How clean is your house? Can we use scaling?

5 06 2012

As we social workers know, all problems can be solved by red wine more paperwork. Are we not addressing culture enough? Ok, we’ll do a special cultural note once a quarter. Is there a problem getting kids’ attendance records every marking period? Add a checklist to each file! It’s never failed. (Except for all those times it’s failed.)

At some point, it was decided, probably by a cranky auditor, that we weren’t focusing enough on safety in the home. As in, the physical environment. Food in the home? Appropriate place for everyone to sleep? Any rooms on fire routinely? That should be addressed.

As a result, we got a checklist.

It looks pretty straightforward. At first. But is anything straightforward in social work? No. (Ok, just that question.)

I have a bit of experience in this area, from when I interned working with homebound senior citizens. We always had to assess the home for safety, to ensure that these people really were all right to be living on their own. You would note that they had rails in their shower, one of those toilet booster-seat-type-things that meant that I could never use my Gram’s bathroom, and things like that. If we thought they were at a point when they really ought not be living on their own, there wasn’t all that much we could do, but dammit if we didn’t document.

Some of the same safety factors carry over. There are the standard things we look for, starting with smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Isn’t it great that carbon monoxide detectors are expected now? I mean, my family always had one, because I watched an episode of Rescue 911 when I was eight in which an entire family nearly died, and I camped in the backyard until my dad bought it.

Anyway, these are things that landlords and managment companies are supposed to provide. In my entirely correct and unbiased opinion, landlords and management companies are terrible and seek to do ill, so this isn’t always done. We might need to note that the detectors aren’t present, or aren’t working. Did the family request a new one? Did they check the battery? Well, the ceilings are high and the don’t have a twelve foot ladder. Whose responsibility is this? Wasn’t this just supposed to be a checkmark!?

We move on. Is there adequate space and privacy for everyone?

The short answer, especially if you talk to the teenagers, is no. (Personally, I bitched about my room being too small from the time I could talk until I moved out to share a much smaller college dorm room which I loved.) Most of our kids share rooms. I’ve worked with multiple families who have lived in a one bedroom apartment. So no, space isn’t adequate, and many of the girls I work with lock themselves in the bathroom for a few minutes of privacy.

But you don’t just say that. You talk about how the family makes “good use of their space” and throw in the magic words “bunk beds.” The place looks a bit like a Dickensian orphanage, but everyone has a place to sleep, and what else are they supposed to do?

Then we get on the the trickiest question. “Is the home neat and clean?”

Well, by whose standards? If my boyfriend were judging, the answer would just be yes. Every time. Perhaps a “maybe” if there the dishwasher was overflowing with dirty clothes. If it were my grandmother, it would be “absolutely not,” every time, because she would just know that you hadn’t really vacuumed under the furniture.

For me, it depends on the day. I usually think if how my apartment looks. If I’ve just gone on a cleaning spree, I might judge a bit more harshly. Why didn’t you dust your TV screen, eh? Mine is positively shiny. If I’m in that phase where I’m trying and failing to maintain the cleaning spree, I’m more sympathetic. Yeah, I know how annoying it is to keep putting every single thing in its place, every single time. If I’m at a point where I keep coming up with excuses not to put away my clean laundry, or turn on the vacuum, I write that the client’s home looks lovely, hoping to hide my shame.

It’s always relative, and it’s always about how people manage. When I worked with seniors, we had some borderline hoarders. This was before that horrible TV show where they’re always finding dead roosters in people’s homes, but I did encounter stacks of newspapers that I’m fortunate I wasn’t crushed beneath. If a person was really unsafe, then of course we’d do what we could to address that. But a lot of our job was to figure out how they made it work. They set up pathways that they stuck to, their kids came over once a week and left with garbage bags full of old junk, and the elderly parents allowed it on the condition that they weren’t told what was taken.

It’s all about the story. Maybe the home is super clean, with nothing out of place. You can’t even tell kids live here! Oh, maybe that’s not the best. One of the moms I worked with prided herself on keeping up her apartment, until one week it was such a disaster that even I judged. It got us talking about what was going on with her, and the fact that she was having a hard time with her depression again. That’s the thing–it was about what a messy house meant to her, rather than what it meant to me.

“Is the home neat and clean?” is a loaded question that I’ll never be able to answer properly, at least not by ticking one of two boxes. Filling out a checklist like that makes a lot of us feel judgmental, or like we’ve been handed a copy of “Social Work for Dummies.” And it can be this way, if you let it. Those kind of forms, lame as they are, really are not the worst starting off point, though. Everything in social work is about drawing out that narrative. I’m not just going to count how many bedrooms you have. The kids and I will talk about what sharing is like and how they manage it. I’m not just going to check for window guards, we’re also going to talk about what safety means to you and if your landlord is as big a jerk as mine.

Yeah, it takes me a long time to get those assessment forms done.