Friday, December 07, 2007

The public's business

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 c
ynical 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.



Liza Lee Miller said...

You do amazing work, Laura. I'm proud of you and I don't, honestly, think that you should let go of that self-preservation instinct. Continue to think about your safety, please!

bunnygirl said...

Just be careful out there. It only takes one nutcase or a wrong place/wrong time scenario.

NatureWoman said...

The one that I've been seeing in parents on DSS is two or more kids, each with different fathers, so I have the mother's last name, and two or more children each with their own last names.
If it were me I'd take a policeman with me, but I'm a big chicken. I had to call the police this week for an incident involving a DSS person at work, and they said I absolutely did the right thing because that's what they're there for.

Jayne said...

I worked in home health for five years and since it was for our area public hospital's agency, we saw indigent as well as insured patients. You don't have to expound at all to me on what you've seen.... been there, done that, and it never ceased to amaze me. But, as you said, for the most part, if you are there to help, you are seen as a friend, and though there were times I realized I should be fearful, the bottom line was that those people needed help, and I was there to help. But, listen to your gut, and still be safe. There is a reason it speaks to us. We can be helpful without putting ourselves at risk. And know that you make such a difference Laura. Hugs to you dearest.

Ruth said...

When I worked in our city core, I was in uncertain situations often. I was always treated respectfully, but was always very alert and trusted my intuition. If I felt uneasy, I asked for a second person to accompany me on a visit. We also work in the local Women's prison and that is a tough environment! You will do a great job.

JeanMac said...

I admire your work - I don't think I could do it. I'm tough on myself and would be too tough or judgmental.

RuthieJ said...

You are a very special person, Laura, to do what you do. I'm glad you won't be making that particular visit by yourself.
Your story brings to mind those memorable words from Hill Street Blues, "...let's be careful out there!"

Mary said...

You are confident and bright - don't let a circumstance like this one make you doubt yourself. But - I am certainly glad Susan will accompany you. You gotta feel safe.

Larry said...

My sister does very similar type of work.-Keep your cell phone set at 911 and sit near the exit-
Some times people fall in to bad situations because of a bad series of cricumstances or choices but that doesn't mean they can't be dangerous-be careful.

dguzman said...

Thank goodness someone's going with you!

Kat used to work for Child Protective Services, in a county renowned for its high number of meth labs. Nothing like driving down a dirt road for a few miles, then arriving at a trailer in the middle of NOWHERE, with junk all around.

Good luck, and know that what you do is important work.

Amy said...

Thank you thank you for the generosity and resilience to do that difficult work. You're a better person than me, Laura. I'll just hide behind this computer.

LauraHinNJ said...

Liza: Well. okay thanks!

Bunnygirl: Really, that's the type of thing I do worry about. Too many crazy stories in the newspapers of people being in the wrong place, you know.

Pam: Mmm.. I don't think I could really do that, just because it... I don't know... feels wrong somehow. I'd not go, I guess, if I felt that unsafe.

Jayne: Thanks.. you understand how people oftentimes need someone just to not be afraid, because I think they're afraid of where they find themselves, too.

Ruth: I can sense that you're not fazed by much, either. Comes with experience, I guess.

Jean: That goes with time, I think and the chance to get to know the people you work with.

RuthieJ: Ha! Most likely it will be nothing (I hope) but I'll be glad to have someone else alone, I think.

Mary: I think I'd rather have 'our' Susan along!

Larry: That made me laugh - I don't sit down at all if I can help it!

Delia: Now that is a job that I would not ever, ever want! Too heartbreaking I think, tho I do have to put calls in to them from time to time.


Amy: No certainly not. Just a different set of skills.

Thanks, though!