Tag Archives: social work

I am truly, exceptionally, very much fond of adverbs

Adverbs are not your friend admonishes Stephen King, author extraordinaire.

I’m sure he’s right. The rule is that instead of using adverbs, writers are supposed to find a better verb: He walked silently. vs. He crept.

The problem with the rule is that it shuts down my writing. The feedback I usually receive about my first novel, “unprotected”, is that people love the characters, and they were so excited about the story that they couldn’t put down. I am incredibly flattered and grateful for their kind feedback. But I have never, ever had anyone compliment my writing itself.

My writing is adequate. It tells the story, it keeps people engaged, and I’m reasonably certain that it isn’t terrible. But I will never be accused of writing lyrical prose. I’m not even sure what that is.

In college I was an English minor for two quarters, until I could barely muster a B in a basic, required Intro to Poetry class. We had to write weekly papers analyzing poems, and I’ll be damned if I could ever find the point. It was an eight o’clock class, so the forces of nature were against me from the start. But when I got a D on a paper with the professor commenting that I had completely missed the theme, I knew I was in trouble and stuck with my Psychology major.

For me, writing is not about which words I put on the page. It is about the characters and telling their stories. As a child protection social worker, there is so much in my job that is unresolved, or if resolutions come, they may be much different than I had hoped. So I wanted to tell a painfully real story with compelling characters, and I wanted to demonstrate that even if Bad Things happen, people can survive.

While I am deeply grateful to be published, and especially to my supporters who read my book and shared it with others, I wonder if this is really what I was working toward. Did I really need people to read what I wrote? If a book’s only home is on my laptop, does it really exist at all?

During the 12 years it took to write my novel, I gave very little thought to whether anyone would ever read it. I’m sure that many writers want to be the next J.K. Rowling, and yep, making gazillions doing what I love to do would be awfully nice. But I can honestly say that I didn’t write this book for anyone but me. There was a story in my head that spilled out onto paper, and that could have been the end of the story.

I am halfway through the sequel to “unprotected”, and I’m having a blast figuring out what comes next. Getting the story on paper out of my head and onto the page is where the satisfaction comes, and knowing that has given me permission to just write. I don’t need to worry about being a bit too cliche, or about how I should be finding the better verb. The critic in my head doesn’t care about those things. What I want is to let the words find their way to the page and develop my story. Adverbs and all.

P.S. If you are keeping track, dear reader, you will find 17 adverbs in this post alone. And that makes me immeasurably happy, Mr. King.

To give is a blessing. To receive makes me really really uncomfortable

                We come into this world as takers.   Gimme food, pick me up, make me happy.   Nobody blames a 2 year old for being who he is–selfish.   Toddlers can’t provide for themselves, so selfishness equals survival.  

                Some of us never evolve beyond the toddler stage, and remain takers, i.e. great big babies.    Maybe it’s survival, but more likely it’s stunted development and inability to think past one’s own needs.

                But most of us do mature, and we develop generosity and selflessness.    I daresay that there’s a piece of generosity that is about the giver.  It feels good to share, and it is reassuring to have the ability to share.  it’s proof that my life is going well enough that there’s room to give.    

                Giving can make us feel proud, but receiving can activate my pride.   To be a receiver must imply that I have a need.   What’s worse, a need I can’t meet for myself.  

                Life circumstances can set us up to be receivers–poverty, illness, disability, age, trauma, loss.   In my novel, unprotected, the main character Amanda grew up in poverty and chaos, so she was a taker.  She had no choice.  One scene in unprotected describes Amanda’s worst childhood Christmas.  Amanda and her mother were poor, alone, and lonely.   They were unable to even afford a meal, so they had Christmas dinner at a soup kitchen, and Amanda was embarrassed to receive a donated gift with a tag that read, “school age girl”.  

                I thought of this scene as I wrapped the gifts I had purchased for “Christmas Project” recipients at my church.    My kids were proud that they could help a family that didn’t have enough money to buy the gifts, but I also thought about the family who would be receiving the mittens, outfit, and princess toys we had purchased.  What would it feel like to have these handpicked gifts delivered a few days before Christmas.   Would the recipients be grateful?   Probably.     But I’m guessing there may be some shame, pride, or anger mixed in.    

                Humans crave balance, and so we reciprocate.   Without giving back, the imbalance can be intolerable.   Consider the discomfort that comes from receiving a Christmas gift from someone for whom you have nothing.    Many people feel the burning need to go out and get a gift in return, and will squirm until they do.  The rule of reciprocity says that we need to give back, equally and immediately. 

                So when someone is sick, or poor, or living in another circumstance that doesn’t allow reciprocity, receiving those generous gifts can come at a price, and usually the currency is pride. 

                When I am being generous (and I could stand to be a lot more giving), I try to remember what it feels like to be on the other side.    Sometimes I give anonymously so there’s no one to thank, and other times I leave room to reciprocate.   I have also tried to be a more gracious receiver, and tolerate the experience of accepting a gift without needing to balance it out.   

                And in the spirit of generosity and giving back, unprotected will be available from Dec. 26-30 as a free download at amazon.com.    Details to follow in the coming weeks.   In the meantime, please find unprotected at Loons and Ladyslippers in Red Wing, Cover to Cover in Brookings, various Barnes and Noble stores, and at amazon.com.  Thank you for your support! 

So you wanna be a social worker?

Recently someone commented on my website asking for information on what it is like to be a social worker. I have been asked this many times, so here are some things to ask yourself if you are considering a career in social work:
*How will I handle dealing with people’s tragedy, trauma, and pain on a daily basis? It’s the hardest part of the job, by far, and people need to be prepared to witness pain and not get knocked over by it.  I have had clients who were in neonatal or pediatric intensive care, and I was so overwhelmed by the sadness of that could barely concentrate on what I was supposed to be doing. Babies with wires connected all over their bodies, parents who looked like zombies, bald toddlers… But the social workers on those units were relaxed and professional. I said to a NICU social worker, “I don’t know how you do your job!” She said the same thing to me, and we both realized we were just used to the pain.
*Do I want to make a decent, but limited, income that will increase in small fixed increments and will likely max out?     Many social workers are employed by non-profit agencies or the government. While the income is usually adequate, social workers don’t get rich from being social workers.
*Can I think on my feet? It’s 5:00pm and you are doing an assessment with a dad who spanked his son with a belt. It’s getting ugly. His son says he’s not putting up with his dad’s BS anymore. Dad says he’s not putting up with his son’s disrespect anymore. They are both agitated and you wonder what’s going to happen when you walk out the door. Can you problem-solve with dad and son so that he will be safe when you leave? Can you figure out what to do if you can’t assure the boy’s safety at home? Do you want to be the one in the hot seat?
*Am I comfortable being honest and direct? Sometimes I have to ask a mom if she has been drinking, or tell a girl that she is never going home again. Can I look someone in the face and tell them that I am going to file a petition to terminate their parental rights, and I can I do it with compassion, firmness and respect?
*Can I handle an unpredictable schedule? I can plan that my day will be spent at my desk writing a report that is due by 4:00, and then a crisis happens with a family on my caseload and I have to drop everything and go. The variety keeps the job interesting, but the lack of control can make a person crazy.
*How do I manage my own stress? Part of my job is taking care of myself so that the sad days don’t burn me out. It’s my job to tell my co-workers if I need help, or if I’m overwhelmed with the workload.
And if you need any more insight on being a social worker, how about reading a novel that is based in a child protection agency? unprotected can be found on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com and in select local books stores.

Homeostasis

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves…”         —Anatole France

 “Well it’s time to change, when it’s time to change.”       —Peter Brady

 I have felt for the past year that the earth is shifting under my feet.  Much of my stability has crumbled.    My life is in a period of radical change.

And I don’t like it.

Humans seek out balance:  homeostasis.   It is the body’s ability to maintain equilibrium in such base functions as regulating temperature, and in such complexities as mood and emotion.

I would like some balance in my work life, where a well-intentioned new administration is turning our basic ways of operating so far upside down that I fear that there may be a coup.

I would like some balance in my home life, where my oldest daughter is graduating in the spring and will leave an Abby-sized hole in our house.

I would like some balance in my heart, where the loss of my mom leaves a constant stinging ache that feels like it only gets bigger the longer she has been gone.

The word homeostasis literally means, “to stand still.”     Many days I would love to yell “freeze!” like my life is a giant game of Freeze Tag.    I would look around at all the frozen players—especially my kids at their exact, present ages–for a long time, and then I would probably find a quiet corner where I could have a little snack and a nice long nap.

One of the ironies of my need to stand still is that the very nature of social work is to expect others to change.    I am a full time Change Facilitator.    I create plans with my clients to help them walk step by step through the process of change.   We talk about how change takes time, and how they will need support.    I validate how hard it is, but I remind them of the consequences of doing nothing.    And then I go back to my desk and find an email about the new way I’m expected to do my schedule, and I’m ready to explode.

As I was writing unprotected, Amanda started to get on my nerves.    She was starting to feel whiney and victimy, and I knew that she needed to evolve.    It wouldn’t have been a good story without the main character experiencing some sort of personal growth.

I suppose I can grow.    I’m guessing I will adjust to Abby not being at home anymore, and I might even enjoy our more adult relationship.     At work, I am starting to shake off the superficial changes while pushing back against the adjustments that don’t make sense.   And if I’m really looking for some personal growth, I may decide to recognize that all the newness at work isn’t inherently wrong just because it’s different.    Time will tell about that.

I’m told that I will adjust to the loss of my mom, too.    I honestly have no idea how I will find balance without her, but people find a way, and I know I will too.     Right now my idea of personal growth means taking a breath, looking around at what I have, and standing gratefully still.

Fuzziness

The lines in my life are blurred. I live in the same community where I have been a child protection social worker for the past 18 years, which means that I cross paths with my clients nearly every day. I’m grateful that commute is 3 minutes, and if my kids need anything I can be at their schools in ten minutes on most days.

But living where I work means that I see my clients at the grocery store, in the movie theater, and at restaurants. My kids have unknowingly sat next to my client’s children in school and have played against them in their sports.

My clients and I sometimes talk about what we will do if we pass each other at Target. Usually they say hello, but some prefer to look away. I have had some do a double take when we pass in the aisles at Walmart and I’m in a ponytail and sweats, picking up cleaning supplies for a lazy day when I wasn’t supposed to see anyone.

Since my book was published, the boundaries in my life have gotten even fuzzier. Recently I was promoting my book at a Barnes and Noble store in Mankato, two hours from where I live. In addition to family and friends who stopped by, I saw friends I hadn’t seen since high school, and social workers with whom I currently share cases. And my small world got even smaller when a group of people asked about my book, and then hearing where I was from, they asked my advice about a family member who lives in a risky situation in my county. I had to put my social worker hat back on to answer their questions, and when we were done talking they left with a copy of my book. At my next promotional event in Duluth, I will be signing books at the Barnes and Noble during their book drive, which will benefit Northwoods Children’s Center, an agency I have worked with repeatedly.

The lines have even become blurry in my own head. Now that I have started my second book, I am spending a fair amount of time trying to think like my characters so I can get their dialogue right. I have found myself in my staff meetings wondering what my characters would think of what my coworkers are saying, and vice versa. I have considered how Leah, the main character in book 2, would handle the current cases I have. And I picture my characters and my coworkers discussing families, real and fictional, and figuring out what to do next.

Social workers are encouraged to avoid dual roles whenever possible, but life is messy. I can’t help that my kids go to school with my clients, or that somehow in another town I can cross paths with people who are worried about their family members in my county. But it leaves me feeling that I’m never really off duty. There’s little anonymity in small towns to begin with, so I know I need to watch myself and make sure I don’t say or do something that I wouldn’t want to have to explain later.

The blessing of feeling on duty all the time is that I have no choice but to just be myself wherever I am. I can’t be too haughty with my clients about the challenges of raising children when I have had to carry my three year old out of Walmart kicking and screaming. And with all the time that my characters spend in my head, my hope is that they feel as real to my readers as they do to me.

Unprotected can be purchased at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and at various local stores including Loons and Ladyslippers in Red Wing and Cover to Cover in Brookings. Thank you for your support!

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!

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!

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!