Category Archives: social work

The challenge of full disclosure in the Land of Nice

“I need to talk to you about your drinking.”

I am often asked what it takes to be a child protection social worker.      While there are so many necessary skills, none is more important than the ability to be unflinchingly honest and direct, while at the same time being kind and respectful.   As a lifelong Midwesterner, where so many would rather eat hairy soup than find the words to send it back, the challenge in this is great.

“I know you said that you haven’t been drinking today, but you are slurring your words and I can smell liquor.”

What usually follows at this point is shock that these words have been spoken aloud.    These straightforward conversations become part of the trauma of working with child protective services because being direct is so uncommon, and therefore painful.

Midwesterners are often afraid of words.  We struggle with accepting compliments, expressing an opinion, asking for what we need.   Instead we have perfected the art of heavy sighs, eye rolling and stony silence.   But non-verbals, which can be quite effective in communicating messages to those who recognize them, aren’t enough when a child’s safety is at risk.

Don't Speak

“I’m concerned about the impact your drinking has had on your family.   Your kids keep missing school because you are not awake in the morning to help them get on the bus, and they are frequently going to bed hungry because there’s no food in the house.    Let’s ask your sister to stay with you for a few weeks while we get you an assessment.”

When a family becomes involved with Child Protective Services, fears abound.     Families assume that CPS will put their kids in foster care forever.    In actuality, foster care placement is rare, but the possibility of losing their kids looms.

The remedy is supposed to be full disclosure.      We are expected to tell families in clear, upfront language what needs to change, and be just as clear and upfront when we tell them what will happen if they don’t make those changes.

I understand that you don’t like this idea.   But if we can’t agree on a plan to get you help, I may have to ask the court to have your kids formally placed with your sister. 

As difficult as they are, these conversations pave the way for change.     Families understand what is expected, and even though they may not agree at first, most family members do what they need to do.

The conversations don’t have to be limited to child protection workers.    Anyone who is worried about a child’s safety needs to find the words to talk about the concerns and get help.

My novels, Unprotected and Unattached tell the stories of Minnesota social workers who struggle through these uncomfortable conversations.     My books can be found on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and in local book stores.

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Jump In

I have to admit that I forgot.

I started this job so long ago, I don’t remember what it is like to not know.

I am starting to hear back from people who have read Unattached.   Some have said that they enjoy the mystery and quick pace, or they love the romantic tension between the two leads, and they are excited to continue with characters they enjoyed from Unprotected.

But I have also heard this:

“The abuse cases were awful.   Does that stuff really happen?”

“The child abuse parts were hard to read.”

I could never do your job.”

The comments caught me off-guard; I genuinely forgot that child abuse is hard to read about.  And then that realization surprised me even more.   When did child abuse become routine for me?  Is this what happens to people who do this job for 20 years?

One of the major storylines of Unattached involves a case of a 2 year old who is severely beaten and suffers a brain injury and multiple broken bones.  It is not a “typical” case–it is child abuse at its worst.   I have only experienced a handful of such cases in my career, and they were anything but routine.   There have been times when I fall asleep thinking about a kid on my caseload and wake up with that kiddo’s face still in my mind.    Sometimes I meet with a kid and hear such awful things that all I can do is go back to my desk and stare at the wall.  Terrible cases make it clear that child abuse still gets to me.

It reminds me of the story about frogs and their tolerance for heat.   It has been said that if a frog that is dropped in boiling water, it will recognize the danger and jump out.   But if a frog is placed in cool water and then the heat is slowly increased, it will never realize it’s getting hot and will die.   .

frog in water

I want to believe that those of us who last in child protection find a way to take a break from that boiling pot long enough to rest and restore, and hopefully to allow the water to cool down.   Unfortunately, even when we get away from the cauldron of work, we can’t get away from the worries of whether we asked right questions or made the safest decisions.      The hard part is that if we are going to stay in this job, we have to jump back in.

I wrote Unprotected and Unattached because I wanted to try to explain that heat–the worry about decisions made, the frustration about being misunderstood, the fear a child may get hurt again.   I hope to give a glimpse of what is happening to kids and families in every community, every day.    Writing these books was also therapeutic for me because I got to choose the ending, and I chose to find the resilience and the hope in the characters, just like I do in my clients.

Unprotected and Unattached can be found at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and some local bookstores.   I hope readers will decide to jump in.

Top 10 lessons learned from a career in child protection

top 10 keyboar

  1. Most kids fare better with their own parents than they do in great foster homes.  For some kids this isn’t possible, and then we do the very best we can to find fabulous adoptive homes where many kids live wonderful lives.   But the statistics don’t lie–overall kids have better outcomes if they can safely remain with the parents who raised them.
  2. So anything we can do to strengthen families is time and money well spent.
  3. Many addicts never quit.   Most repeatedly cycle through relapse and recovery, with some mired in relapse, some firmer in their recovery.
  4. So anything we can do to prevent addiction is also time and money well spent.
  5. A few people are truly terrible.    Unfixable, to the core terrible.    But in the thousands of people I have seen, I have witnessed the reprehensible only a handful of times.
  6. Parents love their kids and are usually doing the best they can.    Child protection workers who can’t find empathy for parents shouldn’t be child protection workers.    We can hold them accountable, and we can expect and support them to do better, but we can do so with compassion and humanity.
  7.  It’s not about me.  When I get yelled at, they aren’t really yelling at me.   When they don’t change, or stay sober, or ever get their kids back, it’s not my fault.   If I make it about me, then I get in the way of the work the families have to do.
  8. So I better take care of me.    I have a lot of feelings about the things I witness every day, and I need to know how to decompress and let go.
  9. Bad Things happen.    The only way to survive in child protection is to understand and accept this fact, and then to find motivation and strength in being the person to help put things back together, because..resilience graphic
  10. People can recover when those Bad Things happen.   I have worked with so many parents who admit that they were resentful at first, but now are grateful that their family is together and healthy and whole.     I have seen kids suffer horrific trauma, and over and over again they find a way to recover and move on.       Witnessing resilience is a great privilege, and the reason I go back, day after day.

I wrote my novels Unprotected and Unattached because I wanted to share those lessons.   My novels are available in select local book stores and at amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

Grateful

Words fail me sometimes, usually when there’s something important to say.    Tonight, on the eve of my book launch, I will try.

I am deeply grateful that a story that I wrote has been published.    Again.   Thanks to North Star press for investing in me a second time.

my book is here!

I am thrilled that my husband’s photo is the cover, and that the young woman on the cover is my daughter, Gracie.  I love to write about family–both biological and chosen–so it is only right that the cover comes from my family.

And speaking of family, I couldn’t have done this without everyone who read, critiqued and proofed multiple drafts of this book.     “Unattached” is so much better because of all the editors and cheerleaders I had along the way.

I also want to thank all the social workers out there who inspired this story.     County social work can be thankless, exhausting, and often invisible.   I write about our work because I want people to understand it.   So today, I also want to thank all my fellow county social workers for the heart and soul they put into their jobs every day.

And finally, thank you to everyone who has read “Unprotected” and will soon read “Unattached.”       Tomorrow, I will begin putting my new novel in your hands, and I will never forget what a privilege that is.

Unattached: A preview

He loved to bounce that baby boy on his knee. Never much interested in girls, he ignored their first child, a daughter with a cap of blonde fuzz and a dimple in her left cheek. His friends, annoyingly married for the past year, had finally had their boy. His boy. He caressed the baby’s head and wondered how old the little man would be before he would start spending the night with his favorite uncle.

 

           Leah Danco didn’t sleep anymore.  Not the full, doctor-recommended eight hours, anyway. Leah’s nights involved hours of fitful rolling on her aged queen-sized bed with a deep divot in the middle from years of sleeping alone.   This spring morning her insomnia had been interrupted with an ominous phone call from sheriff’s dispatch at 3:00 a.m.

          When the sun finally emerged that first Friday morning in May, Leah had already showered and was wrestling with her home-highlighted blonde frizz. If left alone, her hair would add at least two inches of fuzzy height to her barely five foot frame, so her mornings always began with the aggravation of coaxing her hair into compliance. Annoyed with the stringy, crunchy results, she switched around a few of the studs in the upper cartilage of her left ear. The studs always cooperated, so at least she could control that much of her appearance. Leah had just turned thirty-five and worried that years of hard living had taken their toll, so she took the bright spots in her appearance where she could find them.

          The best part of the day was that it was Friday. She could wear jeans. As a social worker who investigated allegations of child abuse, sometimes perks of the job were hard to find. The 3:00 a.m. phone call was from a dispatcher asking if a social worker wanted to ride along with a uniformed officer to Children’s Hospital, where a toddler was being airlifted with life-threatening abuse injuries. The interviews could wait until morning, Leah told her. It was going to be an ugly day.

          Twenty minutes later, breakfast bar and Diet Coke tucked in her giant purse, Leah stood on the steps outside of Terrance County Human Services like the soles of her hiking sandals were glued to the sidewalk.

          Going inside meant facing the day—kids who were angry, anxious or traumatized. Defensive, sobbing, or absent parents. Today, it meant finding answers and justice for a broken baby who just a few hours ago was safe and healthy and whole.

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Unattached will be available for purchase from local bookstores and kindle download September 12, 2015.

When I grow up I want to wear sensible shoes (said no one, ever)

This week my third grader was supposed to dress like she would for her career some day. She has had a few ideas in her 9 years but ultimately decided she would wear cool clothes and a tape measure around her neck–the uniform of a fashion designer.

How many 9 year olds aspire to be child protection workers? In her class there was a construction worker, a scientist, and professional balloon animal maker, but no social workers.

Child protection was never my plan either.   Until about three months before college graduation, my plan had been to go straight to grad school for psychology.   But as the graduate program catalogs piled up on my desk and my completed applications didn’t, it became clear that I wasn’t ready to go to grad school.   So a month before graduation, I took (and barely passed) the Minnesota Merit Test which would make me eligible to be a social worker in a county agency.

When I applied for my current job in child protection, I had to admit that I had never interviewed a child, never been to court, and didn’t have a clue how the system worked.   I really didn’t know that child protection existed.   It was in my plans to Help People, but that’s where my big idea ended.

Then I was hired, and within days I was interviewing children, attending court, and figuring out how this mysterious system worked.    I talked to kids about sexual abuse, and they told me things that made my stomach churn. I forced myself to be able to say all the words for genitals.     I had to confront people on their drug use, their violence, and their houses full of hoarded stuff.   I needed to wear clothes that would go from house to car easily, tromping through snow and clutter, professional but comfortable enough to make a quick getaway on the rare occasions it was necessary.

sensible shoes

I didn’t love my job, but I didn’t hate it either.   Within a year, I was married and bought a house, got a dog and I was pregnant.   We settled into our new home, and I got as comfortable as I could in a job in which people screamed, swore, and lunged at me with regularity.   There were bright spots too–the families who got stronger, the kids who were relieved to move to grandma’s home where they were finally safe, and the coworkers who laughed and groaned along with me.

And that, kids, is how a career is made.

I’m sure there are plenty of kids who dream about being a teacher, or a doctor, or a fashion designer, and they grow up to become exactly what they had planned to be.   But there are plenty of soon-to-be-grads who aren’t sure what comes next, and hopefully enough of them will want to Help People too.     And if they find themselves in child protection, somehow they will suit up in comfortable shoes, clothes that might get dirty, and enough emotional body armor to stumble into a career that they almost, sometimes love.

How Rewarding to be Rewarded

I received my very first writing award at the tender age of 10 when I won a second place ribbon for my essay, “What is beer and how can it hurt me?” I believe I received a $10 check from the American Legion or some such organization, but I’ll admit the details are fuzzy.

The writing accolades continued when a poem I wrote in 8th grade English was published in a South Dakota journal for elementary and middle school aged students. The poem was about a chair and it didn’t rhyme, so my very literal husband would call it a “descriptive paragraph” instead of an actual poem. But since only one of us has published poetry, he can keep his opinions to himself.

I was skipped over for the award of “All State Journalist” in high school, which was rather painful since I was the editor of the high school newspaper, and several of my fellow journalists and best friends were called to accept their awards one by one while I stayed at the banquet table and pretended not to care.

And now, 25 years later, my first novel, unprotected, has been chosen as a finalist in the Midwest Independent Publishers Association’s Midwest Book Awards in the category of Contemporary Fiction. I’m honored, to be sure, and excited for the opportunity to get buy a new pair of shoes and eat a fancy dinner. I’m also surprised since it’s the first nomination for anything that I have received since my high school journalism days.

As I was contemplating college majors, I vacillated between psychology and journalism. I had been writing stories in spiral notebooks in my bedroom as long as I could remember, so writing was familiar while psychology just seemed cool. I settled on psychology, which was the career that brought me to social work, and I left writing behind until much later.

Social work was the right choice for me, but while journalism and writing are full of opportunities for awards, social work goes largely unrecognized. Other than one organization that presents a Social Worker of the Year award, what could the accolades be? Best Court Testimony? Outstanding Ability to Remain Calm When Barraged with Verbal Insults? First Place in Safe and Successful Reunifications?

Most people never get any visible recognition in their careers, but some professions are more revered than others. Surgeons and fire fighters are respected, teachers and nurses are applauded, and lawyers are the butt of endless (and often hilarious) jokes. But how about factory workers and dishwashers? How about the dads who work for decades in miserable jobs because that’s what it takes to support a family? I would love to give some recognition to the people who stand for 10 hour shifts in checkout lines dealing with inpatient jerks. I wish I could give a medal to every phlebotomist who can do a painless blood draw, and to all the aides who never lose the energy to nod and smile at their nursing home residents.

But if there were rewards for everything, then there may as well be rewards for nothing. Appreciation is great, but most of us don’t do our jobs for the praise. If we did, most of us would have quit a long time ago.

I wrote unprotected because I love to write, and over the course of 12 years a novel spilled out. The affirmation for that story and for my writing is such an honor, but I holding my published book in my hand would has been reward enough. Win or lose, I will continue to enjoy the ride my book has provided, and I will remember all people, much more deserving than I, who never get the chance to be nominated for anything.