Author Archives: marthalarson

Still here

I am approaching the 1.5 year mark as a foster care case planner, which seems like an appropriate time for reflection. I have been through some tough times, but through it all, I am still here. Same position, same location, and two of the same original families assigned to me. I have conducted late night weekend home visits, physically removed kids from being on trial discharge, been chastised by judges, spent nine miserable hours one day at PATH with a family, and so much more. Caseworkers have crazy stories.

If I was in the same place now that I was at anytime in the first nine months or so, I would have already quit. I am strong, but not a masochist. Becoming a good case planner takes time. In the beginning, I was constantly making mistakes, even though they were mostly small ones. I would call the wrong person, forget to schedule a meeting, let foster parents walk all over me, get lost on the way to a home visit, etc. It is incredibly stressful to have so much responsibility for people you are just getting to know in a job you are trying to understand. As time goes on, some things start going well and each success makes the day go smoother.

I still make mistakes all the time, but now I know my families and my agency staff well enough that things work out just fine. I have formed a support network at work and I have good rapport with my families. My mistakes are not as stressful anymore, particularly because there are so many successes. Four children I’ve worked with have been adopted, and one was just freed for adoption through a clean surrender to a family member. Eight children have returned to their parents’ care, and two teens have been placed in the homes of incredible foster parents who are willing to care for him as long as is needed outside of a legal adoption. One of my kids has a mentor through Big Brother Big Sister. Another kid just won the spelling bee for her whole school, and she came into care because of medical and educational neglect. My work involves service providers, biological families, foster families, and other caseworkers. These successes would not be possible without the involvement of other parties. Regardless, I work hard and I care about the outcomes.
Two months ago, I received what my agency and the courts say is a high risk case. This fourteen-year old kid was arrested for stealing from his mother, who then placed him voluntarily in foster care and moved six hours away. She has not visited with him since, but he desperately wants to be home with her. He has many difficult behaviors and multiple mental health diagnoses. On paper, this kid looks like he has little hope. He is with a dedicated foster parent who works overtime making sure that he is safe and receives as many services as possible. She came into my office yesterday and said that she was thinking of giving her ten day notice for him to be removed from her home because his behavior was out of control. She explained that again this past weekend he left her house Saturday morning and came back late at night, refusing to tell her where he went. I dropped what I was doing and listened to her for an hour. At the end, she agreed to keep working with him, and it is clear that she cares about him. She even told me that after being a foster parent for eight years, I am the best caseworker she has had, because she can tell that I work hard and care about the kids. I do not take that lightly.
That evening, I received a phone call from her saying that she sat down with him, trying to figure out where he has been going. He said he went to his paternal grandfather’s house in Brooklyn, who bought him some clothes. He gave her a piece of paper on which his grandfather wrote his name and contact information, as well as the same for this child’s father, who is living in Florida. He then asked the foster mom if he could maybe go see his grandfather every weekend. I couldn’t help but cry a bit as she told me this. This kid, who the courts and the agency has been so worried about because his known family has basically abandoned him, now has potential to have family connection on his father’s side of the family for the first time in his life. Maybe he could even meet his father. Now that is a success. There is a lot of work ahead of me to engage the family to help plan for this kid, but I am hopeful. This is why I am still here.


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Weekend plans

This past Friday, I was finishing up the day at work when I got an email from a visit coach for one of my Saturday morning visits. She is hired by an outside agency that helps out case planners by supervising visits so that families can go places in the community rather than stay in a small visit room at the agency. Her email said that she had to cancel. I knew that the mom was really looking forward to the visit because she wanted to take her daughter shopping for an Easter dress. I had just arranged to supervise another visit at the agency, so I would not be able to go shopping with them, and I dreaded having to call the mother to tell her that the plans had changed. I would like to blame it on the 45 hours I had already worked for the week, but it is more likely due to the fact that I went to a midnight showing of the Hunger Games the previous night, but I started to tear up as I walked to a home visit near the agency. I was overtired and frustrated that things rarely seem to go as planned in child welfare.

Saturday morning, I had to get up early to make my long commute to the office. I made it there for 9 a.m. when the first visit was set to start, only to find an answering machine message that the mom was not feeling well and wanted to cancel the visit. I ended up being able to get some much needed paperwork time in before my next family arrived. I had just went to court for this family on Friday morning, and the agency was granted the ability to transition the mother to unsupervised visitation with her four-year old daughter for the first time since her case began nine months ago because she has made progress in her drug treatment program. She arrived early and was ecstatic. We walked to the park across the street, and she told me, “It feels so great to finally be able to walk outside of the building and take my daughter somewhere, just me and her.” The mom was pushing her on the swing set and laughing, and she said, “Mommy, I’m just so happy right now, aren’t you?” This is a moment, amidst the chaos, that makes my time and hard work seem worthwhile.

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What I’m thankful for

It was the day before Thanksgiving, and I was sitting in the office with a few other new caseworkers who had not requested the day off, and I was antsy to get out of work. The next morning I would be boarding a bus and meeting all of my family members at a relative’s house for some delicious food, relaxation, and quality family time.

For the previous three weeks, I had been trying to understand and mediate different conflicts that were occurring between a 16-year old on my caseload (who I will call Brian for this post) and his foster mother. Brian’s goal has already been changed to APPLA, which would have him age out of the foster care system into “independent living,” which I frequently tell co-workers that I think was a terrible move for him.

That afternoon, the foster mother came into the office and gave her 10-day notice for Brian to be removed from her home. I knew Brian fairly well at this point, after working with him for three months or so, and I knew that despite his conflicts with her, he would be absolutely devastated. I thought about him occasionally during the four-day holiday weekend, particularly as I spent time with my immediate and extended families. I have twin brothers that are only one year younger than Brian, and I couldn’t help but think of Brian when interacting with them.

The following week, I had the opportunity to meet with Brian twice and make sure that I understood what he was thinking and feeling about the situation. He has so much anger and sadness, which is completely understandable, considering the fact that he has spent the past seven years of his life in foster care. Despite his incredibly challenging family situation, he is an honors student, has perfect school attendance, a good sense of humor, and has a great relationship with his therapist whom he sees weekly. I see so many strengths in him, so I was baffled by his foster mother’s refusal to work with him.

This past Friday evening, we held the placement preservation conference which is standard protocol that ACS requires before a child is removed from a foster home. The foster mother was given a chance to tell her side of the “story”, and was adamant that she had made up her mind. Brian was very upset, but my supervisor and I ensured that he would feel supported by including a variety of agency personnel at the meeting who knew him well and would help calm him down if needed. Following the conference, we were waiting for him to meet with a prospective foster parent, and he said to me, “You know, I wouldn’t mind having a foster mother who I can call mom some day.” APPLA? I don’t think so.

As I helped Brian pack up some of his belongings for a respite home for the weekend, he said to myself and my supervisor, “I cannot thank you guys enough for how much you have helped me.” Most days of foster care casework go by with little acknowledgement of my work, which is fine, but man did it feel good to hear him say that. I stayed late at work that evening, but I honestly enjoyed every minute of it. Brian’s strength and resiliency are so impressive, and I look forward to helping him and a new foster family work together. Even though I have been feeling overwhelmed and overworked lately, it is great to have moments like this that make my time worthwhile.


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Being a “good” social worker

First of all, I would like to say that I really appreciate reading the blog posts from my fellow Children’s Corps members. I know how difficult it can be to write or even think about work after a day of child welfare, but it’s great to read the posts and remember that other people I know are working in this challenging field.

Last week marked my third month of employment, which means that I have passed my probationary period and now have health insurance. More specifically, that means that I can make that dentist appointment that my mom has been bugging me about for months now.

The past few weeks have been surprisingly fun at the office, as I get to know my co-workers more and feel more comfortable in my position. It also seems to help when I bring in homemade baked goods in the mornings.. Then, last Thursday, two of my co-workers announced that they are leaving, and the office environment has been a bit more somber. Once they leave, my caseload will likely go up, but I’m trying not to think about that for now.

My supervisor and I make the commute to and from work together sometimes when we happen to catch the same ferry, and it has been great to have that time as a sort of informal supervision when we can have a bit of discussion about my cases as well as more systemic issues that relate to the work. She has been working in child welfare for 30+ years, and despite sometimes lapsing into cynicism, she remains committed to the families and children. Even though she probably works around fifty hours each week, she is less burned out than some of the one- or two-year employees. When I start feeling bad for myself for having to work late one night, I try to remember how hard some of the other caseworkers and supervisors work, and balance out my schedule so I can get some more free time on a different day.

Lately I have been thinking about how difficult it is to work with my families in both helping to prevent crises and reacting to them once they have already happened. Currently, all of my cases are at least one year old, and each of my families has had at least three other workers. The other day, during a family visit, a teenager told his mother in front of me: It’s okay mom, she’s one of the good social workers. I’d like to think that is true, but honestly, the bar to measure what is “good” seems to be low. I do my best to make time to talk to children individually, to give parents the benefit of the doubt when other workers would have given up (they even encourage me to do so), and to approach each family in a unique way, but I do not always have the time for it. When I have a FASP or PH report due, I usually have to prioritize that, and when a crisis comes up, I put preventative measures, like visiting a child’s school when things are going fairly well, on the back burner. That being said, my caseload is totally manageable. I have less cases than almost all other caseworkers in my department, and I still struggle to have time to go the extra mile for families. I am sure that this is true for many other jobs, but it can be difficult to maintain high standards for myself when I know that I can get by with the bare minimum. Do I return that mother’s phone call before I leave work even though I know she will talk my ear off for half an hour about a concern she has for her son, or do I leave work on time and call her back later? Do I keep trying to maintain a real positive relationship with that foster mother or do I really confront her about her parenting techniques?

I know this is going to sound cliche, but I truly think that being a part of Children’s Corps helps me hold myself at a higher standard than what is generally expected of me. Each of these families deserves something better than what the system generally provides, so I just need to remember this, and take care of myself in the process. Easier said than done, of course. A few weeks ago I worked three consecutive days that were 13.5, 13, and14 hours long (including my commute), and I thought I would go crazy. I know that I cannot continue to do that if I am going to remain sane and reasonably happy at work, so I have been putting my time management skills to the test. I also told myself that even though I am behind on entering progress notes, I will not spend another Saturday afternoon working on them, because I need my weekends for myself. To sum it up, my lofty goal is to maintain high standards for work and continuous self-care. Three more months on the job, and I can take a vacation!


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On the job

Children’s Corps training ended last Friday with a group picture, some lunch, and a graduation ceremony, then this past Monday I began my new life as a foster care caseworker. Each day has been different, which is something I appreciate since I’d rather not sit at a desk all day. On Monday, I shadowed a conference in court, and on Tuesday I spent most of the day waiting for a case to be called, only to find that it was adjourned. (Learning point: flexibility!) I have also monitored a visit for a co-worker, met with one of my first families, wrote my first official progress note, and attended a morning training for the agency.

On my first day, I was instructed to familiarize myself with the three families I will be initially working with by reading through their case files. I was thankful for Children’s Corps training because I was able to recognize a few of the forms and where they might be relevant within the process. That being said, reading through the cases also made me realize how little I truly know about the specifics of case planning. Luckily my co-workers and supervisor seem very supportive, so I know I have people to go to with questions (of which I will have many). There seems to be a form for nearly everything, so I am curious as to how I will know when to use these forms and where I will find them, but I suppose that will come with time as I learn more about my cases.

One of the themes that was emphasized in Children’s Corps training was to not make assumptions about the families we’re working with, and I had an experience today that taught me how important this really is. When reading through a child’s extensive file on Monday, I quickly became overwhelmed by how complicated the case seemed. The child’s history includes many challenges and mental health diagnoses. I thought, How am I going to be able to handle a case like this? while imagining the worst. I still had these thoughts on my mind when I got home from work on Monday.

Today I was just sitting at my desk when a supervisor called me over and introduced me to the child and his parent who had stopped by the agency. She suggested that I sit down with the child and the mother. I quickly realized how ridiculous I was for being overwhelmed and stressed out by the case. They were interested to meet me, open about discussing their experiences, and clearly had a positive relationship with one another, which is something to celebrate given some of the difficulties that they have faced as a family. The child was a bit disruptive during our time together, but I was intentionally patient, and the meeting went very well.

That half an hour was honestly the best part of my day. It is easy to judge a family or individual by what is written about them on paper, but I learned how important it is to go into these relationships with an open mind. I am looking forward to meeting the rest of the families on my caseload!

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First thoughts

Five short days ago, I moved the final boxes into my new apartment, and began settling in. Less than 24 hours later, I was sitting in a conference room exchanging equally awkward and exciting hellos with the other Children’s Corps members. The whole first day of training felt especially surreal as I attempted to process the fact that I now reside in New York City and will soon be a salaried, full-time employee for the first time in my life. Regardless of the slight shock of these drastic changes, I am thrilled to be part of the Children’s Corps.
The past four days of training have included a considerable amount of information. Fortunately, Barry has been intentional about consistently encouraging us to review our learning as he leads each session. In discussing topics such as self-awareness, social work ethics, engagement, and assessment, I have been realizing how valuable my undergraduate education really is. I entered college knowing that I wanted to study social work, and although I had my doubts at times, I managed to stick it through and graduated with my BSW. That being said, BSWs are geared toward generalist social work practice as opposed to a specific type of social work. I never had any experience working in foster care or adoption, so I began the CC training knowing little about the child welfare system. My knowledge has already increased exponentially, and I am looking forward to gaining more specific knowledge and skills that directly relate to my future work in foster care.
The best part about the first week of training has been getting to know the other CC members who all come from different families, places, and educational backgrounds (a close second is the mini chocolate bars in the back of the training room). Today we broke into small groups and completed genograms with each other, charting out the relationships that we have with our family members. In discussion, Barry reminded us that the parents and children we will be working with are really not that different from ourselves. I hope that we do not lose sight of this perspective as we begin our jobs.

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