Flames on the side of my face…

13 08 2012

I remember first hearing the term “baptism by fire” back in my catechism days. (They focused on baptism by water, and I started an argument over whether or not you could use ketchup. I was always a jerk.) My religion teacher meant something a bit different from how I, and most social workers, would use that term now.

By the end of my first week at Anonymous Agency, over three years ago, I started to feel like I knew what I was doing there, at least a little. I knew where the bathroom was, had met most of my clients, and I hadn’t gotten hopelessly lost. But that Friday…baptism.

That day, I got a call from one of the families I hadn’t managed to meet yet. I couldn’t entirely understand what the mother was talking about, but it had to do with her fifteen year old daughter and red juice. Would I come with them to the kid’s school for a meeting?

Sure. Only…what?

I was in the city (the Bronx is part of the city, but Manhattan is “the city,” for my foreign readers) for a new employee training that day. The teenager’s school was also in the city (again, Manhattan) so it worked out that I would meet them at the school.

Remember when I said I hadn’t met them yet? Yeah. This led to awkward, pre-Match.com blind date style statements. “I’ll be the frightened looking white girl with the oversized purse. Will you carry a rose?”

Somehow, I managed to find them outside the school. The mom had all five kids with her, and was walking down the sidewalk saying, “Miss SJ? Miss SJ?” so it wasn’t as hard as I’d anticipated.

We got to the meeting with the principal, assistant principal, and guidance counselor. This was the first of many lessons that day: if they all show up, your kid of That Kid.

I finally managed to piece together what we were there for. Apparently, this young woman, we’ll call her Faith (that is a Buffy the Vampire Slayer reference, if you’re wondering) had a habit of skipping school. Earlier in the week, she’d done just that and gone to a classmate’s apartment. Just her and two boys. She was then deposited back at the school, incoherent and slurring, by those two boys, in a cab that immediately left.

Not a good sign.

She had gone to the hospital that day, but apparently there were new concerns.

All the time, this girl was insisting that she had just drank a cup of red juice (so that’s what her mom was talking about!) and nothing else. They must have drugged her! (Side note: I worked with this girl for a year afterwards, and she did not go to this apartment to drink Hawaiian Punch.) The school rumor mill was churning it out that she had been taken advantage of sexually assaulted.

So a walk to the precinct was in order.

Wait. Am I allowed to go there? Of course, my cell phone battery had died, so I had to use the school phone to call to ask my boss if I was allowed to go, like a third grader who forgot her permission slip.

Except I first realized I didn’t know my phone number. (So, not as good as a third grader.) I had to rifle through my New Employee Information Packet to figure out a way to get through, under the watchful eye of a skeptical, and I think, overly judgmental, receptionist.

My boss was out, so I spoke with another supervisor. The conversation was less than reassuring. “Yeah, you can go, but don’t spend all your time on this one case, you have other families.” Way to be where the client is! Also it’s 3:30 on a Friday, and I’m an hour away from the rest of my clients. Deal with it.

We went to the precinct, which is always an adventure. I hadn’t done that since I was little and my aunt dated a cop. Watching people report petty crime is pretty fun!

Faith and her mother went to talk to the officers in private, leaving me with four kids I had never met. I learned what schools they all went to, which My Little Ponies were their favorites, and three new Miley Cyrus songs. Or the same song over and over, I’ll never be sure.

At this point, my work day was over. I was off the clock, not getting paid. But the police said that a trip to the hospital was in order, so off we went.

Wait, am I allowed to do that?

This time I spoke with my actual supervisor, who said those words we’re all longing to hear. “You’re doing a good job. You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.”

Another lesson from that day: an ambulances is really the best way to travel in New York City traffic!

The hospital involved more waiting, more getting-to-know-you-getting-to-know-all-about-you, and more difficult questions. They asked if we were there for a full rape kit, or just an STD test and some prophylactic medication. Mom said, “just do everything” as though she were ordering the pu pu platter, but Faith decided against it.

I sat with the family in that waiting room, talking to nurses, doctors,and other social workers (real ones, who knew what they were doing and what their phone number was) until it was nearly ten p.m. and we were all starting to fall asleep. At that point I remembered that there was nothing more I could do, and said good bye.

I went home and cried for a while, over sadness for whatever the bell happened to this girl, and what she was going through, and from sheer exhaustion. My roommate brought me Cheez-Its, and I was back at work on Monday.

That day threw me into my job, and my profession, head-first. It also threw me into this family’s life. Hey, Faith, you can say nobody cares about you, but remember that day at the precinct?

It became a favorite family story for the kids, and something the mother always referenced when she talked about me appreciatively.

“Remember the first day we met? You were with us for like ten hours!” “We got to know each other so well that day!” “That ambulance was awesome!”

It was the first of many truly crazy, exhausting days. But it’s always good to have a reference point for hectic–is this really so bad? At least I’m not at the hospital! It taught me what being where a family is and sticking with them can do for you, and replaying that day reminds me of how I was when I started, and how not to get burned out.

And if nothing else, Cheez-Its can go a long way in getting me through.