Blame it on the s-s-s-s-s-social work

24 05 2013

People come to us when they’re having a hard time. Things are not going well. Sometimes, things get worse before they get better. Sometimes, things get worse and it ends there. That’s when the lose-lose blame game comes into play.

Whenever I’m upset about a family having a new case called in, or being stuck in the same old patterns, I get told that it’s not my fault. The people around me become the Robin Williams to my Matt Damon. It wasn’t good Will Hunting’s fault his foster parents were abusive. (Side note: my aunt once referred to that movie as “Searching for Niceness.”) And apparently it’s not my fault when things go wrong for my family, or when they just don’t go quite right. But when there is change, I’m encouraged to pat myself on the back. Take some credit for the work that you do!

You might see why I’m a little conflicted.

I currently work with a family that I anticipated would be very challenging. In other words, I thought they would be a total nightmare and make me cry. The mother and teenage daughter were refusing to speak to or look at one another, saying things like, “she should be less of a stupid bitch” when asked about what they wanted for their family. Six months later, they’re not quite listing the reasons they love one another while working on a family decoupage project, but they can be in the same room and talk directly to one another. They spend time together, and the mom has even been encouraging of her daughter’s interests.

My supervisor compliments me on my work with this family, and the progress they’ve made. I take zero credit. I don’t know what happened, they did it.

I have another family that came in for educational neglect. The teenage boy is not going to school, in order to pursue a long term, loving, relationship with his couch. We’ve tried lots of thing. Parenting counseling, depression assessments, motivating factors and barriers to success have been identified and identified again. Three months later, he’s not going to school. His sisters are, but he’s not.

That, I take 100% blame for. At least in my mind. It’s clearly all my fault. No matter how much I say, “it takes time, these things don’t change over night,” or how often my supervisor reminds me that going to the apartment in the morning and dragging him out by the ear isn’t an option. I know he has agency in his life, and his parents need to take some responsibility. I know it, but I don’t feel it.

Our old director, who has been mercifully replaced, didn’t really go for the “it’s not your fault” mantra. It was my fault, and she could tell me why. On more than one occasion, she told us that resistance was a myth. We can’t say that clients don’t come in, or won’t engage. It’s something we’re doing. We need to take a different approach. Essentially, with the right tactic, any family will engage with any worker.

I can’t help but think that this is at odds with the value of self determination. When someone tells me, absolutely not, I do not want services, I don’t know why I was referred, get out of my apartment before I release the dogs, I think of what old Director Evil said. Of course some people need a different approach. We absolutely need to think about how we’re presenting our work, ourselves, and what we can do. But some people don’t want to work with us. Acting like we can cast a spell to make them welcome us is ridiculous and a little insulting. “Oh, you think you don’t want to work with me. But now I’m validating your feelings, and I’ve brought you a coupon for diapers! There we go. I know best.”

Taking all the blame doesn’t do our participants any good. It’s enabling and patronizing at the same time. Denying any responsibility also doesn’t quite work. We need to critique what we’ve done, and consider if we might have gone wrong.

All or nothing is inaccurate. I know I affect my clients. I know they have self determination and control over their lives and actions. I’m not magic, like some of them think, and I’m not totally ineffective, like some ACS workers think. We need to remind ourselves it’s not our fault when things go wrong, if it’s not our fault. We need to be able to learn from those experiences too.

And we need to figure out a balance that doesn’t lead to quitting within five years. I’m still working on that one.

It’s my social work and I’ll cry if I want to

9 05 2013

A social worker friend was recently talking about a rough day at work. (Most of us have had those, right? Like two, three times a week, max?) It brought us around to the subject of crying at work. We tried to think of a job that wouldn’t make us cry, because I’ve heard that would be the only job worth my tears. I haven’t had too many other jobs. But it seems to me like crying is just a part of social work.

I’ve cried at work. The first time was when one of my kids was shot. Another was when I had to ask for a day off to go to my grandma’s funeral. (That was a little different, though it was made special by the fact that my supervisor had only been with us for about two weeks.) I cried when I hung up after a school social worker accused me of ignoring child abuse and again when I got hung out to dry during an audit.

It might sound like a few times too many, but I’ve been here for over four years. Plus, I have guidelines.

Tina Fey, who I mention in approximately 38% of blog entries, said that women are entitled to a triannual work cry. I try pretty hard to abide by this. It’s a good example of setting a realistic, achievable goal. “Never do it again” just wouldn’t work for me. I cry when I’m emotional. Really angry, really sad, really happy, you name it. You want to see something remarkable, just mention Billy Elliot to me. His dad didn’t get it, but dammit he tried so hard…I need a minute.

At the same time, “do it whenever” won’t work. You can’t cry in front of clients, they have enough to worry about. And we can’t have coworkers slipping in puddles of our tears.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s power lady, wrote that it’s ok to cry at work. Not that it’s necessarily what we should strive for, but that it’s something that happens, it’s authentic and shows your humanity, and it is not the end of the world. Ahh, I love the smell of reason in the morning.

I heard some people really shred what Sandberg had to say. I mean, of course. When a woman makes a point, people generally have to praise it or piss on it, there isn’t much in between. A common dissent that I heard what that crying was immature. Children cry, adults use their words.

This is just inaccurate, though. Children don’t cry. Children bawl. They scream, they kick, they throw themselves on the floor and get snot everywhere. Sometimes barfing is a result, if it’s particularly intense. They need a timeout so they can process and express themselves. This is not professional behavior, which is why you’ll never see a preschooler CEO. That’s not what adults do, generally. They get teary, they take a moment. It’s a physical reaction. Don’t laugh when something is funny, it’s unprofessional! Tough, right? Crying is a release. It’s what allows you to “use your words” when shit gets real.

“But men don’t cry at work, SJ! You don’t know how it is, working in your soft lady environment in the cushy world of Bronx social work. Men face pressure too!”

First of all, who are you and why are you writing on my blog? How dare you. This is a safe space. (Who had “safe space” in social work bingo?) Second of all, yes. Of course! Men are socialized not to cry, not anywhere, certainly not in public and especially not at work. They do, of course, and we feminists think they should be ok with it, but it’s much less acceptable.

The thing is, stress gets to everyone, and emotions run high. Everyone has to let it out somehow. This typically happens in gendered ways. You don’t hear people talking about raising your voice, walking out in a huff, or punching a desk as things to avoid if you want a promotion. I suspect that if crying were viewed as a male coping skill, it would be revered in the workplace. Let it out, Phil. We’ve all been there.

Our work is emotional, by nature. It’s about human relationships and being intimately involved in people’s lives when they’re at their worst. This field is about tragedy and heartbreak. Of course if you collapse into sobs whenever the going gets tough you aren’t going to last. But I wouldn’t want to meet the social worker who perfectly held it together upon hearing of an innocent child being shot, who never got choked up after a removal, who didn’t understand becoming totally overwhelmed by caring.

When I worked at Anonymous Youth Center, the kids would make a huge deal when someone farted. (Bear with me.) When they got really rowdy, I told them to raise their hands if they had never had gas. A few always did. I told them that they ought to leave, as human children fart and this is a program for kids, not robots.

My point is clear, right? Whatever, it’s late.

Human beings cry. We all do it, and, especially in a field like ours, we’ll all do it at work at some point. Even if you’re in the bathroom and no one sees you, it still counts. And it’s fine. We’re not robots, and we shouldn’t feel pressured to be. The idea that being a person is unprofessional is ridiculous.

Just remember, it’s all right to cry. It might make you feel better!

Stop me if you’ve heard this one…

29 04 2013

I realize that I have kind of a strange approach to social work. I’ve never really been accused of being a Pollyanna type, who sees the good in everything. (I think that’s what she did. I could never make it through that damn movie. Yawn.) I wouldn’t say I always look for the sunny side of the street. But I do always see the funny.

I was raised a pretty staunch feminist. As in, I chastised my little league coach for sexism when he moved me to the outfield because “she’ll get hurt,” and put a boy in my place. (I was the only girl on the team, and I stand by my assessment.) So yes, I was a trailblazer. I don’t like the word “hero,” but obviously it’s the only one that applies.

It was always weird to me that the feminist stereotype is that we’re humorless. Almost all of my earliest feminist lessons came from I Love Lucy. Dr. Mom was big on teachable moments, so she would point out how things had changed. Lucy getting an allowance, asking for permission for things, generally being treated like a child. But obviously Lucy was the best. Because she was funny. And she got things out there, in her own way. I remember her asking Ricky to get up with the baby during the night, and Ricky saying that was her job, because she was the mother. “Well, next time I want to be the father.”

Think about it. No one would pick Ricky over Lucy. Isn’t assuming that he would be better than her, just because he’s the man, ridiculous? She was so funny.

Nothing gets people on your side like making them laugh. I discovered this power freshman year of high school. In social work, getting people on your side is kind of important. Especially since you’re often assumed to be some evil combination of incompetent jackass and diabolical genius.

In an early girls group, the members started talking about how annoying their social workers and counselors were.


13 y/o: “Whenever you’re fighting, they pull you out to talk about it. ‘How do you feel about fighting?”
14 y/o: “Ugh, I know! They always wanna know how you feel.”
13 y/o: “Yes! I don’t know, like, it’s not always about how I feel.”
SJ: “I see. So how does that make you feel?”
13 y/o: “Well, it…”

And then hysterical laughter, followed by “Oh, I was about to say!” Things moved on from there, in a really positive direction. Being able to laugh at yourself, especially when you’re with teenagers, is crucial.

Or the time an eleven year old client walked by my desk, on the way back to tween group (yes, they actually called it that) and noticed that we have a Stewie from Family Guy doll on a filing cabinet. You know, like you do when you’re a professional.

This ensued.

Kid: “Mom!”
SJ: “Mommy!”
Kid: “Ma!”
SJ: “Mama!”
Kid: “Mommy!”
SJ: “Mom!”
Kid: Mom!”
SJ: “Ma!”
Kid: “Mama!”
SJ: “WHAT?!”
Kid: “Hi!”

Her laugh was so hysterical and genuine, I sill think about it. She brought it up about once a week. “Remember the time we did that Stewie thing?” Hell yeah I do.

I’m a fan of fighting sarcasm with sarcasm. Teenagers are sullen and too cool for school by developmental nature. They’ve evolved to be a pain in the butt. One girl I work with seemed to have taken a class in eye-rolling.

“Mara, I’ll come see you at school tomorrow? Maybe show you and your friends some of my dance moves? OK, sounds good.”

I know I saw the hint of a smile. But my purpose in life was confirmed when her mother told me the next week, “Mara won’t admit it, but she likes you better than the last worker. At least you make her laugh.”

The term you’re looking for is pronounced “boo-yah.”

Or when moms are frustrated when their baby won’t stop crying during a visit. “Come on, kid. Stop being such a baby.”

Working with a social worker is so often awkward and uncomfortable for our clients, at least at first. They don’t see us as peers, or really as people. Empathy, active listening, and being generally pleasant (that last one is super key) go a long way. But nothing tells someone that you care, and lets them know that you’re invested in their comfort, like being a little corny and looking a little silly.

Social work is easy, coworkers are difficult.

3 04 2013

Everyone has coworkers who drive them insane. The fact that I have a few is not really social work specific. It does not make me special.

What makes me special is my ability to turn even a staff meeting into a dance party, but that’s neither here nor there.

Some of my social work colleagues drive me crazy in typical work ways. One plays shitty music in the office (I don’t know why they call it top 40 when there are only six songs, and three of them are by Taylor Swift), some don’t pull their weight at agency events, I am required to stand around awkwardly eating birthday cake much more often than I care to mention, and no one understands my sarcasm but all laugh hysterically when two people wear red shirts because “they got the memo.”

But that’s life. The people I choose to hang out with outside of work do not do these things, and that is what friends are for.

There is something incredibly annoying that is specific to social work, though. It’s hard to believe, but it’s there, and I’ve identified it. It’s hard to bring up without being accused of racism or “ageism.” But the ones I most want to throttle are white social workers in their twenties.

I would feel bad about saying that, but I am a white social worker in my twenties.

Anonymous Agency is a community based organization. We’re a non-profit. We work with people in serious need. “Multi-problem families” sounds either harsh, or like something that can apply to everyone on the planet, but it’s an apt descriptor for our clientele. Poverty, a failing education system, domestic violence, a violent neighborhood…it makes the work difficult and frustrating. But it’s part of the job. The people who are most in need of help are very often not the most punctual, grateful, engaged, hygienic, whatever.

The job isn’t glamorous. Home and school visits are annoying and inconvenient. Chasing clients in order to provide them with voluntary services can be rage inducing. We don’t spend a lot of time stroking our beards and doing innovative therapy in front of a two way mirror, and we don’t usually have the time to be published in scholarly journals.

It’s unfortunate, because the world would be a better place if “Engaging hard to reach teens with cheesy dad jokes and Play-Doh: A strategic approach” were peer reviewed.

There are some who go into social work a little too convinced that they’re going to save the world. But even worse are the ones who think we should be ever so grateful that they’ve decided to work socially. They went to a really good school, and they’re super knowledgeable about the DSM. They get totally jealous that you got the client with schizoaffective disorder, because, ugh, so interesting! They apply for a supervisory position a year in, because, come on, what more could they learn? They dominate group supervision because they have all the answers, and don’t even notice when everyone groans and leaves.

Come on–the longer I spend in social work, the more I realize how much I don’t know. Feeling differently, I’m quite sure, means you’re delusional.

And they are never available to help out with grunt work. Packing up to move, painting faces at the summer picnic, covering so the receptionist can take lunch? It’s not in the job description. You think the person with the $250,000 brain is going to hold the elevator for someone who doesn’t make that in four months, come on! (Sorry. I’m really excited about an Arrested Development movie.)

The good thing is that they usually don’t last too long. They’re constantly chasing the perfect agency ghost. Somehow, they’ll find a position at an agency where the clients keep all their appointments, they don’t have to deal with housing or public assistance issues, supplies are actually supplied, supervision is never canceled because the police and EMTs are called to the office, and the extensive knowledge they’ve gathered in sixteen months is truly appreciated. Someone should probably let them know that these things are a part of the field, not of this particular agency. I always whisper it to them as they leave.

I know I shouldn’t be bothered by a couple of assholes. But it concerns me when it feels like a trend.

One doesn’t become a social worker because it’s an “easy” way to become a clinician. We enter this field because we agree with its values and ethics. We genuinely believe that people are the experts on their own situations, that everybody has strengths, that people cannot improve and do not exist in isolation.

This is not to be translated as “ugh, phDs take forever!”

We might need some education.

26 03 2013

I am a proud product of the New York City public education system. I know there’s supposed to be a joke in there, something about a criminal record, or the misspelling “edumacashun.” Classic stuff. But I choose to skip it. I get a little defensive. I got a great education, I swear! I was fortunate enough to have the benefit of quality gifted programs, a mother who was familiar with the Board of Ed, and parents who…y’know…made me go to school everyday. (Even when it meant that I threw up in class. Twice. In seventh grade. Really secured my popularity, guys.)

I have a soft spot for public schools, is what I’m saying. Despite all of their issues.

But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t a hotbed of crazy.

I visit schools a lot. I have spent more time in Mrs. Whoozywatsit*’s third grade class than I ever did in eleventh grade physics. (Sorry mom.)

Overheard in school:

“Miss, I like your piercing. Did that hurt? You got tattoos, right? I want a tattoo. I want a butterfly on my back.”

This was a second grader. A child unknown to me. During reading time. No one noticed she was talking to me. No one noticed the strange adult in the room, either. Hold off on tramp stamps, kiddo, there will be time.

“Um, I don’t know. I guess so? Whenever?”

A school secretary, when I asked if I could come visit a child. Seriously.

SJ: “What are your other triggers for your anger?”
13 y/o: “FIGHT!”
SJ: “Seeing fights?”
13 y/o: No. FIIIGHT!

The point was moot, as the child I was quietly counseling ran past me to observe and heckle a brawl in progress. I slipped out shortly after.

Then there was the time I was present for a fire drill. Well, I say fire drill, it was actually some little jerk pulling the alarm and fucking my shit up.

I had to evacuate, of course. With 4200 excitable teenagers.

“Hey, you need to be escorting your kids away from the building.”

What’s that? “My kids?? Oh, right. Why would an assistant principal know who his teachers are? Yes, he thought I worked there. It was a chaotic situation, and I have a helpful nature, so I just did it.

“Hey, put that phone away!”

A security guard, chastising me for live tweeting the event. Because I had suddenly become a student.

“I’m here to see Reginald Von Gooberschmidt*.”
“Well his class is in gym.”
“OK, can I see him?”
“We don’t know where he is.”
“I thought he was in gym.”
“They don’t usually go.”
“Can you check? I mean, I called and you told me to come in.”
“We don’t know where he is. He probably left the building.”
“This is a fourteen year old child, no one can tell me where he is?”
“Probably not.”

Me and a guidance counselor. I’d go on, but my spleen ruptured.

There are, of course, great moments too. Watching a veteran third grade teacher redirect a chaotic group of thirty two kids, many of whom are supposed to be getting one on one help but aren’t, with nothing but rhythmic clapping? That’s amazing. A pre-schooler requesting that I go down the elephant-shaped slide, then excitedly introducing me to all of her friends is a dream. (Hint: she is friends with everyone.) Getting to be on a first name basis with a guidance counselor who is constantly, heroically available to every kid in that school. It’s rather rocking.

Public school employees and social workers have a lot in common. We’re underfunded, most people don’t have a clue what we do, our jobs are way more dangerous and they should be, and however we might feel on a rough day, we’re doing it for the kids. So let’s remember our common goals, and laugh and work together. I suggest we start with high fives.

Everyone loves high fives.

*Not a real name, unfortunately.

Welcome to the (Foster)hood

1 03 2013

One of the toughest things about working in the child welfare system is dealing with all of the petty, bullshit, infighting. (You thought I was going to say it was the sadness of children, didn’t you? Fools, social workers thrive on kiddie tears, they’re like Gatorade!)

ACS, the government agency, runs things. They hand out contracts to places like Anonymous Agency to do the preventive and foster care work that they don’t do themselves. Because ACS has the money, and they’re the government, they have the power. Sometimes it seems like we work for them, instead of the way it’s supposed to be–we work with them, for a common goal. In response, we might get a bit persnickety. “Oh, I have to be at that meeting? Well this isn’t enough notice, I don’t know if I can.” “I referred the family to a different type of parenting class than the one you insisted on, because it was more appropriate according to my professional assessment.” Persnickitiness begets persnickitiness, and it becomes a cycle.

Why am I getting into this? Because all of that infighting, and those power struggles, affect people’s lives. Most tragically, it affects children.

My friend Rebecca, rock star Brooklynite of the Fosterhood blog was set to adopt a child born on February 24th. She’s a foster parent in great standing, and is currently fostering an infant. The mother of the little girl born on the 24th has older children in foster care, and knew she wouldn’t be able to keep this baby. The foster agency facilitated some meetings, and mom chose Rebecca. Rebecca got a crib, researched the special hell that is double strollers, and got the call the day the baby was born to come meet her daughter. She named the child Clementine, which is on her birth certificate, along with Rebecca’s last name.

It’s not clear quite what happened next. Miscommunication? Stepped on toes? Incompetence? Crankiness? Whatever the case, the agencies were not in agreement and there was a lot of talk about “how things are done.” Clementine was sent to a strange foster home, and her mother wasn’t aware of this until Rebecca let her know. Two mothers are devastated, and a child is in unnecessary limbo.

I’m not asking for people to block the steps of City Hall wearing “Free Clementine” shirts. (Passerby would just think you were giving out citrus fruits, and it wouldn’t help.) But perhaps you could send Rebecca a little support?

Or maybe just read her story, Clementine’s story, and remember what can happen when we forget our priorities. We’re all working towards the same goal, the safety and well-being of the children entrusted to us, and permanence for them. Anything else is unacceptable.

The Disneyfication of Social Work

26 02 2013

I think we all know that I’m a pretty big fan of Disney. I love cartoons, musicals, and animals. Animated woodland creatures bursting into song? Yes, count me in.

To clarify: I’m not saying that I’m cool with sweatshop labor, or their bizarrely controlling ways with their “cast members.” (Cast members=teenagers selling churros.) I know people have really strong feelings either way. Personally, I try to live my life hurting as few creatures as possible, but if I boycotted every company whose ethics didn’t 100% jibe with mine, I’d be sitting naked in the backyard eating nothing but grass.

Glad we got that out of the way.

Disney catches a lot of crap from our sort these days, for other reasons. Princesses are shitty role models who sit around waiting to be rescued and have no goals outside of marriage. This is true. I don’t call little girls in my life “princess.” Instead, I encourage them to enroll in science camp. But I have to assume that these people stopped watching a while back, because Rapunzel and Tiana? They wait for no man. They start small businesses, rescue themselves, throw themselves into their hobbies, and the men come crawling to them.

I’m always all up in social workers’ collective grills for not being able to relax and enjoy anything We love to pathologize things. We love to pick out what’s wrong, in an effort to show off how smart and insightful we are help. Why not take it one step further? Some of these characters need help.

The Little Mermaid

Ariel wants a human life on the land, and to find true love. Why does this mean she has to jealously guard a cave full of garbage? She’s a hoarder who would benefit from CBT. Forget her issues with men, she’s going to be crushed in an avalanche of dinglehoppers.


Yes, they’re glamorizing child abuse. But the real issue here is the vermin. There’s also no way that girl didn’t have bedbugs. Yes, Gus Gus looks adorable in his little hat but it’s unsanitary.


I’m simply going to say “cultural competency” and leave it at that. We can do that now.

Sleeping Beauty

Can we say sexual assault? I don’t believe Aurora consented to that kiss. Prince Philip, don’t focus on “no means no,” wait for a “yes!”

Peter Pan

Lock your children’s window, and don’t hire a dog to be their nanny. Come on. You can afford all these formal nights out, can’t hire a human who can say, “hey, your children just flew away with an androgynous kid in a feathered cap, call for help?”


I’m just saying, a great opportunity to discuss the fluid nature of human sexuality was completely blown. Li Shang, if you ever want to discuss it, we’re here.

The Lion King

While I appreciate the positive representation of gay parents (I’m sorry, what did you think Timon and Pumbaa were?) it would have been nice if we could have addressed the offensive patriarchal nature of lion society. Lionesses do all the work, but the credit goes to those dudes with manes.

Lilo & Stitch

There’s the…I mean when…the time that…never mind, this one is perfect.