Matthew Cohen, MSW

Matthew Cohen, MSW

Social Justice Solutions | Staff Writer
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Unprotected – A Novel Written By A Social Worker

Submitted by Kristin Lee Johnson:

In the winter of 1999-2000 I had been a child protection social worker for nearly six years, and I felt I was beginning to develop some wisdom about my (somewhat) chosen career. I had survived being called every swear word that existed. My clients had hugged me and thrown things at me.  And I had seen and learned enough to make me feel like I finally knew what I was doing.

While it is impossible to generalize or stereotype the typical child protection worker, or the typical child protection client, it had become clear to me that those two groups are generally mutually exclusive. That is, social workers usually were not previous child protection clients, and most CP clients did not become social workers. The two groups are usually distinct and separate.

So the seed of an idea began rattling around in my head as I met with families, attended court hearings, wrote reports. What if a social worker had been a child protection client in another life, or was never part of that system, but probably should have been? Would it change how the social worker viewed the families with whom she worked? Would it make her more empathetic, or perhaps less? Would she be ashamed of her past, or possibly even proud?

While this–a child protection client becoming a child protection social worker–has most certainly occurred, it is not the norm. It became a story I wanted to tell.

I had been writing stories most of my life; or I should say I had been writing parts of stories. I was always able to think of characters and scribble out a few pages here and there, but never much more than that. In high school I was able to put together about 30 pages (at last, a story that had a beginning and a middle!), but eventually that fizzled too. So many beginnings, a few middles, but never an end.

Over the next several months as that winter melted into spring, that seed of idea took root, and my story grew from a few paragraphs to several pages. And in that process I got to know the star of my show–Amanda. I will say now, and many times again, she is not me.

Amanda is young, strong, and alone. She has spent Christmases at soup kitchens and birthdays unwrapping a single trinket gift wrapped in tin foil. She has been dragged to house parties and left alone while her mother “disappears” into a bedroom with a stranger. Amanda pushes through high school with an athletic ability that makes her a softball star, but she spends most of her high school life caring for her sick, narcissistic mother. Again, this is not autobiographical and her mother is truly the opposite of mine, but that is a post for another day.

In creating Amanda, I grew to like her. I gave her opportunities to make her life better; but I also got to know her and knew she would push those chances away. Amanda goes through college without a plan until she stumbles into social work, mostly because she can relate. She graduates from college and finds an entry level job as a child protection social worker in a small Minnesota town. Obviously, this is where my story and Amanda’s converge.

As my novel grew a solid and lengthy middle, Amanda evolved. Amanda straddles the line between child protection clients and social workers because she is both. Her struggle is how to reconcile her history with the person she is now, and she wonders if it is really acceptable to be both.

Amanda’s story grew in fits and starts. Many days I wrote only a sentence or two, or nothing at all. On my most productive days I would come home from work, take care of my family and everything that went with that (dinner, homework, practices, bedtime) and eventually I would write a few pages before nodding off. Amanda’s story had a full beginning and a strong middle, but I had not really given the time and attention to find her resolution.

Finally in 2009, I wrote more intently, and my story grew, branched out and became full. My seed of an idea had grown into a tree–a family tree–as I realized that Amanda’s story is really about her quest for family and the very human need to belong.

In 2011 I finished Amanda’s story, and in doing so I added to my own.   As a self-identified writer, I had finally completed my first novel with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Amanda and I grew together, and we both ultimately found a resolution that created, for both of us, a new beginning.

Amanda’s story, now titled “unprotected” was published by North Star Press in September, 2012. It is available on and

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