“We don’t get many days like this.” Not a line one expects to hear at the closing of a High School Valedictorian’s speech but one that so powerfully captures the essence of life as a 19-year-old graduate in Foster Care. As I sat at the ceremony then and as I reflect now on my past year of work, this statement not only applies to youth in foster care but also to those who work relentlessly to change this.
On my first day of work, I asked each young man to write down their “words to live by” as well as the one place in the world that they would travel to if circumstance was no barrier. I hoped to use this to create a wall in the cottage that could grow as new residents came and serve as a testament to all those who left. One in particular recited a Bob Marley lyric I know well “Overcome the Devils with a Thing Called Love.”
Social Workers, notoriously branded as do-gooders are not immune to life’s devils. There is the devil of working more for lower wages. There is the devil of others looking down on you for being over-worked and under-paid. There is the devil of working with other over-worked and under-paid colleagues who take out their daily frustrations on you. There is the devil of bureaucracy. There is the devil of doing everything in your power for your youth and families only for your efforts, for reasons beyond anyone’s foreseeable control, to inevitably fail. There is the devil of becoming every kind of Social Worker that you swore that you never would.
Working within a metropolis such as New York City one can in a few short subway stops travel from a neighborhood of extreme poverty to the literal epitome of excessive wealth. Across the country, youth of color remain represented in Foster Care at a disproportionate rate. LGTBQ youth in the foster care system face increased homelessness. At its best, the systems we employ keep children and their families’ safe; create opportunities for growth, and in doing so remedy some of the harsh realities of this systemic oppression. At its worst; these systems employ the same cycles of oppression to their youth, families, and staff. It is not difficult to become both victim and perpetrator of this cycle that at its root is really just fed by hopelessness.
Hopelessness is bred through an exhaustion of all possible options. I am not hopeless. To begin, all work on a fundamental level is “Social Work.” With the opportunity, everyone who is capable and willing works so that they can sustain and generally better life in our social environment. “Social Workers” should not be the only individuals in this world loaded, even symbolically by name, with this task. When we realize that the systemic cycle of oppression, inadequate mental health care, and poverty is a burden that we should all share regardless of our profession, we have tackled the greatest obstacle. As Rita Mae Brown once said, “don’t hope more than you are willing to work.”
Above all we most effectively help others when we help ourselves. Funding aimed at strengthening preventive programs that can work within homes before removing children from homes allow families an opportunity to effectively parent, addresses trauma early on, and prevents system overload. Agencies and Social Workers that continue to strive to cap caseloads through mandates, pay higher and fairer wages by re-evaluating the budget, and reduce burnout by allowing the flexibility of occasionally working at home make small movements towards this goal. Those in leadership roles who treat Social Workers with compassion and value their strengths will find that Social Workers treat their youth and families the same.
One of the most respected therapeutic crisis intervention trainers on our Residential Treatment Center campus opens each session with a personal anecdote. On his way out of campus after a long late night shift, a resident in crisis darted out in front of him and ran into his car. While the resident was not injured, everyone around them immediately surrounded the young boy. Paralyzed by what had just occurred, after checking on the boy, this trainer sat in his car, un-sure what to do next. Surely he contemplated whether it was worth coming back to work the next day or ever again. Unexpectedly, the boy’s mother approached the Trainer and asked how he was doing. If not for this small gesture, this now well-respected Cottage Supervisor may not have made it another day on the job. As we make tiny dents gradually over time, we will see good work get better. At the heart of all gut-wrenching positive change, after all, is that thing called love.