It’s my pseudo first day at my agency. In many ways I am completely prepared for this experience – I just finished five weeks of Summer Training Academy via Children’s Corps, I’ve spent four days throughout the CC training shadowing my coworkers, I interned for this agency during grad school so the company culture is familiar, my office is even on the same floor as my internship placement! And to top it all off, I’m spending this week shadowing the very worker whose caseload I will be taking over which allows me to get some perspective on the cases which may be lacking from the case files. I think to myself, “This is perfect. This is the best transition I could ever have. Today will be a piece of cake, even if it is a Monday.” Little did I know that my pseudo (which is defined as “almost, pretending, trying to be” on dictionary.com) first day would hold the first defining moment of my career in child welfare.
The Thursday before I had spent reviewing perhaps one of my most challenging cases – Mariah is 10 years old and has been in foster care for the past two years since her younger brother was born with a positive toxicology. Initially, the siblings were in a foster home together but it was later realized that Mariah had some mental health diagnoses/behaviors which created a dangerous environment for her brother and the other children in the foster home and thus why she is in therapeutic foster care. As recently as the week before I became her sociotherapist, her permanency goal changed from TFC (therapeutic foster home) home to being placed in an RTF (residential treatment facility). My first interaction with Mariah will be meeting her (tagging along with the case worker and current sociotherapist) as she is being discharged from the adolescent unit at a local hospital and escorting her to her therapy appointment where she will meet up with her foster mom. This is all the information my supervisor gave me as she hands me the incredibly thick file that took two hands to carry down the hall to my office. I spend the rest of the afternoon preparing myself – I review the diagnoses and look them up in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and even consult a child psychopathology casebook from grad school with intervention ideas. I memorize the family members names and histories and make note of the hospitalizations and accounts of her childhood. I put the file away and sip my coffee thinking to myself, “Ok. I know this case backwards and forwards from the files and I have the input of my supervisor. I am prepared.” Correction: I was clinically prepared.
It’s Monday and I’m traveling an hour and a half by bus and subway with my coworkers to make it to the hospital on time. Our “helping” mission has already been identified by some merely from our appearance as one of the passengers on the bus asked my female coworkers and I if we were teachers because we “don’t look like y’all from around this neighborhood.”
Soon we’re flashing our agency IDs and passing through security and buzz outside the adolescent ward. As the case worker, sociotherapist and I chat in the waiting room I realize I’m nervous. But why? It’s not even my real first day – I’m just observing and I don’t officially start until September. This is just an enriching experience that I have to do today. If anything, it quenches my Type A personality thirst to be over-prepared a month in advance for my caseload. My thoughts are interrupted as Mariah walks into the room with her pillowcase of belongings thrown over her shoulder. My coworkers make the requisite introductions, she gives a shy smile, and they go about completing the discharge forms. I catch Mariah whispering to the current sociotherapist and pointing to me. My colleague responds aloud that I will be starting in September and that Mariah can ask me any questions directly if she wants. Mariah looks at me timidly, opens up her pillowcase and says “I got a jump-rope from the store. I have two. Wanna see?” I smile and ask if I can see them outside the pillowcase because I loved jump-rope as a kid. I hadn’t even blinked before she was out of her chair, had traveled across the room, and handing the jump-ropes to me. I inspect them and ask if she likes to jump-rope to which she quietly answers “yes.” I then ask her if we can have a jump-rope contest when I return in September. Her bright and wide smile was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
The papers are completed, the medication dispersed, and I’m trailing behind the other two caseworkers and Mariah as we all walk out of the hospital. Mariah lags a little to catch up with me, comes up on my right side and wraps her left arm around my waist in a one-armed side hug and without looking up at me says “I’m glad you came today Ms. Kristina, I know you didn’t have to since Amber (the other sociotherapist) is here, but I’m glad you did.” I’m pretty sure I messed up the rhythm of our walking in step with one another as my feet are as equally stumbling for balance as my mind is for words. Simultaneously I feel my heart-break and leap in my chest. This was not the game plan; there is no intervention for this; all that time I spent reading on Thursday – is of no consequence today. She never meets my eyes and finally I squeeze her shoulder and say “I’m glad I came too.” I see her smile as she looks ahead and she breaks the hug only to lace her fingers in mine as we hold hands trekking across the borough to her therapy appointment. I get on the train to go home and reflect on the day and realize that my job is to pursue what’s best for her and the incredible amount of trust she just showed me today. I may come up against all the obstacles listed in her file and some that are yet to unfold but that I can and I will succeed in helping her – even if it’s just by having a jump-rope contest. She thinks I didn’t have to be there, but to me I did. I remember thinking how my presence could be considered a selfish need to be prepared, but to her it was something positive to see from a worker. Snow Patrol’s “You Could Be Happy” plays in my headphones at the very moment these thoughts and all of a sudden a line completely captures the moment – “More than anything I want to see you, girl… Take a glorious bite out of the whole world.” That’s my message to Mariah, that’s my message to myself.
Pseudo first day, piece of cake? Psh. My figurative heartstrings are sore from the tugging of a 10 minute interaction. So many things are learning points from this “first day.” All that preparing I did was great, but not useful for the first day. I was clinically prepared to interact with the child I had seen described in the files. But not emotionally prepared to see the young lady who comfortably roams the halls of an institution that is often featured as the setting of horror movies; who likes jump-rope. I succeeded in connecting with her that day not from my training or education, but because I liked to jump-rope as a kid and she does too – simple as that. My pseudo “first day” WAS the real first day of the rest of my career and I can only hope this interaction foreshadows the next two years.