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.


14 02 2013

Last week I was all about what our field needs to do to keep us from burning out, and taking some of the load off of us. Unfortunately, we do still bear some responsibility. So I’m taking a break this week and letting someone else talk. Please enjoy this guest post from Addison Cooper, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Springfield, Missouri. He writes Adoption Movie Guides at

Four Things Social Workers Can Do to Avoid Burning Out

1. Get a Boss who “Gets It!”

We’re often drawn to working with specific populations. That’s understandable. Our own histories or inclinations lead us to naturally want to serve specific groups of people: kids in foster care, underprivileged youth, homeless persons or victims of crime. Doing work that means a lot to us personally is a great thing, but it also sets us up for burnout, if work that we care about with our whole heart is thwarted.

A long time ago, I worked with kids at a group home. One of them was sentenced there as a condition of his probation. He had been doing well in the program, and requested a day pass to take his citizenship test. The probation officer’s response, “He should have thought of that before he broke the law in my country.” I was frustrated for quite a while.

One way to avoid that is to work for an agency that “gets it” in the same way that you do. Maybe that means finding an agency that views their work as ministry, or an agency that’s unapologetically non-profit. Maybe just finding an agency that still has an obvious corporate culture dedicated to serving clients. One of the great things about social work is that our employment has the potential to be more than “just a job.” The next step is to find a place to work that’s “more than just an employer.”

2. Be Like an MMA Fighter!

Don’t hit people. That’s not what I mean.

Most people visit doctors when they know they’re sick, because they want to get better. But I’d bet that all MMA fighters visit doctors very regularly, even when they’re in excellent health. After all, they make their living with their body, and need it to be in top condition – even better than “no problems” – in order for them to do their job well.

Some people visit therapists when they know they’re having problems, because they want to get better. As social workers, we use our minds and emotions to make our living, and we need them to be better than “just not having problems” in order to do our best work. Preventative therapy lets social workers vent, process case-, office-, and life-related stress, and develop deep insight and awareness which can inform their own practice.

3. Get a Life and Keep It!

I used to train foster and adoptive parents on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You probably took a quiz on it. Fundamental needs have to get mostly met before higher needs can be attended to. It took a few years of giving that training before I caught on that it doesn’t just apply to foster kids and their needs, it applies to social workers and their roles. Our more foundational roles (person, spouse/partner, friend) need to be in order before our more advanced roles (social worker, therapist, supervisor) can be at their best.

Social workers often put in extra hours in order to try to meet the needs of their clients. I left my first social work job about an hour late, more days than not. Sometimes, we forgo our own health and quality of life in order to try to secure health and quality of life for others. But it doesn’t need to be either-or. Schedule time for yourself. Quiet time at Starbucks, a run, a movie, game night with your friends, whatever. Put it in your calendar. Keep the commitment. Your clients, your friends, your significant other and you personally will all enjoy the refreshed, relaxed, more well-rounded version of you.

4. Mind Your Own Business!

Aristotle said (wow, do I feel strange starting a sentence with those two words…) that virtue was in between two vices. I think it’s pretty natural for good-intentioned folks, like social workers, to so fear the vice that’s furthest from them that they cling to another. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably not the kind of social worker who’s totally self-serving, not really invested in your clients, and just collecting a pay check. Heck, the article is about avoiding that. That’s probably not the vice that you’re going to struggle with anytime soon. But if virtue – or health – is between two extremes, maybe you’re clinging to the other vice – over-identification.

We want our clients to do well and to make good choices. We will continuously give our full, best, honest efforts to help them make decisions that will benefit them. But at some point, the point where the decisions are actually made, the choices are theirs. Social workers can and should still hold unconditional positive regard to the client, regardless of which choices are made. But the person making the choice is the client. You’re not responsible for it! At the end of your work day, breathe, reflect, maybe pray, and then let it go. This isn’t adopting a “who cares” attitude towards your job. It’s acknowledging that you do care very much, and that you’re taking intentional steps to keep good boundaries.

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.

I think we can continue being polite, and start getting real

24 01 2013

We have reached a point in society where everyone is entitled (or required, I’m not sure) to be featured on a reality television show. Groups of rednecks, guidos, wealthy men’s girlfriends,angry chefs, and spoiled rich children are given a lot of money to let cameras follow them around while they embarrass their mothers. For some reason, they are able to parlay this into getting paid to go to clubs and creating signature fragrances. Most painfully for frustrated writers, they get listed as “New York Times bestelling authors” thanks to their ghostwritten books.

I’m not one of those people who doesn’t watch reality television because I’m so smart and better than that. “What? I’ve never even heard of that show. I don’t have cable, I just watch Downton Abbey.” (Side note: stop saying you don’t have a television set. You have a laptop, the internet is TV now. It’s like Paul Rudd in Forgetting Sarah Marshall saying he quit wearing a watch when he moved to Hawaii. Because there’s a clock on his cell phone.) I enjoy some reality shows. Where else can you watch a grizzled backwoods septuagenarian tell a class of horrified third graders about his experience in Vietnam? Or gain empathy for what meter maids in west Philadelphia go through in the course of a day’s work?

I would never describe myself as a “reality TV junkie.” I lose interest fairly quickly and can never remember anyone’s name, and I generally prefer to watch Kathy Griffin make fun of people instead of watching them myself. But it’s good to keep up on these things. I would have been completely lost in my last girls’ group if I didn’t know what “The Bad Girls Club” was, or who the characters on “The Jersey Shore” are assaulting these days. It allowed for some teachable moments. I also worked with a boy who updated me on “Basketball Wives” weekly. Whatever, I was starting where my client was.

Everyone now thinks that their family, social circle, or workplace are wacky enough to earn them a spot on Bravo. Most of them are wrong. You’re rarely quite as funny, fucked up, interesting, or original as you think you are.

Except for social work agencies. If it weren’t for that stupid, stupid confidentiality, we would probably have our own network.

The Real World (back when it was interesting and not a cry for help) taught us that there are specific types of “real people” that go into making compelling reality television. Sheltered Christian, Politically Engaged (otherwise known as Angry) Black, The Feminist, The Women Who Enjoys Sex (otherwise known as The Slut), The Gay, and The One Trying to Launch a Rap/Comedy/DJ Career.

It’s a little different in social work, but the archetypes are still there. We wouldn’t even have to involve the clients.

The Veteran

This person has been in the field for decades and has seen a whole lot of changes. They often call the local child welfare agency by the acronym they haven’t gone by since the 70s. They alternate between feisty attempts to change the system and (probably) napping in their office. That office is so dusty it makes SJ itchy, by the way.
Catchphrase: “I’ve been doing this since before you were born!”

The Secretly Sassy One

This person is a hardworking professional. They grew up near the community based organization where they now work, and occasionally allude, in a cryptic manner, to their high school days of brawling in the streets. This person invokes the tough guy/gal persona only as needed.
Catchphrase: “She hung up on me? If this was 1992 I woulda told her…you know what, let me stop.”

The Shit Stirrer.

I never thought about how gross that phrase was until just now. Anyway, this is the one who always has some gossip. Often an administrative assistant. They’re the first to know when someone is getting fired, going on maternity leave, making the higher-ups unhappy, or feeling that their group co-leader isn’t pulling their weight. They don’t want to cause trouble, they just mention what they’ve heard.
Catchphrase: “Pfft, I don’t know anything, I’m just telling you what she said.”

The Secret Client

This is the worker who is straight scary, and is often assumed to be in the office because he or she is seeking services. She talks about threatening to come at ten year old bipolar children and thinks that some clients just need to get their asses whooped.
Catchphrase: “You don’t know me!”

The Twenty Three Year Old

This worker is fresh out of school and is ready to implement all of their lessons. They’re here to listen, to join, to be where the client is, and generally change the world. They’re politically engaged. The Secretly Sassy One sometimes wants to punch her perkiness in the face.
Catchphrase: “This reminds me of something my public policy professor said.”

The Gay

Sometimes the Real World gets it right.
Catchphrase: “Another mom tried to set my up with her niece.”

Open casting starts next week.

Train(ing) wreck ahead

18 01 2013

When I started as an intern with Anonymous Agency, my mother was shocked to hear that I immediately started counseling families. “Do you really know how to do that?” It was kind of like seeing a chicken who can play tic-tac-toe.

The truth is, no, I didn’t. I had some basic knowledge from a year of social work school, I got something that might pass as support in supervision, and I was still learning. But I didn’t get a ton of guidance. A whole lot of it was learn as you go. We didn’t have one way of practicing. You just did what worked, within the context of our guidelines and values.

Sometimes, things change. Agencies decide to focus on new methods, or take on a new model. This particularly happens when auditors run through the office two to three times per year, aflame, throwing files at all of us while screaming “EVIDENCE BASED!!!” That, combined with the need to see more families in less time to ensure we keep getting contracts, meant that it was time to “tighten up our process.” With a new structure for engagement and practice.

There are some growing pains with doing things differently. For one thing, we need to be trained. And trainings are kind of hit or miss.

In these situations, where you’re not going to learn a new skill, or information about a specific population, but to revamp your entire way of practicing, it’s especially difficult. No one likes being told that they’ve been doing a bad job. For some reason, in order to embrace something new, we have to talk about what an awful job we were doing before. “You’re not going to go in there and tell the family what to do. You’re going to engage them in creating their own plan. Join with them!”

Wait, what? I’ve been wearing a tiara, sitting on a high stool so that I can look down on my participants, and telling them that they are stupid and I am smart. Was this incorrect? No wonder everyone has gotten worse while working with me!

The worst part, though, is having someone tell you how to change when they don’t know how you do things. The people training us are whatever the social work version of ivory tower is. (Tin foil? Papier mache?) They’re not currently practicing. They’ve never practiced in an urban area, or in a community based organization. When we say we have families in shelters, they think that we have mothers with toddlers sleeping on cots a la the Louisiana Superdome in 2005. They know nothing of undocumented people. They forget that a lot of our families are incredibly isolated. They tell us to ignore the fact that their housing may be insecure, or their food stamps being shut off, and focus on the reasons they were referred.

People in power making assumptions about you, ignoring your reality, being patronizing…what does this remind me of?

As workers, we resist, because it’s natural to resist change. But sometimes it sounds good. The examples they give always work, flawlessly! The little role play exercises, too. They tell you about all of their successes. But there’s something missing when they tell us we just need to stick to the model.

 Recently, I had a day that went like this:

  • Called a school to schedule a visit with a teen, because mom and the target child are unavailable due to a medical emergency. They told me to come on over.
  • Get to the school. Kid is at lunch. They tell me to come back in 45 minutes.
  • Go do an unannounced home visit to a family whose phone is cut off. Mom tells me they’re out of food.
  • Go back to do the school visit.
  • Stop in at my office to explain the food situation to my supervisor and get approval to buy emergency groceries.
  • Grocery shopping trip in which I debate baloney brands, and if Oscar Meyer is worth the money.
  • Drop off groceries.
  • Head back to the office where I document all of this while shoveling butternut squash bisque (way to go, Campbell’s) into my face.
  • Call two families repeatedly to find out they aren’t coming in.
  • Leave to stalk.

None of these things happen in their examples. No one is hospitalized or arrested, they’re never tracking down clients wherever they can be found, neighbors never stop by half way through a home visit, the worker isn’t distractedly trying to get out of a dangerous building before dark, things never have to stop because a two year old pissed on the floor. Everything works out. The worker always finds the right words to get the participant to do things according to plan.

So if things are going poorly for you, it’s not the model.  You’re not buying into it enough. Or maybe you’re just not very good. If you really wanted to do this, and commited yourself to it, you’d be doing it. And you would regard the extra paperwork as the gift that it is.

Again, what is this reminding me of? Oh right, people trying to get out of the shelter system, single mothers trying to get off public assistance, parents struggling to get their teenagers to school, young people doing poorly in school. We recognize that it’s difficult, but really, if they wanted it, they would make it happen.

If I get nothing else out of this, I at least have a much better understanding of why some of my clients are so pissed all the time. It should make joining with them a little easier.

“So I’ll come by at one?” “Yes, I’ll be home at two.”

8 01 2013

It really gets drilled into you in Police Academy 4 social work school. We need to treat our clients with respect, and earn their trust. The first, easiest way to do this is to be reliable. Show up on time. Call if you’ll be delayed. (But really, avoid being delayed.)

This also applies in your personal life. When my boyfriend said he would “call tomorrow” the night we met, and then actually did…pretty hot.

I took this seriously, and applied it to my work. It was easy for me. I’m accustomed to being on time. Anyone who has ever been taught by a nun knows better than to show up late. You want to walk into Sister Eileen’s class after it has started? No, no, my friend, I don’t think you do. They don’t hit you anymore, but words hurt.

Being on time was easy for me. It also made sense. We have kind of a lot to do. Scheduling appointments back to back is really the only way to get the work done. It’s what my doctors always do! Except they’re often, in my experience, jerks who don’t keep to their schedule and make everyone else wait. If I’m not like that, and make sure sessions keep to their allotted time, we’ll be fine.

Problem is, I’m not a doctor. People don’t have to see me to get their kids into school or camp, or because they’re afraid they might die. If they’re not in crisis, they’re often not interested. I don’t have the leverage that a doctor has. We don’t charge, so that’s out. And saying, “Well sorry, I won’t be able to see you!” would likely be ineffective, and would also make me feel like a terrible person.

So when people roll in thirty or forty minutes, or a day or two, late, we just kind of have to work with it, and try to address it. It’s often suggested that this is a form of resistance. Sometimes, I’m sure it is, but what if people are late to everything?

Recently, I scheduled a home visit with a client, and asked if I could come by at one pm. “Sure,” she said. “I’ll be back by two.” We had to go through that a few times. With a new client, I showed up precisely at four for a home visit, just like I said I would. The second time this happened, she looked at me warily and said, “So you’re always right on time, huh?”

I didn’t know how to respond. When else should I be there?

I’ve been told that my punctuality is cultural. This is, no doubt, largely true. In my family, if we say Christmas dinner begins at 2 pm, you get there by 1:45. You don’t show up at 2:15. It simply isn’t done. When I went to a friend’s baby shower, she made a point of explaining to me that her family is Puerto Rican, and I was to resist the urge to show up on time. It was a struggle, but I got there two hours late. But it was worth it; I wasn’t the first one there. (I arrived after her mother. All other guests got there about an hour later than I.)

I’ve noticed that almost every nationality and race say that they operate on their own “time.” Costa Ricans have “Tico Time” (“Tico” is a neutral term, I can say it), my cousins say they run on “Navajo Time,” mostly older black people I know talk about “CPT” (that one I don’t say), and when I spent a semester in Ireland the Irish kids reminded us to meet them on “Irish time.” My cousin’s husband’s family even say that they have their own family time. I assume that this is because they are gingers.

I’ve been trying to figure out what the hell culture prides themselves on being on time, and have since been told it’s the Germans.

When it gets down to it, though, we need to be on time. For family parties, it’s fine to operate by your own cultural watch.It’s annoying, but not harmful, be that person who everyone tells to show up for brunch twenty minutes earlier than actual meeting time. But for work, for medical appointments, we need to be on time, or nothing will ever get done. And it makes your social worker slowly come undone.

Back at Anonymous Youth Center, I got into it about this, as the kids don’t say, with a coworker. A kid showed up for our summer program a half hour before the doors opened. I explained to him that he was welcome to wait outside, or walk the half block back to his house, until the doors opened.

A Cuban coworker of mine, who worked for another program at the center, and therefore would not be taking time away from her work to entertain this child, told me I should let him in. Against my better judgment, I explained my reasoning. No one was available to watch this kid. We had to set up breakfast. And, more importantly, it sets a bad precedent. The kids need to understand that there is a time they show up and a time that they leave, and that they don’t get whatever they want.

My coworker, by nature of being forty years older than me, I believe, dismissed everything I said. “Stop acting so American,” I was told.

I’m not particularly patriotic. Her snide tone didn’t make my ears fill with the sounds of our national anthem, or spur me to tell her about my ancestors who built this goddamn country. (I’m pretty sure they didn’t.) But it did prompt a good rant.

“How is doing my job and expecting people to show up at a particular time ‘acting American?’ Of course I act American. I am American, we’re currently in America, and I’m talking to an American child who has never left the country. If I let him in a half an hour early, can he leave twenty minutes late? Can he do that at school, or when he gets a job? Are you going to run this haphazard, arrive-and-depart-as-you-please summer program?!”

At this point, a teenage worker reminded me that it was time to count out the correct number of chocolate milks for breakfast. And also that my older coworker had gotten bored and walked away.

It’s a bit like howling at the moon, fighting againsta habit that’s been with someone for life so that you, the worker, can get what you need to get done. But I hold out hope. Because sometimes, at least, they call.

We Wilsh You A Merfy Christams*

21 12 2012

Confession time: I have Christmas spirit. Always have, and I hope I always will. I like the cheesy music, I like the gaudy lights, I like the predictable movies. Everything about it. As a kid, Santa was a big part of that.

Actually, Santa is still a big part of that. Twenty eight years young, people!

I believed in Santa until I was about eight. I had my suspicions earlier, but I persevered because I wanted to. It was fun. Sure, Santa had the same handwriting as my mom, and a lot of my Christmas gifts had tags from Sorrelli’s, her favorite discount store in Brooklyn that no self respecting elf would ever set foot in. I read Judy Blume books in which Peter and Fudge discussed the fact that there was no Santa. I heard my parents going in and out of the attic, where the presents were kept, when I was supposed to be asleep on Christmas Eve, and the only explanation I was offered was, “Oh, yeah, we…yeah.”

But I still believed. Why? Kids are stupid. Like I said, I wanted to. It was fun. I wasn’t particularly materialistic, but I had an innate understanding that believing in magic and preserving this ritual was a time limited thing.

I always thought it was sweet. Until I learned about the true horrors of this myth in this article.

JK, peeps. I’m pretty sure that article is the definition of “overthinking it,” and exactly what people worry I had to deal with when they find out my mother is a psychologist.

It’s something I’ve heard debated more and more. Should you support the Santa myth? Isn’t lying wrong? As almost always, I advocate for the middle ground. I think the real danger is when people fall into these “beliefs” or “schools” of parenting. It leaves little room for logic and dealing with things on a case by case basis.

Some people get all high and mighty about not “lying” to their children. Fine, I won’t lie to them either. I feel bad for the next child who hands me an art project! “Kid, you have zero sense of perspective and proportion. That picture of your grandmother looks more like a pineapple. It’s called shading.”

Not to mention, Santa is a cultural phenomenon. He’s everywhere. It’s not a damaging lie, like “that boy is teasing you because he likes you!” or even such an outright one as, “No, SJ, the toy store is closed.”

But some people go overboard. Remember what I said about the middle ground? If you are policing what your child reads and watches to make sure they don’t hear anyone expressing any doubt about my good buddy Kris Kringle, then maybe it’s time to relax. And if your kids are unholy terrors unless you threaten to call Santa, or because Shingles the Shelf Elf is watching, they probably need to have little more respect for your authority.

Side note: If my parents had an Elf on a Shelf when I was a kid, I too would have been on my best behavior. Because I would have thought it was waiting to murder me.

It seems like the more money people have, the more time they have to blow this out of proportion. Either they will protect the Santa myth to such an extreme that they have to sit Junior down before the grandchild’s first Christmas so he doesn’t expect reindeer to deliver the gifts, or they lay the smackdown on magic and provide strategies for investment banking while the child is still swaddled.

Most of my families have more of a relaxed approach. It makes me sad, though, that a lot of the kids stop believing so early, thanks to the harsh realities of life. Their parents don’t have the money to pull it off how they’d like and tell the kid not to be disappointed, mom asks for help setting up the Santa surprise for the younger kids as there is no older adult around…there’s just less time to be a child lost in a fantasy world.

So I like it when the kids are into it. Even if it will surely lead to distrust and incsecure attachment is super dorky.

A couple of years ago, I called a mother to let her know that the Christmas presents we had for her seven year old son just arrived. She came in with him, as there was no one available to babysit. She pulled me aside to say, “I told him that Santa was really busy, so he dropped the presents off here early.”

“SJ, my mom said Santa was here! Did you meet him?”
“I did. It was amazing. He shook my hand twice and he smells of peppermint. I’m so sorry you missed him!”

While I’m sure I did that child irrevecable psychological damage, it was pretty fun for the day.

Happy holidays, people!


*This is a joke that is only funny to my older brother and me. I hope this is a sufficient Christmas gift to him.