Tag Archives: social work

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.

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.

IMG_1374-0

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

Lest I should become too big for my britches…

Me:   I got a Kirkus review!

Husband:   What’s a Kirkus?

Me:    Kirkus is a magazine that reviews books.

Husband:  For what?

Me:    They review books help people find good books to read.     There are a lot of books out there, so it’s kind of a big deal that a national magazine reviewed my book.

Husband:   It’s a national magazine?   Where can you buy it?

Me:   I don’t know….  I’m guessing it’s probably at some bigger book stores.

Husband:  Huh.  Well that’s great!

My dear family loves me no matter who reads my book, but still…

I got a Kirkus review!

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/kristin-lee-johnson/unattached/

kirkus review

TOP 5 Questions I have been asked about writing a novel

1.   Are you going to quit your job and just write books?

This is probably the question I get most often, and my writer friends are laughing right now. Reading for pleasure is on the decline, and overall reading ability is declining with it.   In the era of binge-watching Netflix, social media, and youtube at your fingertips, books can’t keep up.   Even if they could, there’s very little money in book publishing for all but the handful of super successful authors.     I was very grateful to earn enough with the sales of my last book to buy a new laptop and pay for a few nights in a hotel as I traveled for book promotions. So, no. I will happily be keeping my day job.

  1. Which character are you? (or worse: Am I in your book?)

unprotected was fiction, as is my new novel unattached.   Neither of the main characters is me. The social workers, cops, foster parents, and attorneys in the book aren’t based on anyone I know.       And the clients in the book are definitely not based on any of my former clients.   Data privacy laws are strict and I didn’t want to do anything that would put me in HIPAA jail.

  1.  How did you come up with the story?

I never know how to answer this.   I wish I could say that I had a grand plan with an elaborate outline, but I didn’t have anything of the sort.   It took me 12 years to write unprotected and three years to write unattached, and both times I had only a vague idea of where I was going with the story.    The fun times were when an idea spilled out, landed on the page, and worked.

  1. Do you enjoy book signings?

I will say this as graciously as I can: no.   I expected book signings to be exciting, but the truth is that I feel like the salespeople at mall kiosks selling perfume or cell phones.   Book store customers know what they are looking for, and they recognize that I’m there to sell them something they never intended to buy.    Honestly that’s fine with me.   We all work hard for our money, and if someone doesn’t want to buy my book then I don’t want him to.    But publishing is a business, so selling books is part of the deal.   Most of the time at book signings people avoid eye contact and shuffle by my little table at the front of the store.   At one of my signings, another author was there with 3 large boxes full of books. He huffed at me that he would sell out in two hours, and the jerk was right.   He approached (accosted) everyone who entered the store saying, “Are you a mystery reader? Do you enjoy reading about local settings?”   Some people wandered away, but his pushiness worked as his pile dwindled while few of my books moved.   So I am learning to stretch myself, plaster on an uncomfortable smile, and have awkward conversations in order to sell a few books.

  1. I’ve always wanted to write a book….do you think I could get published?

I have been surprised by how many people have confessed to me that they have a secret, half-written novel on a laptop at home.   Usually when people ask me this question they are stuck either because they aren’t sure how to finish, or they don’t think what they have written is good enough.   My answer is always the same (borrowed from Dory in the movie Finding Nemo):   Just keep writing!

That's me at a book signing at the Mankato Barnes and Noble
That’s me at a book signing at the Mankato Barnes and Noble

For most of us amateur writers, the fear of it not being good enough is what keeps us from moving forward.      I’ll be honest:   there are parts of both of my books that make me cringe.   I am well aware that I will never be known for my lyrical prose, and a writing instructor would put her red pen to work with my overuse of adverbs.     Lyrical prose was never my goal.   I write because I have stories in my head that I want to get on paper, and the process of writing is what I truly enjoy.

And in that spirit, stay tuned.   My second novel, unattached, will be released in September, 2015 by North Star Press.

An Announcement

The first time around it took twelve years.

I wrote paragraph by paragraph with only the vaguest sense of where it as all going. I was eighty percent done without realizing it, and forced myself to finish because I actually thought I could.

And so my first novel, unprotected was released in September, 2012. I have never forgotten the great privilege and honor it is to have my novel published, and to have people actually buy it and read it. unprotected can be found on Goodreads and Amazon, and at select local book stores. When it was released, I had an incredible book launch, held book signings at half a dozen book stores, attended scores of book clubs, talked at libraries, and gave a few newspaper interviews. While book promotion has been a crazy ride, the part I really enjoy is the writing.

So I got to work on my Next Book.

I was attached to the social workers at Terrance County, but I wasn’t sure how much more I could add to Amanda’s story. She had her happy ending, and I wanted it to stay that way. So I turned my attention to another worker at Terrance County–Leah.

Leah is a little older than Amanda, but I’m not sure I could say that she’s wiser. She’s only been at Terrance County for about 5 years after spending her early 20s in a drunken haze. She sobered up by attending AA meetings with her anxious, needy mom, and then got her social work degree and found herself a place at Terrance County Social Services as a child protection investigator. Leah is edgier than Amanda, cynical and lonely, but also a fiercely loyal friend. Leah is also a gifted, intuitive interviewer who helps kids feel safe enough to tell their stories, and can coax an admission out of the most reluctant abuser.

But outside of work, Leah is a hot mess. She doesn’t trust anyone but her closest friends, and sometimes not even them. She insists on being alone, refusing to get to close or trust anyone. She is desperate to remain unattached, despite the best efforts of her friends, family, and a certain police investigator named Pete Kemper.

Unattached….not a great approach to life, but it makes a pretty cool book title.

I am thrilled to announce that my second novel, unattached, will be released by North Star Press in September, 2015.

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.

A revelation. Not the good kind

Buckle up. I’ve got some earth shattering revelations to share, so the faint of heart better head over to pinterest and divert with some inspirational quotes or fancy cupcakes.

The rest of you, are you ready? I’m going to reveal what I think is the biggest problem we seem to be facing in child protection. It’s a major part of many cases, and blows more lives apart than I care to count.

It’s Addiction.

I know: Duh. Heroin kills. Crack destroys lives. Meth eats away at your face, your teeth, your brain. We’ve seen the billboards.

But I would like to talk about what we in Minnesota (Land of 10,000 Treatment Centers) do not want to talk about: Many (because I can’t bring myself to say most) of the deep end addicts do not get better. Ever.

I am a child protection social worker, so the law actually mandates that I focus on my clients’ strengths. I am also an optimist, despite 19 years at the job, so it is my natural tendency to believe that people can recover and change. Even my internal dialogue when I am with my clients is positive and hopeful.

So I am having a hard time writing this post because it feels wrong to admit it. Maybe this is burnout talking, but I don’t think so. I think I’m really trying to figure out what to do with all of this truth smacking me in the face. How do I reconcile optimism with the reality that there are many clients that I will never be able to fix, but I still have to pour all of my energy into trying. Isn’t the definition of crazy supposed to be doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result?

If I accept that some percentage of addicts are unfixable (*shudder* ….I am not supposed to use that word…) how far do we have to back up this train to finally get on a new track? When was their addiction fixable? And how will I ever know who is really getting better, and who will be back in a year or two?

I know enough to know that I don’t know. But I do have some thoughts that might help a little.

First, a lot of lives could be saved if heroin, crack, and meth became obsolete. (Hey, I said I’m an optimist.) These drugs are wildly addictive and can function like an eggbeater on the pleasure centers of the brain, so much so that these addicts can’t do anything but chase the high. While there is such a thing as episodic use of these “street” drugs, the path toward addiction and fast and straight, so I think every dollar spent to get rid of these drugs probably saves ten, not to mention saving lives.

Second, Vicodin, Percoset, Xanax, and Valium (and all of their drug cousins) are highly effective, the first two for managing pain and the second for managing anxiety. I am the last person to say that I think people should have to grit their teeth through either. But it is staggering how many doctors readily and frequently prescribe these addicting meds to addicts. Any doctors out there? Please add hypnosis, therapy, meditation, non-narcotics, acupuncture, acupressure, healing touch, or anything else to your prescription pad that might save your patient the hassle of 28 days later on.

And finally, I wish somebody could figure out which people can manage a few glasses of wine, and who will go on the roller coaster ride of pancreatitis/inpatient treatment/moderate stint of sobriety/ downward spiral/alcoholic cirrhosis/back to treatment…and so on. For some, alcohol is every bit as dangerous, toxic, and life threatening as heroin.

Addiction sucks, friends. I wish I could put a bow on it and offer a tidy solution, but it hasn’t been that kind of week. All I can say is that I’m grateful to all those who keep fighting the good fight on behalf of the ones who make it, and the ones who don’t.

A little bit of magic

I wish there were more magic in social work. I see it here and there…when a child really connects with an adult for the first time, or when alcohol treatment works the eighth time when it didn’t sink in after the first seven attempts. When the hopeless becomes hopeful.

Somewhere around my tenth year as a child protection social worker, I learned a skill that is as close to magic as I may ever get, and I use it in every area of my life. I tried it the first time with my middle daughter when she was just under two years old.

My kids have always been sensitive and emotional, and my Gracie is no exception. As a toddler she also developed the charming tendency to strip all of her clothes off when she was upset. She was our third child, so we thought we knew a little something about parenting by this time, but we had never dealt with angry nakedness before…at least not in a toddler.

One Saturday, we had friends visit and Gracie had a blast playing with their son, so much so that she missed her nap and was deliriously tired by the time they left early in the evening. Trying to wave goodbye dissolved into a full blown meltdown, and within minutes she was tugging at her little stretchy pants and diaper. I scooped her up and carried her to her room, telling her that our friends were leaving and it was time for bed. She was tiny but a fighter, so she got a few punches and kicks in with her spindly arms and legs. I laid her in her bed and sat in her room against the door so she couldn’t get out.

“I wanna go downstairs!” she wailed.

“I know Gracie, but it’s time for bed.”

“I wanna go downstairs!”

“I’m sorry, you can’t go downstairs.”

I also learned that day that Gracie has stamina, and for the next 40 minutes she nakedly raged around her room, throwing stuffed animals at the door, pulling at my shoulders, grabbing at the doorknob, all while screeching, “I wanna go downstairs!”

I tried everything I could think of. I tried to read her books, but she grabbed them out of my hand and threw them. I tried to distract her with toys, but she kicked them away. I was gentle, then stern. I ignored her for at least 10 of those 40 minutes, but the tantrum raged on.

“I wanna go downstairs!”

Finally, I remembered a session at a conference on validation, which is essentially the ability to communicate that the person’s thoughts and feelings are valid and legitimate. Sometimes validation can be as easy as repeating what a person feels without judgment. After 40 minutes of screaming I was ready to try anything.

“I wanna go downstairs!” she screeched with an intensity that had barely waned.

“Gracie wants to go downstairs,” I repeated.

She turned, barely three feet tall, regarded me, and sat. “I wanna go downstairs,” she whimpered.

“Yeah… Gracie wants to go downstairs.” And with that, my naked, exhausted daughter crawled into my lap and was asleep within 30 seconds.

Magic? It felt like it that day. Nothing else had worked, and she showed no sign of slowing down. But when I stopped telling her she couldn’t go downstairs and just focused on what she was trying to tell me, she stopped fighting.

So I started using the same approach at work. Most child protection clients are angry (understatement of the year), and we usually can’t get very far until we can get past the anger. So instead of arguing or justifying or rehashing the case, I let my clients vent. And then I say something like, “It makes sense that you’re mad.”

Through that lens of validation, I started seeing invalidation everywhere: “Don’t cry” “It’s not that bad” “What’s the big deal?” “Look at the bright side” “Don’t be scared” “At least you’re not…” Invalidation can be well intentioned or heartless, but anything that discounts a person’s feelings or gives the message that they shoudn’t feel that way is invalidation.

There is great power in having a positive attitude, but pushing away and discounting negative feelings isn’t the way to get there. Part of invalidation comes from our own discomfort in tolerating other people’s grief, anger or pain.

And so I have learned that trust grows when I can tolerate my clients’ (or my children’s, or my friends’) difficult emotions and not try to convince them that they shouldn’t feel that way. “Yep, this sucks,” I have said to teenagers. “Of course you’re upset,” to the mom who needs to return to inpatient treatment. It doesn’t change the situation, but it usually helps them move on. Then, depending on my role, I might give a gentle push toward looking at a situation differently or letting go.

Not exactly pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but it helps. The naked sleeping toddler in my lap was proof.