Monthly Archives: August 2012

How Long Is A Year?

Alternate care. Out of home placement. Congregate care. Institution. There are a lot of descriptors for my placement. I work at a Residential Treatment Center, aka an RTC.

In the alternate, out of home, foster care system, there are many levels of care. Starting from the least restrictive moving on up to the most, we have Foster Care, Treatment Family Foster Care (also known as Therapeutic Foster Care), Group Home (first level of congregate care), and Residential Treatment Centers. RTC is the highest level, the last stop. If a child is at risk at an RTC, they will more likely than not be moved to a OMH (Office of Mental Health) facility such as an RTF (Residential Treatment Facility – in my experience, they look pretty similar to RTCs) or a psychiatric hospital, either acute (usually fewer than 6 months) or state (long-term).

Ideally, the level of care is appropriate to the child’s need. Today is my one year anniversary of being a Caseworker in Residential Care. It took me less than a week to realize that within the foster care system, nothing is ideal. The past year flew by. I still feel like I don’t know how to do a lot of things. I still cry from the stress and I still struggle with prioritizing 25 tasks a day that are all urgently needed by someone somewhere. It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long. A year is a long time however, especially if you are a child in residential placement.

Recently, there has been a push away from residential care. Children’s advocates were concerned that children were languishing in group homes with no concern for their permanency, safety and well-being. As is often the case complications arise when good policy is put into practice. Ideally, the only children in RTCs would be children whose behavioral or emotional needs are so great that they could not be kept safe in the community but I’ve noticed several kids come in to the RTC who would have thrived in a group home.

Again, nothing is ideal in foster care. Far from it. When I think about my year, I think about a child who has been at the RTC for 9 months. I think about the fact that we have been trying to step him down to a foster home since the day he arrived. I think about how he has decompensated and I think about how sad he looks when he asks me if he’s ever leaving. He should have left 9 months ago. He never should have arrived.

The truth is, there is a paucity of foster homes who are willing and licensed for teenagers. Especially male teenagers. Especially male teenagers coming out of Residential Treatment. A child emergently placed at an RTC because there is no immediate family foster care bed often lingers in the RTC. The longer he stays the harder it is to step him down into a family foster home. Foster parents are familiar with the system and many have bitter memories of the disrupted placements of former foster children who had to be stepped up to residential.

When I started at my agency, I was asked why I wanted to work in foster care. I said that I felt a calling to service and was told that a calling isn’t enough. Working in residential care was described as being akin to being drafted into a war. I wage war against the system, against my children’s worst instincts, and against the worst instincts of their caregivers.

At first I was terrified of working with emotionally disturbed teenagers. I was scared they would vandalize my car (it happened), steal my wallet (also happened) and run away from me in the community (has happened multiple times). My boys are the highlight of my work day and also my biggest headache.

I saw The Dark Knight Rises this weekend. My boyfriend rolled his eyes when I starting talking about the foster children in the movie, as I do about any movie involving children in care (Moonrise Kingdom was the most recent). I cried at one scene in particular, when Officer Blake recounts his time in care and tells Batman the following:

Not a lot of people know what it feels like to be angry, in your bones. I mean, they understand… foster parents.. everybody understands – for awhile. Then they want the angry little kid to do something he knows he can’t do: move on. So after awhile they stop understanding. They send the angry kid to a boys home. I figured it out too late. You gotta learn to hide the anger, practice smiling in the mirror. It’s like putting on a mask.

Working in foster care you quickly become acquainted with the weaknesses of the human heart. You will eventually be impressed with the resiliency of your kids. Resilient is maybe the wrong word. Children recover from trauma, but their behavior often reflects their emotional scars. I see the scarred tissue of my boys’ souls every day and every day it pains me not to be able to do more for them. In Residential Care, there are no foster parents. My kid has an off campus appointment? That’s me. Criminal court? Also me. School meeting? Me. Discipline and clinical work intersect as you and the treatment team constantly tries to figure out how to help each child within the limited flexibility of a highly structured program.

Sometimes I feel like it’s all too much for me. When I first started, I cried multiple times a day from the stress and feeling like I was doing a terrible job. I later learned I was doing a fine job but simply didn’t know the minutia of case planning in residential care. I still cry a lot, usually from the stress (it should be noted that I am a crier: last week I couldn’t find my shoe, I was hungry and my cat declined to cuddle and I was reduced to tears).

Today I cried for a different reason. Today I cried because of the aforementioned child, a child for whom I have done everything I can think to do in order to get him out of residential care. It hasn’t worked. It hasn’t been enough. I hate the system for sending him to the RTC and I hate myself for not being able to get him out faster. To care about a child in foster care, especially residential, is to have your heart broken a thousand times in a hundred ways. Today’s tears were angry tears, because I am angry too. My mask is anger, because it’s easier than being heartbroken all the time.

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Slow Starts and Small Successes

Many people who begin their careers as social workers have very little, if any, training. Often in their first week they are thrown into too much work, too quickly, headed for the road to burnout.

This was not my experience.

For one, I had just finished five weeks of Children’s Corps training, which, if nothing else, gave me a really great idea of what I was about to get myself into.

And then there was my first week. I found myself being stressed because I didn’t have enough to do. I was given eight cases, and on the first day, my supervisor told me to send introduction letters to all the birth and foster parents on my caseload, letting them know that I would be their new worker. Okay, easy enough. Now what?

On day two, my supervisor said, “Well, maybe you should call them; it will be nice for you to let them know before they receive their letters.” I did this for two days, and I was only able to get into contact with three people.

By Thursday morning, I was panicking. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough, and I knew that there were some major pieces that I was missing, but I was so lost that I didn’t even know which questions to ask. And then Rebecca showed up.

Rebecca and I share an office, but she had been on vacation for my first three days of work. Recently, my agency switched to the “Child Success” model, and so she had been working on my cases before I started at the agency. She returned to the office that Thursday, and I simply turned to her and said, “Rebecca… I have a question. Umm… I don’t know. What do I… Where do I… I’m lost. Help!”

She asked if I had any specific questions, and by the look on my face she seemed to know exactly what to do. In a matter of seconds she was forwarding all of the information she had on my upcoming court dates, FTCs, PPCs, permanency hearing reports, court action summaries, all the things I needed to know.

Every day I find a million new questions to ask her. If she minds, she hasn’t told me; she is always so patient, and seemingly happy to answer my hundreds of daily questions.

Now, at the end of week two, I am finally starting to get into a groove here. I can finally pick up the phone and manage to keep my heart at a steady rate, I have done several home visits by myself, and I’m really starting to get into my cases and feel out what the best things for these families might be.

Once I started to meet the families and get to know them, everything started falling into place. Last Thursday, I received a tip about the whereabouts of a birth parent who has been AWOL since before I started. Friday morning I spoke with that parent on the phone, and she told me where she is, where she’s been, and where she will be. I know I will have many failures in the future, but right now I’m celebrating my small successes.

I am only two weeks in, and already I know that I love this work.

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Let’s start at the beginning

When I was a kid I loved these Scratch Magic art kits: several sheets of unassuming black paper. You used a stick tool or a coin to scrape away the black and reveal something below: a pattern of bright colors or a picture. I thought that scratching off one section and still not knowing what was going on under the black on the rest of the sheet was so fun.

Starting my job in child welfare is just like that, except less fun. I have now completed five weeks of Children’s Corps (CC)  training, and since starting work on Monday I’ve had two days a week of additional training from my agency. Despite all of these lectures and workshops, I still feel like I have scraped away only a small part of the black covering of child welfare. Every time I turn around there’s something new to learn, and I still don’t even know how much I still don’t know. The child welfare system spiders out in a million different conditional situations and case-by-case decisions. When learning about filling out FASPs (comprehensive case reports) we received thirty pages detailing all the options that could possibly come up, depending on your answer to preliminary questions. In our CC training on family court/legal issues in child welfare we were told repeatedly—emphatically—that there was no way we could cover all we might need to know in the few hours that were allotted.

The bottom line of this is that, while I have some large-picture understanding of how a case moves through the system, I know that there’s a lot still to be revealed. Even with the training I have, there is no way I could totally understand what is, and/or will be happening with any case. And I’m okay with that.

But I’ve had a realization: it is also extremely challenging for parents whose children have newly entered foster care to understand the system. When I have sat in on transitional meetings and more informal encounters I’ve seen that parents don’t comprehend major aspects of what is happening. They aren’t clear on the difference between the agency and the judge. Or, they haven’t figured out that a legal process must be followed once a case has been opened. Or they plain old don’t understand why their kids are in care and what a child welfare agency is.

There are probably many reasons behind this. In several cases there were language barriers that made it hard for the caseworkers to convey the necessary information. But I also think that sometimes a caseworker doesn’t slow down and go over it at the speed the parent needs. If they’ve been doing it for a few years, they might assume something is obvious that truly isn’t to the parent. And the parents’ confusion is not surprising. It is easy to imagine that what I still don’t understand after five weeks of training cannot be explained sufficiently in just a few conversations.

This knowledge of the process is, however, essential for parents. Without understanding the basics of the system, how can you know what to do to get your kids back?

My realization has made me more committed to devoting (a lot of) time to explaining the system at the beginning of a case. I want to be sure that my families—both parents and children—understand the role that these regulations and institutions play in affecting their lives. And I hope that if parents can understand the rules of the game—if we can scratch as much black from their paper as possible—they can be more effective partners in the process.

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A year from now

A year from now I’ll laugh. I’ll laugh as I remember the advice my co-workers gave me about how to deal with difficult family members and birth parents. Ill laugh at the speed of which I learned names and remembered faces. I’ll laugh at how long It took me to travel around boroughs. I’ll laugh at the attitudes of Judges and Lawyers. I’ll laugh at my lack of understanding of simple terms and phrases that I read on connections and heard tossed around the office.. I’ll laugh as I remember how my office phone never used to ring. I’ll laugh at how little I knew and how many questions I asked. But for now, these are all things that I’m struggling with. Today is the end of my first week as a social worker and all in all, Its been an easy and a very difficult week. Its been easy because I have not actually done any real work yet. I have just been shadowing more experienced case workers and sitting in on wily FTC’s, but It is also difficult because I am beginning to get an understanding of what my role will really be like and I am terrified. The role of case worker is time consuming and all encompassing. It is the role of services provider, baby sitter, mediator, file clerk, note taker,therapist and life coach. I wonder if my life thus far has prepared me for these roles. I don’t think it has but I know that once I begin in my role as a case planner, Ill need to get prepared really fast. These thoughts are really scary but I am excited for the changes that I know are coming.

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Squirrels, Turkeys & Foundlings

There are a lot of different words, phrases, moments that can be ascribed to the past month and a half of my life, but I really like the ones listed above. Being a part of Children’s Corps has been quite the experience thus far, and I really haven’t even begun the real work! (Although, I’m really, really close). It’s conjured up a myriad of feelings ranging from pure excitement for my work, happiness at having friends and supports, to absolute fear of whether I’m fully capable of doing such a job, and everything in between (as such, this post, much like my head, is a collection of random thoughts). I keep trying to remind myself of the lessons I learned at training, one in particular being, that I am a squirrel and not a turkey! Yes, a squirrel. While I find neither animal to be all that appealing, the analogy used at training was this: “You can teach a turkey to climb a tree…OR….you can hire a squirrel.” So, that’s exactly what Barry & Viv did. They went out and found twenty-some squirrels. In reality, I’d say very few of us, if any, actually resemble squirrels. However, we all possess the ability to climb a tree. Not so much literally, because I lost my tree climbing ability years ago, but more in a social work way, in that we all have/share certain qualities, passions and innate abilities to work and relate to people in a mostly non-judgmental way, which apparently, when paired with the right kind of additional training, should make us good social-workers, and also good for the system overall, so that agencies won’t be hiring turkeys who can’t climb trees. So, ultimately, if a+b=c, that means I should be able to do this job and do it well….right? I think….hopefully….?? I was never good at equations.

And, when that line of thought doesn’t work for me, I am ever so grateful to have 25 other people/friends to lean on and share this experience and journey with. If it wasn’t for our diligent self-care efforts , plus our network of support for each other and the ever important exchange of conversation & laughter while eating food on floors of unfurnished apartments, or while enduring agency training, who knows if I would make it.

And, in a rare, deeper and more personal line of thought: While sitting in my new hire orientation with New York Foundling, learning about the humble beginnings of the organization, it dawned on me that I, myself, am a foundling. Not just a (hopefully) vital member of the NYF organization, but in my own humble beginnings I once was “a deserted or abandoned child of unknown parentage”, left in a hospital in a far-off land, until some modest and wonderful people decided to make me a part of their family. Is it possible that my life is coming full-circle (should I be concerned that it’s happening at a relatively young age in my life)?! Could this be a sign from above that this work really is my vocation? Maybe, I really am meant to be where I am at this moment. With that in mind, and my squirrel knowledge, I am ready to finish agency training/training in general and delve into the real stuff. I think, I hope.

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The First Call

I check and recheck the numbers to make sure they are right.

Seven digits.

Ten with the area code.

Eleven if you count the 1.

I pick up the phone, the cord tangled within itself—it has probably been like that for over a decade.

The tone mimics my heart: one long, nervous scream.

I dial the numbers slowly and precisely.

Error tone. Place the phone back in the receiver.

Twelve digits—I have to press 9 to dial out.

Wait another minute.

Dial the twelve digits again.

I am torn between wanting him to pickup and hoping to get his answering machine.

I squeeze my eyes tighter and tighter each time I hear a ring.

“Hello?” a man answers.

“Hi, my name is Edith Estrella Ramos”

My name is way too long.

“I am your new case planner and I want to see when we can schedule this week’s visit.”

I hold my breath.

“Yes” he said.

“Well, are you available this Thursday?”

Please say yes, please say yes.

“Yes, I get home between 5 and 5:30”

Flex time on the first week!

“That would be perfect. I will touch base with you again on Thursday. Thank you so much!”

And…breathe out! Uuuufff!

Pencil Mr. H on August 16th at 5pm in my brand new weekly planner.

I set my pencil down and lean back in my chair with a satisfied smile on my face.

One down, 12 more families to go.

With about 25-30 children I am responsible for.

Between now and the 31st.

Take away 5 days of blocked training.

That leaves me with 10 days.

And the workers whose caseload I inherited quit suddenly and left a giant mess of papers for me to decipher.

Yaaaaay!

Sigh!

This is definitely going to be fun—and I cannot wait!

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Week 1: Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines…

Okay, perhaps a Nascar reference isn’t an appropriate metaphor for the description of my first week. I think a bicycle, rollerblades, perhaps a skateboard would work just fine. So, today is Friday. I am 4 hours away from completing my first week as a therapeutic social worker at Jewish Child Care Association and I have quite a range of feelings about my experience thus far. Overall I would say the week has been a positive experience and I am starting to feel comfortable in my new position. The therapeutic branch at my agency is expanding and they have decided to bring on a new team which includes a new supervisor, socio-therapist and social worker (me). Of the new team I am the first to be hired and the other two positions have yet to be filled.  At present I have two acting supervisors, no socio-therapist partner, and no cases (!). I have spent the week attending group meetings, introducing myself to coworkers and shadowing yet I have not done any tangible, concrete work. I’m struggling a bit to determine what I should be doing and what efforts I should be making. I have reached out to coworkers introducing myself and making conversation about their cases. I do not feel that I have done nothing with my time, however I have no gauge of what I should/could be doing.

In school, internships and Children’s Corps training I have been preparing and developing my professional identity. During this first week I feel that my professional self has been frozen on a dark stage with a spotlight shining directly on it. The “shoulds” are overwhelming and I am constantly questioning, “What would a professional do?” I often think of people whom I admire for their professionalism or outgoing personalities and wonder- if they were in the same situation as me, how would they respond? On one hand I think this has potential to be harmful because I am truly not those people and acting in a manner different from myself is not being honest to my true self. However I think it also has the potential to be quite helpful. As this is a new situation for me there will be times when I will be uncomfortable and will need to put myself out there and try new tactics. I am learning that you don’t graduate school with an established “professional self” polished and ready to be the perfect social worker. Rather I am just beginning my journey in an unending quest for the perfect worker. How can I know what the best thing to do or say is without trying and failing a few times? Each failure provides a piece to the puzzle, a missing link in the chain that will help me find my way.

Though I have not done a significant amount of tangible work at the office, this week has not been an easy one. Last weekend I moved into a new apartment which I will be sharing with a friend from out of state who will be moving in September. I am learning that moving entails more than just moving a few pieces of furniture and that supers are not always the most reliable. This week I have had my apartment cleaned and painted, had the locks changed, converted all of the utilities into my name and numerous other tasks. I am also adjusting from living in a lively house of five to living on my own. This is certainly a big week of transitions and a time to learn about myself (and watch Netflix).

While I have spent a significant portion of my work week reading and emailing friends (and writing this blog post) I must also remember that I have, without a doubt, begun my journey. Though I have not written my own FASPs or had life-altering conversations with families, I have made connections with co-workers who will inevitably assist me with future cases. I have also been granted the gift of time to settle into my new setting and adjust to the day-to-day life of a caseworker, a New Yorker, and an independent adult. I must also admit that the support of my fellow Children’s Corps members, scratch that- friends, has been an immeasurable help in getting me through this week. From sitting on the floor of my unfurnished living room eating Chinese take-out and watching library movies on a laptop to sharing first week stories at a randomly won free happy hour, I owe my sanity to you. As anxious as I am to delve into new cases and start “saving” the world, I must admit I have done something and I’m certain I will miss this peace and quiet soon.

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