I remember fifteen years or so ago when first offered a job with social services being asked, rather snidely, "You don't intend to stay there very long, do you? Who wants to work with those people?" I really had no clue what I was getting myself into and was just interested in a paycheck and the chance to put all those years of studying Spanish to good use.
I remember being bothered, to begin with, mostly by the lack of any similarity of values with my clients. It seemed like everyone was having kids with just anyone with no concern for how they were to be supported. Fourteen-year-olds having babies really bothered me. Women staying with the same abusive guy for years. Teenagers having abortion after abortion.
For most of these fifteen years, it's all been stories on paper or over the phone, with very little direct face-to-face contact. Other than an occasional visit to a little old ladies' home to complete paperwork, it's all remained very abstract and I've been able to pretend a certain distance from the people I work with.
Not so anymore.
If anything, in all these years, I've learned that there's really very little that separates me from my clients; us from them. Values and chance are what I think it comes down to. Big factors, but easy to explain away by circumstance or luck.
Something else I've discovered recently is that nothing shocks me anymore. This hasn't been a sudden thing, I don't think, but the accumulated weight of years of sad and twisted stories. I do wonder that I've not become cynical or jaded. Maybe my own values have just slipped along the way; who knows.
Two days a week now I'm out there snooping around in people's homes and poking into their private lives, all in the guise of making sure that their living situations are safe and sanitary because you and I are paying a portion of their living expenses each month. Most live just like you and I do; others, well... it's not anything that is really polite to discuss in mixed company.
But discuss it we do; usually late in the afternoon when any sort of productive work is well beyond possible. It's a good sort of release and a good time to laugh at ourselves, mostly, and the things that still bother us. Not shock us, just bother us, or make us afraid. Child abuse, bed bugs, gang shootings, cockroaches, sex offenders.
This afternoon after I sent a letter along to notify a client that I would be visitng in the next two weeks, I took a minute to look through the case file. Oh boy! Do I really mean to go there alone? Safe-enough neighborhood, but the client has a history of drug use (not just that, really, more like a history of running crack houses) oh and look there! - a police report about prostitution and confining women in the home against their will, and just last month an arrest for crack possession (again) and buying alcohol for minors.
So I went to the big boss and asked if we shouldn't just terminate any sort of assistance to this guy and do I really need to go into his house... please? Well, the fact is, he hasn't been convicted of anything yet, so I need to make the visit.
I think I must have sat at my desk for an hour trying to come up with a way to sell this visit to any one of my more experienced coworkers - a trade maybe? Fresh-baked muffins everyday for a month, perhaps? In the end I just asked if anyone had the time to accompany me on a visit to a crack house and dear sweet Susan, who sits across the way and is totally overburdered with her own work, volunteered to go along with me. How two blonde German-Irish girls are to make each other feel safe I'm not sure, but she assured me she's not fazed by it. She's sat across the kitchen table with the mothers of murderers and knows that these people, our clients, the ones we mean to help on their way to self-sufficiency, really like us and mean us no harm and are glad for the intrusion into their lives.
I'm not convinced of that yet, but wonder if I shouldn't have offered fresh-baked muffins everday for two months instead, or just taken that job on Wall Street so many years ago.
a return Visit
9 months ago