In 2005, I couldn’t wait to graduate college and begin my career in the “real world”. I envisioned sexy suits and the privilege of spending paychecks on happy hours and making my home look like an advertisement for Pottery Barn. Graduation day couldn’t come fast enough.
After many celebrations and talking with friends about my big plans, I started sending out my resume, responding to job ads that required a psychology degree. I was absolutely thrilled to have two job offers. I ended up accepting the offer that paid slightly less because I really liked the woman who would be my direct supervisor. I was hired by a non-profit organization as a mental health case manager for foster children.
Contrary to my vision of a plush office overlooking the river, I shared an office with four other case managers. I wore jeans and flip flops every day since our agency wanted us to seem approachable to children, and I could barely afford WalMart with my paychecks, let alone Pottery Barn. Our building was a former group home with no hot water and a roof so old that a cat actually fell through and landed on a staff member’s desk one afternoon. True story.
Despite the drawbacks, I absolutely loved my coworkers and dealt with the frequent annoyances with humor. The job itself was a learning experience, and not just in the metaphorical sense, but the literal as well. I had moved to Jacksonville only three years prior, and since our caseloads spanned all of Jacksonville, I was forced to learn every nook of this vast city like the back of my hand. As case workers we traveled to the homes and schools of our clients for visits, and with large case loads and up to eight visits per day, my only chance of being successful and productive was to avoid getting lost at all costs. GPS navigation systems weren’t as popular at that point, so Mapquest was my tool.
I learned quickly that just because a foster home is licensed does not mean that it’s in a safe neighborhood and that Mapquest is, more often than not, wrong when it comes to Jacksonville. I also learned that social work, which was essentially what I was doing, is not the self-fulfilling career that college programs make it out to be. That became more and more clear each time I received a new case and read allegations about the on-going sexual and physical abuse of children, or child neglect cases that left five year-old children to dig for their dinner in garbage cans.
After earning my master’s degree in Criminology, I accepted a new position as a prevention specialist with another local non-profit agency. The program I worked for received referrals from the Department of Children and Families, and our goal was to work with at-risk families, in their homes, to prevent their children from being removed by the state. I fell into a routine quickly with this new position as I was accustomed to working in the field and providing services.
What set this job apart the most from my first job was that I was no longer traveling to licensed foster homes that were seen by various case workers on a daily basis. I was going into homes that weren’t being monitored by anyone. These were real families, and I was going into their real environments. The neighborhoods I was traveling into were featured regularly on the six o’clock news for drive-by shootings, sexual assaults and drug deals gone bad.
I was told multiple times by friends and family members who are police officers that I had no business going into those neighborhoods alone, as I was expected to do. Some of my clients that I would go to visit would jokingly tell me that I may not have tires on my car when I left their homes. Other families would tell me that a girl like me, 5’3” and about 115 pounds, driving a fairly nice vehicle, would have to be crazy to come to their neighborhood alone. I always smiled and told them I was perfectly comfortable, and what scares me the most is that sometimes that was a little true. One of the most important rules of social work is to never become complacent in the field. And that lesson was not in any of my textbooks or college lectures. I learned that on my own.
Frustrations with the system
I got up for work every day with a slight sense of anxiety. I spent some of my home visits watching shadows dancing on walls, trying to determine if there was someone else in the home, someone that could potentially pose a threat. I sometimes found myself in a client’s living room, discretely eyeing the front door and the strange male who had emerged from a back room blocking my path. I often had to wait a good two hours to even think about cooking dinner after I got home from work because I had come from a roach-infested home and literally had to brush insects from my pants as I left the visit.
It was also draining to spend almost two hours on a parenting lesson with a young, single mother, only to witness her threaten her 1 year old with a belt at the close of the lesson because the child wouldn’t leave her alone. I never did figure out how a person is supposed to teach a mother to be nurturing. Some may call me a pessimist, or maybe just a poor teacher, but I would advise those people to do that job for a month and get back to me.
The only thing that kept me from losing my mind and quitting that job was the support from coworkers. I was again surrounded by a wonderful and dedicated group of social workers who helped each other find humor in the day-to-day frustrations and dangers of the job. I recall one morning when I was particularly frustrated. I had driven almost to Georgia for a scheduled home visit with a client, only to find that they were not home. This being the third missed visit with this parent, I was pretty heated when I finally got into the office. As I was ranting about my wasted morning, one of my coworkers arrived at the office. I could tell she was having a rough day as well, and when I told her my sad story, she simply said, “Well, I sat in pee.” All we could do was laugh.
I never knew what a day at this job would bring, and I learned more about communities, crime and the perpetuation of cycles of abuse, violence and poverty than I ever learned in a textbook. There were success stories, including the adoptions of children into loving families and at-risk mothers getting on their feet and proving that they could be good parents despite their pasts. Even still, the constant stress associated with the risks of the job finally gave me reason to seek a new position.
I am now a victim advocate working with children. I work from the office, so my traveling days are over. My jeans and flip flops have been replaced by suits and high heels, and I can at least afford Publix once or twice a month. However, my professional aspirations have changed since graduation day in 2005. I now hope to obtain a Ph.D. that will allow me to teach college and graduate students in an effort to prepare them for the realities of social work.
Advocates for children
I also hope to establish a platform that will give the children in our society a voice, a way to speak out against violence and abuse. They are reliant on others and there aren’t enough of those “others.” My experiences have given me the tools and the knowledge necessary to do these things, and if I can achieve these goals, my dreams will truly be fulfilled.
Truth be told, I overestimated the value of Pottery Barn anyway.
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