Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Mom Who Wasn’t

A little story: this (Saturday) morning I went to visit one of my kids at a psychiatric hospital. It was quite a trek, but I was able to see him and check up on how he is doing. He is having a great time there, and that’s the sad part. He loves this hospital as it seems to provide him with a sense of safety, attention, and friendship with the other kids that he is lacking otherwise. His current foster home placement has been a stable one, and he will return there soon, but this little boy’s needs are very demanding. He spoke to us not too long ago about wanting to go back to the hospital as he “has friends there,” and then his sudden, violent outbursts at school and in the foster home accomplished just that…

Anyhow, as I was signing out to leave the facility, all the children filed past me on their way to play outside. I waved to J., smiled and said goodbye again. One of the children in the line yelled in passing, “Hey! That’s J’s mom!!”

I was amused by the comment at first, as was the security team at the desk. To be his mom, that would mean I had him at age 13. Also, I am a 23 year old who can usually pass for a 16 year old. When reflecting upon it after, however, the incident struck me as saddening, not amusing. Why wouldn’t the other children assume that the woman visiting him was his mother? The fact is, his mother has not visited, and she probably will not. To the other kids, it appeared that J. had a parent who cared to come and check up on him, and they can be left to believe that…

 

Note: In order to protect the identity of this child I have used a random initial to name him.

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Comparable pain: my breakthrough.

For the past weeks every time I hit a wall with a case, I kept hearing “move on and keep going.”

Everyone told me that I came to work at a great time because school was off, court was slow, that I was eased into my cases and not thrown in, that I was lucky because my caseload was low (14 families and counting) and that my situation wasn’t so bad. At the end of the day rather than finding solutions and hope, I ended up feeling frustrated and inadequate, I thought I just had to work harder until I could master the job and truly see and feel the advantage I, supposedly, had over my colleagues.

Everyone belittled my frustration by telling me how bad their situation really was: “I’m the one overloaded, you should be thankful, your job is easy” and then sometime in the middle of this crazy month, it hit me; it wasn’t about me being inadequate or getting more comfortable with the work; comparable pain was not the answer, it had nothing to do with my situation and I don’t know how I let it get to me. Suddenly I realized there is a big flaw in the way things are done. I asked around to see how people performed their work and realized that most of the people  swear by “you do what you can and move on”, that’s the way it is because there is just too much to do.  No wonder I was feeling backed up and frustrated, I really want to help my families move on but with the right tools and outlook on life.

This job is not about moving cattle from point A to point B, it’s about being able to support families through tough times and really meeting their needs so that they can move on in the right direction and not get lost on the way. The system asks too much from the workers and the agency, every time I come with new ideas to help in a case I’m struck with the realities of budgets, suspended payments, lack of resources  or simply “we cannot afford for you to spend so much time on this.” I refuse to allow these walls to close in on me, I will keep trying to find alternatives and loopholes and if not now, in the future, I hope I can help the system change.

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“If you can do this, you can do anything”

Hopelessness. Frustration. These are just some of the emotions I’ve felt since I began my work as a caseplanner. Perhaps it’s the reason I have neglected to post on the blog with the exception of my initial post: I’ve been hoping that with each passing day the feelings would also pass. To be blunt: it’s been rough. I have jumped right into casework with the knowledge I gained from training, a quick overview of my new caseload, and well-wishes from family and friends. I have done a little bit of everything: moving children from one placement to the next after the placement could not be preserved, mediating a family argument, spending too many hours at PATH (shelter intake), getting shredded in court, and having to explain to a child that I could not definitively tell them when they were going back home. As tough as these experiences have been, I’m grateful. I’ve learned much about myself, my resilience, and my determination. As one co-worker told me, “If you can do this, you can do anything”.

When a parent relapses although they’ve been doing so well and you’ve been rooting for them, how should you react? Or when a child begs you to take them home to their mother, how do you maintain composure? These are some of the situations I’ve found myself in. At times, it becomes emotionally draining: not only are you dealing with the stressors of families being (temporarily) torn, but there are also limited resources and high demands to mediate as well. At times, the caseworker can become “villainized”- the bad guy who took the children away, or the other bad guy who has not completed the 10 million (sometimes impractical) things an attorney has asked. Sometimes you wonder aloud if you’re even doing the right thing.

My unit co-workers have been my guides through these couple of months. Without their experience and advice, I would be so lost! The workplace is going through some changes, but one thing that remains constant is the willingness of my unit co-workers to help out when possible.

Although I’ve briefly discussed some of the challenges I face everyday, I have also had small victories and positive experiences. I have worked with parents who love their children deeply- and who are determined to overcome any obstacle to have their children in their care once more. Foster parents have gone to great lengths to ensure that their foster children are comfortable and connected with their biological families. Additionally, I have met service providers who are committed to reuniting families. I am hopeful that with time, I will gain more experience and learn how to cope with each new situation that arises.

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The Caseworker Who Couldn’t Sleep

Once upon right now, there is a decent looking caseworker, when she has time to shower, who lives in Caseworkland, the sixth borough of NYC that only caseworkers know exists.  She loves being a caseworker and working with families and youth and attempting to help them through some difficult times in their lives, as well as facilitating the healing of family relationships.  Typically she works so hard attempting to save the families of the world everyday, that when she comes home at night she literally crashes and then wakes up and does it all over again.  However, on this particualr night she was having an extremely difficult time sleeping and could not get her thoughts to calm down, so she decided to blog about them as a way of getting them out of her head and into everyone else’s heads so that they can deal with it and she can go to bed.

Earlier in the week, this CW had been spending a ton of time with one of her youths that she just “gave birth” to and is begining to realize how attached she is already to this particular youth, which is part of the reason she cannot sleep she thinks.  She is definitely attached to all of the youths she works with, but this situation is different because the CW is noticing how quickly she is getting attached, which is probably because this youth is a lot like the CW  in many ways and she is noticing these similarities and relating/sympathizing extremely well.  This youth told the CW earlier that day that she wished the CW was younger so that they could hang out more because she is cool, and the CW told her that was exactly what they were doing since she literally spent practically 2 days straight with this particular youth.  The youth smiled and admitted that was pretty accurate. The CW has seen the youth 3 times total thus far, and everytime she gets this urge to reach out and hug the youth because she is so sweet and just looks like she is constantly wearing a shirt that says, “Please Hug Me.”  However, the CW has refrained from such hugging at this time since they are just getting to know one another.  When and if the youth needs a hug and requests one, the CW will most likely put in a hug referral request and have to wait like a week for it to be processed, reviewed by the Hugging Youth on your Caseload Approval Board, which meets and reviews hug requests on the 7th at 4:37am of every month.  Or……..she may just hug the youth since thus far she has yet to be told that this is a frowned upon practice, and that might be the quickest way to getting the youth a hug if that is what she needs.  🙂

After writing all of that, the CW is now sleepy and needs to pass ou…..zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

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Learning the Hard Way

We have heard multiple times about the ups and downs of this job. We listened to birth parents, foster parents, kids and workers tell us about the good and the bad for five weeks this summer. When I started this job, I had so many expectations and I felt like I needed to remember everything that was said during training so I didn’t mess up. I needed to watch my language to remain neutral and I should phrase things in a certain way in order to help kids understand. What I didn’t expect is how quickly I threw all of that out the window and just started acting like myself. I still use some of the key phrases that are ingrained in our memories such as “so what I hear you saying is…” or “how does that make you feel?” (Obviously in a less cliché and awkward way), but mostly I just feel like me. This job is so ambiguous, thus making it impossible to learn everything in a matter of weeks. However, from day one I started relationship building (the only thing I actually knew how to do) and making sure that everyone on my case load knew they could call me anytime. What I didn’t expect was to absolutely choke.

I was going to write this post last week after an FTC that went horribly wrong, but I thought that a bit of reflection on the experience would be much more beneficial than venting. This meeting was like watching a car crash from above and not knowing how to stop it, and I felt like the driver. I had a good relationship with the birth mom, and I said to her from the first day that she could expect me to always be honest even if it isn’t want she wants to hear. Instead of following through on that promise, I chickened out and didn’t have the heart to tell her we weren’t going to move her children like she desperately wanted. I planned an FTC so we could come to that conclusion “together”, but the reality of it was, the decision had already been made and the glaring looks across the table showed me that she figured that out pretty quickly. I felt like I had ambushed her instead of preparing her, but I knew that her response was going to be harsh and angry. She is no longer compliant and taking out her pain on her children. There is a part of me that feels like it’s my fault.

The goal of sharing this story is not for pity or self-deprecation, but rather as a learning experience for me and possibly other corps members. I thought that I was a strong person before this job, but I never had the ability to change someone’s life like this. I lost myself for a little bit, but now seeing the after-math of my poor judgment, I know how much better it would be to be screamed at ahead of time rather than try to fix something that you broke. Maybe the outcome would have been the same or maybe not. I’ll never know. Generally it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, but this job is not about doing what’s easy.

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Reality Check

After months of waiting, I got what I was waiting for; a reality check. As Barry said all through training, when faced with a situation, always assume you don’t know everything. Oh, whoops. Guess I forgot that lesson. Had I remembered, perhaps I would be feeling differently right now, but it has happened- I have finally had a bad day.

By now, I have three cases of adorable kids. About 15% of the time I spend with my kids is basically high five-ing and playing air guitar (I clearly have no shame). 40% is focused on fending off questions regarding my gender (“You’re not a girl!”) which I find mostly hilarious and endearing. Who would have thought that four year old children already have the gender binary programmed in their brains so deeply? The remaining 45% is used to really get down to the nitty-gritty. We work on homework problems, talk about their foster families and try to find tangible solutions to their heartbreaking problems.

For some reason, it has come as a genuine shock to me that kids like me. Then I realized that painful and obvious truth; I am a child. They laugh at my jokes, listen when I give a little advice, and sometimes call me Coco. Even though I leave my home visits (which average about 90 minutes) physically exhausted to begin a two hour commute home (who wants to start a MTA book club?), I always feel like I really did well. I helped foster a tiny change in a kids life, I made a foster parents night run a little smoother, I assisted in altering a family’s perspective regarding their childs “problem” behavior. But not tonight.

I failed! I totally, absolutely failed. It was brutal. I didn’t do anything that I planned on doing. I bought one of my kids a coloring book and crayons as a treat for good behavior, but there was none. I tried to talk to him about school, and listening to grandma, and working on a behavior chart I made with him. No luck. He ran around, cried, crawled under the table, fought his brother, screamed, and ignored me. His family looked to me to help them, but I couldn’t. I had absolutely nothing to say, nothing to do, nothing. Blank. And when I gathered my things to leave and he hugged me and cried and begged me to come back tomorrow, I said, “See you Wednesday”. I went to say good-bye to foster mom, but she just looked at me and I knew I absolutely failed. I walked into their home this evening feeling like I was going to change the world and I did nothing. Yikes. Heavy. Maybe it doesn’t sound like a failure, but it feels like one.

So here I am. Watching “The Wonder Years” (Kevin + Winnie Forever!) and drinking a Coca-Cola with my cat plopped on my lap. One bad night won’t ruin a case, but it sure does shake a gals confidence. I know I have the tools and the capacity to really do this work, but there was a moment tonight where I questioned myself and my ability. I guess what I’m trying to say is that being able to recognize what a failure looks like means you care enough and are capable enough of doing this work. Making mistakes, owning those mistakes, and going to work the next day ready to make another mistake is all a part of the field. Right? Anyways…  as Kevin Arnold said, “Every kid deserves to be a hero. Every kid already is.”

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Thoughts on Today

Today I was struck by just how unpredictable our work really is. As a person, I am a planner. I am organized and go about my work and life in a strategic manner. This characteristic certainly helps me as I work out schedules of home visits and re-schedule agency visits to be as efficient as possible. I have learned to never ever use anything but pencil as I must record and change and change again meetings and visits in my bright red agenda pad. I feel I have adapted somewhat to the constantly flow of change surrounding “set plans.” No quiet or dull moment at the agency remains so for long. No unscheduled afternoon isn’t waiting to be filled by a last-minute visit.

Today, however, I felt like I was faced with something entirely unforeseen- even though it should have been anticipated. Unlike a last minute effort to accompany teenage boys to be enrolled in school or a question catching me off-guard in a permanency hearing, today I was given a new case. It was essentially plopped on my desk. And that was it. Three of my girls are on trial discharge to their father, so I should have seen this coming. But, I did not expect it in the rare moment of quiet I was experiencing while updating documents at my desk. The day was just winding down. She said it was 2 year old girl who was hospitalized with bruises and cuts and removed from her mother. Then she walked away..

As I rushed off to do the initial home visit, I was struck by how strange and afraid I felt. At this point into the job, I feel used to running off to visit new, unfamiliar neighborhoods and meeting new people. I couldn’t quite get why this one moved me in such a way. After I was done with the visit, I realized that it was my first real case. Not a case I inherited after joining a caseload and a team in the middle of a month- one I will be involved with from the beginning. The fact that it is a little girl who kept on showing me the boo-boos on her foot just made it hit that much deeper. I felt thrown into a family’s life in a way that I have not before, despite the minimal time I spent with them today and the countless hours I have spent already at the agency.

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