Expecting the Unexpected at PS 48
By Howard Honigsfeld
To work as a school social worker in the Bronx’s high-crime, low-income Hunt’s Point neighborhood is to become an expert at expecting the unexpected.
A lot of the Bronx feels like New York City’s neglected stepchild, and Hunt’s Point—with its poverty, high crime rate, and overcrowded streets—is an especially tough place for children. In June, the last month of the school year, the heat seems to bring everyone out onto the street. Parents push baby carriages, women sit in nylon folding chairs outside their brick building, clients congregate around the local rehab clinic, and teens talk in groups outside the bodegas that seem to occupy every street corner. Along with the unmistakable vibrancy of the neighborhood, there’s a constant vigilance. Threats can erupt seemingly out of nowhere: a car running a stop sign, a loud argument suddenly flaring up. Sometimes you even hear gunshots in the distance. To survive, you learn to keep your eyes and ears open.
Public School 48, where I’m on staff as a social worker, sits on a block between a juvenile detention center and a strip club. The school serves around 900 mostly Hispanic and African American children in prekindergarten through fifth grade, with a large percentage of those kids living in shelter apartments. Of course, PS 48 has an educational mission, not a clinical one, but I’m part of a service staff that includes speech, occupational, and physical therapists. I’ve been a school social worker in New York City for 15 years and was a teacher for five years before that. Initially, I went to social work school to better help the kids I taught. But eventually, I became a social worker because I wanted to directly address the problems—truancy, childhood depression, and the overwhelming responsibilities of being an older child raising siblings—that were keeping them from functioning well in school. My current job is to counsel children with Special Education Services, as well as to handle the daily emotional crises that arise in a place like PS 48. A week of work can be exciting, frustrating, and often hair-raising—anything but boring.
Monday. I start at 8:00 a.m., going down to the gym for morning lineup to see if anyone’s arrived sad or disheveled, so I can intervene before his or her day worsens. Afterward, I have a schedule of children to see, individually and in groups, but throughout the day, I’m regularly called when unexpected problems arise. Today, a teacher calls me soon after I return to my office, explaining that 8-year-old Shakira’s holding her stomach because her mother punched her there. When Shakira comes to my room, I start by reassuring her, as I usually do, that she’s not in trouble, and her teacher sent her to me because she’s concerned. Shakira describes how her mother got angry and struck her at breakfast when she wiped her little brother’s mouth with a paper towel instead of a rag. I ask how much it hurt on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being a tap and 10 being super hard. She says 10, but adds that usually her mom hits her on the arm or shoulder with an open hand, which hurts less.
It’s hard to hear about kids being abused, but I’m careful not to get so focused on her being hit that I don’t make contact with her as a person. As I ask her how she likes her class, what she likes to do after school, and what kind of music she listens to, she begins to relax.
My role in working with neglected and abused children depends on each case. In mild neglect scenarios—such as parents allowing their children to watch adult movies or play video games for most of the day—I prefer to talk to parents in a matter-of-fact way about the effects of violent and sexual images on a child’s development. If my tone is right, parents are generally thankful, although they often say little. It’s tougher to know what to say to parents who work the graveyard shift and leave their kids to be cared for by an older sibling. Usually, those kids don’t get help with their homework, and sometimes they suffer from lack of sleep or even food.
In more severe cases of suspected abuse, like Shakira’s, I call children’s services. Often, the results of an investigation will lead to families getting customized services, including in-home parent coaching, household assistance, and a case worker to help improve their lives. Rarely is the neglect and abuse judged to be so severe that a child is removed from the home, but sometimes that happens. I make a note to check up on Shakira later in the week, after an investigator from children’s services has visited her home.
Tuesday. In the hallway, I say hello to Vadiem, a 12-year-old student who’s graduating in a few weeks. He transferred to PS 48 from another school at the beginning of the year because of behavioral problems. He’s a smart, clean, and wary fifth-grader with a chip on his tooth and on his shoulder. He was fine for the first two weeks of school, but then he began cursing at the teachers under his breath when they confronted him for acting out or talking during work times. Although he expressed regret each time this happened, his behavior didn’t change. When I spoke with him, he said he didn’t want to be confronted verbally in front of his peers, so we discussed using the “ear tug”—whenever the teacher needed Vadiem to change his behavior, she’d call his name and tug her ear. This worked once or twice, but in the chaos of a fifth-grade class, it was forgotten, and Vadiem slid back into cursing under his breath.
A change came when we started using concrete goals. We turned a piece of paper horizontally and wrote the numbers 1 to 5 at the top. Below the numbers, we placed photos I took of him going from sad to excited. We reviewed his goals weekly to see his progress, based on a scale of 1 to 5. To track improvement more precisely, we used a daily report sheet filled out by his teacher and sent home for his mother to review. It was broken up into eight class periods, with a rating of 1 to 5 for each period. He asked if he could play basketball with me if he did well. I said if he gets 3s or 5s for the week, we’d play for 10 minutes, 4s or 5s meant we’d play for 15 minutes, and all 5s meant we’d play for 20 minutes. We continued discussing his progress with his mom and his teacher. (Things seem to work faster for children when we involve those closest to them in a circle of awareness and care.) Vadiem improved quickly. What helped was that he kept an image of his mother in his head, reminding him to look at the big picture when times are hard.