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!

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 Amazon.com, 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!

It’s here!

I held my book in my hand.    There isn’t much in social work that is tangible.       Finally it felt real.

In human services, we so rarely have outward evidence of our accomplishments.   If I help a woman with a crippling addiction stay clean and sober, the proof is in her steady job and clear thinking.    Exciting, but certainly nothing I can hold in my hand.

As child protection social workers, we struggle to make our work into something that can be observed.   We need to write outcomes-based caseplans with concrete results.   We can’t just say that a parent is going to attend therapy as part of his case plan—we need to try to measure progress in therapy.   The glow of more stable mental health isn’t easy to quantify.

With all this abstractness, there are times when I wish I were a professional baker.    I could work with my hands, mixing and blending and folding, and at the end of the day I could point to neat rows of cookies or cupcakes as proof of my efforts.     Many times at the end of a day of social working, I can point to hours of phone calls, documentation and frustration, and I don’t want to hold any of that in my hand.

But my book—that I could hold in my hand.     Is this accomplishment more valuable or notable than the 18 years I have worked as a child protection social worker?   I have to say that it can’t be.   My book is a work of fiction.   My efforts as a social worker, at the risk of sounding dramatic, can be life changing.

So in a job full of (yep I’m going to say it) fifty shades of gray, I’m pretty dang excited to announce that my very tangible book is here!    Please check out unprotected on amazon.com.  And if you like what you read, please “like” it on amazon, recommend it on facebook or pass it on to your friends.  Thank you for your support, and happy reading!

Moving On

My mom passed away last week.    

I don’t know how else to say it.   But words are stupid and can’t begin to describe what it was to watch my mom struggle and fade, and finally slip away from us just days ago.   

I can’t find the words to explain my mom.  I gave her eulogy, and the ten minutes I spoke still didn’t do justice to what it was like to watch my mom crack herself up until she dissolved into silent, hysterical tears.    Or the way the family holidays never really began until Grandma Donna arrived, loaded down with crates of crafts, bags of flour and sugar, and thoughtful trinkets for my kids.   

My mom was kind, but that bland word can’t explain the depth of my mom’s heart.    The way she ached for the losing team or a child scorned.   The unequivocal northward pull of her moral compass.     

My mom was our fuzzy blanket—soothing and peaceful.      She was the quiet smile at the coffee table full of outgoing, bossy, fabulous friends.    “She made our group look good,” one friend said.   “She was so highly respected,” said several.  

I wrote a book, and my mom never saw it.  And while the unfairness of losing my mom makes my heart hurt, my mom never seeing my book is not part of it.   She knew that I wrote a book, and this time the words were insignificant.  It didn’t matter how cleverly I arranged the words on the pages.    She would have been proud of 276 pages of drivel, because I wrote it.

Words are not what sustained us through these last few hard months.    It was the verbs, the actions that have made me believe:  My mom’s invariable smile for us and her caregivers no matter how much she hurt.    Her friends’ daily treats and stories that kept her spirits up when we couldn’t be there.      It was the way we, her kids, took care of her that showed her how important she was—the thousands of miles traveled back and forth to take care of her, the party we gave her with all the cousins from near and so far away, the attentiveness to her needs.   I can breathe a sad sigh of relief knowing that we did our best.  All I ever wanted was to feel like we did right by her.    Those words are stupid too, but they come close.  

And so we move on without her, words that make heart hurt.    But I couldn’t move on to that self-centered task of promoting my book without acknowledging my mom first.    She will be on my mind at every event, and by habit I will probably go home and try to call her or email her about how it went.     And then words will likely fail me again, as I can’t explain the loss, or the ache, or the relief.   I can’t do justice to her humor, or her compassion, or her heart.     All I can do is keep her close, remember her, and try to live the way my mom lived.  My hope is that my family and I can emulate her quiet spirit, and somehow my mom will shine through.  

A Preview and the F Bomb

If the Motion Picture Association of America gave ratings to books, mine would be rated R.    For the bleeping language.    To illustrate my point, I have included the opening paragraphs of “unprotected”:

You think you’re pretty hot s—, don’t you?  All tripped up on power, like you’re Queen of the F—ing World!”  

            Amanda flinched, but Leah just sighed.    As a brand new child protection social worker, Amanda still wasn’t used to being hated.    Their client, Marlys, whose children had just been removed two days before in an ugly scene that culminated in Marlys dropping to her knees and wailing “my babies!” in her apartment parking lot, clearly despised her social workers. 

            “It’s not like this every day,” Leah said under her breath, passing through the door that Amanda held open to the Courthouse.  “Marlys is a bit dramatic.”    Marlys was quickly approaching, and Amanda had the sudden fear that she was going to body block them to the ground.    A size 22 (if she sucked in a lot) and wearing a dress that had to be a tight 12, Marlys looked like a chocolate sausage stuffed in a leopard print casing.    Amanda managed a simpering smile as she held open the door for Marlys in a gesture of peace.

            “Oh f— you and the horse you rode in on!” Marlys huffed at Amanda, her face coming within inches of Amanda’s.   “You think I can’t open my own damn door?”  

            “No…I mean yes….I’m sure you can open your own damn…uh… your own door.”   Amanda cringed as Leah stifled a giggle.  

            Leah put her hand on Amanda’s arm to allow Marlys to get ahead of them.   As Marlys ambled up the stairs, Amanda finally exhaled.   

One of my friends who read an early version of “unprotected” asked if the families that I worked with really talked like that.  The answer is yes, sometimes.     Her next question was, “how can you stand that?”

I have had many clients yell at me, call me all kinds of colorful names, occasionally throw things at me (I ducked), and threaten me.    Their anger is understandable—they are at risk of losing their children forever.   It’s things like road rage that makes no sense to me:   Erupting into fits of anger over getting cut off in traffic is an overreaction to one of life’s irritations.   But anger over losing a child—I get that.

Understanding the anger helps, but there are times when it isn’t enough.   I have had clients who have called me such personal and ugly things that I can’t help but react, but unfortunately that reaction is barely contained laughter.    One time, after a client creatively and colorfully expressed her hatred of me,  I had to leave the room before an uncontrollable attack of nervous, inappropriate giggles took over.

Recently I saw a man berate a woman working at a hotel front desk.   As soon as he left, the woman tried to maintain her composure but after a few minutes excused herself to audibly cry in the back room.     It wasn’t her mistake or anything she could change, but he was rude to her anyway.    Ask anyone who has ever worked in customer service, and they will be able to tell stories of people yelling, swearing, and namecalling.

The difference with my job is that almost always I can tell my clients that I will end the conversation if they continue to talk to me that way.   Sometimes, I just let them vent, because ultimately it’s helpful to get the anger out.    But in customer service, those workers usually just have to tolerate the verbal abuse.     They are trying to keep customers, and so telling the angry client that they will end the conversation means they lose the customer.    As a child protection social worker, I usually have the power, so my client can’t go anywhere.     Sometimes calling me names can help my client feel like they are leveling the playing field, and if we can work together after that, then it’s worth it.

So even though it doesn’t happen every day, I wanted my novel to start this way…with a whole lot of bad language, anger and awkwardness that Amanda struggles through in the name of trying to do her job.

I hope readers will enjoy following Amanda and the colorful language that makes the child protection system a solid PG-13 most of the time.    “Unprotected” will be released by North Star Press in September, 2012.    And check out the “upcoming events” page to see the events I have scheduled in several local area book stores and libraries!

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.

Unprotected….a novel

In the winter of 1999-2000 I had been a child protection social worker for nearly six years, and I felt I was beginning to develop some wisdom about my (somewhat) chosen career.  I had survived being called every swear word that existed.   My clients had hugged me and thrown things at me.     And I had seen and learned enough to make me feel like I finally knew what I was doing.

While it is impossible to generalize or stereotype the typical child protection worker, or the typical child protection client, it had become clear to me that those two groups are generally mutually exclusive.  That is, social workers usually were not previous child protection clients, and most CP clients did not become social workers.    The two groups are usually distinct and separate.

So the seed of an idea began rattling around in my head as I met with families, attended court hearings, wrote reports.  What if a social worker had been a child protection client in another life, or was never part of that system, but probably should have been?     Would it change how the social worker viewed the families with whom she worked?   Would it make her more empathetic, or perhaps less?  Would she be ashamed of her past, or possibly even proud?

While this–a child protection client becoming a child protection social worker–has most certainly occurred, it is not the norm.   It became a story I wanted to tell.

I had been writing stories most of my life;  or I should say I had been writing parts of stories.   I was always able to think of characters and scribble out a few pages here and there, but never much more than that.   In high school I was able to put together about 30 pages (at last, a story that had a beginning and a middle!), but eventually that fizzled too.   So many beginnings, a few middles, but never an end.

Over the next several months as that winter melted into spring, that seed of idea took root, and my story grew from a few paragraphs to several pages.   And in that process I got to know the star of my show–Amanda.    I will say now, and many times again, she is not me.

Amanda is young, strong, and alone.  She has spent Christmases at soup kitchens and birthdays unwrapping a single trinket gift wrapped in tin foil.   She has been dragged to house parties and left alone while her mother “disappears” into a bedroom with a stranger.    Amanda pushes through high school with an athletic ability that makes her a softball star, but she spends most of her high school life caring for her sick, narcissistic mother.  Again, this is not autobiographical and her mother is truly the opposite of mine, but that is a post for another day.

In creating Amanda, I grew to like her.   I gave her opportunities to make her life better;  but I also got to know her and knew she would push those chances away.    Amanda goes through college without a plan until she stumbles into social work, mostly because she can relate.    She graduates from college and finds an entry level job as a child protection social worker in a small Minnesota town.  Obviously, this is where my story and Amanda’s converge.

As my novel grew a solid and lengthy middle, Amanda evolved.   Amanda straddles the line between child protection clients and social workers because she is both.    Her struggle is how to reconcile her history with the person she is now, and she wonders if it is really acceptable to be both.

Amanda’s story grew in fits and starts.   Many days I wrote only a sentence or two, or nothing at all.   On my most productive days I would come home from work, take care of my family and everything that went with that (dinner, homework, practices, bedtime) and eventually I would  write a few pages before nodding off.    Amanda’s story had a full beginning and a strong middle, but I had not really given the time and attention to find her resolution.

In 2009, Amanda’s story was about two thirds told when my sister asked me to look at a manuscript she had written, and she asked me about my own.   I had only told a handful of people that I was working on a novel, because, in truth, I never expected to finish.  My history told me that I probably wouldn’t.   But my sister inspired me to view Amanda’s story with fresh eyes, and so I considered how to bring her story to an end.      I wrote more intently, and my story grew, branched out and became full.  My seed of an idea had  grown into a tree–a family tree–as I realized that Amanda’s story is really about her quest for family and the very human need to belong.

In 2011 I finished Amanda’s story, and in doing so I added to my own.   As a self-identified writer, I had finally completed my first novel with a beginning, a middle, and an end.   Amanda and I grew together, and we both ultimately found a resolution that created, for both of us, a new beginning.

I am excited and proud to announce that Amanda’s story, now titled Unprotected will be published by North Star Press in September, 2012.