Friday, January 15, 2016

Appreciating Short Term Work

By: Mikki (Levine) Berger, Master’s in Social Work Intern

Introduction by: Amanda Roaf, Clinical Director, Midtown Community Court


Every year the MCC clinic team interviews and accepts MSW interns from schools across the city into our intensive internship program. Interns have the opportunity to engage in short term group and individual counseling, assessment, and crisis intervention. Over the course of the year they have the opportunity to work with clients with a wide range of strengths and needs and can truly build their capacities to be strong clinicians. Interns are supervised directly by social workers well-versed in forensic social work. Interns work closely with staff to engage clients in counseling services and help develop the specialty programs at MCC including youth work, drug treatment, mental health and human trafficking.

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One of the first things I learned at the start of my internship was the fast-paced, unpredictable, go-with-the-flow rhythm that is Midtown Community Court (“MCC”). I watched the way everyone seemed to move so easily and quickly on their feet, even during the most chaotic and complicated situations. As I became more familiar with MCC and I was able to grasp the meaning of short term work, I struggled with this notion of trying to build rapport with a client that I would meet with for such a short amount of time—sometimes for no more than one or two sessions. I wondered where the opportunity was to be effective if there was limited ability to follow up and have an ongoing working relationship. In previous social work-related jobs, I had always worked with a client for at least a month. I had appreciated the consistency and the time we had to build a relationship, and I was skeptical about what, if any, impact this very short term counseling could have on our clients.

As it often goes, it’s through experience that we get our answers. The first individual client I met with was mandated to do three sessions and was very open from the start about his severe substance addiction. Something just clicked during our first session and we were able to build rapport very quickly. By the end of the three sessions, this client told me that he planned on coming back for voluntary sessions. He also told me that he would go into a detoxification program, as we had discussed, just as soon as he completed another mandate of his elsewhere. I felt satisfied and good about the fact that in such a short amount of time, I had obviously supported the client in changing maladaptive behaviors. After all, it’s just that easy – isn’t it?

Naturally, it was a great disappointment when I followed up with him a few days after our last session, and again a week later, to find out that not a single thing had changed. He had not gone into a detox program, he was still using substances and, though he was polite over the phone, he clearly did not intend to come back for voluntary sessions. Sure, I helped the client to meet his mandate, but it didn’t feel like enough. I was frustrated, but put that aside and continued to work with individual clients as effectively as I could in the short amount of time we had together. I began to get more comfortable meeting with clients by myself, and worked on finding ways to tailor to each individual’s needs, as no two clients are alike.

About a month later, a staff member told me there was someone on the phone for me. It was that first client calling me from Rikers Island. He told me that while sitting in Rikers, he was remembering our conversations and all the great things we had talked about. It made him realize that he should have gone into a treatment program as we had discussed during sessions. He was ready now and wanted to see if I could reach out to his lawyer. Every story like that should have a happy ending, but I actually don’t have an ending for you at this point in time. I wanted to share this experience because it was the moment where I finally understood what it is we try to do here at MCC. Even if we never know about it, we could always have made some positive lasting impact.  

This experience changed my perspective and goals in working with clients. While I initially thought I needed to make a change for this individual, I was wrong. Our goal at MCC is not necessarily to change people’s lives, especially not overnight. Our goal is to be present with our clients, help them to complete their mandate, give them emotional support, and send them off with the best referrals we can find. If a client does something with information we gave them, great. If a client decides to make a change based on something we spoke about in session, great. Sometimes clients will hear us and sometimes they won't but the effort we put into each session, no matter how short that session is, matters.

One of the greatest pleasures of being an intern at MCC is working in a place where I don’t feel like just an “intern,” but really feel like part of a team. Surrounded by a dedicated supervisor and clinic team, I feel supported and always know there will be someone I can go to when I need help with a client. From early on, staff on the clinic team asked me to assist with clients and groups. Being in an environment where others trusted me to work with their own clients quickly has made it a whole lot easier to feel confident in my own abilities as a clinician.

While reflection often happens at the end of an experience, it’s nice to be able to stop mid-year and think back on my time at MCC thus far. It gives me the opportunity to also think about all the experiences I have left to look forward to during the rest of my time here.