Author Archives: edithestrella

Optimistic Observer

I follow the guidance counselor down the hall as we walk toward her office. I am many steps behind her because I’m looking around slowly, hoping I run into him. I imagine that I would act surprised and he would wave “Hello” and I will tell him how big he is and then I will ask him how he is doing and behaving in school and I will tell him to send his mother my greetings but I am here to see another child and it was really nice to see him. After I leave the guidance counselor’s office, my pace is slow and my eyes search hoping he is roaming the halls and I get to see him even if it is for a few brief seconds.

When I get on the bus, I am alert. I don’t read my eBook as usual. I pay attention to everyone that gets on the bus. I look for her short hair and big personality. I am on the bus that I used to take to go to her house. I also imagine our meeting. She will hug me, something that used to be uncharacteristic of her, and will ask about my daughter and tell me “I told you! I knew you were having a girl!” She will demand to see the most recent picture and ooh and aah when seeing it. I will ask her about the kids and how they are doing in school. I will tell her that I heard she got a job and ask her how it is going. I will tell her that this is my stop but I am so happy she is doing so well,” Please give the children hugs for me.”

After getting off the bus, I smile remembering that one of the girls started school this year and I try to imagine how she looks in her new uniform and ribbons in her hair.  I walk to the next home visit.

When I went on maternity leave, I thought the hardest part was over. I closed most of my cases and I said my goodbyes and good lucks. I did not think about what happens after. Having a baby gave me a pause; a way to not think about the ‘I will probably not see you again.’   So, it did not feel so final.

As I walk through the Bronx after coming back to work, going from home visit to home visit, I cannot help but imagine how it would be if I see any of my previous clients. I am hopeful. In my mind, I see them happy, I see them well. I see new jobs and good grades. I see children growing. I see better support systems and new ways to cope with stress all which contribute to being less likely to have any future ACS involvement in their lives.

I know this is idealistic and optimistic to the tenth power and honestly, it has nothing to do with the work I did with their families. I am not thinking, “Oh my God, I made such a difference in their lives, they are so different now because of me and they will NEVER forget me”. I just hope with all of my heart that they are good.

Better.

And until I run into them by chance, I will continue to feel like the optimistic observer of the Bronx.

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Jackie of all Trades

I am a detective.

I have to ask every kind of question imaginable to understand each family. I ask about their income, public assistance amount, unemployment, drug use, disabilities (mental or physical). I ask about their backgrounds; where they grew up, how many siblings do they have, who are they close to, why don’t they talk to their father, their baby daddies, their baby mommas. I ask about every single personal detail you can think of that can be used in the future. It is hard to think that the smallest, seemingly insignificant detail, can serve to help a family. Most of this happens organically when clients divulge information themselves.

I am a therapist.

Families tell me so many stories of physical abuse, sexual abuse, growing up in foster care, domestic violence, and the list goes on. My job is to listen. My job is also to keep track signs of possible cognitive delays, mental illnesses, and any other impairment that may hinder their ability to provide a safe environment for their children so that I can refer the family to receive support from professionals. The other day, a 17-year-old told me that her grandmother had a stroke, she saw her mother again for the first time in years since she abandoned her, her sister was raped all within two weeks.

I am a bridge.

I refer families to service providers that will counsel them. I search the Internet frantically looking for resources that will give them grants for much-needed basics. Sometimes this happens at night, when I am home and I think that Ms. So and So needs some furniture in her home or that teenager that was a victim of sexual abuse that needs a good girl’s support group. I have emailed my coworkers looking for clothing donations for a mother and her two-year old who do not have winter clothing.

I am a parent.

Sometimes I am awake at all hours worried.

When I hear about something terrible that happened in the Bronx, I think about every child on my caseload. When they mention the neighborhood I work in, I panic.

The other day, as I was arriving to a home visit, a channel 7 van was parked right outside. I panicked. A sigh of relief escaped my soul when I saw my kids were alive and well.

On weekends, I worry that something may happen and I will not find out until Monday.

I am a historian.

I document every single interaction with the families, the interactions that occur between family members, and collateral contacts in the form of progress notes, court reports, and FASPs.

I am always amazed at all the details I remember of all the families I work with.

I am a preventive case planner.

Social Workers Change Futures

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Self-Disclosure

Ms. L is a no-nonsense kind of gal—she tells it like it is. She is also the kind of person that may easily intimidate the president of the United States.

How am I going to engage her? The previous case planner had no success. When we were at a joint emergency meeting with ACS, she admitted that she was purposely not picking up my phone calls and did not want us in her house.

As I stood in her living room, waiting for her to acknowledge me, I thought, what could I possibly say to this mother of four that she would care to listen to?

Her children were very friendly. They grabbed my hand and pulled me into their rooms to see their toys. One of her daughters held out her coins and practically sat on my lap. The little baby played at my feet and gave me high fives. Ms. L, however, looked straight ahead, never turning to face me as we spoke.

I gave her forms to fill out so we could get those out-of-the-way. I whipped out the genogram sheet and told her we were going to make a map of her family. Plotting her children and their respective fathers was the easy part. As I asked her about her parents and siblings, she was short and simply said she did not keep in contact with them. Yet, I insisted by asking her to tell me about her sister.

“Actually,” she said. “She is my adopted sister. I was adopted when I was a teenager. I was in foster care until I was seven. I

Throughout our entire conversation about Ms. L’s family, we kept being interrupted by her eldest daughter who was doing homework at the dinner table. Ms. L was helping her with her vocabulary homework. She struggled a bit while she tried her best to help. Her daughter kept being resistant and wanted to play instead of sitting at the table with her homework.

“I want the best for you,” she told her daughter. “I know it is not easy. I started my first day of school today and I missed out on so much. But if there is one thing I know, it is that in order to be successful and have the things you want, you have to have an education. My adoptive mother wanted the best for me. Yet, I was hard headed and now I appreciate the things she said to me.”

“How old are you, Ms. L?” I asked.

“I’m 27,” she replied. “I will be 28 at the end of the year.”

“I’m 28, too” I told her. “I just graduated college in May.”

“With a Master’s?” she asked.

I shook my head ‘no’.

“With a bachelor’s?” she asked incredulously.

“Yes,” I replied. “There were circumstances that did not permit me to go to college after high school. I could not afford to pay for it and I could not get financial aid. But my mother believed in me, that I was smart, and that one day it would happen. This May, I was the first person in my family to have a college degree.”

Ms. L was silent, her eyes wide as she looked at me.

A million thoughts ran through my head. Maybe that was inappropriate. Maybe she thought I was trying to show her up and that anyone could do it.

“Thank you so much for sharing that with me,” she said. “I keep thinking that I can never do it, that there is something wrong with me. My teacher told me today that at the end of the course we would have a graduation. I thought it was silly but now I think it will be so awesome to have a ceremony. I am doing the best I can for my children.”

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one single step, Ms. L,” I said. “Today was your first class on your way to achieving something great for you and your family.”

Did I save the world? Not in a million years.

Should I have disclosed my personal story? Probably not but I went with the feeling in my gut.

Did I change anyone’s life today? I do not think so, but Ms. L, the tough cookie, the person no one wanted to deal with, gave me a hug as she bid me goodnight and was very open to welcoming me back into her house again.

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The First Call

I check and recheck the numbers to make sure they are right.

Seven digits.

Ten with the area code.

Eleven if you count the 1.

I pick up the phone, the cord tangled within itself—it has probably been like that for over a decade.

The tone mimics my heart: one long, nervous scream.

I dial the numbers slowly and precisely.

Error tone. Place the phone back in the receiver.

Twelve digits—I have to press 9 to dial out.

Wait another minute.

Dial the twelve digits again.

I am torn between wanting him to pickup and hoping to get his answering machine.

I squeeze my eyes tighter and tighter each time I hear a ring.

“Hello?” a man answers.

“Hi, my name is Edith Estrella Ramos”

My name is way too long.

“I am your new case planner and I want to see when we can schedule this week’s visit.”

I hold my breath.

“Yes” he said.

“Well, are you available this Thursday?”

Please say yes, please say yes.

“Yes, I get home between 5 and 5:30”

Flex time on the first week!

“That would be perfect. I will touch base with you again on Thursday. Thank you so much!”

And…breathe out! Uuuufff!

Pencil Mr. H on August 16th at 5pm in my brand new weekly planner.

I set my pencil down and lean back in my chair with a satisfied smile on my face.

One down, 12 more families to go.

With about 25-30 children I am responsible for.

Between now and the 31st.

Take away 5 days of blocked training.

That leaves me with 10 days.

And the workers whose caseload I inherited quit suddenly and left a giant mess of papers for me to decipher.

Yaaaaay!

Sigh!

This is definitely going to be fun—and I cannot wait!

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