Category Archives: Foster Care

New Year Resolutions

Since the first day I walked in the door of my agency, I’ve spent 90% of my emotional energy and time on one case.balance-320x182

We’ll call it the Smith case. My other cases are “easy” and the Smith case is “hard”. My other parents are non compliant, deceased, or in the process of signing away their parental rights. To say Ms. Smith is present and determined would be an understatement.

There is rarely an emergency that comes up in my other cases but I could write a dozen blogs detailing the Smith case emergencies and dramas. These are the kids I transferred one night to an emergency foster home at 10pm after investigating allegations of abuse in the previous foster home. This is the case whose birth mom calls me once a week threatening to involve the media on the agencies injustices to her children or call the police. This is the case in which I get a call from the emergency line on a Saturday night informing me Ms. Smith has taken her children and is not answering her phone. This is the case I dream about; this is the birth parent I advocate strongest for; these are the children who tell me they are getting bullied in school for being foster kids and I imagine the ways I wish I could plot revenge on their bullies during my commute home. This is the case that makes me want to bang my head against the wall when Ms. Smith slips up or makes a poor judgment call. This is the case that I constantly find myself struggling over the line between professional and friend.  Some days I want to take the whole family home with me, birth mother and all.

My supervisor is aware of the effect this case has on my time and my emotions. And a while back in supervision he said something that stuck. He told me that the Smith case is my loudest case. It’s the case that demands my full attention and follows me home every night. But he encouraged me not to let my loudest case drown out my quieter ones.

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Just because the kids are well behaved, the parents are not as demanding, and the foster parents are saintly, doesn’t mean they should become second priority. Foster care is meant to be temporary; a significant reason why children remain in the system for years is because they are the “quiet cases” — ones that don’t require immediate action and therefore none is taken. They are the ones that workers dream of because of how “easy” they seem. But they are so often the ones that get ignored.

My goal for the New Year is not to work any less hard on the Smith case, but to help give voice to the quieter ones.

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… that one time I couldn’t find my kid .

On New Years Day at 10:30pm, I received a text saying that one of my foster children was not returned to his foster mother. I was getting ready for bed and I didn’t want to respond, but how could I sleep not knowing what is happening? So… I texted Ms.Todd*, foster mother, and asked her if he was still missing.

me: Is he still missing? Ms. Miller’s [birth mom] cell phone is off; here is her home number. I tried calling but no answer.
her: No, she still hasn’t dropped him off. I texted her, I called her, I called her mother… no response. I called the on-call and I am waiting for them to call me back. I hope everything is alright. I am beginning to get worried.

At this point it was 11:30pm, and I had no idea what to do. This wasn’t supposed to happen! I had just talked to Ms. Miller the day before about her progress… this will not go well!

Let’s go back a couple of days… it’s Tuesday 12/30/14, and Ms. Miller called me. She is asking for an extended visit with her boys. I had received her most recent drug screening and it came back positive for marijuana. I had a long discussion with her and stated that I would email our lawyer to see if they will approve the extended visit, but I also have to inform them about the positive drug screening.

The lawyers wrote back and they recommended to suspend overnight visits until Ms. Miller has consistent negative drug screenings. This was not going to go well. It took so much to get Ms. Miller where she is now and if we suspended overnights, I believed that Ms. Miller would revert back to not being consistent with her service plan. After consulting with my supervisor, we decided that we would allow one-night overnight visit with Ms. Miller and she would have to complete a drug screening immediately. Continuing over-night visits would be determined after the drug screening results.

I called and informed Ms. Miller of the denial of her request; I informed her to come to the office the next morning to pick up her son, Tyler, and to have a discussion about moving forward. She came bright and early; we spoke about the drug screening [I showed her the results]. She denied that she is smoking. I explained that I don’t know if she is or not, but that random drug screenings are a part of the service plan, so she needs to stop being around it if that’s what’s causing the positive screening. I explained that we will have to suspend visits if the next test is positive. Tyler arrived and they left. Happy New Years!

Fast forward to 01/01/15 at 11:30 pm and we do not know where the foster child is; we can’t get a hold of birth mom.

Are they okay? Is anyone hurt? I’m going to get in so much trouble!
Please… please let us find him. 

At midnight, I called the on-call since Ms. Todd has not gotten a phone call back. I was able to relay information and the supervisor stated she would call Ms. Todd. The supervisor stated that she’s going to tell Ms. Todd to file a missing person’s report with the police. I waited by the phone for Ms. Todd to call me. I couldn’t fall asleep. I facebooked Ms. Miller and her boyfriend. I was desperate to get a hold of someone. I was thinking about how traumatizing it’s going to be for Tyler if the police goes to the home and he is there. But what are we supposed to do?

Finally, Ms. Todd texted at 1:30 pm and stated that the police just left, they were going to Ms. Miller’s home, and she was finally going to sleep. All I could do was try to sleep. I woke up the next morning and rushed to the work. There was an email already in my inbox detailing the events from the night before. At 9:30 am, I received a phone call from Ms. Todd and she stated that Tyler was dropped off to her home at 9 am by Ms. Miller. Ms. Todd wasn’t able to speak with Ms. Miller.

Oh, thank goodness! He’s safe.

I was so angry; I was so tired. I wanted to cry; I was so scared for both Ms. Miller and Tyler. But I wonder how Ms. Miller felt. I wanted to know where she was coming from, what determined her actions, and how can we support her as we move to suspend her overnight visits. I know that when we meet I will have to explain the facts of the night before; I will have to explain why overnight visits are being suspended; and I will have to tell her that trial discharge is delayed. All of these topics will be hard to discuss with her, but it needs to happen.

This career field is no joke and we will have surprises like these all the time. What I have to remember is the ultimate goal… keeping the children safe. As long as that’s at the forefront, whatever we do, whatever we say… it will always be what is in the best interest of the child.

At this time, the best interest for Tyler is to suspend overnights. 

*All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.

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Year one- The Aftermath

Hi Jess-

It has been awhile… what a whirlwind of a summer, huh? I’ve been doing all right for the most part… back to school definitely comes with a lot more work but its exciting since I have been preparing most of my families all summer and now we will see what comes of it. I’m trying to be hopeful. Unfortunately the last couple weeks have been extremely emotional and hard. I went to my first funeral on Tuesday for a child from a family that I had worked with before my medical leave. Her friends and family often called her Monsta. She had sickle cell anemia. She was 9.

Although I’m no longer working with the family, this whole experience has highlighted for me how truly batshit crazy of a job this is… that the unmatched vulnerable nature of my position is one that is simultaneously beautiful and ab-so-lutely terrifying.

I have realized that what we so often laxly refer to as “caseloads” are in reality an extended web of close and trusting relationships that do not end once a case is transferred or closed. That by virtue of entering into a family and getting to know them from the inside out the way we do, we will go on carrying that profound level of knowledge and understanding of who they are, where they came from and the obstacles they face- and with that- all of the dreams, hopes and compassion we develop with and for them over the course of that relationship. We come in rooting for them all, even though we know that statistically, many of them will not be able to achieve the heights we help them to aspire to- for reasons far too complicated to simply blame on individual failures or shortcomings. We find ourselves feeling frustratingly stagnant at times because of these invisible ceilings that our families are up against, and even more-so by the blatant blockages and limitations we are bogged down by as the workers slated to support them through these minefields of oppression, poverty and discrimination. But how are we to feel when sickness and death rip one of our soldiers out of the fight before she is even given the opportunity to confront it for herself? When we cannot point our fingers of blame at the ism’s society has seemingly maliciously created and unjustly imposed? Grief has the ability to swallow you whole because there is nothing and no one to blame for the unexpected loss of a child who suffered (although she would never show it) from a genetic disease.

To watch and be a part of the most raw and intimate moments of each family’s lifecycle thus far has been equal measures of wildly beautiful, inexplicably frustrating, and heart wrenchingly painful. I am but a little over a year in and I have this pleasure/curse of carrying with me the full spectrum of human emotion and experience, not only for myself, family, and friends, but extended now to 20+ sets of parents, grandparents and children- and that is overwhelming to say the least. Although I hate to describe it as baggage or weight that I carry, in moments like these it is hard to see it as anything but, and I must admit that this realization scares the shit out of me. Throughout the course of this year, my deep and far reaching empathetic capacity, something I initially thought would be a great asset and strength in this field, has simultaneously been my biggest downfall. And I’m not quite sure how to feel about that yet.

In order to make it through this first year as a child welfare warrior, I have had no choice but to (try to) come to terms with this limitation, and all limitations that get in the way of creating and fostering the lasting change that my families need to sustain in order to ensure the safe and nurtured development of their children. I thought I had mastered it- that the trick was simply in framing my role with the families that I work with as that of a modern day, female version of Johnny Appleseed (we’ll go with Jenny); planting small seeds of hope, motivation, accountability, and healing each time I had a conversation with my parents and their children. I told myself that like all seeds, they would take time and care and the right environment to flourish into saplings, let alone to begin taking root in the individuals I was asking to change. I told myself that what I so often felt as personal responsibility for my families’ lack of progress (I don’t have the clinical skills, for a start) was in fact beyond both my own or their control. That, despite my title as Preventive Case Planner, I could not, in fact, have prevented (or planned) many of the crises my families have experienced over the last year. When I recognized that this left me with the role of holding their hands through the crises, picking them up once the dust settled, and trying again to guide them in the right direction- a weight lifted off my shoulders. That, I could do. But to pick my own self up, to pick up and support my co-worker who has stood by them through it all in a way I honestly don’t think I could’ve handled, let alone how the family will even begin to pick up the shattered pieces of their universe after a tragedy so deep… this will be a constant struggle for us all.

Moving forward, which is all we can really do, I’m daunted to no end to think that this may be the first of many tragedies like this to impact me and the people that I work alongside and care about. At this point, it is impossible to say if my capacity to cope will only get stronger or if I will even be able to bear another.  Still yet, through the tears, I am driven to continue being a positive force for these families who are all too often socially isolated and disempowered and left to languish on the fringes of our society. Despite the baggage it brings, the endless complexity of human relationships still fascinates me unlike any other field of study, and this is not something I can easily turn my back on- this truly seems to be my soul’s purpose, and I fear that it would not be fulfilled if I ran away, even and especially if it was to protect myself.

Attending M’s funeral this week was one of the more difficult experiences of my already tumultuous life. But it wasn’t about me. It was about her family and friends, all of us as a community of souls who were blessed to have known her smile, coming together to show our support and send out our incredible amounts of love and appreciation that we knew her while we could, because what else can we possibly do? All of us, no matter what we choose as a profession, are given chances every day to share our light with those around us that need it, sometimes desperately. And we can all agree that this world could use a little more light. I’d like to think that through the hardships I will be able to remind myself that this is not only a worthy endeavor but a pretty damn cool job description at that.

Although I am still reeling from the loss of a vibrant and incredible baby girl I had the pleasure to know during her short stay in this life, I look forward to the birth of yet another just around the corner that awaits another family in my ever extending web. Life is absurd in its endlessly fleeting and unpredictable nature- in both its light and darkness.

Only together, as brothers and sisters of the human race, will we be able to fully embrace it, celebrate it, mourn it, grow with it and triumph over it.

With love and a forever bleeding heart,

K

PS. Guess we might as well turn this into a blog post, eh?

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Evidence Based Therapy in Child Welfare- One Worker’s Reflections

Social worker/ preventive worker/ counselor/ therapist/ “the lady”… all titles I’ve responded to at my work, and each one relevant in its own way. But these multiple identities also capture the inherent challenges of integrating two professional spheres, one a carefully honed practice, and the other a colossal institution. One often associated with privilege, the other with poverty.

On one hand, there is a natural connection between family therapy and child welfare (specifically preventive services). Both are often involved during a time of crisis. Both are concerned with the safety and well-being of children. Both are committed to stabilizing and healing families. And the desire for child welfare to move away from historically punitive and inefficient practices toward ones that are more therapeutic and accountable is both logical and good.

On the other hand, there are also competing interests, which have made me wrestle with my own professional ethics as a clinically focused licensed master social worker (LMSW). The power differential in child welfare is much more pronounced than in family therapy alone because of the focus on safety and risk. While all helping professionals are mandated reporters, there is an intrusive (though arguably necessary) element within child welfare that still does not sit well with me.

There have been times where the pressure of fulfilling ACS requirements has directly contradicted my commitment to therapeutic rapport, self-determination, and unconditional positive regard in my work with families. That may sound like Social Work 101, but it seems many families in child welfare have simply been denied these experiences. Without them, no amount of training, funding, programming, or research is really going to help families heal and protect their children.

However, child welfare does not shoulder the challenges alone. Evidence-based models of family therapy have their own rigidity and time restrictions. And I am not convinced that these models are always in the best interest of families experiencing complex trauma and persisting barriers to basic needs. Having learned that therapeutic approaches should be adapted to the client, it can feel counter intuitive to try to make the client fit the therapy.

But I am optimistic that a good intention may evolve into good policy. One thing I have learned so far is that there is a niche of families in child welfare for whom the model of family therapy I am practicing is extremely appropriate. These families often have some interpersonal and environmental risk factors but are also stable enough to address emotional and relational needs. These families do not have the luxury to access mainstream mental health services, but in a time of crisis, come to the attention of ACS. Being able to provide in-home therapy to these families and aid in their healing has made this demanding work worth it.

 

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Your Plans vs. Reality

The presence of a consistent and committed social worker in the life of a child in the foster care system has a significant impact on the outcome of that child and family.  Our Children’s Corps program fundamentally is guided by that fact.  Achieving that positive outcome varies from case to case and it certainly doesn’t always happen the way one would anticipate.  The message below is an example of a successful start to a positive outcome for a young child who was on the case of one of our members.    

 Hi Jessica!

I wanted to give you an update on how things have been going. It’s been a crazy two weeks!!!! I got my little guy in a home in which I thought from the beginning would be good for him. It is a home he was in respite while they moved him right when I got the case. It is culturally appropriate and in a home with much fewer children. There were a few hurdles (a couple of school visits for me and a very close call to having him taken to the hospital) but I really think for now I have him settled in a school that is willing and able to work with him and in a home that he feels safe and is aware of his needs. I have also got him set up for evaluations so if we need to move him into a therapeutic home in the future we can do it quickly. I’m working with the therapist to get a referral out to a community therapist. I am also meeting with *Kara on Saturday and was planning to talk with her further about it. I also got mom a little more on board with making sure he understands things like it’s not okay to try to run away from school…. It was tough but I really think these two weeks have made a big difference!

And of course now that I put all this work in, finally got him comfortable with me (enough that I was able to calm him down successfully during a break down at school) and got mom on board they are transferring him to another case planner. It is good and bad of course. The case planner has been working with the family since the beginning and I only had this boy and his brothers for these two months that their caseworker was on maternity leave. This way one person will be working with the whole family and all of the kids and will really know what is going on. But of course I am a little sad! It’s kind of crazy how the most challenging case can be the one you are saddest about when it moves on from you. (click to tweet) It really provides a little insight on how difficult it can be when your cases come to a close and how you always need to be preparing for it. I mean I was only working with them for two months!!

I just wanted to update you. It was a bit stressful, but again all that time and energy it seems, for now, has paid off. Thanks for just listening when I needed to vent. Sometimes it’s just nice to know someone has your back when you aren’t 100% positive with what you are doing 🙂

Hopefully see you in a few weeks at the next meeting

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the person referenced.

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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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My First Discharge was a Final Discharge!

Where do I begin?

August 10th made a full year working for my agency! On that day I remember thinking to myself a bit confused, “I thought I already celebrated a year.”  This made me laugh out loud because what I celebrated was 6 months, which at this point seems so long ago. Oh boy, has it been a ride! Looking back at this past year I’ve definitely experienced a LOT, and I’ve had my share of ups and many downs and too many crises and days that kept me working until very late into the night… but somehow at this very moment it all seems worth it.

Yesterday I was able to say good-bye to a very sweet 9 year old that I have known since I began my position as a case planner a year ago. She has been in care for over two years now, and too many homes to count. Throughout her experience, she dealt with foster parents requesting her removal for behaviors they neither understand, nor tried to understand. She’s had her share of family members who would rather stay out of the picture, using the word “drama” to describe her situation, and even an aunt who asked me to pick her up one day because her “know-it-all attitude” was too much to handle. Looking back at these situations I was there by her side through all of it. I sat with her through the tears, heartache, feelings of abandonment, and confusion, and it all brings us to this day.

At the start of the summer, an uncle came into the picture. He was very proactive.  He wanted to truly provide for this child and give her everything she never had- including a stable family.

This seemed like the answer, but due to some unforeseen circumstances she could not stay with her uncle for more than a month. Some time passed and after many meetings and court appearances, through persistence and hard work, we managed to cut through all of the red tape and unite her with her uncle.

This case has been my most difficult and emotionally draining- moreso than any case ever before.  It goes without saying that I am very much relieved and happy to say she has finally gone home. She is out of foster care, and it feels so good to share that. I am definitely going to miss her very much. She said to me today, “Does this mean I’m never going to see you again?” and I almost cried. She gave me a hug and we said nothing else. It feels really good to know that I played an important role in this girl’s life-even if it was for a short while.  This is the bittersweet reality of my job though.

P.S. In the next few weeks I’ll have a trial discharge to a birth mother that I am so proud of! August has been a good month!

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