Day one of my Adult Protective Services (APS) job: I’m pounding on the client’s door, and no one is answering. Come on, I think. I got through my 10-year undergraduate plan, my Master’s program, I passed my clinical exams, and I got my clinical licensure. I have had years of social service jobs. I’ve read through the client’s file, and I have the correct paperwork. I’m ready, dammit. Ready to change the world, one client at a time, and yet there’s Still. No. Answer.
In fact, I can almost hear an announcer, “Their world was so isolated and depressing until there! At the door! It’s APS Woman, avenger of oppressed, vulnerable adults everywhere! (Cue “Mighty Mouse” theme music as Liat flashes her badge and walks into the house with her stylish, knee-high, polka-dotted, APS boots, optional gear worn in case of excess animal or human waste.) She gives disadvantaged souls the smoldering empathic social work eyes, a gentle touch, and whisks them to a land of safety and connectedness.”
This is so not like that.
I pound on the door again. And again. And again…I am so ready. I straighten my ID badge for the umpteenth time so that the client can see it through the peephole. Neighbors start to peak out of their apartments. After 15 minutes of pounding, the door opens a few inches. I don’t see anyone, but I introduce myself.
“Ahem, Hi. I am Liat Katz, a social worker with Adult Protective Services.” A little too enthusiastic, Liat, tone it down.
I hold up my badge with the picture of my goofy, ready-to-help-you smile. The door opens a little more, and there is Carol, and she glares at me. She smells like feet. Really awful feet. Don’t gag, Liat, don’t gag. Her pale frame is hunched over her walker, and she is barely as high as my armpit. Unimpressed, she leaves the door open, and walkers over to her couch. Guess I’m invited in.
Carol is 84 years old, and she’s had life-long intellectual disabilities. She is wearing a turquoise Mumu with pink flowers, and she’s sporting brown, converse high tops. Her white hair is thinning and greasy in unruly swirls and mattes; she looks emaciated. The chart says that she has not seen a doctor in years. I hand her my business card, and, in a newbie move, I sit down before I inquire about whether she has issues with incontinence. The couch feels slightly damp, but I’m not interrupting the flow of my interview by getting up.
I try to get information, but she doesn’t answer any of my questions. Her blood-flecked eyes just stare at me. In another newbie move, I look down at her leg and wince when I see some kind of open, red angry wound. I think she saw me wince. Her eyes narrow as she gives me a long, slow, once-over—taking me in from head to toe. She clearly doesn’t like what she sees. Her nostrils whistle loudly with every exhale.
I look at the wall to my right where there is a huge, almost life-size, crucifix. I look to my left, and there he is again. Maybe Carol’s not speaking to me because she doesn’t like Jews. My name couldn’t be more Jewish. I take a breath and look over, and Jesus is still staring at me, as is Carol.
I just keep talking. I give Carol a warm, social worker smile, and I try asking questions about the weather, about her favorite food, and about where she grew up. I try to look interested. If she continues not to talk to me, I have no idea what to do. How do my coworkers get people to engage? I need a manual or something.
Still scowling, Carol opens her mouth, and I lean forward.
“I’ll talk to you,” she says in a faltering voice.
“Oh great,” I say.
“But only after you talk to my cat. His name is Kitty-Tat.”
“OhhhKay,” I say, tentatively.
She pets her sweet, Persian cat. And explains that Kitty-Tat only speaks Spanish, because, can’t I tell, he is a “Spanish cat.” To my knowledge, Carol herself speaks no Spanish.
Carol needs me, and truth be told, I kind of need her too right now. I can’t screw up my very first APS client. And I like her. I’ve always liked a quirky client that has an edge. They do whatever it takes to survive.
Carol points at the cat. I take a deep breath. Her eyebrows go up. OK, here goes. I drop to the floor, and get on my hands and knees. I throw in all the broken Spanish words I know to the cat, including, embarrassingly enough, half of the Chipotle menu. The cat tilts her head and looks about as impressed with me as Carol. It does the trick, though. As I’m chatting with Kitty-Tat about carnitas and fajitas, Carol perks up and lets me talk to her about seeing a doctor.