Monthly Archives: August 2013

My First Discharge was a Final Discharge!

Where do I begin?

August 10th made a full year working for my agency! On that day I remember thinking to myself a bit confused, “I thought I already celebrated a year.”  This made me laugh out loud because what I celebrated was 6 months, which at this point seems so long ago. Oh boy, has it been a ride! Looking back at this past year I’ve definitely experienced a LOT, and I’ve had my share of ups and many downs and too many crises and days that kept me working until very late into the night… but somehow at this very moment it all seems worth it.

Yesterday I was able to say good-bye to a very sweet 9 year old that I have known since I began my position as a case planner a year ago. She has been in care for over two years now, and too many homes to count. Throughout her experience, she dealt with foster parents requesting her removal for behaviors they neither understand, nor tried to understand. She’s had her share of family members who would rather stay out of the picture, using the word “drama” to describe her situation, and even an aunt who asked me to pick her up one day because her “know-it-all attitude” was too much to handle. Looking back at these situations I was there by her side through all of it. I sat with her through the tears, heartache, feelings of abandonment, and confusion, and it all brings us to this day.

At the start of the summer, an uncle came into the picture. He was very proactive.  He wanted to truly provide for this child and give her everything she never had- including a stable family.

This seemed like the answer, but due to some unforeseen circumstances she could not stay with her uncle for more than a month. Some time passed and after many meetings and court appearances, through persistence and hard work, we managed to cut through all of the red tape and unite her with her uncle.

This case has been my most difficult and emotionally draining- moreso than any case ever before.  It goes without saying that I am very much relieved and happy to say she has finally gone home. She is out of foster care, and it feels so good to share that. I am definitely going to miss her very much. She said to me today, “Does this mean I’m never going to see you again?” and I almost cried. She gave me a hug and we said nothing else. It feels really good to know that I played an important role in this girl’s life-even if it was for a short while.  This is the bittersweet reality of my job though.

P.S. In the next few weeks I’ll have a trial discharge to a birth mother that I am so proud of! August has been a good month!

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Letting Go

People who know me  from afar might be shocked to learn that I’m kind of a control freak. They might notice my scatterbrained personality that tends to spill over in every interaction, my tendency to set my alarm for PM instead of AM, my pattern of eating leftover pizza for breakfast, and assume I’m a mess. As a 24-year-old trapped in a teenager’s body who cries over episodes of The Office, I think this is definitely a fair analysis. However, when it comes to my job and my day-to-day life, it’s a completely different story.

Basically: I really, really, really need to be in control. Of. Everything. I need to be running the show. I need to know what I’m getting myself into. I need to be the one making decisions, writing lists, and delegating tasks. In high school, when people would mention things like my “strong leadership skills,” it was just a nice way of saying that I tended to barrel to the front of the group and start bossing others around. I think I have definitely relaxed in many ways as I’ve grown, but the desire to completely control my day-to-day–which currently is my job–remained–well, until recently.

It’s been exactly one year since I arrived at the Children’s Aid Society and began my job as a sociotherapist in Teen Foster Care. It’s hard to think about everything I have learned over the year, because my brain would explode, so I just want to focus on perhaps the biggest lesson—one that I have learned and re-learned, over and over, in daily interactions, for the past 365 days.

Yes—I have learned to relinquish control. In my job, at least–which is a start.

Here’s the thing about my job that’s incredibly obvious: teenagers will do whatever they want. Positive or negative, well-thought-out or not.  Another obvious point, though one that took me longer to accept– it remains true that I have zero actual say in some of the choices my youth might make. An easy example–I cannot physically MOVE them to and from appointments–no matter how hard I try. I cannot lead a young adult by the hand into a room to take a GED test for the fourth time, or into a mandatory job orientation, or to their living room for a home visit. This realization is not radical, and it shouldn’t be. Going into my job I was aware that my expectations would and should shift as I began to get to know my clients better.  It took about ten minutes to learn that I was not necessarily a top priority for some of my youth–which is totally understandable! They had, and still have, so much going on. Very quickly, I was faced with the realization that relinquishing the control over my day-to-day work was probably going to be one of the only ways I would be able to stick it out.

The first few months of my job, I seemed to be in panic mode every single time there was some kind of problem, even relatively tiny–i.e., a youth missing a doctor’s appointment, getting suspended for two days from school, losing an ID for the third time, etc. It was not, of course, a relaxing way to live particularly when these events combined with bigger, more complex problems that I actually really had to focus on to help solve.

So I took a look around. Having been lucky enough to be granted dedicated, supportive co-workers, I needed to figure out how they were dealing with everything. I zoned in on my supervisor, and soon I began to notice that each time she was presented with any sort of work-related issue–positive or negative, minor or major–she responded in the same way: by simply saying, “Okay.” No panicking. No flicker of stress. Just a calming affirmation that she had heard.

This floored me.

How could she be so calm in situations where the youth that we worked with just did not seem to care about showing up? Or completing important paperwork? Or even responding to calls? Teens who were on the cusp of aging out, who needed housing, who needed jobs, who along with us were racing against the clock to secure some sort of permanency.  It is important to note that some of the teens in our small unit did not have these tendencies–but many did. 

During those first few months, if our supervision sessions spiraled into me talking through my frustration about a client’s behavior, she would listen, shrug and say, “All you can do is all you can do.” At first I was skeptical.  “Was it really as easy as that?” It seemed to work well for her. So we started there.

All I can do is all I can do.”

As time progressed, I repeated the mantra in my head whenever a stressful situation arose. I really had to work to apply it to my everyday professional life, but soon it seemed to start sticking.  I began to realize that between the hours of 9am and 5pm (or 6pm, or 6:30pm…), all I could do was try to be the best sociotherapist for these teens that I could possibly be. Then I could go home and flail on my living room carpet or stress-cuddle my cat and be as much of a mess as I wanted.

But at work, it was different. Each relationship with a client is unique–it was all about doing all I could to meet each where he or she was at. That meant listening, or talking, or not talking, or doing crossword puzzles, or watching one horrifically bloody scene from a Twilight movie (one of my teens convinced me it was worth watching–I beg to differ). It also meant using frustrating moments as teaching opportunities which went both ways. It meant reflection and conversation, goal-setting, and planning. It meant cutting some slack for both the teen and myself. Sometimes it meant shifting expectations. Sometimes it meant taking baby steps and rewarding tiny victories.

Things began to shift. For one, I was relieved. I was being more productive at work because I didn’t jump up and try to hastily problem-solve every single situation that arose right that second. I was able to take a deep breath and say, “Okay.” I was able to begin focusing my attention on appreciating positive behavior instead of becoming frustrated by negative behavior. And at the end of the day, I realized, it’s just not about me. I learned to not take things personally. The comfort that might have come with me being able to influence my clients to make every appointment, sign every paper, change every negative behavior–it just wasn’t going to happen.

And that’s life.

That’s life.

Learning to let go of the desire for control over my job has been an incredibly rewarding experience, one that I was bound to learn sooner or later. I’m glad I learned it sooner. That’s both the up-side and down-side of social work–things get real, fast. I choose to consider that an up-side. I feel grateful for everything I have learned the past year and look forward to learning more and more.

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The Pseudo First Day and Snow Patrol

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.

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Transitions

contributed by Heather-Ann Schaeffner

“…like twelve of us are going to Ikea after training today.”

“Let me see your map of the living room.”

“I have to stop at home first, I forgot my coupon.”

“You should try to get a sponsorship from Ikea, we’re going to spend thousands of dollars there today.”

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Last week concluded the third #ChildrensCorps Summer Training Academy at Columbia University’s School of Social Work.  After five weeks of note taking, lectures from some of the most influential educators and professionals in the child welfare system, role-plays, networking and knowledge-sharing the thirty-eight new members (our largest class yet!) are ready and eager to start work in the field.  Some have already begun their two year commitment as early as this past Monday.

Similar to the families they will serve, the transition will not be easy.  A number of them are acclimating to the New York City lifestyle, claiming their independence, some are starting along a brand new career path and totally changing the pace of their lives. Over the next two years many of them will be faced with some of the toughest challenges of their lives.  They will cry, think about giving up, one or two may even decide that this work is not for them- this is a reality.  What is also a reality and probably the most important reality,  is knowing that every one of them in this process has grown already, and will continue to grow.   The seed of their positive thinking will be planted at the agency they work at, and in the families they serve.

I heard a mixture of excitement and trepidation at lunch, but the air was light and happy. The room was bursting with their enthusiasm for humanity and their desire to affect positive change in the lives of children and families who benefit greatly from folks with this sort of uplifting demeanor to be a resource for them on their journey through the difficulties of life. Many of these corps members uprooted their entire lives just over a month ago to move to New York City to fulfill some inner need, desire, or calling for social justice and child welfare.

So here they are, after five weeks of unpaid training, about to furnish their new apartments, seemingly entirely at Ikea.

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Image by Heather-Ann Schaeffner

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