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Overcoming the Devils

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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No Hay Mal Que Por Bien No Venga

If there is one thing that all human beings crave it is relationships. From birth we learn to rely on our care taker (whoever that may be) to fill our most basic needs- food, clothes, and shelter. As we move on in life our needs increase, evolve and are (hopefully) met by many people- a friend to assist in finishing a pint of Ben and Jerry’s after a bad breakup, a mentor to help navigate the career path of our choice, a significant other to share in our successes, failures, and all of the other tedious and frustrating moments in between. While these needs may seem to grow increasingly more complex with time, when you break it down it is all about human connection.

As a case planner at a Residential Treatment Facility, I work primarily with 16-21 year old boys who come from all walks of life, various foster care placements, and unique family dynamics. What they all have in common is traumatic life experiences. In children who experience trauma, studies show that even one positive relationship  -whether it be with a teacher, coach, or relative, can significantly impact that child’s ability to form trusting relationships.

For the young adults that I work with, the struggle to first believe in the possibility of healthy relationships and to next find these relationships, can be daunting. When helping the residents through their struggle to trust, and subsequent disappointment whether it be in their family, the System or themselves, I generally stick to two key phrases.  They are  “Accept What You Cannot Change” and “Hurt People Hurt People.” Of course when I reflect on my personal experience of true loss and disappointment, I realize how difficult it is to actually apply these phrases.

I have constantly heard that the most rewarding part of Social Work is that you will learn more from the people you work with than they will learn from you. In the few months that I have been working, I have learned more than I ever could have imagined.

Month 1:

On one of my first days at work, we pick up our resident, Jose*, who from the day I met him seemed to be wise beyond his 16 years.

I first met Jose when we sat next to each other on a chaotic bus ride from an agency outing.  As the majority of kids screamed, fought, and in one case even broke down and cried, he quietly showed me a bracelet that a Veteran had made him in appreciation of training a Service Dog. On the bracelet were letters of the dog’s name.  Around us, as the scene erupted with a resident kicking open the back door of the bus while cursing at staff and sounding off an alarm, I looked over at Jose’s bracelet and could not help but smile despite the chaos.  To this day, Jose continues to wear it. 

We travel to the site of Jose’s family team conference (a meeting to discuss his progress in foster care as well as the progress towards his permanency goal). Jose’s grandmother Ms. Rodriguez* greets us. They exchange the obligatory one shoulder hug most teenagers pull-half forced, half sincere.

The boys I work with almost all have a goal of APPLA, otherwise known as “Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement.” While there are several possible permanency goals including but not limited to return to parent/caretaker, and adoption, most who have been cycled between placements and rejected for most of their life finally and understandably arrive at the goal of independent living- one where they alone seemingly have complete control over their future. Jose, on the other hand is one of the few who has a goal of return to caretaker.

Almost immediately Ms. Rodriguez asks to use the bathroom. We all discuss the VMAS from the night before in her absence. Eventually the ACS Facilitator arrives.  It is time to get down to business and the tension is palpable.

“Jose, I understand that we are here today to change your goal from return to family to APPLA.   Do we all understand what that means?” My colleague who has worked at the agency for some time and is clearly familiar with the case, with Ms. Rodriguez and most importantly with Jose (well beyond my pleasant interaction on the bus) speaks on behalf of Ms. Rodriguez who is elderly and ill and explains her inability to supervise Jose as initially agreed upon.

Ms. Rodriguez is a woman whose wrinkles are a testament of the struggles I can only imagine she has endured. She is the matriarch of the family, with a silent strength, but after raising a family, enduring tragedy and incarcerations, and now her own illness, is tired.  Jose, in contrast, is young- wide-eyed and angry. Jose cannot understand this decision- disgruntled statements such as “I know you’re active” “You don’t want me” and “I just want an honest answer” are muttered under his breath. Ms. Rodriguez is visibly hurt, but can only muster the strength to state, “I just want what is best for you. If you do not believe me, you are better off without me.”

In that moment one of my over recycled mantras comes to life- “Hurt People Hurt People.” Both Ms. Rodriguez and Jose have been rejected and consequently they reject. I begin to panic about the communication breakdown that is overpowering the conference. I understand Jose’s feelings of rejection and his grandmother’s inability to care for him. I myself have been guilty of the human impulse to reject before rejected. (tweetable) I remember the “Hey Jude” quote that seems to plague us all at one point or another-“you know it’s a fool who plays it cool by making his world a little colder.”

I visualize the conversation I will have with Jose. I will remind him that he deserves a family and walk him through other options such as the adoption process, re-iterate how much his grandmother has demonstrated that she cares by traveling to every conference and court date, and encourage him to stay in touch with her. Before I can utter a word, the conference ends, we sign the sheet, and exit the room.

We leave separately and no one speaks. Ms. Rodriguez stops to get fruit at a local bodega.  As we are walking to our car, Jose crosses paths with his Grandma, his eyes lighting up instantly-“Abuela- your fruit is going to topple over!” He adjusts her bag, moves the fruit around so that it is more secure, and they hug each other goodbye. This is no half-hearted teenage hug. It is all sincerity. At that moment I know that Jose and Ms. Rodriguez will be okay, and they will work things out on their own without me lifting a finger.  For after all the crux of healthy relationships is not perfection, it is messing up, occasionally drifting apart, but loving each other enough to get back to where we need to be. 

When doing this work, I remember a proverb that I picked up while studying in Spain: “No hay mal que por bien no venga.” (tweetable) It was one of the many that I was fixated on memorizing, a small sample of life lessons that my “Madre” would serve up nightly at dinners, with a fair share of wine and paella as she processed her recent divorce, and one which I channel when I am on the brink of becoming jaded. It is a phrase with many meanings but one message: “Every cloud has a silver lining.” “When one door closes another opens.” “There is no bad from which good will not come.”(tweetable) The choice of translation is of course up to the listener.

The most powerful thing I have taken from the young adults and families that I work with it is how to be strong in the face of rejection and resilient in the face of life’s un-anticipated struggles. I have learned the importance of picking oneself up and surviving when it seems impossible, and sometimes if you are lucky, re-building those bridges that were so badly burned you never thought they would stand again. After all, no hay mal que por bien no venga, whatever that may mean…

*All names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals referenced.

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