between the 33rd and 100th percentile

Baseball is a game of failure.     A highly respectable batting average, .333, means that the player fails to get a hit two-thirds of the time.    Odds like that are unacceptable in most areas of life.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, one of my children was recently told by a coach that it was unacceptable to say, “that’s OK” when a fellow teammate made a mistake, because repeated mistakes were intolerable.     Perfection is beyond most of us as well.  The majority tends to live between the 33rd and 100th percentiles.

Children are constantly being evaluated and graded on their performance—tests, behavior plans, ACTs, standardized testing.  Adults are seldom subjected to the same evaluation.    If I were given a quarterly report card of my job performance as a county social worker, I’m not sure that I would stick around. I expect it might look like this:

Documentation:                   B+ for quality, C+ for timeliness

 Court reports/plans:         A- for quality, B- for timeliness

Comments:  reports are due by 4:00, not 4:30

 Phone Contacts:                   B+ for quality, B- for timeliness of returning phone calls

Comments:  too much time doodling while listening to verbose clients

 Client Contacts:                    A- averaged among all cases

Comments:   some families find social worker to be “power trippy”

Neatness of Office:              B-

Comments:    the system of piles and post-it notes is inefficient and sloppy

Tardies:                                 yes, frequent

That’s about a 3.3 GPA.  I did better in high school and college, but I had an easier time studying for those exams.

The adage says “nobody’s perfect,” but how well do we tolerate imperfection in ourselves, and in the professionals around us?   Recently the pizza deliveryman, a very nice gentleman in his 60s, profusely apologized for mixing up our order.    I was embarrassed that my elder thought that bringing me a supreme pizza instead of cheese was such a serious offense.   I repeatedly told him that it was OK, and we had our correct order a mere 20 minutes later.   We were hungry.  We survived.

Several years ago I experienced severe tooth pain on and off for about 2 years.  I went to the dentist and the orthodontist several times.  I was placed on antibiotics twice, but the pain always returned.  I eventually demanded that my tooth be pulled when the pain became excruciating.    The dentist complied.  When the tooth was finally out he eyed his assistant significantly, and then he gently patted my arm and explained there was a huge infected crack along a root that was not visible on the repeated X-rays.   A mistake?  Perhaps, although I’m not sure how well any other dentist could have found the line that hid itself in a shadow between teeth.   His sincere apology was enough to placate my years of pain and frustration.

What about a mistake in social work?   I am quite certain that I have made many errors in my 18 years as a child protection worker.    Our office is currently preparing for an audit.  Several cases will be extensively evaluated, and we will be given numerical scores and percentages that will be made public.   It is an anxiety inducing process to say the least.

In my novel unprotected, (mild spoiler alert!) Amanda makes a mistake.   This was very intentional on my part.  I wanted her to screw up, because as social workers we always have the fear that we will commit an error that could put a child in jeopardy.

Mistakes are often evaluated based on consequences—no harm, no foul.   It would have been petty to attack our pizza delivery guy, but I believe I was rather gracious with my dentist who had missed the source of years of my dental agony.    The consequences of a social work mistake may be as insignificant as a late report, or as devastating as an injured (or worse) child.     We often feel that we are “damned if we do, damned if we don’t.”   We are either seen as overzealous or careless.   Intrusive or neglectful.   We walk a tightrope between intervention and personal freedom, and sometimes we fall.

In unprotected, Amanda’s mistake is serious, inadvertent, and highly consequential for herself and those around her.    But I’ll leave it to the readers to decide if her mistake was egregious, necessary in the circumstances, and/or forgivable.

Unprotected is now available on, various Barnes and Nobles bookstores around Minnesota, at Cover to Cover bookstore in Brookings, SD, and will soon be at Loons and Ladyslippers in Red Wing.    Thank you for your support!

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