Monthly Archives: November 2011

One case closed…fourteen to go and counting!

Finally I’m closing my first case, in what is a bittersweet farewell. For one, it’s a sweet moment because I’m proud to see my client got it together and got her kids back, but bitter because I enjoyed working with her and her children and it’s the clients that are left behind, the ones that are giving me grief. In addition to that, once a case is closed another one is transferred and sometimes the new ones are more challenging than the ones already lingering in my caseload and whose challenges I have gotten accustomed to.

The transition is always hard; sometimes I have left the new folders closed for days, procrastinating the start of my relationship with my new family, as if they were characters of a book that by not reading wouldn’t entice me to get tangled in their story. Then reality kicks in, I open the file and make my first contact, putting aside all the judgments that the previous workers have handed me down with the heavy file, and then it happens; I fall in love with the story and begin working diligently to help them write their happy ending. The work is hard, the resources limited, the relationships difficult and the judgments shadows, but if there is one thing that I hang on to, to carry out my days is to not let the experience of others seep into mine and not to let the judgments of others cloud mine; I take what it’s useful and discard the rest, and when the days get really hard, I think of my CC friends whom are also working really hard and holding on to their passion to help families, to make it through their day.

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It’s the little things

One day last month I decided to complete a few evening home visits to try and catch clients who were only home after 5pm. I booked an agency car, confirmed the visits with foster parents, and mentally prepared myself to get home at 11pm yet again. And then everything went south- and fast.

A co-worker signed out the car I reserved and was expected to bring it back in time for my use but she called to tell me that she was in upstate New York and wouldn’t make it in time. I decided to take public transportation. Usually I try and take public transportation when possible for my visits (who wants to hunt down parking in NYC?) but I was doing late visits- one of which was in Yonkers- and desperately needed a car. These visits needed to get done somehow so I set out on foot, first two locations in the Bronx, and the last one in Yonkers.

I got lost. I walked around in circles and was clearly an outsider in the neighborhood. It was particularly cold, windy, pouring rain and to be honest I was getting ticked off. So I found myself in a small bodega, clothing soaked, and asking the owner for directions. He was very kind and repeated the directions to make sure I understood. Then I set out again but hit a wall- literally- where I was supposed to go straight. I looked around and saw a man with his headphones in, hooded sweatshirt on, walking quickly; did I mention that it was night?  I found myself loudly yelling EXCUSE ME until he stopped. He was also very kind, and showed me that I needed to climb a set of stairs to get past the wall and onto the street I needed. Now some people may have been initially intimidated, or even afraid, of stopping someone in an unfamiliar neighborhood in the evening, but I put my reservations aside and was helped by a friendly person.

After my first two visits, I waited for Metro North to take me to Yonkers. By this point it was nearly 6:30pm, bitter cold because of the rain, and very dark. The train arrived but on the wrong track and whizzed by me and two other passengers who were patiently waiting. At this point I nearly broke down; this job had me trekking all over New York City, arriving home at ridiculously late hours, and in areas where I sometimes questioned if I would be safe. Now it was getting late, my hands were freezing, and the freaking train just passed me although I was waiting for 30 minutes; man, I was frustrated! Just then, a young man began talking to me and shared in my frustration about missing the train. We chatted for a while and I explained that I needed to get off in Yonkers but had no way of getting to my client’s house. He searched on his phone and got me some Yonkers cab company phone numbers. He went even further and answered all of my questions: what other train lines I could take to get to Yonkers; how much the cab would probably cost; if staff would be working at the train station.

When I arrived in Yonkers I was picked up by a cabbie named Ramon who gave me his direct number so I could call him to come back and get me when my home visit was over. Ramon even gave me a discount and took some $ off my fare. On my way home to Jersey I thought of my day and how I was helped by so many different people. It was a pretty frustrating day on top of a frustrating week, but help from those strangers made me feel better. Sometimes it really is the little things that get you through when things seem to be falling apart.

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Laughter; Arguably the Best Medicine

Lets be real; not a lot of genuinely funny things happen in the foster care system. Going on a home visit, you’re in someone else’s territory, invading their space and taking time away from their busy schedule. It doesn’t  really seem the ideal space to let your goofy freak flag fly. So here are some things I’ve learned about reigning in your own weirdo personality in the company of others; don’t.

I tried to tone down my personality, knowing it’s a bit much for certain people and situations, but I have to be honest; it’s not working. Being professional does not mean being a stiff. And in this field, being a stiff could even be considered being unprofessional. Do you follow? The fact that my seven year old client is doing imitations of my different voices and making fun of my knit-hat is a good sign. My sixteen year old laughing until she cried when I ran out of her kitchen due to a moth’s presence is a good sign. Trust me on that one.

Not only is it important to be yourself and own it, it’s important to allow others the same space and privilege. When I walked up to one of my teenager’s homes the other day and knocked on the door, I heard her yell to her mother, “The f’n stalker is here!”. First and foremost- I am totally a stalker. Not the scary kind, but I’m chasing these families down! I have to! So yeah, I’m calling you, your foster mother, your Case Worker, your teachers, and now I’m showing up at your house. I am a glorified, salaried, stalker. As a worker in a field that oftentimes lets people, families, and children down, I will in no way take offense to  someone calling me a stalker. At least she knows I care.

Working with families in situations that could not be more different from my own has not only taught me a lot about owning my…stuff, it has taught me to own myself. The Coco. I own it! I am what I am, and at the very least, I have learned that being genuine and strange goes a lot further than being “professional” and fake. Sure, my kids think I’m a weirdo, and sure, my five year old called me “creepy” for watching him do homework, but what can I say. If taking your job seriously and caring for your families as if they are your own make you a creepy stalker, well hey, nice to meet you; I’m a creepy stalker.

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Being a “good” social worker

First of all, I would like to say that I really appreciate reading the blog posts from my fellow Children’s Corps members. I know how difficult it can be to write or even think about work after a day of child welfare, but it’s great to read the posts and remember that other people I know are working in this challenging field.

Last week marked my third month of employment, which means that I have passed my probationary period and now have health insurance. More specifically, that means that I can make that dentist appointment that my mom has been bugging me about for months now.

The past few weeks have been surprisingly fun at the office, as I get to know my co-workers more and feel more comfortable in my position. It also seems to help when I bring in homemade baked goods in the mornings.. Then, last Thursday, two of my co-workers announced that they are leaving, and the office environment has been a bit more somber. Once they leave, my caseload will likely go up, but I’m trying not to think about that for now.

My supervisor and I make the commute to and from work together sometimes when we happen to catch the same ferry, and it has been great to have that time as a sort of informal supervision when we can have a bit of discussion about my cases as well as more systemic issues that relate to the work. She has been working in child welfare for 30+ years, and despite sometimes lapsing into cynicism, she remains committed to the families and children. Even though she probably works around fifty hours each week, she is less burned out than some of the one- or two-year employees. When I start feeling bad for myself for having to work late one night, I try to remember how hard some of the other caseworkers and supervisors work, and balance out my schedule so I can get some more free time on a different day.

Lately I have been thinking about how difficult it is to work with my families in both helping to prevent crises and reacting to them once they have already happened. Currently, all of my cases are at least one year old, and each of my families has had at least three other workers. The other day, during a family visit, a teenager told his mother in front of me: It’s okay mom, she’s one of the good social workers. I’d like to think that is true, but honestly, the bar to measure what is “good” seems to be low. I do my best to make time to talk to children individually, to give parents the benefit of the doubt when other workers would have given up (they even encourage me to do so), and to approach each family in a unique way, but I do not always have the time for it. When I have a FASP or PH report due, I usually have to prioritize that, and when a crisis comes up, I put preventative measures, like visiting a child’s school when things are going fairly well, on the back burner. That being said, my caseload is totally manageable. I have less cases than almost all other caseworkers in my department, and I still struggle to have time to go the extra mile for families. I am sure that this is true for many other jobs, but it can be difficult to maintain high standards for myself when I know that I can get by with the bare minimum. Do I return that mother’s phone call before I leave work even though I know she will talk my ear off for half an hour about a concern she has for her son, or do I leave work on time and call her back later? Do I keep trying to maintain a real positive relationship with that foster mother or do I really confront her about her parenting techniques?

I know this is going to sound cliche, but I truly think that being a part of Children’s Corps helps me hold myself at a higher standard than what is generally expected of me. Each of these families deserves something better than what the system generally provides, so I just need to remember this, and take care of myself in the process. Easier said than done, of course. A few weeks ago I worked three consecutive days that were 13.5, 13, and14 hours long (including my commute), and I thought I would go crazy. I know that I cannot continue to do that if I am going to remain sane and reasonably happy at work, so I have been putting my time management skills to the test. I also told myself that even though I am behind on entering progress notes, I will not spend another Saturday afternoon working on them, because I need my weekends for myself. To sum it up, my lofty goal is to maintain high standards for work and continuous self-care. Three more months on the job, and I can take a vacation!

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