How to Bring Conversation to a Screeching Halt

I learned many years ago when I made a woman cry (at a party no less) that sometimes even the mere mention of what I do for a living can shut down just about any conversation.   I was at a friend’s baby shower, and we were all recent college grads.  The hostess asked me if I was working, and I told her I was a child protection social worker.  She dissolved into tears as she described a story she had just read in the paper about a baby being abused by a parent.   It was a terrible story, but she immediately associated me with that story and spent the rest of the shower tearfully telling me that she didn’t know how I could possibly do my job.

I’m never sure how to take that comment, and I get it all the time.   Sometimes it’s spoken with a bit of awe:   “I don’t know how you do your job!”    Other times, it comes across with a bit of a tone:   “I could never do your job.”    I understand that it’s usually meant as some type of compliment, but I also wonder if the unspoken question is,  “What kind of person chooses to be around such misery every day?”

There are other professions that involve varying degrees of sadness, stress, overwork, and worry, but they are usually viewed with more admiration.    Oncologists, fire fighters, police officers, NICU nurses…usually these people are admired and honored, and they are often portrayed in the media as noble, self-sacrificing warriors.

Social work is rarely portrayed in the media, but when it is, it is almost universally negative.     Usually the social worker is the cold and unfeeling.  Oftentimes the “real hero” of the story tries to protect the child in question from “the system” out of fear that the child will get lost or abused even worse if that nasty social worker gets her hands on him.

It is even more negative when there is a high profile child abuse case in the news.    These cases are often the only time that child protection gets any media attention, and the story is usually about whether the system did enough.    At worst, the stories attack and blame the local child protection agency for failing to protect the child.   And because of data privacy laws, the local agency can say nothing more than, “no comment,” which in this day and age is often taken as an admission of guilt.

These misunderstandings and unfair portrayals are one reason that I wanted to write about child protection.  We simply can’t talk about what we do, and I wanted to describe a few cases that give a semi-realistic look at our profession.  But more than that, I wanted to describe the process, the decision-making, the worry, the liability, and the feelings behind trying to do the right thing for the families we serve.    Obviously, in my story I took some liberties and made people a bit more eccentric or interesting than they might be in real life.   But overall I think unprotected gives a fair look at the current child protection system, at least as it exists in Minnesota.

I also wanted to try to answer the question, “How do you do your job?”   I can only speak for myself, but I have come to realize that I have learned to accept the reality that sometimes Bad Things happen to kids.    The grimace that I get from people who ask about my job comes from not wanting to think about or hear about child abuse.    And I get that completely.  There are days that I don’t want to think about it either.    In our office, we talk about how nice it would be not to know what we know.    I’m guessing it’s that feeling that leads to the burn out that is common in my profession.

But to be honest, there’s not a lot of turnover at my agency, and that’s because we also laugh a lot—not at our clients’ expense, but we do laugh about almost everything else that comes with our jobs.   There is a scene in unprotected in which Amanda has to observe a client providing a urine sample for a drug test.   I tried to describe it with humor and respect.    And somehow I wanted to explain how awful it is for our clients and for us to squeeze into a tiny, gloomy government restroom stall and unobtrusively yet diligently watch someone urinate into a little plastic cup.   So sometimes all we can do is laugh.   And many times, my clients and I laugh together.

So my usual answer to the question that brings a hush over the room is that I have learned to accept, to do the best I can, to be kind, and to laugh…

I hope readers of unprotected will enjoy the real life look at child protection and will cringe, cry, ache and laugh along with my characters.    Unprotected will be released by North Star Press in Septmber, 2012.