Monday, July 16, 2012

And Then I Ended Up on a Gang's Hit List

To say that I was destined for a career in social services is kind of an understatement. Looking back now, I don't think there was any way I could have avoided it. Not that I didn't try. I've tried twice to go in a different career direction, and both times it has ended disastrously. My vision of my career when I was in college involved providing counseling for children in some climate-controlled office with mellow lighting, soothing decor, and calm New Age background music. However, by the time I finished college, I was ready to be done with research papers and exams for a while, so instead of applying for a master's or Ph.D. program in clinical counseling, I got a job in a residential treatment facility for abused and neglected children, and things kind of went from there. I always had it in the back of my mind that I would go back to school someday, but events just never came together for that to happen, and the more practical experience I had in the field, the less enthused I became about the idea of taking out more student loans for a degree that probably wouldn't ever pay for itself.

But about that practical experience. Let me explain a little bit about my childhood. I grew up as the sheltered oldest child in a middle class family, living in a relatively affluent suburb (although my family was definitely at the lower end of the income spectrum for our community). Still, my parents placed a high value on education, and they were frugal, so somehow they managed to send me and my two younger siblings to Catholic schools. (I look at tuition costs now, and I'm honestly not sure exactly how they managed to send us to those schools and still feed us, but I digress.) There are two implications of my Catholic education. One is that I was sheltered from the socioeconomic diversity that is present in public schools even in higher income neighborhoods. The other is that the caretaking instincts I possessed naturally were nurtured not only by my parents, but also by my teachers. Combining those two things, it may be clear to anyone reading this that I was headed in the direction of social work without the slightest clue of what I was getting into. I remember once for a religion class in 8th grade, I went on a field trip to tour a local homeless shelter, and then we ate lunch at the adjacent soup kitchen. While we were waiting in line for the doors to open, I was mildly shocked to realize that the other people in line were dressed just like me. I think I was imagining characters in Dickens novels, dressed in rags and asking "Please, sir, may I have some more?" with British accents, which, in retrospect, would have been a little strange for midwestern Americans.

So, yeah. I had a lot of learning to do. Luckily, I learned pretty fast. (This is especially lucky since a single social worker's salary dictates that I can only afford to live in the same neighborhoods where potential clients also reside. When I was house hunting, I literally had to veto several suggestions from my realtor based on the fact that I had clients who lived too close for comfort - in one case, right next door. And then I found my dream house, and signed the contract, and an hour later went to a meeting in which a client informed me that she had just moved to a new rental - which happened to be directly behind my new house. Having the nicest house in the neighborhood is small consolation when there could very well be a meth lab next door. But, again, I digress.)

Still, though I learned quickly, and my time in child protective services provided a multitude of learning experiences, nothing quite prepared me for the phone call I got from my supervisor one Saturday.

I can't go into any details, but the backstory is that I had been working with a teenage mother in one of the rougher neighborhoods we served, and I had made some recommendations to the court regarding custody of her baby that she did not appreciate, which is not exactly a rare occurrence in CPS, so honestly, I didn't really think much about the fact that she was mad at me. I was secure in the knowledge that I'd done what I needed to do to ensure the baby's safety.

So on a Saturday soon after the court date in question, I wasn't feeling well and I'd had my phone on vibrate most of the day while I slept. When I woke up, I was somewhat concerned to find several missed calls and a couple of frantic messages from my supervisor. I called her back immediately.

"Oh, Natalie, I'm so glad you called! I've been so worried that something happened to you!" she exclaimed, breathless with relief. (Though she and I did not always see eye to eye, I will give her that the safety of her employees was always a high priority for her.)

She went on to explain to me that she had received a call from the supervisor of a therapist who was working with my teenage client. The therapist had told him that our mutual client had told her that she was in a gang, and because I had "messed with her family," I was now on the gang's hit list.

I responded to my supervisor in the only logical way I could think of: "What?"

Finding out that I was suddenly among the local chapter of the Folk Nation's most wanted did not have the same effect on me that it had on my supervisor. I was actually rather calm about the whole thing, because, frankly, it was too surreal for me to wrap my head around. So, instead, I thought through it logically. I figured that I probably wasn't that high of a priority for the gang, because, seriously, there was no way this girl could possibly be a high-ranking member, and the gang probably had more important tasks than avenging an underling's child custody issues. And I was savvy enough by that time to know that the gangs mostly stuck to their own territory, and as this was before I bought my house and I was still living in an apartment about a 30 minute drive away from this gang's territory, I was probably safe enough at home, and in general, outside their neighborhood, because they probably wouldn't go looking for me, and my client had no idea where I lived.

Still, it did occur to me that she knew my car. Whether she knew the license plate number or knew the look of the car well enough to describe it, I couldn't say, but I did have a couple bumper stickers that could be used to identify it. And then I had to wonder, on the off chance that they did come looking for me, would I be putting my family and friends at risk when I visited them?

And then I realized that I couldn't tell my mother anything about this, because she would probably make me quit my job.

Oh, my god, I thought. I have become Stephanie Plum. I could just imagine my mother pursing her lips and asking why I couldn't get a nice safe job at the button factory before she went to sneak a nip out of the pantry. My life had become a Janet Evanovich novel. It was probably only a matter of time before I inadvertantly blew up a car. And I didn't even get the benefit of Morelli and Ranger. Just my luck.

I didn't say anything to anyone for a full 24 hours, but inside I was dying to tell someone about this, because I was this white-bread private-school girl from the suburbs and WHAT THE FUCK?! Finally, I broke down and told my best friend the whole impossible story, because I think I would have exploded otherwise.

But then I went back to work and got the full story. Turns out, everything had been blown out of proportion. It wasn't actually so much that my client told her therapist that I was on the gang's hit list as it was that the therapist had asked a bunch of hypothetical, leading questions about what would have happened if she were in a gang, because, oh yeah, it also turns out my client wasn't in a gang. I'm not sure exactly where in this game of telephone the information got distorted to "Natalie's on a hit list," but I suspect it mostly came from the therapist. If I recall correctly, she didn't last too long with that agency.

So it turns out that one of the best stories from my job was something that never actually happened.

Not that that will stop me from telling it.

I have lots of other good stories about my work. Like the time I was attacked by dogs, or the time that I was bitten on the arm so badly by an out-of-control teenager that I had to get a tetanus shot, and the only thing that kept her from ripping the skin clean off my arm was the fact that I had watched enough Crocodile Hunter to know that I should push back against her teeth instead of pulling away. But nothing really tops my hit list story. A police detective who I worked with on a couple of cases told me once, "You social workers are kind of crazy. You aren't concerned enough about your own safety. You're walking into the exact same situations that I do, but you don't have a gun." Looking back, I'm pretty sure she was right.

My current job, providing parenting education to at-risk families, is pretty tame by comparison, for which I am thankful - although I still go into plenty of sketchy neighborhoods, and I still end up with some pretty entertaining stories. Although I recently heard a colleague's story about a SWAT Team raid on one of her home visits, which I wish were mine, because it. Was. Awesome. (Although probably not for her at the time.)

But when I first started this job, I had several weeks of training, and during those weeks, I was getting to know a guy I'd met on a dating website (for the record, it fizzled out within a couple weeks), and he asked me one evening what my training had been about that day.

I hesitated, because I knew parenting topics can kind of freak guys out early in a dating experience. "Breastfeeding," I told him tentatively.

He was quiet for a moment, and then he said, "I'm never going to win the 'who had a more interesting day' contest with you, am I?"

Oh, if he only knew.

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