Arise and Seize the Day

28 01 2013

I am exhausted.

It’s just been one of those months. Suddenly almost all of my families are working (yay!) so I have I stay late to make sure I see everyone each week (boo!) Everything is due at once, lots of new cases are coming in, caseload maximums are rising, paperwork is multiplying, I’m working lots of hours I don’t get paid for, and I’m getting heartburn just typing this.

Really, I can’t complain. I mean, it’s what I signed on for. And everyone in the field is doing the same thing. So it’s ok. Just the way it is.


It was recently suggested to me that this isn’t the way it has to be. That maybe we could unite and agitate for change. Bizarre that this didn’t occur to me earlier. I mean, I helped found Students for Social Justice as an undergrad. And I watched Newsies at least 1054 times. That is a conservative estimate.

It’s ridiculous. We make shitty money for our education level, and it is not possible to get work done in the amount of time we are technically supposed to be in the office. Is it just that we’re not talking about it enough?

Note that I said “talking,” not “engaging in martyrdom.” It’s a fine line to draw, but we must make an effort.

Teachers have been talking about too little respect and money and too much work to do in a school day since the dawn of standardized testing time. Yes, they’re still getting a raw deal. But at least they have a union. And they get discounts at random bookstores, which makes me envy them terribly. They’ve done a good job of putting themselves out there as educated people doing an important job that they deserve to be compensated fairly for. We can argue over how much good it’s done, but at least it’s on people’s minds.

Most people don’t even know who should actually be called a social worker.

I think that’s the first step, actually. Title protection. We don’t have it in New York. I know it’s been implemented in Washington and Virginia, with some success. Of course, people can’t legally advertise that they’re an LCSW if they aren’t. But people can refer to themselves or their employees as social workers when they aren’t, and this happens all the time. It’s the first step to respect. Respect is the first step to sweet sweet cash proper compensation.

I’m quite open to suggestions here, as I have no idea how to make progress in this area in terms of law. I do think being open about this, and educating others about the fact there’s nothing wrong with being a caseworker with an Associate’s degree, but that doesn’t make one a social worker, is crucial and something we can all do. Not everyone who works in a social worky field is a social worker. Refer to a doctor as a nurse, and see what you get. People know to be careful about that. It would be pretty cool if they knew that about us as well.

We need to stop acting like self care is the answer. Let me put this in words social workers will understand–it’s kind of victim blaming. It’s not that there’s too much to be done, you just can’t be arsed to take care of yourself! Go to the gym! Oh wait, by the time you get out of work they’re about to close. Well, take a mental health day! But then you won’t get your contacts in, and you put the agency at risk of losing our contract with the city. Why are you so selfish?

Talking a brisk walk and listening to Mumford & Sons only goes so far. It helps you to deal with a shitty, overwhelming situation, before you’re able to change it.

Self care can help postpone burnout, but it doesn’t make it go away. Support from one another would help. When someone in the office says, “Hey, isn’t it kind of fucked that we’re twenty five percent over maximum caseload?” we should talk about ways to fight it in our agencies. We shouldn’t snort and say, “When I started here, we had nine million cases. Literally. More than the population on New York City, I know!”

To really address burnout, though, we need more fundamental changes.

This is where it gets complicated. The work we do and the programs that help us to do it are always the first to go when we realize the country is Texas with a dollar sign in debt. It puts us in survival mode. At my agency, we work incredibly hard to prove that we can do the most with the least. It’s not just because we were all unpopular in junior high and are seeking approval. It’s because we’re in constant competition for city contracts. When we get a new one, we’re momentarily validated. It’s working!

Contracts are the opiate of the social work masses. We don’t have time to fight for change when we’re treading water. Kind of like how we’d love for our clients to agitate for change to the public assistance system, but they don’t have time what with all their appointments for public assistance.

I know we all hate to hear “evidence based,” but like title protection, it’s an important step. We need to be able, in some way, to identify that what we’re doing is helping. Not just that we’re seeing people for a shorter period of time, but that they’re making measurable improvements and not returning for services a month later.

Social services and caring for society’s vulnerable needs to be a bigger priority. It needs to be recognized as something that needs funding. I realize that this statement is far from revolutionary. I realize that I offer nothing in the way of answers, only more questions. But maybe if we start talking about meaningful change that benefits us all, and therefore our clients, rather than exchanging war stories, we can make some of it happen?

I guess it can’t hurt.

Writers writing about writing is in no way annoying.

26 07 2012

Possession is, apparently, nine-tenths of the law. (I’m not totally sure, I’m not a lawyer.) Documentation is, in fact, eleven-tenths of social work. (I’m also not a mathematician.)

As social workers, we have to document everything. Everything. Sessions, group meetings, phone calls, outreach attempts, collateral contacts…”collateral contacts” are essentially “everything else, if you’re unfamiliar. This can be problematic, and not just because it’s time consuming.

There are ways we say things, and there are ways we write things. There are, especially, ways we write things professionally. At times, it’s hard to say things in a professional manner, but we still need to get them out there. (If you were wondering why this blog exists.) You might indicate that there are concerns about a teenager’s hygiene. You wouldn’t write, “Jesus Christ, can this child not smell himself?”

Reframing, a social worker’s annoying best friend, sometimes helps. When my teen girls went on a tangent about why Justin Bieber is hot (I felt like I was going to get put on an FBI list just for being present for that one) I explained it as them sharing qualities they admire and would like to emulate in one of their role models. Apparently the Biebs has been through a lot?

When a mother was listing her strengths as a conference and said that, “Don’t nobody fuck with my kids. They get what they need,” we were able to note that as the mother being an excellent advocate and provider.

There are occasions when this doesn’t work. I was at a meeting once that a mother would not allow to end until it was noted on her service agreement that, “I want ACS out of my fucking life.” The poor worker tried to compromise several times, but mom wasn’t hearing it. Finally, a comic strip style #$%! had to suffice.

Sometimes, when more than one agency is involved in a case or when a family is transferred, we have to read things that other people write. That’s when we wonder how it’s possible that we were hired for similar jobs.

Not everyone is a good writer. Ask a teacher. Most people can barely write a clear sentence. How to write a proper progress note, at least in my experience, is something you’re expected to learn in the field. It’s not formally taught in Doggie Day Care social work school. Some people get too wrapped up in writing a narrative, detailing everything from what cartoon characters were on the kids’ shirts to what was blaring on the TV in the background. Others think mentioning that no one was on fire or bleeding to death is sufficient.

Some are just simple mistakes. It seems wrong that “now” and “not” are so similar. “One of the family’s strengths is that the child is not going to school regularly.” What’s wrong with you? Oh, the child is now going to school regularly. “Mother is concerned that the children’s father is now abiding by the order of protection.” That is bizarre…or is he not abiding by this? Why does this keep happening to us?

Some are mistakes that seem to require effort, in order to be so wrong. What are the odds that the parents both have the last name Jones, and their children all have the last name Tones?

Some errors go beyond poor execution or a rushed job. Those notes are the stuff of legend.

“This child is being denied the BEST OPPORTUNITIES EVER!!”

This was written by a worker who transferred a case to me, who was concerned that the parents were taking advantage of a scholarship their high school age daughter was being offered. Caps lock, and stacked punctuation. Here’s a tip: exclamation points are rarely appropriate in a progress note or service plan. I can’t even get into the stunning hyperbole.

“CPS told mom that she has a lot of work to do, so get chopping.”

Never say this. In person, or writing. No.

“This worker suspects that the preventive worker is not accredited and qualified to provide play therapy.”

Writing this in a database the preventive worker has access to is essentially using that database as a Mean Girls-style Burn Book.

“Mother shared that her childhood was not all cookies and cream.”

Bummer. That would have been a delicious childhood.

Progress notes are a necessary evil, of course. Without them, transferring a case would be pretty impossible, and it would be a lot easier for an unscrupulous worker to go to Dunkin Donuts while claiming to be out on a visit. (Not that I’ve ever contemplated this.)

And they can be entertaining. Maybe next time you’re working on a note, slip in a little humor for the next person reading it. Silly, unnecessary caps lock, or throw in a “stop reading, it’s a trap!” midsentence. Your supervisor will thank fire you.

Who are you and why are you here?

9 01 2012

I get asked pretty frequently why I went into social work. It’s not terribly difficult to come up with an answer, one that varies in sincerity based on my mood and the attitude of the person who is asking.

The problems arise when I find myself asking why some of my coworkers got into this field.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from TV and movies, it’s that the people who are really good at their jobs are mean, and you don’t want to be around them. You know, the only doctor who can diagnose and cure your smallpox is an egotistical dick, and the teacher who gets the best results from those inner-city kids is the one who breaks all the rules and swears a lot.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from social work, it’s that this doesn’t necessarily carry over to the real world.

Some of my coworkers, and people I’ve met in this field that I haven’t had the misfortune of working with, simply mystify me. Of all the professions to enter, you chose one in which you work with people who have been rejected and beaten down by society, and where you won’t get paid enough to make up for it.

If you’re a miserable person, and don’t like others, couldn’t you at least try find work at the DMV?

Some people I work with, I don’t like. I feel entirely justified in this, because they’re obnoxious. I suspect they were raised by pandas, because they have no sense of appropriate human interactions or social graces.

Some are incredibly nosy and think that this is fine, because I’m younger than they are.

Crazy Coworker: “I like that outfit! Did you just go shopping? Did you meet someone?”
SocialJerk:  “Thanks? What? I’m just waiting to use the microwave.”
CCW: “Oh, you haven’t had kids yet.”
SJ: “Yet?”
CCW: “Yeah, you shouldn’t stand in front of the microwave, it might affect your ovaries. And you know that people who don’t have children regret it later in life.”
SJ: “Who are you?”

This is bad, because it negatively affects my day. Me having a nice day is a pretty high priority for me.

My highest priority, though, is that our clients’ needs are served and that they are treated with dignity and respect.

Oh boy.

For the most part, I think my agency does good work. But then there are those people who just make me wonder. I know you didn’t go to social work school, but you have interacted with humans before, right? You took some class in what to expect when working here, didn’t you? Or is this some kind of work release program?

When I first came here, I inherited a number of cases from our Worst Offender, as she was moving to another part of the agency (unfortunately, to do the same job.) We had a joint meeting with a woman with whom I would be working. This new client asked Worst Offender if I was aware that she had a history of depression.

Worst Offender ( and this is true) rolled her eyes behind this woman’s back and said, “Well, yes, we all get sad sometimes.”

Yup. Helpful.

When I say WO went to another part of the agency, I, sadly, mean that she went down the hall, and never fully left my professional life. One of her girls has been a more or less permanent fixture in my teen groups. This girl, who has a long history of trauma and therefore no sense of appropriate boundaries, talked rather graphically in group about her experiences of being molested. She then licked her hand and stuck it into the group bowl of pretzels.

I had a number of concerns. Number one, of course, was this girl’s safety. Number two was this girl not being ostracized in group due to her boundary issues. Number three was that I remember that, even though I love pretzels, they were now off limits.

I spoke with WO about this. I needed to ensure that she was aware of the molestation, so that it was properly reported and addressed.

Again, she rolled her eyes. “That girl has, let’s say, a tendency to get molested. I’m not saying she asks for it, but…”

No no. Just stop. I have a tendency to punch assholes in the kidneys, and we can’t have that now.

That girl, the pretzel licker, came to me after our next group, saying that her worker had told her that the other girls were complaining that she was greedy with the food and ate too much.

Yes. This was what WO decided to do with me telling her, “I’m concerned about this girl and want to make sure she’s getting a sufficient amount of help.” Tell a fifteen year old that her peers are talking shit about her. Maybe throw in that they called her fat? Certainly that will help.

They’re not all this horrendous. Worst Offender is the only one I have felt the need to report (on more than one occasion) to a supervisor, for fear that she was doing much more harm than good to the people whose well being she was entrusted with. (Don’t worry, my concerns were sufficiently ignored.) But there are people who make you wonder, ” what did you think you were getting into?”

The recent graduate who became nearly hysterical when participants routinely did not show up for their sessions, requiring her to go out on visits. “It’s just like any other appointment! Why can’t you call to cancel?” The people who have no problem watching three workers (hint: one of them is always me) frantically set up for a holiday party, while popping their headphones in and explaining, “Oh, I have a lot of notes to write.” The worker who describes a client as, “so fucking clueless” until it is painstakingly explained that this person’s “cluelessness” is a manifestation of their mental illness.

This isn’t a job that people are necessarily banging down doors to get. And we all have our days when we lose patience, and think or say things (in private, or anonymously on the internet, one would hope) that aren’t productive or helpful. But if you’re debating whether or not you can do this job, or if you have the right mindset, please take a little extra time to consider. We’re desperate for workers, but we’re not that desperate. This isn’t a field you go into because your modeling career didn’t work out.

You don’t want to be “that” worker.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Find out what it means to SocialJerk! (Live accordingly.)

1 08 2011

There are certain words and phrases that tend to shut conversation down. You can’t argue against them. Attempting to do so is considered to be in poor taste. If you’re criticizing someone, and a friend says, “His wife’s in a coma,” you kind of have to shut up. Questioning someone on a particular practice ceases when told, “It’s my religion.” And it seems that the same goes for, “It’s an issue of respect.”

Respect is the most overused and poorly understood word in the English language. As a social worker, I hear it approximately eleventy billion times per day. “My teenage son has no respect!” Um…duh? “Why should I respect my teacher if she doesn’t respect me?” Because you don’t get to grade her. “These girls dress slutty because they have no respect for themselves.” Is that accurate? I dress my trampiest when I feel good about myself. “SocialJerk swears too much, she obviously has no respect.” She obviously was raised in Brooklyn.

It’s always the first thing that comes up when we set ground rules in my teen groups as well. Someone immediately suggests “respect” as a rule. I write it down. Then I ask, “What does that mean?”

You would think I asked them to present me with a unifying theory of physics.

“What do you mean, ‘what does that mean?’ Respect! It means respect.”

So we go over it, more and more. How do we show respect? What does that look like? How do you know someone is being disrespectful? Is it an attitude or an action? You know, annoying social work-y questions.

My helpful dictionary app defines respect as a verb meaning “to hold in esteem or honor.” Basically, to look at someone or something and think that they deserve to be treated a certain way. To treat them the way you want to be treated. To put them ahead of yourself.

How did such a simple, direct concept become so convoluted? I’m not trying to be controversial here, I’m not against respect. But considering how much people talk about it, especially in my work, you would think we’d see more examples of it.

Instead, I see more examples of irony. People screaming and disturbing others in the office, to make sure everyone knows that, “this bitch ain’t got no respect!” A mother telling her thirteen year old daughter that she needs to stop “getting with all these nasty boys in the neighborhood, because people think you’re fast. I want you to have respect for yourself.”

I don’t know about you, but my mother calling me the village bicycle would certainly increase my self-respect.

So many of these admonishments for “respect” are directed at women and girls. It’s an easy way to convey that faux concern. It’s not that I’m being judgmental, it’s that I’m worried about this girl! Those short shorts clearly illustrate that she has zero respect for herself. There is an inverse relationship between the length of your clothing and the amount of self-respect you have. Tube tops and self respect? Mutually exclusive.

Ask any teen girl, she’ll tell you that respect is the most important part of a romantic relationship. Many will then blame other girls for her boyfriend’s cheating, cheat to get back at him, make out with her female friends at a party to get his attention, and not leave immediately the first time he hits her or calls her a bitch.

We’re teaching our girls to talk a good game, but I don’t think we’re really teaching them a whole lot of meaning. Everything is respect or disrespect. It’s so watered down that it’s meaningless. It’s a buzzword. Much like “think outside the box,” “self-care,” or “SJ, this is a staff meeting, please stop coloring,” it seems like the more you hear it, the less it means.

When I worked in a pre-school program, we got a bit nosy and asked a bilingual three year old, “Why is daddy in jail?” She gave us her sassiest look and replied “Porque, no me respeta.” Daddy’s in jail, because he doesn’t respect you. This is a punishable offense, now? Clearly she was repeating what her mother said. But what was the real message there?

That thirteen year old I work with was told that because her boyfriend gave her hickeys, he doesn’t respect her, and she doesn’t respect herself. Erroneous. He did it because he is in ninth grade, overeager, and lacks finesse. What matters is the way he treats her, the way he makes her feel about herself. Not these unwavering, written in stone regulations.

Respect is important, obviously. Of course it’s a crucial part of a relationship. And telling someone that they don’t respect themselves, their parents, or their community because they do something you don’t like or agree with belittles the person and the concept. If something really is as important as we all agree “respect” is, we should probably be able to comfortably define it.

Without a Droid app, that is.

Sex and the Social Work Student (coming soon to Lifetime)

28 07 2011

I know that I have a bit of a tendency to mock St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries social work school. I can’t help it, it was a crazy time with some crazy people. But that’s not to say I didn’t get a good education. For every moment of insanity and frustration, there was one (ok, maybe a half) in which I learned something that I apply to my work regularly.

A lot of the professors were a bit on the nutty side. What can I say? They were social workers. So when you found a good one, it was wise to stick with him or her.

I found that I really enjoyed my public policy professor. She was feisty and liberal, but also reasonable. There were good discussions in her classes. When I had the option to take an elective my second semester, I immediately looked for a class that she was teaching. (Preferrably nothing too early. Rush hour on the six train? Not as glamorous as J-Lo makes it sound.)

And there it was in my class guide. “Human Sexuality and Social Work.”

Oh my. At least it wasn’t bunny sexuality.

I didn’t really know if this would apply to my work, or what the class would entail. But I liked the professor, it fit into my schedule, nothing else was jumping out at me, and the only social work student I never wanted to smack for hours was also taking it. What could go wrong?

My friend and I made the best of the class. People always shorten the names of the classes their attending. No one says they’re late for Human Behavior and the Social Environment. They’re running to HB. Only an asshole would actually call Casework by it’s full title, “Social Work with Individuals and Families.” We shortened the name of our class to “sex.” It made for fun times and wacky misunderstandings.

“Gotta run, we have sex now.”
“Oh, really? I…didn’t know that.”
“Yeah, every Tuesday and Thursday, from eleven to one.”
“That’s quite a commitment.”

Going over the syllabus was interesting. The things you would expect were all in there–DSM IV sexual disorders, LGBT related issues, discussing safety with clients, etc. What really caught my eye, though, was our project for the semester.

It was entitled, “Try something new!”

My first reaction was, naturally, to slap the piece of paper and tell it to mind its own damn business. How dare you!

Then I read further. The assignment was still, at its core, kind of weird. We were to engage in some kind of “new experience” and write a paper about it, and relate it to our future practice. Fortunately, there were suggestions for new experiences, or things could really have gotten out of hand. They included things like interviewing a parent, boss, or member of the clergy (seriously) about their attitudes about sex, or trying online dating.

My friend went the online dating route, and was, as far as I know, the only person who successfully used sex class to get laid. I hope she got extra credit.

I decided that the least traumatic option was visiting New York City’s Museum of Sex.

For those of you planning a trip, my review is as follows–meh. I managed to get a friend to go with me. A non-social work student. Let me tell you, you really find out who you can count on when it’s time to do your assignment for sex class.

When we went, the entire first floor was dedicated to animal sexual behaviors. I would have been OK going the rest of my life without ever having seen a whale penis, but the Museum of Sex decided we really needed to see two in action. (That’s right: big gay whales.) The second floor pretty much just had porn playing. I finally saw that Paris Hilton sex tape, speaking of “meh.”

My friend and I felt a little out of place. It seems that the “Museum of Foreplay” might have been a more accurate name. There were some couples getting pretty cozy. I wanted to tap them on the shoulder and ask if they had ever heard of this place called “the internet,” where they can watch porn and get down to business in the comfort of their own home.

So maybe I could have done without that particular experience. But overall, I’m glad I took the class. For one thing, it provided some much needed comic relief. (Maybe another time I’ll tell you about when that friend of mine acted out various DSM-IV coercive paraphilias for the class, as part of another project.)

It also got me over any hesitancy I might have had in talking with clients about sex. It’s an important topic. Considering the mother of a sexually active 13 year old just told me that she, “doesn’t even want to know” what her daughter is getting up to, someone needs to be ok with talking about sex.

If we’re uncomfortable, clients will be uncomfortable. The things I have found myself saying without batting an eyelash, especially to my teens, would, I hope, make my sex class professor rather proud.

Yes, I am trying to lead the office in quacking

8 07 2011

I’ve always said that this agency is a pretty good place to work. We don’t get paid a ton, but the benefits are good. My supervisor is great. She appreciates my humor and impromptu dances. People get along fairly well. As far as social service agencies go, it’s pretty much the best you can ask for.

But the times, they are a-changing here at Anonymous Agency.

The city has bestowed vast riches upon us. (By that, I mean we got a new contract that requires us to do impossible things with very little money.) We’re going to be expanding to serve a lot more families, so we’re hiring new workers, taking over another office on our floor, and coming up with fun, creative ways to fit too many people into a small space. In the new office space, rolly desk chairs had to have back-up signals installed, so no one was injured. But social workers have always been creative.

All these new workers means a new director.

Change is hard on everyone. It’s uncomfortable, and when someone suggests you change, you can’t help but think, “What the hell was wrong with me before?” It can also be good, and productive, and help us to serve our clients better.

This new director comes with a lot of new ideas. I’m trying to be open to them, because I know that there’s room for improvement. I think a lot of the changes need to be made much higher up, in the child welfare system. The focus on making our numbers, social workers having so little control over which cases to accept and when to close them…these are the kinds of changes I would like to make. But of course, we need to do what we can.

The new director has a strong clinical focus. She’s very into intense family therapy. I think she kind of wants to be Minuchin. Which is fine, because he did important work and developed theories and models that we case our work on all the time.

But he was a little cooky.

So New Director is introducing some changes. Some of these are great. She wants the playroom to be more therapeutic, rather than just a distraction. I love this idea. (Not just because it was my suggestion and I need validation.) Our playroom sucks, to put it clinically. It was clearly thrown together with whatever toys some donor’s kid had outgrown. Many of the toys are musical, or just plain noisy. There’s a talking ATM and fire truck that haunt me in my dreams. “Welcome, to the interactive, ATM.” The kids just push that button, over and over again.

Did I mention that the playroom is adjacent to my cubicle? Kill me.

Play therapy doesn’t get done with these kinds of toys. New Director has agreed to go after some new stuff–a doll house, puppets, play-doh and other art supplies…the kinds of things that kids actually express themselves with.

She also wants to get anatomically correct dolls. Because some of our kids have been sexually abused. Oh dear.

When there are allegations of sexual abuse, we refer the children to a program specifically for this problem. No one here is an expert in working with kids who’ve been through this. Of course it comes up, but it’s not specifically what we do.

Not to mention, plenty of our kids haven’t been sexually abused. I’m thinking of the shenanigans they get up to when they realize Barbies clothes come off, and the hours of giggling this causes. That’s with a naked, notoriously anatomically incorrect doll.

We disagree.

New Director also wants to introduce a lot more trainings for the short-term therapy we’re meant to be doing, in topics like CBT and group work. This is great. It’s something we can all benefit from.

She also wants to film some of our sessions, and then watch them together in staff meetings.

It’s every nightmare I’ve ever had. First of all, if I have to watch myself therapizing, I will only be able to focus on whether or not I look fat. I realize that it’s shallow and immature, but I know myself.

Second of all, I will know I’m being filmed. I’ll use big words that don’t belong in an effort to impress those who will be watching. I will go out of my way to be mini-Minuchin, and not myself. When this doesn’t work, I will become awkward and crack sarcastic jokes.

Then there’s the “dress code.” Of course, it’s not really a code, it never is. Just a suggestion, to dress more professionally, because then our clients will want to “lift themselves up.” The things that’s stopping them from doing this already is apparently my Friday jeans. I like my clients to be comfortable with me. I wouldn’t show up to their homes looking like I’m there to mow the lawn, but I don’t want to show up looking like a lawyer, either. This, to me, does not say, “Talk with me. I won’t judge.” It says, “I’ll be taking notes on what you say.”

The problem is, my supervisor seems to be a bit impressed. Slightly puppy-like. She really sees this new director as the future of the agency. I don’t totally disagree, but it’s a little much to rush in an make all of the changes in one fell swoop. People don’t like that kind of thing.

I know. I’m people.

I just don’t want us to lose the things that are good about this place, and the way we work. The fact that we can all joke around with each other. That my random dance moves earn a laugh. The way YouTube videos of funny cats somehow make their way into supervision every so often. When New Director talks about making our work more clinical, and us being increasingly professional, it worries me. We wouldn’t have been granted all of those new cases and workers if we hadn’t been getting results.

I get the creeping feeling that the agency is changing. It reminds me of social workers in the 1950s, striving to be taken seriously by becoming more and more psychoanalytical. We don’t need to be something we’re not. We aren’t underpaid, undertrained psychologists wearing funny clothes and sharing an office. That’s not what people come to us for. Social work is its own profession with its own standards.

Lately, this place is reminding of the rag tag sports team in every 80s movie ever. We’re unconventional, but scrappy. Then someone new comes along from the outside, gets everyone organized and to play by the rules. But what happens? They lose their heart. We need to cling to what makes our profession unique. I think we can start by rewatching the Mighty Ducks.

“Have you ever tried…” “not being a pain in the ass?”

9 06 2011

Everyone loves unsolicited advice. Nothing make people happier than mentioning that they’re a bit frustrated with someone or something in their lives, and getting twenty five helpful suggestions over drinks on how they can fix it.

B T dubs, it’s Opposite Day.

People tend to hate advice. We’ve all heard friends complain, about a significant other, parent, or miscellaneous, “Why can’t he/she just listen? I don’t want to be fixed, I just wanted to talk!”

And yet, people the world over continue to give advice. We all do it. It’s so hard not to! Other people can be so dumb. It’s so obvious what they need to do!

Logically, most people know what they need to do. If someone is complaining about being overweight, odds are that they know that diet and exercise are the way to go. People in bad, dead-end relationships know that they need to end it.

But when you’re the one in it, it’s infinitely more complicated than that. The gym? Who has time for the gym?! And maybe you would eat less if your job was not super stressful and right across the street from an amazing smelling bakery.

These are things I imagine one would say. Hypothetically.

So we all try to avoid taking the advice approach with out clients. Once in a while, when people are looking for something concrete, like an apartment or benefits, or if they need a disciplinary strategy that does not involve belts or kneeling on rice, you might offer a suggestion. But overall, we know that helping our clients to figure it out for themselves is the best way to go. It’s more meaningful that way, and more empowering. It helps them to see that they have it in them to be good parents and competent adults. It contributes to lasting change, rather than, “Well yeah, it worked your way that one time.”

This also shows them that we have enough respect for them to realize that, “Well, have you ever tried not beating your children?” is a bit too simplistic.

We can hold back for our clients. Even when we really really know what they should be doing. But can we do that with each other?

I recently had to schedule a conference to address elevated risk in the home of a family I work with. This is social work speak for mom moved her baby’s abusive father back into the home. They admit to a history of domestic violence, but there is no order of protection. Legally, we can’t do anything. But we can meet with the mother and the three teenage children, to talk about safety, what this means for them, and what we can do for the family.

As a sidenote, I must mention the incredible bravery and selflessness of the oldest child, a fifteen year old girl, who took it upon herself to come to me and tell me that this man was back in the home full time, and that she didn’t feel that it was safe. I want to give her a medal. I had to settle for my warm regards and a Metrocard. (Budget cuts, you know.)

When we schedule these conferences, we need to go through child services, and explain the need for the conference. The man I email with the request is just supposed to go ahead and schedule. If any information is missing, he can call for clarification.

Instead, he called with some helpful suggestions. “Did you talk to the mom about this?” No, obviously not. Who would think of such a revolutionary approach? I’ve never been much of an innovator.

“Maybe you should stop by the home to evaluate the child who was hit and check for safety. Then you can talk to mom about the conference.” So I shouldn’t just smack my clients and tell them to do as I say. Weird.

Yes, this is the obnoxious, sarcastic attitude we all get (maybe me more so than others) when we get that unsolicited advice. Especially when it’s from someone who doesn’t really know the field, know the case, or who is just kind of annoying.

Advice that I’ve gotten from what I would consider to be random third parties? Let’s see:

  • “Try encouraging them to have dinner as a family every night.” – trainer, unaware most of my families don’t have tables.
  • “You should let her know you’re cool so she’ll want to talk to you. Show her your Silly Bandz!” -CPS worker, not realizing my reputation for cool precedes me.
  • “Tell the mom that her son probably isn’t gay, he’s just confused.” -Stupid coworker, who I encourage you to blame all the world’s problems on.
  • “If the family isn’t willing to come in, try meeting them at a playground.”- Former director who didn’t realize that playgrounds around here are for drug deals.

Sometimes, the advice sounds good. Why haven’t I had the kids in for an individual session? Why didn’t I refer the father to that group that he sounds perfect for? Particularly in trainings, when they offer typed up examples, in which a worker asking a parent, “What’s your greatest fear for your child?” catches the parent off guard, and leads to them spilling their greatest secrets, which in turn leads to flawless work getting done.

Has it ever gone in real life the way it goes in those example scenarios? Like once? Seriously, I’m grasping at straws, people.

It’s easier to take from someone you trust, and have some respect for. When my supervisor gives me a suggestion, based on her knowledge of my families and her own years of experience, I can take it, make it my own, and use it. When a trainer offers a new way to engage families in counseling, that I can fit in with my own style, I’m open to it.

But when someone whose primary job description matches the definition of a calendar essentially tells me, “try doing your job,” or a less than qualified protective worker tells me I should consider going against my social work principles, “open” is not really the word.

I guess it’s all in the delivery.

Overheard in Social Work: Revenge of the Eavesdropping

2 12 2010

It was either that or “Overheard Part Deux.”

We’ve been through this before. I find myself hearing and saying things I never thought a human would have a need to say. So let’s get to it.

Overheard in Social Work

“Show me the Carfax!” -7 year old boy pretending to be a dog

“Do not talk about my son’s package!”- 21 year old mother to child’s father, who was talking proudly about his 5 week old son’s genitalia (really)

“I forge my clients’ signatures all the time!”
-co-worker, who was definitely joking.

“Mommy! That’s my butt!” – 2 year old getting a diaper change.

“I need a more detailed description of the apartment.”
-my director
“I included how many bedrooms and where it is. Do you want to know about the drapery? Are you redecorating and looking for ideas?”
-overly snarky, fortunately not fired, SocialJerk

“Can you bring brownies this time? I took the leftover cookies home last Thanksgiving, and they got stale after a week.”
-very presumptuous coworker who doesn’t know how cookies work

“Hey, white girl reading Harry Potter!”
-loud man at the bus stop who doesn’t know how nicknames work

“I think that I got so upset when that girl yelled at me because my mother always yelled at me. That was the only way we communicated.”
-15 year old girl. (Seriously)

Still Never Overheard in Social Work

“I need more passwords. I’ve got one for the computer and three for different programs, but I really feel that we need more security.”

“You know, I really wish my clients weren’t so darn punctual! Can’t they relax a little?”

“It’s just as well that I just missed that bus, now I have time to catch up on my knitting.”

“I’m here to remove your children, the police are waiting downstairs…OMG I’m totes kidding. You should have seen the look on your face!”

“They offered to paint the office, but I think ‘hospital-white’ gives the place a homey feeling.”

Go forth and be nosy, everyone.

Happy Thanksgiving, ya ungrateful jerks!

24 11 2010

OK, that title was directed at me.

I complain a lot here. We all complain. It’s what keeps us social workers young (and good looking, I might add.)

But it’s that time of year in the US, when we gather with loved ones, eat dead birds, and watch Santa inexplicably get towed into Macy’s.

Oh, and take stock of what we’re grateful for. Here’s my list.

  • I have a job. (If you’re reading this, I hope you do as well, otherwise I’ll come off as more of a jerk than usual.) It’s a tough time, and a tough economy. Social services are usually the first thing to go. We’re eliminating all the unecessaries, and thus far, that isn’t me. Yay!
  • Today, I attended a school meeting. It was held in what is known as “The Situation Room.” Awesome.
  • Kids’ drawings. Need I say more?

Just in case I do–this is Megator. He gets picked on because he’s so much bigger than everyone. And he only hits bullies.

  • I closed a case successfully this month. The family was happy, and the mother told me how refreshing it was to have a social worker actually listen to her.
  • I get hugs from happy two year olds when I do home visits, and then I get to leave them with their moms.
  • Dealing with surly school secretaries who pretend not to see me when I am clearly standing directly in front of them makes me realize that my job is not so bad.
  • Getting hit on by gross men on the street gives me the opportunity to quote Janet Jackson regularly. “No my name ain’t baby…”
  • People in the Bronx are thoughtful. I was a little tired after a home visit today, and look at what was waiting outside for me:

Bedbugs are complimentary.

  • For every ten bad calls I get, about a teen being truant, a parent getting arrested, or a child being removed, there’s one good one. A mother calling to say her teenage daughter went to school on time. A young woman who thinks to call me from the hospital to let me know her child was just born. A kid who asks me to photocopy their social studies award, because they want it in their file.

This isn’t an easy job, but it’s what I studied, and what I signed on for. I’m fortunate to be able to practice. Hey, things could always be worse! What are you grateful for as a social worker this year?

Who Social Works the Social Workers?

25 10 2010

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Man, I love being a turtle. Social workers are crazy.

A client even pointed it out to me recently, saying, “You have to be a little…not right…to do this kind of work.”

Granted, I was visiting her in a psychiatric hospital at the time, but she had a point.

I first noticed it at the Big Apple Circus in social work school. I was surrounded by decent, hard-working lunatics. I’ve talked about it plenty before. People who genuinely cared, but wanted to spend time arguing about who was the most oppressed and how you could appropriately introduce a client to the idea of getting his or her aura cleansed.

It became particularly clear when I had my first job interview, shortly before I graduated.

I met the man who would become my new boss. Let’s call him Yakko. I took a half day off from my internship in Brooklyn, and trekked up to the Bronx. It was disorienting. I think it was the first time I had gone there without intention to attend a Mets game, or go to the zoo.

In retrospect, all that time at the Bronx Zoo probably prepared me for the interview.

Yakko appeared normal enough at first. An older man in a tie, he seemed like seasoned social worker. Like he could be anybody’s dad. I sat down in his office, waiting for him to ask me about where I see myself in five years. Then he took out the construction paper and safety scissors.

I’ll give you a minute to process that. It might warrant a re-read.

I guess he noticed the look of horror confusion on my face, because he asked, “Oh, should this be a normal interview?”

Yes, Yakko, I was kind of thinking it should be.

I didn’t get to say much after that. Yakko told me about what they do and how they practice. The populations they typically see and about his love of Minuchin. He told me about the summer carnival the agency recently hosted, and then introduced vertical mapping.

Pay close attention, because this is where the construction paper comes in.

Most social workers use genograms, or culturegrams, or some variation of grams. (My favorite has always been the teddygram…I apologize for that.) You know, where you have squares and circles to represent all of the male and female members of the family, and different lines to represent their relationships. Is this line solid or squiggly? Is it love or hate? Dammit, use colored pencils next time!

Yakko had found a flaw. Family dynamics are constantly shifting. So let’s cut out construction paper shapes so that we can move them around in order to more accurately reflect this.

OK. Why is this vertical, do you ask? 

Because we put the paper up on the wall, and stick the shapes to the paper. This way everyone can see it.

Let that sink in. I’ll give you another minute.

Thus continues the great social work tradition of making mundane variations of the same thing sound intellectual, by giving them a fancy name.

All in all, Yakko was a good guy and a good supervisor. He was nutty, but the clients knew that he cared about them. He was more than willing to make a fool of himself to make other people feel comfortable. If this sounds like an obituary, it’s only because the higher ups saw fit to let him go shortly after I signed on. Apparently his way with the clients did not translate to a way with paperwork.

Now, the big bosses. THOSE people are crazy. But that’s a story for another day, with more time and more job security.