Monthly Archives: September 2012

Self-Disclosure

Ms. L is a no-nonsense kind of gal—she tells it like it is. She is also the kind of person that may easily intimidate the president of the United States.

How am I going to engage her? The previous case planner had no success. When we were at a joint emergency meeting with ACS, she admitted that she was purposely not picking up my phone calls and did not want us in her house.

As I stood in her living room, waiting for her to acknowledge me, I thought, what could I possibly say to this mother of four that she would care to listen to?

Her children were very friendly. They grabbed my hand and pulled me into their rooms to see their toys. One of her daughters held out her coins and practically sat on my lap. The little baby played at my feet and gave me high fives. Ms. L, however, looked straight ahead, never turning to face me as we spoke.

I gave her forms to fill out so we could get those out-of-the-way. I whipped out the genogram sheet and told her we were going to make a map of her family. Plotting her children and their respective fathers was the easy part. As I asked her about her parents and siblings, she was short and simply said she did not keep in contact with them. Yet, I insisted by asking her to tell me about her sister.

“Actually,” she said. “She is my adopted sister. I was adopted when I was a teenager. I was in foster care until I was seven. I

Throughout our entire conversation about Ms. L’s family, we kept being interrupted by her eldest daughter who was doing homework at the dinner table. Ms. L was helping her with her vocabulary homework. She struggled a bit while she tried her best to help. Her daughter kept being resistant and wanted to play instead of sitting at the table with her homework.

“I want the best for you,” she told her daughter. “I know it is not easy. I started my first day of school today and I missed out on so much. But if there is one thing I know, it is that in order to be successful and have the things you want, you have to have an education. My adoptive mother wanted the best for me. Yet, I was hard headed and now I appreciate the things she said to me.”

“How old are you, Ms. L?” I asked.

“I’m 27,” she replied. “I will be 28 at the end of the year.”

“I’m 28, too” I told her. “I just graduated college in May.”

“With a Master’s?” she asked.

I shook my head ‘no’.

“With a bachelor’s?” she asked incredulously.

“Yes,” I replied. “There were circumstances that did not permit me to go to college after high school. I could not afford to pay for it and I could not get financial aid. But my mother believed in me, that I was smart, and that one day it would happen. This May, I was the first person in my family to have a college degree.”

Ms. L was silent, her eyes wide as she looked at me.

A million thoughts ran through my head. Maybe that was inappropriate. Maybe she thought I was trying to show her up and that anyone could do it.

“Thank you so much for sharing that with me,” she said. “I keep thinking that I can never do it, that there is something wrong with me. My teacher told me today that at the end of the course we would have a graduation. I thought it was silly but now I think it will be so awesome to have a ceremony. I am doing the best I can for my children.”

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one single step, Ms. L,” I said. “Today was your first class on your way to achieving something great for you and your family.”

Did I save the world? Not in a million years.

Should I have disclosed my personal story? Probably not but I went with the feeling in my gut.

Did I change anyone’s life today? I do not think so, but Ms. L, the tough cookie, the person no one wanted to deal with, gave me a hug as she bid me goodnight and was very open to welcoming me back into her house again.

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Year One Reflections

A couple weeks ago, I handed my supervisor an application for B2H services for a child on my caseload.  She looked it over and gave it back to me, saying that the psychiatric evaluation included in the application was outdated.  “What do you mean?” I asked her, “it’s not more than six months old, it’s only from November!”  She started laughing, and said to me, “Maggie! It’s August!  November was nine months ago!”  My eyes widened as I realized it was true.  “The months just fly by in foster care,” she said, still laughing as she walked away from my desk.

It’s true.  The months DO fly by.  Here we are, those of us from the first Children’s Corps class already having passed our one year mark, and a brand new class of Corps members trained, placed, and out there working hard.

In the last year I have found that because, as Children’s Corps members, we are committed to our jobs specifically for a two year period, the way we experience time is different.  The future, rather than a blank canvas devoid of an eventual completion of sorts, is marked with signposts measuring the distance towards two years like mile markers in a marathon.  Regardless of what we do with our lives after that 365th day of Year Two, whether we move on or continue this work with our respective agencies indefinitely, on that day we will have completed something.  And so until that day, time has its signposts.

My own personal signposts have taken the form of seasons.  While I dearly miss the California lifestyle and can’t deny I enjoyed the weather that felt like eternal September—ever sunny and warm-but-not-too-warm— in moving back to the northeast, I am immeasurably glad to once again be bombarded by the full force of seasons.  They give us something to distinctly measure the passage of time. I began this job in mid September of last year, one week before the autumnal equinox.  At that time I was wide eyed and eager and invincible, though I had also thought, “Oh no, what on earth have I gotten myself into?”  But I dove head first into the work with a full caseload, and when the end of December came, I looked back and thought “Phew!  I survived the Fall!” and looked forward and realized for the first time that I could finally at least see everything that I still did not know, which felt like quite an accomplishment in itself.  When the spring arrived and I found myself giving tips and answering questions for my coworkers, and finally feeling that my caseload was under control, I thought, “Wow, I’m really getting the hang of this.”  When June rolled around and I found myself working less hours because I was able to get­ the work done in less time, I started feeling like a veteran, totally on top of things, and actually had to kick myself to inspire some humility and appreciation for how much more I have to learn.

What I love about the seasons is that it’s almost possible to forget them as each one passes and we leave it behind us.  As we cross into them again with another year under us, we remember them like places we once had a special fondness for but have not traveled through for some time.  Oh yes, we remember when winter sneaks up on us, THIS is what it feels like when the cold takes my breath away, and this is how magical that first snow really is.

What I love even more about seasons is that, as we tread through the same seasons again and again, our lives become a walk along a spiral path that rises vertically instead of outward, with each circle coming back around to that remembered familiarity of each season.  It’s as if we look down at ourselves through the layers of time, the mile marker seasons that came before.  And from this vantage point we see our journey with a bit more contrast.  We see the layered impact that time has had on our weathered souls, and we see our path of becoming.

Suddenly now, it’s the beginning of September, and I am quickly nearing my own one year mark in this work, about to stride forward into another new school year, another wave of falling leaves.  I’m looking down from where I stand and seeing the eager, hopeful-hearted rookie that I was one year ago.  I see how much I have learned, how much I have experienced, how I have been changed.  And in this moment, as if in karmic return for my early summer arrogance of self-declared totally-on-top-of-things veteran status, I find myself contemplating what it means to feel burned out.

Coming into this work, I was cognizant of the horror stories of child abuse and neglect, forewarned about the frequency with which I could expect be cursed out by angry parents, and generally aware of the commonly thought of factors that make this work unappealing to most.  I was prepared for all this and had my guard up against the impact it might have.  But these are not the most difficult aspects of this work for me.

This work is a constant fight.  A fight to get parents to do what they need to do.  A fight to get kids to do what they need to do.  A fight to get children the services they need and a fight to do anything we can to heal the impacts of trauma and neglect for parents and children alike.  A fight to stay on top of the adrenaline filled crises that erupt as soon as the last one has settled down.  This work is all of those heart wrenching things that people outside the field think about as their eyes get big when you tell them what you do.  Heavy stuff!  But these are such obviously worthy fights, and they are fights I honestly don’t get tired of.  What really wear me down are the fights that I feel I shouldn’t have to fight.  Like the fight against waitlists that are too long.  And the occasional fight to get a foster parent to carry out a simple task of caretaking.  Or the occasional confrontation with typical ego-driven office politics.  Or the fight against adjourn dates for court hearings that are too far apart and stand in the way of permanency.  We’re confronted often with a war against an imperfect, underfunded system that manifests in bureaucratic battles that lack the glory and the urgency of the more obviously worthy fights.  These are the fights that tire me out and break my spirit.  The little things.  The mundane things.  The fights I shouldn’t have to fight.

This past week in my office, morale was low among the case planners.  The good that came of it was lots of bonding amongst our small team of case planners over a handful of long lunches of venting, storytelling, and dreams of what comes next for each of us.  There was light hearted, not-too-serious talk of radically changing careers, starting a business, anything that pays more, and, of course, graduate school.  I’ve found that the moments when one starts thinking about graduate school or any significant next steps are very telling moments.  They tell us that either we are unhappy, and we want to get out of what we’re doing, or we’re so happy that we just can’t get enough and we’ve got to somehow find a way to do more.

As for myself, I was feeling low at the time because of two particularly trying “fights I shouldn’t have to fight” that had come my way that week.  One night after work, I was telling a friend about one of these two “battles”.  I had almost given in and backed down, but I knew that if I had, at the end of the day I would not be being true to myself and I would regret it.  So I fought back.  I can’t exactly say that I won that battle, and the strength it had taken me to not surrender from the start had left me exhausted.  After I relayed the battle story, my friend asked me how I was feeling.  Without hesitation and without thought I confidently said “I feel like a warrior.”  I laughed in surprise, feeling as if someone else had forced the words out of my mouth.  I laughed because I said those words with such fortitude as I sat slumped on the couch at home, half asleep–I really did not think I looked much like a warrior at all.  And I laughed with a light heart as I felt the weight lift off my chest, knowing that it was true.  I did feel like a warrior, in the proudest and noblest sense of what it means to be a warrior.

A warrior is not simply one who goes to war, but one who does so with courage, with heart, and for the right reasons.  It takes a warrior to choose to come into this field in the first place.  There’s simply no reason to be here if you don’t have an oversized heart full of fire.  I see that every day in each and every one of my coworkers.  But once we are here, the day to day, moment to moment experience is simply one choice after another after another of whether to be a warrior or not.  A choice of whether or not to fight and with how much heart.  And the way we choose is how we express who we are in this moment, and who we are choosing to become.

The “obviously worthy” fights present that choice as much as the “fights I shouldn’t have to fight,” but perhaps the latter even moreso, because in those instances, the obligation to fight and the glory that comes of it are much less.  Beneath it all, I somehow suspect that these less than glorious fights are none other than the outer branches of trees deeply rooted in such things as structural racism and systemic poverty and inequality.  Perhaps that is why these battles are so exasperating—because there is a cruel deception in the sterility of it.  We start to get a sense, consciously or not, that we are some kind of pawn piece in a game we never chose and never would choose to play.  We start to wonder what the point is, and what can really be done from where we stand as a case planner.  I think that this sense of powerlessness is unbearable for most, even when we never realize that this is what we are feeling.

Burnout, I think, happens when we are confronted with these moments of choice of whether or not to fight, and with how much heart, and we start to worry too much about winning, about outcomes.  Either we think we might not win, or we simply know we can’t.  And we start wondering, why bother?  We tire of fighting, we tire of the poor odds that are so often present in this work, and the fire in our hearts burns out.  What I’m realizing, though, is that if it’s all about winning and outcomes (reunification with birth families, adoptions, permanency, changing behaviors, gaining access to needed services, etc.), then we very well may burn out quickly.  It has to be about those moments of choice, those moments when we decide who we are.  It’s about the process of choosing again and again.  And if we find our resolute rhythm of choosing in the process itself, then the wins will come naturally in each and every moment where a win was ever possible.

From this angle, burnout too becomes a choice.  Even when the odds are terrible, still if in confronting each choice we consciously say through our actions and our reactions—This is who I am—then we will already have won to begin with.  We win when we see and feel our own hearts alive with courage.  And through this palpable courageousness, we help to bring to light the truth that it is better to fight than not to, even when the odds are against us.  I think this courage becomes contagious, and so this process of courageous choice making is one of the many ways we get the opportunity to change the odds.

How we fight, I believe, is a matter of wisdom rather than courage.  And that is another chapter—a never-ending chapter—of my own experience and growth, and a matter in which the focus on the conversation between intentions and the outcomes themselves is perhaps essential.

My One Year signpost approaches at right about the same time that my birthday marks the end of my first quarter century in this life.  It is so easy in these moments of reflection to look back and try to account for what we have done and what we have accomplished in some concrete sort of way.  In my last year as a case planner, of the 31 children I have worked with, five have gone home to their families, three went home and quickly came back, four were transferred internally to our adoption unit, and one was stepped up to Treatment Family Foster Care.  Those are the numbers.  And they speak very little truth about my experience in this field or the experiences that those 31 children and their families and foster families have had in the last year.  The truth comes from this moment, looking back through four seasons of child welfare and feeling full of pride in the work I have done, the relationships I have built, and the courage that has surfaced from within.  I have faith in my ability to continue on this path of courageous choice making, faith enough to leave myself on auto-pilot in this next year in order to open myself more fully to learning the wisdom of how.

As I simultaneously begin my second year and my second quarter century, I am surrendering completely to an eternity of walking a spiral path of endless choices through the seasons of becoming.  In so doing, I consciously choose not to burn out, and I walk confidently into the oncoming wave of falling leaves and yellow buses.

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A Foster Mother’s love

The news tells us that foster parents are monsters. They tell us that they don’t love the children in their care or even think about their well-being. They say that they are only in it for the money but honestly I know better.  What do you say to a foster parent  who cries out of concern for the well being of a child?  What do you say to that foster parent who is concerned that a parent may not be quite ready for their kids to come home? In the three weeks that I have been a foster care worker, I have not come across not even one foster parent who is in it just for the money. These people who have opened their homes to children who are not their blood have also opened up their hearts. Earlier this week I went grocery shopping with a foster parent and her two boys. These two boys have been in care for over 5 years and I was struck by how much of a family they looked and sounded like with their foster mom. As a family they bought things together. As a family they laughed and shared jokes. Like little kids who trust their parents to give them what they wanted, the boys would run through the aisles of the super market grabbing things that they wanted and bringing it back to their foster mother. She would laugh and say no to a lot of the items that they wanted because most of it was junk but occasionally she would say yes. I could see the bond between the foster mom and her boys. Boys whose files are filled with history of violence and medication, but boys whom this foster mother has gotten through to and love none the less. Foster parents are not doing the job for the money. Everyone has their own reason for why they do the job but that reason doesn’t mean that they can’t give the child what they need. Seeing these things this past week have helped me see a part of the overall child welfare system that works really well. It made me see why I chose to join Children’s Corp and why social work will be a good fit for me.

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The beginning

On my first day of shadowing at Children’s Aid Society during summer training, the executive director (aka child welfare guru) gave me a tour of the building. She briefly pointed to the Teen Foster Care unit and said, “All of those social workers have MSWs, so you probably won’t be working there.” We walked by and continued on with our tour.

Well, currently I’m writing from my new job as a socio-therapist in the Teen Foster Care unit! So….. surprise to me. I showed up for day 1 at my office in Manhattan and met with the two supervisors in Teen Foster Care. “We need a socio-therapist, and we want you,” they said. At once I felt surprised, caught off-guard, and anxious. But I also immediately felt a great connection with the two people who stood before me. They were friendly, knowledgeable, and engaged in casual conversation that made me feel like they really cared. Perfect engagement skills, by the way. After they explained the role of a socio-therapist and threw at me some hypothetical scenarios that, due to my CC training, I answered pretty well under pressure (thanks Barry and Viv!) one supervisor asked me directly, “Do you want to work in Teen Foster care? Because if so, I can show you your desk.”

Here was my thought process: 1) is this a choice? And 2) I looooove teenagers. There is something about the age group that has always drawn me in. I think that the teenage years are crucial to development (obviously) but also can be pretty tough emotionally. Add to that that most of my kids have been in foster care since they were children, and it all adds up to a pretty challenging time. This sounds weird, but when one of my supervisors asked me directly if I wanted to join their unit, something inside me clicked. I replied, “Um, yes please.”

So. The first week has been a whirlwind of learning lots of things, like what I’m actually doing, the name of the person who offers to make me coffee sometimes (love her), where my desk is because my building is kind of a maze, etc. First of all, what Teen Foster Care even is. Basically, it’s not therapeutic (an important distinction I learned on day 3 or 4 or something). It’s a specialized unit of only around 35 youth, between the ages of 13-21 most of whom have goals of APPLA. Several of them are listed as having “behavioral problems” (putting this in quotes because I don’t necessarily see them as problems, but natural reactions to some really challenging situations) and some of them have pyschological diagnoses. Basically, my job is to support all the kids who are deemed in need of or want to have a socio-therapist. I work with all 3 caseworkers directly.

To be honest, it’s been a very slow start. My lovely roommate and fellow Corps member, Masha, is also a socio-therapist at another agency, and has been running around like crazy pretty much since day 1. Every afternoon we talk about our days at work and, in comparison I feel like I’m doing very little. This makes me a little nervous because my personality is definitely hands-on, busy-running-everywhere, chugging-coffee and talking-really-fast, but I also am grateful that CAS is easing me in. I’ve only met one of my kids, but I’m eager to meet them all so I can start developing relationships with them and start supporting them directly.

In closing, everything is going really well, besides the fact that I’m super eager and don’t have much to do yet. I have to brag for one second about the fact that my office is located at 45th and Lex and that it is an easy 30 minute M train ride away from my house. No more bragging from now on, but it’s pretty nice. Secondly, I am excited because my supervisor Jill, who I work closely with, has been an amazing, supportive resource. One day we were eating lunch and I mentioned that supporting LGBTQ kids in foster care is one of my professional and personal goals and how I really care about it, and she said, “Oh my god! I’m the point person for the agency. You can come to meetings with me and help me out!” and that is the moment I knew we were destined to be working together.  I am so excited to learn more about what I can do to offer support to these kids!

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