“Mastering the art of good casework is a little like staring into the shuttering eyes of a rabid canine and saying “nice doggie” until you find a shotgun.”
So says Marc Parent, a Wisconsin transplant who got hired by the Department of Social Services as a case worker in child protection in New York City, because he was from Wisconsin. They had a whole unit of Midwesterners.
I read this book on the recommendation of a friend, and it’s very like watching a reality TV show about social work in Brooklyn. The prologue of the book has a wonderful section about people who might read such a dysfunctional childhood book as voyeurs hoping to find out about sex scandals. I’ve never seen a guy deal so well with so few words with such an ugly element of human nature.
And then he dives into the job, including the fact that while he’s saving children’s lives he’s calculating his overtime, fussing about missing supper, and trying not to get stabbed with a kitchen knife. The book is fascinating, nicely paced between “scared to death gotta do this” and bored, paperworked to death “why am I doing this?”
The on-off-humor, the rush and relax nature of the book, make it feel like you’re really there. You can smell the mildew in “The Nursery,” the area where children taken from their parents are looked after until placements can be found. And fed bologna-and-mustard sandwiches by large women who keep themselves separate from the rest of the crew, and tie the kids’ shoelaces.
Parent’s writing is so descriptive with such word economy, you wonder how many times he has had to talk himself out of a corner. (And for the record, I disagree completely with him and with his fellow worker on the issue of pit bulls.)
The only chapter dealing with a sexually assaulted child is handled so beautifully, describing the interactions between police, nurses, the social workers, the child, and an anatomical doll. He writes with great sensitivity, but also great passion, about the night he could not help the little girl caught in trauma.
Parent also has a lovely comment about kids who “slip between the cracks,” saying they don’t; they slip between people’s fingers, because the entire system is made up of people who do their jobs well, or badly, or make mistakes, or go the extra distance. As he writes of one of his first phone calls with a child experiencing a psychotic episode, “Sean may have had his problems, but he was a smart kid – the day’s lesson was not lost on him, I’m certain. It wasn’t lost on me: It doesn’t matter how good you are at flag signals if no one is watching – the distress call is only as good as the person looking out for it.”
Parent ends the book talking about the day he contributed to the death of a child, the follow-up investigation, and his subsequent decisions about his career with great honesty. Blunt honesty that is somehow poetic.
That’s actually a good summation for this book: blunt honesty that is somehow poetic.