Things are not always as they seem

I know I had expectations when I started my job. Abusive families were poor, dirty, disheveled….mean, drunk, broken. Not only did I expect it, but I think I needed them to look that way. It fit with a version of the world where heroes wear capes and villains are in masks.

Now let’s get a little more honest. My early, naïve version of healthy families: middle class, clean, competent…kind, sober, intact.

Stereotypes come from somewhere, but was there any truth in my early beliefs?
Fact: Poverty is associated with child maltreatment. Whether it is a cause, contributor, or coincidence, it is well understood that poverty and child maltreatment go together. A lifetime of poverty means more than not having enough money. It can be a soul crushing existence in which families have all but given up on their dreams. But poverty does not equal abuse any more than money equals safety. It is obvious but frequently forgotten.

How about cleanliness? Does a dirty home equal an abusive home? We challenge this assumption all the time. Dirty is not the same as dangerous, but at times it can be. A home that can be treacherous for a 2 year old can pose almost no risk to a 15 year old. Even more challenging—dirty does not equal unhappy. It is difficult not to judge a parent who provides a home so unclean that a child has a strong, noxious odor. Is this abusive in and of itself? Is this child harmed if he doesn’t notice or care? After we check our judgment we find that the real safety issues in an unclean home are smaller than we expect.

If competence is the ability to meet a child’s needs and organize one’s life, then being disheveled can sometimes equal poor parenting. But then let’s figure out which families get a little slack when they are disorganized. The “good families” are allowed to forget to pick up their kids every once in a while and it’s laughingly attributed to a busy life, whereas a poor, unclean family who forgets to pick up a child is much more likely to be reported for neglect.

I wish everyone was kind all the time…to their kids, families, coworkers, waitresses, bankers…. It is tremendously challenging to figure out when a bad mood and some ugly words become abusive, and so we walk that line between intrusiveness and necessary intervention. Verbal abuse is insidious, toxic, and so difficult to address in the child protection system.

Sobriety does not automatically equal safety, and chemical dependency doesn’t always mean abuse. There are times that this statement makes people crazy. Alcoholism is not illegal or automatically child maltreatment. Even hard drug abuse, when it occurs away from the children, may not be maltreatment. I will be the first person to say that if a mom is using methamphetamine, it is highly unlikely that she is meeting her children’s needs. But we need to connect the dots and show how the drug use impacts the children.
Intact families are becoming the exception, and single parent families are more likely to be referred to child protection. This brings up another truth—perceived “nice families” are less likely to be reported, their transgressions more likely to be overlooked.

It would be so much easier if the bad guys looked like villains. But another, equally important truth has emerged—with very few exceptions, parents who harm their children also love their children, and children who are abused by their parents still love their parents. The good guy/bad guy scenario just doesn’t work when an abusive dad is also his son’s hero. Kids have an uncanny ability to separate the person they love from the behavior that they hate.

This is ultimately my job as well. A child protection social worker has to find the humanity behind the addiction, the uncleanliness or the abuse, and I have learned in no uncertain terms that the humanity is there.

In unprotected I wanted to challenge these belief systems. Amanda, social worker/protagonist, comes from a poor, single mom who didn’t meet Amanda’s needs. Chuck Thomas, the dad accused of abusing his son, comes from a well respected, beloved family whom no one would ever suspect. Amanda’s belief system about herself, her family and her child protection clients is constantly being challenged. Ultimately Amanda learns, as all child protection workers need to, that child abuse defies stereotypes, and luckily the good guys can be found anywhere.

Unprotected can be purchased on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and at assorted local book stores. Thank you for your support!

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New Girl

I am rarely the New Girl any more.
Eighteen years ago when I was a newbie social worker, I was always the New Girl, and I went to embarrassing lengths to convince people that I was a grown up. One of the first times I went to the local high school to meet with a teenager about a report, a secretary, thinking I was a high school student, asked if I had a hall pass.
“Um, I’m here to interview a student.” I was indignant. How was my new, early 90s, mushroom-shaped short haircut not convincing her that I was an adult?
Being the New Girl meant feeling incompetent most of the time. I was 23 years old talking with my elders about how they treat their children. Scary.
The New Girl at the office got the old stuff, including the mint green metal desk with a treacherous, skin pinching crack across the top. I was lucky enough to be able to pick out a new desk chair, but my director trumped my choice in color and decided on the teal green fabric that “matched” my desk. I could only nod, as he was my superior and thus had office-decorating wisdom that I must not have had.
As the years passed and my twenties ended, there were other New Girls, and my stock slowly went up. I graduated to a better desk and some increased responsibilities. My life evolved as well. My husband and I bought a bigger house and had kids—four of them by my 10th anniversary at the agency. The mint green chair remained, growing worn and stained, but held me through pregnancies and transitions in the office and out.
After 18 years I have become one of the senior members of the child protection staff. I am rarely intimidated any more. I can write a 5 page court report in an hour, if I have to, and I am confident in my ability to respectfully but firmly speak with most parents.
Then I wrote this book and got lucky enough to have it published. Suddenly I’m a newbie in a world of writers, publishers, and book store owners who speak a language I don’t understand.
And while I thought the most challenging aspect of my new authorhood would be writing the book, marketing my novel has brought out a level of neediness and insecurity that I didn’t know I had.
My publishing company is small, so promotion is my job. And thus I walk the line between persistence and stalking.
With about a gazillion books out there, persistence is the name of the game. Earlier this summer I mailed and emailed promotional flyers to dozens of bookstores. Response: nothing. I was a New Girl. So I was largely ignored.
So I followed up with phone calls. Trying to sound upbeat and professional, (while feeling incompetent and pathetic), I left messages with a great many stores, and this time I had more success. If I spoke to an owner directly, most were generous and helpful. Several stores have given this New Girl some much needed experience and exposure.
I recently attended a book fair aimed at independent booksellers, my job was to promote my book to store owners. My publisher had a table, so I had a 30-minute slot to chat up anyone who stopped at our table. More established authors have been reviewed, so their covers have flattering quotes from reviewers or other authors on their book covers. First novels rarely get reviewed, so my book looked a little naked next to those with quotes and stars across the covers. Many owners stopped by our table, their eyes washing over my unfamiliar cover and title. “Can I tell you about my book?” I blurted to anyone who came close. Again, people were generous, nodding and smiling and politely accepting their complimentary copy with my decidedly unknown signature.
My New Girl status is another commonality I share with Amanda, the newbie social worker and star of “unprotected.” Amanda feels incompetent and insecure most of the time. Those feelings were raw when I started writing the book twelve years ago, and they are back now that I am a New Girl in the publishing arena where I am small and insignificant.
Being new can’t last forever, and in the mean time I want to thank everyone who has already read and enjoyed “unprotected”. It is available on amazon and barnesandnoble.com and at area book stores. Thank you for your support!