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.