Finding the Rhythm in Child Welfare

Several weeks ago as I was leaving my office, headed home, all of the sudden I felt guilty for leaving. At the time I was still catching up on the madness of inheriting a caseload of 26, with several families with very long and complex histories. I had a permanency hearing report two days overdue, a FASP that was a week overdue, and two additional permanency hearing reports due by the end of the month for families I knew very little about. I had 3 expired special rate packages with foster parents calling me daily. I had court in two days and somehow needed to refer the father for a random drug test, ensure that he goes, and get the results before then. I needed to do a full day of home visits at the end of the week but had not yet scheduled one of them. l had birth parents I had not yet met. I had several families that I feel like if I could just spend some intensive time with them and invest some serious energy into going the extra mile to get everything in order, the kids could go home within a month or two. And I plan to do just that as soon as I surface from this whirlwind that I keep thinking exists only because I am new, and because the learning curve is massive, and because I inherited a caseload of 26 kids on day one that had seen 3 caseworkers in the last two years. But more and more, I’m realizing that there is no surfacing from the whirlwind–this whirlwind is an eternal whirlwind. And that night, I felt guilty leaving the whirlwind behind me.

I’m not sure why I felt particularly guilty that night. Maybe it was because I was the first of my coworkers to leave, and as I walked out I saw that familiar look on their faces left that says “I wish I were headed home now, but I’ll probably be here for a while…” Perhaps it was because as I left, my director was standing in the doorway, and she has these twinkly eyes full of a constant hint of expectation and a ferocious passion for this work that just makes you want to truly go to the ends of the earth for these kids and families.

Regardless of why, I walked out into the Harlem night feeling guilty– despite knowing that I would be getting home close to 8:00 PM and probably eating dinner around 9:00– and I did not feel okay with it. So then I became mad at myself for feeling guilty, and then I started feeling mad at myself for feeling MAD at myself for feeling guilty. And then I saw the whole thing happening and started wondering just how my brain could become so neurotic in just a few short minutes, and what on earth was I doing in this job that manages to impact me in this way? And maybe I should have quit two months ago–and maybe it’s not too late to do so.

On my commute home, I asked myself what exactly it is about this work that can be so maddening? I have realized that for me the greatest challenge in this work is finding balance–the balance between going the extra mile enough of the time to feel like I’m actually making a difference and putting my heart into this work, and not doing it so much that I burn out. The balance between getting the work done and letting the to do list languish in the interest of taking care of myself.

I have spent much of the last year or so of my life trying to develop some degree of groundedness and inner stability and trust in the universe to direct me to whatever joy or pain and triumphs or obstacles that I may need to get wherever it is I’m going. I think I am a fairly grounded person, but the reality is that this job is shaking that foundation I have so deliberately and carefully built to the core. It is so hard to feel grounded when I am constantly, moment to moment, being pulled in so many different directions. At one moment I’m organizing an emergency meeting, coordinating eight different schedules, the next I’m digging through four year old progress notes to figure out how this whole thing started and what has been tried in the past, and the next I am sitting down with a painfully hard to engage 13 year old boy desperately seeking more then a “yeah, “no” or “I donno.” Five minutes later the phone rings and it is someone from ACS who needs a copy of Form 1862D faxed over (or something equally as enthralling), but I have to hang up that call to answer a call from a birth parent who I have been trying to track down for the last month, and she is going through a crisis and saying I need to do this and that and I’m not doing my job and she’s going to the news first thing in the morning and the agency will be shut down, and in reality all she really needs is someone to listen because she is scared and lonely and angry and just needs to blow off some steam. The whirlwind is unrelenting.

I am pulled into the past to understand how these families got here, to support them in healing and reconciling the impacts of times gone by. I am pulled into the future to plan and figure out how things are going to work out. And I am constantly pulled into the depths of the present moment to be with a client who walks through the door or whose home I visit to simply listen and empathize and be real with them. I am pulled so ceaselessly and forcefully in all directions in time that my soul starts to feel spread thin.

Everything in life has a different rhythm. Different places have different rhythms, different times have different rhythms, the various paces at which we operate have different rhythms. This job has me engaged, simultaneously, in so many different planes of time and scales of human engagement that I’m struggling to find the rhythm. It feels at times like I’m being forced to dance salsa to reggae music or break dance to a waltz. I can’t quite make out the beat, and it just feels like a constant clash.

I am a firm believer in the idea that we always have at our disposal the ability to transform our experience by changing the way we relate to it. Conflict, clash, discomfort, feeling overwhelmed–these experiences are so dense with opportunity and potential for individual growth. This work forces us into a head on collision with the full spectrum of the madness of this world that we humans have created–the stories of horror and tragedy, the stories of resilience and triumph, the humor and the bureaucracy, the mistakes and the miracles and the love that knows no end. We are engaged with the profound moments so close to the core of human existence, and the mind-numbingly trivial. I cannot think of any other line of work that would give one a more complete picture of what it means to be a human being alive in this world today. This is a gift. A tremendously huge gift that is rocking my foundation and forcing me to remind myself every day that it is indeed a gift. Experienced moment to moment, this job is a chaotic concert of clashing rhythms. But the entire experience, seen from a bird’s eye view, comes together as a monumental opportunity, an enormous gift, and an orchestra of unimaginable beauty that helps me to feel closer to the constant knowledge of just how sacred this life is. If I can continue to hear this orchestra in the day to day, moment to moment experience of this work, then I believe the rhythm will be there when that woman calls for the umpteenth time for that form she needs faxed. The constant clashing is part of the rhythm. I just need to keep learning how to hear it.

In our Children’s Corp group and amongst my coworkers, we talk a lot about the importance of celebrating the small victories, no matter how small, and the little bits of joy and happiness that we can get at any moment, because we need those to carry us through. I do think this is hugely important and I try my best to celebrate everything I possibly can and support the people around me to do so as well. But for myself I need to be able to celebrate everything for the role it plays in fitting into the whole, the whole which is neither good nor bad, neither joy nor sorrow, but simply the complete picture of our experience.

So the next time I feel guilty for leaving a long to do list behind, and then proceed to get mad at myself for feeling guilty, I will laugh, because I can see so clearly that I am also a human created and molded by this crazy human world on this overwhelmingly complicated planet. I am as imperfect as anyone, and I fit beautifully into this orchestra. The undone to dos will fall away. The guilt will dissolve. Face to face with this child welfare world that is more densely packed with opportunity for growth than any I have ever confronted before, I will simply be grateful.


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5 responses to “Finding the Rhythm in Child Welfare

  1. This blog entry makes my heart sing. I guess I too, am part of the orchestra!


  2. Barry

    The world is complicated. Thanks Maggie for a great perspective on the “music” of
    this world. We need violins,flutes,clarinets,saxophones, drums,and on and on. My hope is that all of our CC members find their instrument, play it to the best of their ability and figure out where they fit. Some will become the conductors of this orchestra!!!

  3. Martha


    What you have written about foster care casework here represents so many of my own thoughts and feelings about this work. It is insightful and beautifully written. I will be sharing this with some of my friends and family members for sure!


  4. Rachel

    This was absolutely enthralling! You captured so clearly the feelings I am sure we all share and managed to do so in such a cohesive and poetic way. I not only appreciated reading this piece but feel like I benefited from it as well; it articulates so much of my own experience! Thanks Maggie 🙂

  5. LIz

    This is so beautifully written! It is organized chaos, a consciously organized unconscious stream of thought. A well-edited, though seemingly random glimpse into your mind and day and week. It is inspiring to read approaching the wee hours of the evening as well as a delight. Kudos!

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