You think you’ve for problems? My pool boy just quit!

15 10 2012

I have a pretty good life.

I live with the cutest puppy in the world (oh, also this pretty nice guy) in a great place. I have parents who have been married for over 40 years and still like each other, not to mention their kids. My brother, sister-in-law, and cousins are pretty much my best friends. I also have rocking friends who are not obligated, by blood, to love me. I have a good education, a job I like more often than not, my health, and no massive debt.

It might seem like I’m just bragging, but I promise I’m going somewhere with this.

My clients remind me to be grateful for what I have. There are plenty of people who don’t have a comfortable home, or parents who support them. These aren’t things I should be taking for granted. Things suck at times and drive me crazy, bad and unfair things have happened to me, I work hard and am far from rich, but overall, I’m fortunate.

I don’t care that you guys know this. Obviously, or I’d be making up some Dickensian tale of my early years in a workhouse. Plenty of middle class white kids do this. “Oh, we didn’t have cable until I was 11.” “We could never afford summer camp.” “We took family vacations, but never out of the country!”

Are you crying yet? I’m sure you see my point. Trying to act like you struggled in ways that you really didn’t is belittling to people actually having a hard time, and it also makes you look ridiculous. Just own it.

But with clients, of course, it can be a bit more complicated.

A friend of mine, a licensed social worker, got engaged back when I was an intern. The international symbol for “newly engaged lady” is some sort of flashy wave of the left hand. My friend, however, was hesitant to wear her ring to work. “You’re saying a lot about yourself with that. And it’s just weird. Wearing a diamond.” Diamonds are the international symbol for “just spent a lot of money on something I can’t eat or live in.”

We always think about the subtle signals we send out. Pictures of your happy extended family, a wedding ring, all of that. It’s not just about your private life, and that sort of self disclosure. It’s also about you having a stable(ish) life that clients are often working for.

I was a huge fan of the show Ellen when I was a kid. I also wore lots of flannel shirts and was a star softball catcher. My parents were pretty surprised when I brought that first boyfriend home, but that’s really another story.

There was an episode in which Ellen volunteered at a homeless shelter, and invited a fellow volunteer over for Thanksgiving. Everyone went around and said what they were thankful for–Ellen talked about vacations, a new car, and all sorts of sweet possessions. Of course it turned out her guest was, in fact, homeless, and just thankful to have a place to eat. She felt like an asshole, but hilarity ensued.

I know that I get to do things my clients don’t do. One mother recently said, “Everyone else gets to go home to their own place, and I’m stuck in a damn shelter.” Yeah, it’s true. I didn’t tell her about my recent attempts at gardening, but she can rightly assume that I am not in a shelter myself.

I’m leaving for the  just returning from the Bahamas shortly. (Note: WiFi at that hotel was too damn expensive for an update, sorry.) A dream family vacation to celebrate my parents’ anniversary. You have to tell your clients when you’re going away, of course, and I always do. It’s only fair. But I had to tell one woman that I would be “out on vacation” the day after her children were removed and placed in foster care.

Obviously, she’s dealing with enough, and not even thinking of me. But it’s hard to feel like a bigger asshole. (Trust me, I’ve tried many methods.)

I don’t think looking at people who have less to remind you to be grateful about what you have is cool. Disabled children don’t exist to teach us a lesson, and the poor aren’t always with us so we remember to appreciate our nice houses, even if we don’t have a pool.

So I’m not trying to say that. “Thank goodness that’s not me” is not a long leap, and that’s no way to respect a person’s dignity and work with them.

We need to be mindful of the messages we send. So often, we forget the ways that we are fortunate, in an effort to not seem privileged (especially since that word annoys me so.) But we all are, in some ways. It’s just one more thing to think about.

Didn’t you need another one?





Goldilocks’ School of Social Work (Caring Just Right.)

6 08 2012

There’s a phenomenon in the helping professions. You know when a philandering celebrity, or greedy financial…dude (I don’t have finances) says that the only thing they’re guilty of is “caring too much?” Social workers, teachers, mental health professionals, child protection workers, and the like, are at serious risk if that ever becomes a criminal charge. Though so often, caring too much isn’t sufficient. We have to care the most.

Everyone likes to be the best, right? We all want to win the gold. (Side note: might I pat Gabby Douglas on the head and put her in my pocket, even though she could kick my ass?)

I have run into this a few million times in my work.

At times, it’s with school social workers. Some make a particular effort to reach out to and involve the families, but some don’t. And with the ones that do, the parents often start ignoring their calls. As a result, they work primarily with the children. Twelve year old girls fighting with their mothers tend to err on the side of drama, and complaints about being unloved and unwanted. If you aren’t in the home regularly and don’t know the family, it might sound like emotional abuse.

Most social workers, and adults in general, are smart enough to discern abuse from teen angst. But some seem to have a vested interest in being the hero. You know, the only person in the Lifetime movie who believes the totally rational victim, while everyone else has seemingly gone insane?

Which leads to voicemails like this:

SSW: “I am extremely concerned about this child! She said her mother isn’t speaking to her. Why aren’t you answering your phone? We are having an emergency meeting in twenty minutes, I need you to be here!”

It’s one thing explaining to overwhelmed nineteen year olds that I have fourteen other families who also need my attention. When it’s a fellow professional in a similar situation…I don’t care for it.

Some want to feel like they’re the only one who can really forge a connection with this particular child. Like when your friend in high school was dating that total asshole, because she insisted that he wasn’t that way to her, she was the only one who could understand him? Yeah, like that.

After months of running away, drug use, missing persons reports, and pregnancy scares, a sixteen year old I worked with wound up in a diagnostic reception center. This is a short term, non-secure residential facility. Often a stopover on the way to residential treatment.

This girl needed help, but was an accomplished manipulator. She knew what everyone wanted to hear, and how to get what she wanted. (Trust me, I’d fallen for it for months!) After a week or so, I got a call from a social work intern. She asked if she could escort this girl to her previous placement, to pick up some belongings.

Provide her with a Metrocard, and someone who can’t do anything to stop her from running off, to get the things she wants on the other side of the city. I was, I think, understandably skeptical.

“I understand, but I think this is important for her. We’ve developed a good connection.”

Sigh. All right, intern. Not my call, not my funeral.

Her supervisor approved it (really) and the kid AWOLed. She would have done it sooner or later anyway, it wasn’t the intern’s fault. But I do think it’s something that happens when we don’t listen to each other.

“SocialJerk, how do you stay so perfect and avoid all of these pitfalls?” asks no one. Of course I’ve been guilty of this myself. I remember when a fourteen year old told her ACS worker, “I don’t deal with you anymore. I only talk to Miss SJ,  ’cause she’s my girl.”

Now, everyone likes to be the favorite, and this was tapping directly into my love of working with teens, confirming for me that I’m actually good at it. Also, I was not popular in junior high. Of course I knew that this child was being disrespectful, that her mother was allowing it, and that I needed to put an end to it. But I smiled a little on the inside. Even though, ultimately, being “her girl” didn’t prevent this kid from running away for days at a time, cutting school for months, and fighting in the streets.

A lot of the time, we’re not better with fellow social workers we don’t even work with. We say we want self care, but then we compete in the miserylympics. Try mentioning a mental health day, vacation, chance to read a book or watch a movie, or a momentarily small caseload, to a fellow social worker. We always feel the need to qualify it with, “I’m taking a day because I worked twelve hours unpaid overtime in the past three days, I have the flu, and I’m emotionally exhausted from facilitating two removals and running from three shootouts.”

Still, we get responses like, “Must be nice!” “Ugh, jealous. I’m working seventy hour weeks lately.” Or the backhanded, “You totally deserve it! I can’t wait til it’s my turn :/”

Sometimes it’s ok to just say “have fun” Or nothing. That’s ok too.

You don’t have to be the one who cares the most, or the only one who’s doing any work. There is no prize, believe me. I Googled it. We need to support each other in taking care of ourselves. There’s never been a statue erected in the honor of a social worker who died with the most saved up sick and vacation days.

And we’re all trying to do the same work, even if we’re doing it in different ways. Of course we might be working with a burned out, or just not terribly good worker at times. But I think we owe one another the benefit of the doubt, rather than assuming that we’re on our own, and have all the answers.

Now I have to get back to work. I haven’t had a vacation in months.





Nobody worry, I’m back! Please hold the confetti.

27 03 2012

I’m sure this past week you all sat at your computers, despondent and tearing your hair out due to lack of SocialJerk updates.

No? Maybe a little? I’m being told you were actually all fine. Well, all right then.

Point is, I was gone. For a week. Vacation is important for people in stressful jobs. Unfortunately, “social worker” didn’t make it onto Tina Fey’s work related stress level chart, but I think we’re somewhere between “business guys who do stuff with money” and “managing a Chili’s on a Friday night.” We need to vacate every so often, in order to maintain our sanity.

So the boyfriend and I packed it up for a few days in Orlando. That’s right, Disney, Universal Studios, Pirate’s Cove mini golf, and lots of churros. It’s not what you would necessarily call a relaxing vacation, of course. First of all, the girl who wrote this went to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I saw Hagrid’s hut, drank pumpkin juice, toured Hogwart’s, and pretty much turned into Kristen Bell meeting a sloth.

Plus there are crowds, heat, lines, and children. Some moments make you think, “aw, doing this with kids would be so fun!” But more make you think, “thank Jesus we’re the weird adults waiting way too long for the Peter Pan ride.”

You see a lot of sweet family moments, and a lot of nominees for the Terrible Parenting Hall of Fame. (It’s located in Cleveland.) Your two year old is having a tantrum after spending a fourteen hour day in direct sunlight with no nap? Why, that’s practically unheard of! You’re encouraging your seven year old to stomp on adult’s feet to cut to the front of the line at the Haunted Mansion? I can’t identify a single bad lesson there, good work!

But through all the exhaustion, all of the instances of wishing people wouldn’t try to sneak their kids onto rides they’re too little for, there’s one think you have to love–kids are enthusiastic. Whether it was the nine year old next to me on the Test Track at Epcot, yelling, “Now that’s what I call a roller coaster!” or the six year old next to me on the Tower of Terror gleefully informing me that she didn’t scream at all (I could not say the same) kids enjoy things to the fullest and let you know what they’ve achieved. They’re not worried about looking dumb.

It stops at some point. They become cool. Or at least, they want to be. And there’s nothing worse than a child trying to be cool. At one point, in Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, I looked to my left and saw a four year old dressed in a full Buzz Lightyear costume. He was in heaven and thought he looked amazing. Directly in front of me were three overindulged pre-teens, saying to their father, “Oh my God, this is just birds talking? Can we go? Whose idea was this?”

Yeah, it’s birds talking. It’s awesome, kid, and you’ll do better to enjoy it.

Because taking a vacation from thinking about work would actually make my brain explode, of course I had to relate it back. This probably most accurately sums up what I love about working with children, before they get prematurely interested in dating and therefore way too concerned about looking cool. They just think they’re good at everything. We always talk about what a person’s strengths are in social work. Ask an eight year old what they’re good at. I hope you have a while. All five year olds are good at drawing. Maybe two of my friends will say they are. Singing, dancing, acting, playing the kazoo, training dogs, doing imitations of cartoon voices? All viable career options for the under ten year olds I work with, based on their stunning talents.

Then I ask my teenagers. As much as I love them, the answers of what they’re good at are decidedly different. (Unless they’re trying to be brash and obnoxious, but you can tell they don’t really mean it.) “Um, I don’t know. What do you mean, what am I good at?” “Nothing, not really.” “I guess I do well in school?”

So, some of my favorites, in no particular order.

1.) Back at Anonymous Youth Center, I had the five to nine year olds out on the playground. A seven year old boy came up to me, unprovoked, to let me know, “I’m really good at running backwards. See, like this.”

He then proceeded to run. Backwards. I’ll be honest, it was mediocre. Because no one is good at running backwards. But he was thrilled to pieces and way proud of himself.

2.) More recently, at Anonymous Agency, one of my eight year old girls started talking about her dreams from the future after a counseling session. “Do you want to hear me sing? I want to be professional. Like, on The Voice.”

As we walked through the office, back to the waiting room where her mom was, past all of my coworkers whom she had never met, she sang something I now unfortunately know to be “Baby” by Justin Bieber. (I’m not linking to it. You’re welcome.) This kid sang with one finger on her ear, because that’s how Christina Aguilera does it.

3.) A six year old girl, when I was an intern, told me, “I think I want to be an archaeologist and a chef and a ballet dancer. But also, I should be an artist, because I’m the best at drawing.”

She owed it to the world.

4.) A nine year old boy insisted on reciting his times tables to me, because he was the only one who had memorized all the way up to twelve. It took a long time, but I was pretty damn impressed.

5.) “Breakdancing? I’m really good at breakdancing!” A ten year old boy, who of course got down on the ground to dance in the waiting room. He was undeterred by the fact that no one had mentioned breakdancing.

My social work advice for the week? If you’re feeling down and bored, try for a minute to look at the world and yourself through the eyes of a latency age child. There’s probably something to get excited about.

If not, find a child to laugh at. That should work too.