Author Archives: maggieqkaroff

Fairy Tales and Sad Tales

from the book, Are you my Mother?

About a year ago, I witnessed what was at the time a very sad story.  Jarrell* came into foster care at birth.  He had three older siblings who had been in care for nearly three years, and a one year old brother who had also been in care since birth.  In the previous three years, Jarrell’s birth parents had not made even minimal strides towards change that would allow the children to go home.  Even at birth, while not impossible, it seemed unlikely that Jarrell would ever be reunited with his birth parents.  When he was born, Jarrell’s siblings were placed in two different foster homes, and for various reasons, neither family was able to care for Jarrell.  The five siblings would be separated between three different foster families.

Jarrell was placed in a very loving home with Ms. Washington who instantly fell in love with him. Before Jarrell was born, Ms. Washington had planned a two week vacation with her twelve year old son for his birthday, but the baby was placed in the home nonetheless because it seemed like a good fit long-term.  So after about two months with Ms. Washington, Jarrell was placed in a respite home for two weeks during her vacation.  Ms. Washington returned from vacation, and after about three months was totally enamored with Jarrell and committed to being an adoptive resource for him.  A month later, there was a sudden death in her family, and she had to travel out of state to support her family members for a short period of time.  Jarrell was placed in a respite home again.  This time, Ms. Washington requested that Jarrell be placed with a friend of hers who is also a foster parent with the agency.  She said that she had grown so attached to him, and this way she could leave knowing that he would be very well cared for and that she could call her friend regularly while she was gone to check in on him.  For twenty-one days, Jarrell was placed in another respite home.  He adjusted well when Ms. Washington returned, and for two more months, all was well.

Then one day I received a frantic call from Ms. Washington.  She was in the hospital with her mother, who up until then had lived with her and helped her care for Jarrell while she was at work.  Her mother had just had a stroke, and it was looking like she was not going to fully recover.  Jarrell was home with her back up resource, but she said that she was not sure how she was going to be able to continue to care for Jarrell.  Over the next few days, I spoke with Ms. Washington several times and reviewed different scenarios and options with her to help her decide what would be the right thing to do.  Her mother would need a permanent full time caretaker, and she was told that it was possible her mother would not live for very much longer.  She wrestled with the decision and truly put her whole heart into it, but ultimately decided that despite how much she loved Jarrell, she would not be able to care for him any longer in the way that she felt he deserved.  So we began the search for Jarell’s fourth foster home.  He was six months old.

The story of foster children bouncing from home to home is a common one, and it is always a heartbreaking story.  but this was a baby!  A cute six month old, baby who slept well, ate like a king, and was healthy as could be.  It killed me to think of the injustice that was being done to this helpless little child who had arrived in the world to such unthinkable instability.   It was worse that the instability happened once he arrived in foster care, not before.  But there was no fault to be found, it was simply what seemed to be horrifically unlucky circumstances.

Our homefinding team found a family for Jarrell almost immediately.  The young couple, Sarah and James, had become certified foster parents literally two days beforehand, so this would be their first foster child.  I later learned that they had also gotten engaged just a few weeks prior to officially becoming foster parents.  I called them to talk details and make sure they knew whatever they needed to know to ensure this was a commitment they wanted to make.  I spoke with Sarah first, who asked me a million questions, and then said she would call me back after speaking with her partner.  Then, about a half hour later, James called back and the first question he asked was, “How soon can he get here?”  It was a Thursday night when we spoke, and the agency’s one car was going to be in use all day on Friday, so I explained to him that the soonest Jarrell could arrive in their home would be on Monday. James sounded sorely disappointed, but accepted the three day wait.  He asked a thousand more eager questions about Jarrell, and then after promising to touch base first thing Monday morning, we hung up.

James called back two hours later with an unforgettable urgency in his voice.  He said that he and Sarah had an idea, and asked, “Would it be possible for Jarrell to come today if we go with you and pick him up in a taxi?  We’ll pay for it!”  Four hours later, I was in James and Sarah’s living room, looking on as Jarrell looked at them, and they looked at Jarrell, and, after answering a thousand more questions, I left them to get to know each other.

That night was when this sad story stopped being sad.  Nearly a year has gone by since then.  Sarah and James are as committed as could be to being Jarrell’s adoptive resource, and have worked hard to make sure that Jarrell is able to have relationships with his siblings.  Jarrell is walking, and talking.  Despite constant efforts to work with them, Jarrell’s birth parents have more or less disappeared, and the termination of parental rights process is underway.  When I visit Sarah and James’s home now and see Jarrell and his foster family interacting and going about their daily routine, it’s hard to imagine Jarrell being anywhere else.  After such an unstable and tumultuous entrance to the world, Jarrell is finally settled.  When I am in their living room, with toys and children’s books abounding, I don’t feel like I’m in Sarah and James’s living room, I feel like I am in Jarrell’s living room.

In retrospect, I realize–and I think James and Sarah realize too–that the urgency they felt that night when they spent an exorbitant amount of money on a cross borough taxi ride was because they knew that Jarrell was meant to come to their home.  They felt it, and they just could not bear to wait any longer.  To them, waiting for Monday was like waiting to cash in a winning lottery ticket.

Jarrell’s story is a bit like a fairy tale.  If you talk to any caseworker, they will more than likely have at least one fairy tale story of a child bouncing from home to home to finally end up exactly where they belong.  More often though, especially with older kids and youth, the fairy tale goes more like this: the child is placed in a foster home and at first things are okay, but time goes by and they start to act out.  The emotional turbulence of foster care placement, coupled with the impacts of pre-foster care neglect or abuse, surface in the home, or in school, and eventually the foster parent decides they just can’t do it anymore.  The child is moved to a new home, the behaviors escalate, they move from home to home, and years slip by.  With each move, behaviors continue to evolve and escalate, and it gets harder and harder to find a home for youth labeled with Oppositional Defiant Disorder or Disruptive Behavioral Disorder.  They steal or a break curfew, or a fight, or a lie.  They’re aggressive, or they’ll curse you out.  They cycle through what feels like every home in the agency, until after their seventh or tenth move, by some miracle, something shifts.  Behaviors subside, they are coming home for curfew, they are going to school and passing their classes, and it’s been months since they have gotten in a fight–it’s been months since they have been in the same home!   The caseworker holds her breath as if it’s the calm before the storm.  And when it seems the storm is finally about to approach, the youth confides in her caseworker that she has changed her mind, and she would like to be adopted.  The foster parent wants to adopt her. The caseworker simply looks on, mystified in those first several months of home visits, as the youth and the foster parent joke with each other, laugh, smile, and generally act like family.

Of course it’s not perfect.  You can’t go from hurricane season to perpetually sunny skies overnight.  But a major shift occurs.  Because now, when the storm comes, rather than being the end of the road for an almost-would-be-family looking on with a mix of guilt and relief as the youth packs their bags, it’s just a difficult and frustrating time within a family.  It is not pain and stress free, but it is part of what it means to be this particular family, and the fact that they truly are a family is what matters most.  This feels like a miracle.  This feels like a fairy tale if there ever was one.

I said that nearly every caseworker will have some magical story about a child or youth who bounced from home to home until finally arriving at the perfect match, and lived more or less happily ever after from then on.  This is great, but here’s the problem–the sad reality is that for every one magical fairy tale story that a caseworker has, they more than likely have ten stories that have the same beginning and middle, without any happy ending.  The youth bounces from home to home, and continues to bounce from home to home, or gets stepped up to residential care when behaviors continue to escalate, often until they age out of foster care, as alone in the world as ever.

Various religions and spiritual traditions espouse the idea that as we come into this world, we actually choose our parents. We specifically and deliberately choose our parents for the lessons they have to teach us, and for the support or the challenges they provide us with– that we provide for each other, really– that allow us to continue on our journey throughout life, and our parents on theirs, on precisely the path we need to walk, with precisely the right resources we need to walk it.  This idea was introduced to me for the first time several years ago, and the experience of hearing it had that rare quality of being inflamed with inexplicable enchantment and a woefully irrational but exceptionally forceful sense of truth.  This concept has stayed with me over the years, and has been drawn out with a strong sort of magnetism over my time working in child welfare.

From where I stand–as a foster care caseworker, working day to day with families who have had their children removed from their care, bearing witness to unthinkable acts and long-term patterns of parental neglect and abuse—from this angle, it is impossible not to call this framework into question.  It just doesn’t make sense. “How could anyone choose that childhood?  How could anyone knowingly walk into that kind of pain?”  But at the risk of offending those comfortably attached to a range of differing worldviews and confirming my possible insanity to a great many others, let’s assume for a moment that this concept, that we choose our parents, is more than a cute idea, but is actually a bonafide fact of human existence.  If we choose our parents, how do we make sense of foster care?

The majority of foster children come into care, their parents address the circumstances that brought them to us, and the children go home.  But several other children are born to parents who simply will never be able to take care of them.  That does not mean that the parents will not be Mom or Dad in whatever capacity they are able to manage, but they will never be able to be full time caretakers for their children.  What remains, then, is a parent-less child who has to find their way through the jungle of the world, in hope of finding their new home.  For we are human, and day to day I am becoming convinced more and more that a major part of being human is needing a family.  As humans, we need a family to support us, not just until we can hunt on our own, but for life.  And so we find so many children around us on journeys from home to home, in search of the family that they chose but for some reason could not be born to.

Sometimes when I hear the stories of children bouncing from home to home, I am reminded of the children’s book Are You My Mother?  A baby bird hatches while, unbeknownst to him, his mother is out searching for food.  With no one to care for him, the chick sets off into the world searching for his mother.  He asks a kitten, “Are you my mother?” and then goes about asking the same question to a hen, a dog, a cow, a boat, a plane, and, in desperation, a bulldozer.  Nearly hopeless, the chick finally ends up back at the nest where his mother has just arrived, and the two meet for the first time.  This is similar to the story of many of our foster children, except that their version of “Are you my mother?” after a while often sounds more like curfew breaking, fighting, cursing, and cutting class.  I’d be willing to bet that if that little chick had not found his mother after the bulldozer, he too would have cursed out the next fire hydrant he came across when the fire hydrant was unwilling to take him in.

Like the little chick, our children are searching for their families, whether they know it or not, in each family they come across  And like the chick who opens his eyes to the world for the first time and seeks out his mother in something so farfetched as a bulldozer, our children’s search is made all the more difficult by the fact that they have never known that for which they search–a home full of unconditional love, a family that will never tell them they gotta go, no matter what.  But one can only search so far and so wide for something one has never known without giving up hope, without getting so pissed at the world, or so numb to the world, that the will for the journey is lost altogether, and life becomes no more than a constant series of reactions.  The objects of this search must make themselves more easily found.  They must be searching too.  The journey needs to be shorter.

I always ask foster parents what made them decide to become a foster parent.  Among the foster parents I most enjoy working with and most respect, the answers are surprisingly similar.  It just came to them one day.  Or, being a foster parent had been in the back of their mind for as long as they could remember and they just couldn’t justify not doing it anymore.  Or, a foster parent recruiter stopped by their church/community center/work on a particularly auspicious day, or a recruitment flyer serendipitously fell into their hands right as they were thinking about what next step to take in their life.  Anyone who knows what it feels like to truly do what you love, or to truly follow your heart knows what a calling feels like, and knows the rewards of following that calling.  For many of our foster parents, they arrived here in response to a calling.  Often, when I witness and hear stories of foster children who endlessly bounce from home to home, I wonder if for each and every one of these children, there is someone out there who hears a calling to become a foster parent, however irrational or out of the blue it may seem, and ignores it.  And I wonder if they feel this abstract sense of something missing, a hole waiting to be filled, an odd sense of waiting for someone they have never met before to come home.

We desperately need foster parents.  And what we really need is GREAT foster parents.  Foster parents who understand that when their youth finally arrives in their home, they may not act as happy to be there as the foster parent may have dreamed of.  Foster parents who have the patience and empathy to understand that this youth has been on quite a journey through the jungle of the world to finally arrive there, and the journey has taken quite a toll.

I asked Jarrell’s foster parents recently if they think Jarrell will have any siblings in the future. They told me, yes, he would.  But they couldn’t possibly imagine having any biological children of their own, as they had once thought they might.  They said that they knew that being foster parents would be an amazing experience, and they knew that every child is special, but Jarrell is just so extraordinarily special, and at this point, he is absolutely their son.  They told me that if he had not ended up with them, there would have been something missing in their lives.  They might not ever have known it, but Jarrell would have been missing.  Yes, they said, Jarrell will have siblings, but they would open their home to any of the many other children in foster care who would arrive in their home asking, “Are you my mother?”, and they would say “Yes, yes!–well, not your biological mother, you’ll always have her, and we’ll let her be part of your life if that’s the right thing, etc., etc.–but yes!  If you’ll have us, then yes.”

I have found that the greatest of the great foster parents are the ones who are here because they are wise enough to know that they are not only here for the kids.  They are here for themselves as well, because they know, without knowing how, that the experience of being a foster parent will bring them endless, immeasurably wonderful gifts.  They were wise enough to not ignore that voice in their head that said that perhaps someone is waiting for them, looking for them.  They heard and listened to the voice that said, “You—yes you—it’s time to let me find you.”  No matter how little sense it may make, no matter how many children of their own they already have, no matter that they never really planned to have children at all, no matter that they have been a foster parent already for eight years and had intended at that point to close their home when the intake worker called them with that one last request, no matter that they know absolutely nothing about foster care, or even about children, no matter that they haven’t met the “one” yet and really had hoped to have children with him, or her.  The greatest of the great foster parents are the ones who find the courage to recognize, though they couldn’t possibly know it enough to articulate it at the time, that they already have children, and that their children are looking for them.

I question at times if I can really speak so authoritatively on these things that have only come into my purview in the last year and a half.  But then I remember what I do every day, what it feels like when I experience those fairy tale stories, whether it is kids finally finding their new homes, or kids going back to the homes they were born into.  It is indescribably amazing to bear witness to the complexity of the many lives unraveling and getting pieced back together all around me.  I often feel as if I am in a movie, or as if I have suddenly woken up at age eleven, on the brink of entering the realm of reason and rationality, to discover myself in the middle of my favorite fairy tale, with a wand in my hand, a yellow brick road ahead, and a fairy companion fluttering above my shoulder armed with pixie dust.  Magic IS real after all.  There may not be literal dragons or fairy godmothers or trolls under bridges, but there are parents who, when hope is almost lost, somehow see the light, and are able to take their children home.  And there are children who come into the world for one reason or another far distanced from the only parents who are able and meant to care for them–there are these children who search, and there are foster parents who allow themselves to be found.  And when they find each other, miracles happen.

Over the last year and a half, I have met my fair share of dragons and fairy godmothers.  Magic is absolutely, positively real, and I know what it feels like.  But I also know what almost-magic feels like, would-be-magic, the half-magic of a child furiously searching while a would-be parent somewhere out there pays no mind to that insistent inner voice telling them they are needed.  It’s heartbreaking. And more often than not it is distressingly out of my control.  In times like that, all I wish is that I had my pilots license, and a plane.  I would call in sick and spend the whole day flying my plane back and forth over the city, a big red banner trailing behind me.  It would say, “Wake Up Could-be Foster Parents!! Wake up and let yourself be found!”

*All names have been changed

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Year One Reflections

A couple weeks ago, I handed my supervisor an application for B2H services for a child on my caseload.  She looked it over and gave it back to me, saying that the psychiatric evaluation included in the application was outdated.  “What do you mean?” I asked her, “it’s not more than six months old, it’s only from November!”  She started laughing, and said to me, “Maggie! It’s August!  November was nine months ago!”  My eyes widened as I realized it was true.  “The months just fly by in foster care,” she said, still laughing as she walked away from my desk.

It’s true.  The months DO fly by.  Here we are, those of us from the first Children’s Corps class already having passed our one year mark, and a brand new class of Corps members trained, placed, and out there working hard.

In the last year I have found that because, as Children’s Corps members, we are committed to our jobs specifically for a two year period, the way we experience time is different.  The future, rather than a blank canvas devoid of an eventual completion of sorts, is marked with signposts measuring the distance towards two years like mile markers in a marathon.  Regardless of what we do with our lives after that 365th day of Year Two, whether we move on or continue this work with our respective agencies indefinitely, on that day we will have completed something.  And so until that day, time has its signposts.

My own personal signposts have taken the form of seasons.  While I dearly miss the California lifestyle and can’t deny I enjoyed the weather that felt like eternal September—ever sunny and warm-but-not-too-warm— in moving back to the northeast, I am immeasurably glad to once again be bombarded by the full force of seasons.  They give us something to distinctly measure the passage of time. I began this job in mid September of last year, one week before the autumnal equinox.  At that time I was wide eyed and eager and invincible, though I had also thought, “Oh no, what on earth have I gotten myself into?”  But I dove head first into the work with a full caseload, and when the end of December came, I looked back and thought “Phew!  I survived the Fall!” and looked forward and realized for the first time that I could finally at least see everything that I still did not know, which felt like quite an accomplishment in itself.  When the spring arrived and I found myself giving tips and answering questions for my coworkers, and finally feeling that my caseload was under control, I thought, “Wow, I’m really getting the hang of this.”  When June rolled around and I found myself working less hours because I was able to get­ the work done in less time, I started feeling like a veteran, totally on top of things, and actually had to kick myself to inspire some humility and appreciation for how much more I have to learn.

What I love about the seasons is that it’s almost possible to forget them as each one passes and we leave it behind us.  As we cross into them again with another year under us, we remember them like places we once had a special fondness for but have not traveled through for some time.  Oh yes, we remember when winter sneaks up on us, THIS is what it feels like when the cold takes my breath away, and this is how magical that first snow really is.

What I love even more about seasons is that, as we tread through the same seasons again and again, our lives become a walk along a spiral path that rises vertically instead of outward, with each circle coming back around to that remembered familiarity of each season.  It’s as if we look down at ourselves through the layers of time, the mile marker seasons that came before.  And from this vantage point we see our journey with a bit more contrast.  We see the layered impact that time has had on our weathered souls, and we see our path of becoming.

Suddenly now, it’s the beginning of September, and I am quickly nearing my own one year mark in this work, about to stride forward into another new school year, another wave of falling leaves.  I’m looking down from where I stand and seeing the eager, hopeful-hearted rookie that I was one year ago.  I see how much I have learned, how much I have experienced, how I have been changed.  And in this moment, as if in karmic return for my early summer arrogance of self-declared totally-on-top-of-things veteran status, I find myself contemplating what it means to feel burned out.

Coming into this work, I was cognizant of the horror stories of child abuse and neglect, forewarned about the frequency with which I could expect be cursed out by angry parents, and generally aware of the commonly thought of factors that make this work unappealing to most.  I was prepared for all this and had my guard up against the impact it might have.  But these are not the most difficult aspects of this work for me.

This work is a constant fight.  A fight to get parents to do what they need to do.  A fight to get kids to do what they need to do.  A fight to get children the services they need and a fight to do anything we can to heal the impacts of trauma and neglect for parents and children alike.  A fight to stay on top of the adrenaline filled crises that erupt as soon as the last one has settled down.  This work is all of those heart wrenching things that people outside the field think about as their eyes get big when you tell them what you do.  Heavy stuff!  But these are such obviously worthy fights, and they are fights I honestly don’t get tired of.  What really wear me down are the fights that I feel I shouldn’t have to fight.  Like the fight against waitlists that are too long.  And the occasional fight to get a foster parent to carry out a simple task of caretaking.  Or the occasional confrontation with typical ego-driven office politics.  Or the fight against adjourn dates for court hearings that are too far apart and stand in the way of permanency.  We’re confronted often with a war against an imperfect, underfunded system that manifests in bureaucratic battles that lack the glory and the urgency of the more obviously worthy fights.  These are the fights that tire me out and break my spirit.  The little things.  The mundane things.  The fights I shouldn’t have to fight.

This past week in my office, morale was low among the case planners.  The good that came of it was lots of bonding amongst our small team of case planners over a handful of long lunches of venting, storytelling, and dreams of what comes next for each of us.  There was light hearted, not-too-serious talk of radically changing careers, starting a business, anything that pays more, and, of course, graduate school.  I’ve found that the moments when one starts thinking about graduate school or any significant next steps are very telling moments.  They tell us that either we are unhappy, and we want to get out of what we’re doing, or we’re so happy that we just can’t get enough and we’ve got to somehow find a way to do more.

As for myself, I was feeling low at the time because of two particularly trying “fights I shouldn’t have to fight” that had come my way that week.  One night after work, I was telling a friend about one of these two “battles”.  I had almost given in and backed down, but I knew that if I had, at the end of the day I would not be being true to myself and I would regret it.  So I fought back.  I can’t exactly say that I won that battle, and the strength it had taken me to not surrender from the start had left me exhausted.  After I relayed the battle story, my friend asked me how I was feeling.  Without hesitation and without thought I confidently said “I feel like a warrior.”  I laughed in surprise, feeling as if someone else had forced the words out of my mouth.  I laughed because I said those words with such fortitude as I sat slumped on the couch at home, half asleep–I really did not think I looked much like a warrior at all.  And I laughed with a light heart as I felt the weight lift off my chest, knowing that it was true.  I did feel like a warrior, in the proudest and noblest sense of what it means to be a warrior.

A warrior is not simply one who goes to war, but one who does so with courage, with heart, and for the right reasons.  It takes a warrior to choose to come into this field in the first place.  There’s simply no reason to be here if you don’t have an oversized heart full of fire.  I see that every day in each and every one of my coworkers.  But once we are here, the day to day, moment to moment experience is simply one choice after another after another of whether to be a warrior or not.  A choice of whether or not to fight and with how much heart.  And the way we choose is how we express who we are in this moment, and who we are choosing to become.

The “obviously worthy” fights present that choice as much as the “fights I shouldn’t have to fight,” but perhaps the latter even moreso, because in those instances, the obligation to fight and the glory that comes of it are much less.  Beneath it all, I somehow suspect that these less than glorious fights are none other than the outer branches of trees deeply rooted in such things as structural racism and systemic poverty and inequality.  Perhaps that is why these battles are so exasperating—because there is a cruel deception in the sterility of it.  We start to get a sense, consciously or not, that we are some kind of pawn piece in a game we never chose and never would choose to play.  We start to wonder what the point is, and what can really be done from where we stand as a case planner.  I think that this sense of powerlessness is unbearable for most, even when we never realize that this is what we are feeling.

Burnout, I think, happens when we are confronted with these moments of choice of whether or not to fight, and with how much heart, and we start to worry too much about winning, about outcomes.  Either we think we might not win, or we simply know we can’t.  And we start wondering, why bother?  We tire of fighting, we tire of the poor odds that are so often present in this work, and the fire in our hearts burns out.  What I’m realizing, though, is that if it’s all about winning and outcomes (reunification with birth families, adoptions, permanency, changing behaviors, gaining access to needed services, etc.), then we very well may burn out quickly.  It has to be about those moments of choice, those moments when we decide who we are.  It’s about the process of choosing again and again.  And if we find our resolute rhythm of choosing in the process itself, then the wins will come naturally in each and every moment where a win was ever possible.

From this angle, burnout too becomes a choice.  Even when the odds are terrible, still if in confronting each choice we consciously say through our actions and our reactions—This is who I am—then we will already have won to begin with.  We win when we see and feel our own hearts alive with courage.  And through this palpable courageousness, we help to bring to light the truth that it is better to fight than not to, even when the odds are against us.  I think this courage becomes contagious, and so this process of courageous choice making is one of the many ways we get the opportunity to change the odds.

How we fight, I believe, is a matter of wisdom rather than courage.  And that is another chapter—a never-ending chapter—of my own experience and growth, and a matter in which the focus on the conversation between intentions and the outcomes themselves is perhaps essential.

My One Year signpost approaches at right about the same time that my birthday marks the end of my first quarter century in this life.  It is so easy in these moments of reflection to look back and try to account for what we have done and what we have accomplished in some concrete sort of way.  In my last year as a case planner, of the 31 children I have worked with, five have gone home to their families, three went home and quickly came back, four were transferred internally to our adoption unit, and one was stepped up to Treatment Family Foster Care.  Those are the numbers.  And they speak very little truth about my experience in this field or the experiences that those 31 children and their families and foster families have had in the last year.  The truth comes from this moment, looking back through four seasons of child welfare and feeling full of pride in the work I have done, the relationships I have built, and the courage that has surfaced from within.  I have faith in my ability to continue on this path of courageous choice making, faith enough to leave myself on auto-pilot in this next year in order to open myself more fully to learning the wisdom of how.

As I simultaneously begin my second year and my second quarter century, I am surrendering completely to an eternity of walking a spiral path of endless choices through the seasons of becoming.  In so doing, I consciously choose not to burn out, and I walk confidently into the oncoming wave of falling leaves and yellow buses.

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Lessons from the past

When I was 14, I started working in a restaurant as a bus girl.  I grew up in a town that, at the time, I thought was the most boring place on the planet, and was desperate to get out.  I decided I would go abroad for a semester in South America– see the world, learn Spanish, meet South American boys.  Worried my parents would say no, I figured I would get a job so that I could pay for it myself, and then instead of asking them, I would simply tell them I was going (it sort of worked).  So off I went to Stars, a local restaurant down on the harbor.  I filled out an application and mumbled some kind of youthful, naive, something or other about how I was the perfect person for the job while my eyes full of insecurity betrayed my carefully designed speech.  The managers looked at each other skeptically, decided to give me a shot, and so began the multitudes of time I would spend in restaurants for many years into the future.

Stars was the sort of restaurant that had a two hour wait for Sunday brunch and Friday and Saturday dinner–not a place where patrons leisurely lingered over multiple courses.  It was fast–people were in and out, and I was constantly running about doing twelve things at once and trying to remember the six things three different tables had just asked for, all the while trying to remain personable and make people feel like we had some kind of meaningful, albeit brief, relationship.

In conversation with a coworker recently, I realized that working in a restaurant is shockingly similar in many ways to working in child welfare.  There is never ending list of things to do, and occasional lulls are ripe with a feeling of what’s coming.  The last thing you want is for all of your tables to leave (children to go home or get adopted) at once, because when that happens you know you’ll be slammed for the next two hours (months) with new tables (new cases).  There are tables (families/children/foster parents) that are very needy and require much more of your attention, and there are those that make you laugh and ask you how your day is going.  Some say thank you, some don’t.  Your ability to do the work depends on more than just your own actions; the quality of your relationships with the people you work with greatly determines your success– the hostess who gives you the good customers and sends the Europeans who don’t know to tip well to another section, the busser who works extra fast in your section, the chefs who make sure all of your tables’ meals come out just right even when they have picky requests– the service providers who address the needs of your families and give you the reports that you need for court, the CPS workers who help you through bureaucracy and answer the phone for a favor, the case aids who will watch that visit for you so you can squeeze in your home visits at the end of the month, the attorneys who actually call you back, the supervisor who is there to support you, the coworkers in your office who allow you to vent and make you laugh.

As soon as I recognized this analogy, my perspective on casework took on a whole new degree of clarity.  Casework and waitressing demand the say degree of multitasking, juggling, people skills, and relationship building.  And, for one’s own sanity, both demand that you find some kind of a rhythm, a dance as you move through each day.  I had fun traveling down memory lane, looking back back on my years at Stars.  I was the queen of that restaurant.  I had amazing relationships with everyone who worked there–even that angry chef who was more likely to grunt at you and glare than put together a sentence.  I learned Portuguese from some of the Brazilian guys in the kitchen.  I moved faster than anyone, and more gracefully than I would have guessed myself capable.  My mind was sharp as could be, I became one of those servers who never wrote anything down.  It truly did feel like dancing in a way.

What I did not remember until a few weeks after this reminiscing, when the memory finally managed to make its way to the surface, was that I had come very close to being fired from that first restaurant job.  Maybe a month after I had started working at Stars, right before the Sunday brunch rush, the general manager brought me out back and told me that I was just not moving fast enough.  “This is a very busy restaurant,” she said, “and we need everyone to move at light speed, otherwise it messes everyone up.”  She told me she’d give me one more chance, but if I did not improve significantly, and fast, then she would have to let me go.

What was astounding to me as I thought back and remembered a few of the duds they actually allowed to stay over the years was that I really must have been pretty awful for them to have almost fired me.  To think that a year later I was one of the best employees they had ever had must have been some kind of a miracle.  It was also fascinating to me to realize how deeply buried that memory was.  It’s really no wonder why, because as I thought about it more than a decade later, I was overcome with the fear, embarrassment, that sinking feeling in my stomach, and the shakiness in my hands that had hung with me for several days after that conversation– who would ever want to keep those feelings right on top?  My brain had clearly been protecting me from that discomfort.

I think it’s pretty normal to consciously or unconsciously try to forget painful events in our past.  But the trouble with doing so is that we fail to hold on to the memory of overcoming those difficult times.  As crazy as it may sound, realizing today that at age 14 I had what it took to go from a truly terrible, almost fired, bus girl to one of the best that Stars had ever seen helped me to feel reassured that I have what it takes to–with time, experience, and humility–master this child welfare world…or at least to learn to dance through it with grace.  And to me that is very exciting, because as a caseworker in foster care, the stakes are somewhat higher than Sunday brunch and burgers on a Friday night.  In a restaurant, the dance is just a dance.  In foster care, the dance has immeasurably powerful ripples.

It’s certainly ok and perhaps even necessary for our psychological survival to let go of the pain of the past, but there’s so much power in holding on to the moments in our lives that teach us what we’re made of.  So often in the day to day experience of this work I encounter individuals who are so beaten down that they haven’t a clue where their strengths lie; they have forgotten how strong they are and what they are capable of.  So that’s what I’ll ask of the families I work with when they are struggling to feel able to move forward–tell me what you have overcome.  And that’s what I’ll ask of myself, starting with holding on tight to the memory of a silly 14 year old girl who learned how to dance at Stars.

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Finding the Rhythm in Child Welfare

Several weeks ago as I was leaving my office, headed home, all of the sudden I felt guilty for leaving. At the time I was still catching up on the madness of inheriting a caseload of 26, with several families with very long and complex histories. I had a permanency hearing report two days overdue, a FASP that was a week overdue, and two additional permanency hearing reports due by the end of the month for families I knew very little about. I had 3 expired special rate packages with foster parents calling me daily. I had court in two days and somehow needed to refer the father for a random drug test, ensure that he goes, and get the results before then. I needed to do a full day of home visits at the end of the week but had not yet scheduled one of them. l had birth parents I had not yet met. I had several families that I feel like if I could just spend some intensive time with them and invest some serious energy into going the extra mile to get everything in order, the kids could go home within a month or two. And I plan to do just that as soon as I surface from this whirlwind that I keep thinking exists only because I am new, and because the learning curve is massive, and because I inherited a caseload of 26 kids on day one that had seen 3 caseworkers in the last two years. But more and more, I’m realizing that there is no surfacing from the whirlwind–this whirlwind is an eternal whirlwind. And that night, I felt guilty leaving the whirlwind behind me.

I’m not sure why I felt particularly guilty that night. Maybe it was because I was the first of my coworkers to leave, and as I walked out I saw that familiar look on their faces left that says “I wish I were headed home now, but I’ll probably be here for a while…” Perhaps it was because as I left, my director was standing in the doorway, and she has these twinkly eyes full of a constant hint of expectation and a ferocious passion for this work that just makes you want to truly go to the ends of the earth for these kids and families.

Regardless of why, I walked out into the Harlem night feeling guilty– despite knowing that I would be getting home close to 8:00 PM and probably eating dinner around 9:00– and I did not feel okay with it. So then I became mad at myself for feeling guilty, and then I started feeling mad at myself for feeling MAD at myself for feeling guilty. And then I saw the whole thing happening and started wondering just how my brain could become so neurotic in just a few short minutes, and what on earth was I doing in this job that manages to impact me in this way? And maybe I should have quit two months ago–and maybe it’s not too late to do so.

On my commute home, I asked myself what exactly it is about this work that can be so maddening? I have realized that for me the greatest challenge in this work is finding balance–the balance between going the extra mile enough of the time to feel like I’m actually making a difference and putting my heart into this work, and not doing it so much that I burn out. The balance between getting the work done and letting the to do list languish in the interest of taking care of myself.

I have spent much of the last year or so of my life trying to develop some degree of groundedness and inner stability and trust in the universe to direct me to whatever joy or pain and triumphs or obstacles that I may need to get wherever it is I’m going. I think I am a fairly grounded person, but the reality is that this job is shaking that foundation I have so deliberately and carefully built to the core. It is so hard to feel grounded when I am constantly, moment to moment, being pulled in so many different directions. At one moment I’m organizing an emergency meeting, coordinating eight different schedules, the next I’m digging through four year old progress notes to figure out how this whole thing started and what has been tried in the past, and the next I am sitting down with a painfully hard to engage 13 year old boy desperately seeking more then a “yeah, “no” or “I donno.” Five minutes later the phone rings and it is someone from ACS who needs a copy of Form 1862D faxed over (or something equally as enthralling), but I have to hang up that call to answer a call from a birth parent who I have been trying to track down for the last month, and she is going through a crisis and saying I need to do this and that and I’m not doing my job and she’s going to the news first thing in the morning and the agency will be shut down, and in reality all she really needs is someone to listen because she is scared and lonely and angry and just needs to blow off some steam. The whirlwind is unrelenting.

I am pulled into the past to understand how these families got here, to support them in healing and reconciling the impacts of times gone by. I am pulled into the future to plan and figure out how things are going to work out. And I am constantly pulled into the depths of the present moment to be with a client who walks through the door or whose home I visit to simply listen and empathize and be real with them. I am pulled so ceaselessly and forcefully in all directions in time that my soul starts to feel spread thin.

Everything in life has a different rhythm. Different places have different rhythms, different times have different rhythms, the various paces at which we operate have different rhythms. This job has me engaged, simultaneously, in so many different planes of time and scales of human engagement that I’m struggling to find the rhythm. It feels at times like I’m being forced to dance salsa to reggae music or break dance to a waltz. I can’t quite make out the beat, and it just feels like a constant clash.

I am a firm believer in the idea that we always have at our disposal the ability to transform our experience by changing the way we relate to it. Conflict, clash, discomfort, feeling overwhelmed–these experiences are so dense with opportunity and potential for individual growth. This work forces us into a head on collision with the full spectrum of the madness of this world that we humans have created–the stories of horror and tragedy, the stories of resilience and triumph, the humor and the bureaucracy, the mistakes and the miracles and the love that knows no end. We are engaged with the profound moments so close to the core of human existence, and the mind-numbingly trivial. I cannot think of any other line of work that would give one a more complete picture of what it means to be a human being alive in this world today. This is a gift. A tremendously huge gift that is rocking my foundation and forcing me to remind myself every day that it is indeed a gift. Experienced moment to moment, this job is a chaotic concert of clashing rhythms. But the entire experience, seen from a bird’s eye view, comes together as a monumental opportunity, an enormous gift, and an orchestra of unimaginable beauty that helps me to feel closer to the constant knowledge of just how sacred this life is. If I can continue to hear this orchestra in the day to day, moment to moment experience of this work, then I believe the rhythm will be there when that woman calls for the umpteenth time for that form she needs faxed. The constant clashing is part of the rhythm. I just need to keep learning how to hear it.

In our Children’s Corp group and amongst my coworkers, we talk a lot about the importance of celebrating the small victories, no matter how small, and the little bits of joy and happiness that we can get at any moment, because we need those to carry us through. I do think this is hugely important and I try my best to celebrate everything I possibly can and support the people around me to do so as well. But for myself I need to be able to celebrate everything for the role it plays in fitting into the whole, the whole which is neither good nor bad, neither joy nor sorrow, but simply the complete picture of our experience.

So the next time I feel guilty for leaving a long to do list behind, and then proceed to get mad at myself for feeling guilty, I will laugh, because I can see so clearly that I am also a human created and molded by this crazy human world on this overwhelmingly complicated planet. I am as imperfect as anyone, and I fit beautifully into this orchestra. The undone to dos will fall away. The guilt will dissolve. Face to face with this child welfare world that is more densely packed with opportunity for growth than any I have ever confronted before, I will simply be grateful.

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