Tag Archives: social work

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.