Elizabeth Weiner’s office opposite the Bronx County Hall of Justice is a burst of colors — plastic blue butterflies on shelves, a lavender humidifier, a violet starfish pinned to the board above a Rolodex of the same shade and an assortment of magnets clinging to all things iron. On a Tuesday afternoon, Weiner sat at her computer with a stack of bright orange files on one side and a collage of family photographs on another.
The cubicle is a clear indicator of its occupant’s extended working hours. Weiner is a forensic social worker with the Legal Aid Society, balancing caseloads of 30 to 50 clients a day. She is one of the only two social workers in the organization to deal with juvenile delinquents in The Bronx.
A graduate of New York University with a master’s degree, she is a licensed clinical social worker with over 18 years of experience in the field. And yet, at times, she is baffled by what comes her way.
“You’d think at this point I’ve seen everything,” she said. “But then something happens, and I think, well this is new.”
WHAT IS THE NATURE OF YOUR WORK?
I work with kids who get arrested … I do assessments of clients and their families, and I make referrals to different programs. …We then advocate in court for that plan. I work to ensure their educational, emotional, social, psychological needs are being met, to try to keep them in the community and to keep them out of trouble.
THIS IS A VERY SPECIALIZED FIELD. WHY DID YOU CHOOSE IT?
The law and courts have always been very interesting to me. And I’ve always felt very strongly and passionately about that — criminal juvenile justice. So, it was a really good merging of those things, and I just kind of fell into it and it’s just been a really good fit for me.
WHAT KIND OF PRESSURES DO YOU FACE WHEN DEALING WITH JUVENILE DELINQUENTS?
You’re working with young people … from low-income families and communities. … It’s balancing the kind of needs of a young person and their family and the limitations of the court system and also the limitations of the resources available … In terms of supporting families, through the process, explaining things to my clients and their parents, it’s often very overwhelming … doing crisis intervention.
There are definitely frustrations in terms of judges and prosecutors and the limitations they set with service providers and the quality of services can be very frustrating.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY QUALITY OF SERVICES?
An example would be documentation … I can have a young person with severe mental health issues. I get him involved with a really wonderful private therapist. But private therapists don’t have the time or the money or the ability to write up a real report … So, the services are really wonderful. But the documentation doesn’t fit in to what prosecutors and judges want to see.
DO YOU THINK A 17-YEAR OLD SHOULD BE A CHILD IN THE EYES OF THE LAW?
I definitely feel like they should be treated as children and in Family Court. This law doesn’t do enough, frankly, in my opinion. I think if you’re going to say children are children, and they think differently, then it shouldn’t matter what they actually do. Their consequences and thinking isn’t the same. If you don’t get people resources, and you don’t give them hope, and you don’t give them assistance with what they’re dealing with … you’re not going to be able to rehabilitate anybody.
HOW MANY CHILDREN DO YOU SEE ACTUALLY GET REHABILITATED?
A frustrating thing is you don’t really get to follow your clients. You see them through the court process, every so often … within the near future. But I have no way of knowing what really happens to most of my clients. There’s no tracking.
WHO IS YOUR MOST CHALLENGING CLIENT AT THE MOMENT?
I have at least one if not two situations that I’ve never experienced before … For the first time … you know, I have a client who, so we work with kids who act out sexually … I mean, he literally only says yes or no … And we have to get them specialized treatment to address the inappropriate behavior … how do you provide specialized treatment for someone who doesn’t speak?