When someone enters the field of child welfare, they’re told a lot about some of the physical and emotional strains that it places on you. The frustrations of bureaucracy, traveling to different boroughs, “resistant” clients, and late night visits are just some of the everyday frustrations that we face. We expect these issues to challenge us emotionally in terms of our fortitude, of being able to push past the tiredness or the anger. But to me, the emotional difficulties of child welfare are far more subtle and complex than that. We continuously challenge ourselves on a number of levels, all of which shape our experience and ability to forge ahead with the work we do.
One of the greatest challenges I think child welfare workers face is the need to be brave. Bravery presents itself in many forms, whether it’s dealing with a difficult supervisor or coworker, recommending the removal of children from a home, or putting on a stoic face when you know someone is about to scream at you. It also means something different to everyone; what scares me might be something that you can do without a second thought. Whatever your particular fears or anxieties may be, bravery is about acknowledging your issues and stepping up to the plate regardless. Unless you’re a robot – or just really ill-suited for this job – you will definitely face this issue. Probably time and time again.
It might seem strange that as someone whose very job is to assess safety and risk, I struggle a lot with confrontation. But as a preventive worker, I like to act like the parents’ advocate, and it takes a lot for me to get oppositional to the family’s stance on something. To reframe, I’d rather engage with a problematic attitude than say “You’re wrong! Change!” My reluctance to confront the family directly is often a good thing because it allows us the space to engage and work on change slowly and more genuinely. On the other hand, if I focus too much on normalizing their frustrations, I feel like they take it as validation and the rest of the conversation goes out the window. I’m telling them it’s normal to feel this way, so why change? Part of becoming a good worker is finding a way to balance between confrontation and engagement, but it’s not always easy.
I had an experience with a family not too long ago that really made me deal with this issue of confrontation. One of my clients who suffers from multiple mental health diagnoses was voluntarily hospitalized for a few weeks and had her sixteen-year-old daughter temporarily move in with her older sister. Once there, the teenager loved it. She was able to focus on her schoolwork and relax without having to constantly care for her mother. When mom was finally discharged, the kid didn’t want to go back. ACS had gotten involved and was saying she couldn’t go back, so I encouraged her to stay as well. It seemed like the arrangement was working out for everyone, except for the mom who had come to rely on her teenage daughter for company and support. Understandably, she was devastated.
I felt like I had done the right thing, because a teenage girl was now able to improve her grades in school and focus on applying to college. She was living something resembling a normal life without having to deal with her mother’s insomnia, paranoia, and constant negativity. In spite of all these positive changes, I could not stop thinking about how I had now isolated her mother. With the daughter gone, I could technically just close out her case, but I felt deep down that it was wrong. Feeling the need to be either validated or challenged, I brought it up to my mentor during one of our one-on-one sessions. We spent over an hour exploring my fears of confrontation and feelings of guilt, role playing a conversation between me and the mother, and even making me acknowledge how my own personal history was interfering with my perspective on the family.
So what was I afraid of? My mentor eventually made me verbalize it, though it took the better part of an hour to get it out. I was afraid that mom would look me straight in the eye and blame me not only for making her child leave her home, but for being the catalyst for the deterioration of her mental health. It didn’t matter how “right” the decision had been, this woman was suffering for it, and I knew that. I just couldn’t handle her telling it to my face. Sure, I wrapped all this up in other excuses, like my concern that she might have a meltdown if I went to the home. I can’t lie now, though; it was self-preservation.
Someone in foster care might read this and laugh at my fears. “He was afraid of dealing with a parent whose kid he took away? I have to handle that all the time!” Well, I don’t. My agency’s preventive program has a 1% rate of removal for our families, so it’s not something I’m accustomed to doing. More so, this wasn’t a clean-cut removal by the system, it was a teenager making an independent, informed choice. No court action, no foster care, nothing even written on paper besides my progress notes in the state database. Now this mother felt like her child had been taken from her, and I could hide behind nothing besides my belief that it was for the best.
It took a while for me to find the courage, but I finally reached out to mom. While her first response was indeed to blame me, she moved past that surprisingly quickly. We started talking about her mental health needs and she even agreed to do a home visit, where I discovered that her post-hospitalization treatment had been mishandled. Two months later, I’m still involved with the family so that I can make sure she’s getting the therapy she needs and that the teenager and her big sister are living together peacefully. Mother and daughter are even working on their relationship, a work in progress which I’m currently trying to facilitate healthily.
I’m still working with mom to help her understand why her daughter wanted to leave in the first place, which has been a series of uncomfortable conversations. Sometimes, though, you just have to suck it up and say it like it is. It might be harsh, and it might temporarily damage your relationship with that family, but it could also spark the change that needs to happen. Since this experience, I’ve gotten a lot more confident in my ability to have difficult conversations with parents, even when I know I’m going to face some resistance.
My point in writing this story isn’t just to describe a difficult case, or to talk about my personal struggle in overcoming a deep-seated anxiety. I wanted to show through narrative how bravery isn’t just a blind, unpremeditated act of courage. Too often those actions are the result of foolishness. No, bravery is recognizing that we all have our faults, fears, and anxieties, then finding ways to move past it when they prevent us from doing the best work we can possibly do. I didn’t just “get over” my fears of confrontation – I challenged myself through role playing and some deep introspection with a trusted friend. I made myself acknowledge what was keeping me back and actively plan out how I would overcome it. Put plainly, it took work.
Think about your own flaws and how they might hold you back. Now imagine what it would take to break free. What preparation would you need? Words of encouragement? The support of a colleague? How many lengthy conversations or deep breaths? Take some time out of your day to think about it. Maybe you’ll find yourself ready for a challenge.
This is what bravery is. It’s a learning process, and one that you’ll have to embrace in order to push yourself in this ever-so-hectic field we call child welfare. Ultimately, every act of bravery will help you become a braver person – and that’ll make you a better worker, advocate, and inspiration for change.