller.

That last one was kind of awesome.

Overall, public transportation is kind of my home away from home. Come to think of it, the subway system is an actual home for many people. So let’s try to act like it. Walk on the right, and just be considerate.

You wouldn’t clip your nails in someone else’s house, now would you?

Spanglish as a 2.5nd Language

24 02 2011

There are a lot of qualities one needs to be a successful social jerk worker. Patience, understanding of child development, knowledge of family systems, creativity, proximity to a punching bag…

But there’s one that will serve you better than almost anything else–a working knowledge of Spanish.

Yesterday I found myself doing an unannounced home visit. For those of you fortunate enough to work in a field where you don’t have to surprise people, and possibly their angry dogs, in their own homes, let me explain–this is what we have to do when people aren’t coming in for services, answering their phones, what have you. Got to make those numbers!

I found myself face to face with a very sweet Puerto Rican grandma (abuelita, if you will.) I think she was very sweet, anyway. She didn’t speak a word of English, aside from “thank you.”

We made it through the visit all right. She gave me an update on her grandson, let me know where her daughter was, and had me visit with her granddaughter. Also, she may or may not have given me a cookie. (Hint: it was delicious.)

My Spanish is actually  pretty good. But I’m not a native speaker. Even if I pack up and move to Ecuador for a couple of years, I’m not going to sound like one. There’s always that edge that native speakers have–the colloqualisms, regional terminology, subtle pronunciation differences–you pick them up the more you use them, but it’s just not the same as growing up with it.

It’s what makes me, and a lot of other people, self conscious. What if I pronounce something wrong? What if I use the wrong verb? Well, you probably will. But when you’re dealing with someone who speaks much less English than you do Spanish, they’ll be grateful for the effort. I always remind myself that I would never make fun of an English language learner, so why do I worry that someone would do that to me?

Making do with the language skills you have is a necessity. It’s part of the job. But sometimes, hilarity ensues.

My co-workers and I (all of whom spoke Spanish as a second language) have in the past:

  • Asked a 4 year old, “Te quiero?” (I love you?) instead of, “Tu quieres?” (You want?) when serving snack.
  • Inquired “Cuantos anos tienes?” (How many anuses do you have?) rather than “Cuantos años tienes?” (How old are you?)
  • Informed the parents that it was “Sock day!” (media día) rather than a “half day” (medio día.)
  • Tried to act like we required the mother’s date of birth, after messing up pronouns when asking about the son.
  • Announced that there were many “bichos” in the room we were meeting in. (This can mean that there are lots of flies. In Puerto Rican slang, it means that there are lots of penises. Guess where everyone in that room was from?)
  • Thought that it was acceptable for kids to call one another “pato” since it just means “duck.” (It actually also means something else.)

So yes, I have at times sounded like an idiot. I’ll give you all a moment to recover from that profound shock. But I’ve also learned a lot, and been able to use my imperfect language skills to accomplish things I didn’t think I could.

It’s a good thing humility and flexibility are also invaluable in social work.

Who left this soapbox unattended?

21 02 2011

I’ve heard it many times now. “Aren’t you glad your mother was pro-choice?” Meaning, “If your mother supported abortion rights, surely she would have had one.”

If that were true, I wouldn’t be dealing with abortion at all. My mother is pro-choice. (She raised me that way.) Somehow, this wicked pro-choice heathen escaped the abortioneers.

OK, but I’m a family social worker. The women I work with are mothers. They’ve chosen life. So why is abortion important to them?

Contrary to popular belief, 61% of women who elect to have abortions already have at least one child. Each pregnancy involves a decision. One can choose to have a child, and then choose an abortion.

Then there are the teenagers, those mother’s children, who don’t yet have children of their own, and would like to keep it that way.

Last week, I got a call from a client. She’s 21 years old, has a four year old daughter and a three month old son, and is a wonderful mother.

She’s also been through hell. Absentee, drug addicted father. Abusive and neglectful mother. Placed in a foster home after she had been damaged enough that she was running the streets and acting out.

This young woman got herself together for the sake of her daughter, and has done better than anyone has the right to expect her to. Unfortunately, she still struggles with relationships. As a result, the man she elected to have her son with is, if I speak generously, a worthless loser.

I don’t have anything better to say about a man who threatens the life of a woman who is pregnant with his child, and then threatens to lie to get custody of that child.

I’m extremely proud of this woman. We’re working on getting her to be proud of herself. She recently started dating a long time friend. Personally, I thought it was a little soon, but that’s not my call to make. It seems to be the first healthy relationship she’s had with any man.

So I was a little heartbroken when I got a call from her just last week. Apparently, she thought she had a stomach virus over the weekend, because she felt so terribly sick.

It wasn’t a stomach virus.

Two young kids at home, a brand new relationship, struggling to move out of a shelter, and pregnant again.

She opted to have an abortion.

Who could blame her? What else could we expect this intelligent, resilient, responsible, though financially and emotionally fragile 21 year old mother to do?

She was not happy about the decision. But she did what she had to do, for herself, and for the two children she already has.

Her boyfriend was not happy about the decision. But he went to the clinic with her, and supported her.

She’s not happy. But she’s coping well. She’ll be all right. I’m much more hopeful than I would be if she were still pregnant.

I’ve worked with other women who’ve had abortions. I’m very supportive of teen mothers, but some girls are not ready. I’m confident that they made the right choice.

One young mother really wanted another child, but recognized that her son’s mental health issues and her own physical health problems meant that this wasn’t the right time.

Then there was a mother of four, who had recently lost an infant daughter born with severe health problems. She had just regained custody of her four surviving children, after physically abusing one, and expressing the desire to kill herself and her children. Throwing a new baby into the mix would have been a disaster.

For anyone wondering about “responsibility,” yes, it is discussed. I don’t think anyone can accuse me of not talking up birth control. We discuss it.

I then direct my clients to Planned Parenthood.

Sometimes for an abortion, but most often not. Usually it’s for information, gynecological exams, pre-natal care…oh, and free or low-cost birth control.  Because we want to prevent unwanted pregnancies. And this is what Planned Parenthood does.

No woman I work with has ever skipped merrily into my office to share with me the details of her latest abortion. (Huzzah!) They are upset that the situation arose, and disappointed that they became pregnant when they didn’t want to.  They sometimes have feelings of guilt, about not being able to carry the pregnancy to term.


Every woman I have worked with who has had an abortion, though, has expressed feelings of relief. Even if they were not happy about it, they know that they made the right decision. For themselves, and for their families.

Planned Parenthood, in case you haven’t heard, is under attack. The house recently voted to strip them of federal funding. If this is allowed to pass, the familiar Bronx building that I refer my clients to when they need things that I can’t provide (often thanks to our funding) will have a much more difficult time meeting those needs. Condoms, Depo shots, HIV testing, cancer screenings, and yes, abortions.

Because for all I hear about taking Planned Parenthood down, I don’t hear about plans to allocate funding to make it easier for a 21 year old mother of three to find day care for two infants so she can complete her GED.

I don’t see those politicians developing plans for increased access to mental heath services in the Bronx, so that a mentally ill mother of four can be there for her children.

I haven’t heard plans to expand TANF or WIC to make it possible for teenage girls to support themselves and their babies while attending school.

I hear New Jersey Republican Chris Smith decrying abortion as “child abuse,” but I haven’t seen him at my clients’ homes, crying with them about their own abusive upbringings, or hearing what having another child would do to their mentally unstable state, and to the safety of their children.

As a social worker, I trust women, and I stand with Planned Parenthood. I hope you all do as well.