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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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Motherhood & Other Unclear Lessons

I was assigned a family over a year ago where I had to conduct family therapy using a phone interpretation service because the mother with six children was Spanish-speaking (I am not). The mother was also undocumented. After managing to make some therapeutic headway in the first few months, the family struggled to maintain stable housing and became homeless at the start of the summer. This family of seven ended up moving on a temporary basis into one bedroom of an apartment with two other undocumented families.

Back in August, I typed out the below entry on my phone to process my feelings about a failed home visit where I was going to give the family metro cards to come into my office for a session to address the family’s concerns in privacy:

I want to be angry or feel that the mother is ungrateful but I do not feel those things. Yes, I tried my best to ensure that this visit would occur and even gave mom an out by asking her to just text me if she won’t be home. Yes, I advocated for the family to be provided round trip metro cards to our office because I know it would be unrealistic and unfair to expect the family (one mom, six kids) to come on their own. And I wanted her to come to see me for once so we could have a meaningful conversation in a private, comfortable space with the aid of phone interpretation so that her kids do not need to be burdened with being spokespersons and she can feel safe that other families are not overhearing her business.

But I also understand that in the grand scheme of all their problems, talking with me isn’t high on her priority list. So what I’m left feeling is sadness. Sadness that really and honestly, there isn’t much of anything I can do for this family in their current situation. I am a family therapist. And while I can and should accommodate the realities of many of our clients in child welfare, I’m simply not equipped to help them with concrete needs. I’m not a housing specialist. I don’t have an array of resources at my disposal to provide undocumented families the necessities they need.

Refer them elsewhere. That’s the response. It’s the right move. And yet, it feels so hollow. We all know too well how many families fall through the cracks when they change programs or agencies. After nearly 8 months of working with this family and with the last 2 months of the family being homeless, this sliding down the slippery slope of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I can’t help but feel what was the point of all this?

“We plant seeds. It’s not about solving their problems but about giving them the tools to face them more effectively. It’s the reality too many undocumented families face,” and so on. None of this gives me solace. I am just tired… and tired of expending more energy on a family that’s really beyond my or my agency’s capabilities.

I do acknowledge that there are strengths and some resources present in this mother and her family. But I can say with objectivity I’m not of much use to this family right now.
I’m not frustrated or angry. I’m just… Tired.

………

By the end of October, the family eventually ended up in an exceptionally safe and comfortable shelter and I was able to transfer the case to a nearby general preventive program to a dedicated worker who was also Spanish-speaking. I also got to have a very touching termination visit with the mom and children. Language barriers and evidence-based model protocols aside, I figured this was the closest to success I was going to achieve with this case.

Then in mid November, I came to learn the devastating news from the new worker that mom had been hospitalized, was found to be terminally ill, and was not going to be discharged. ACS planned to find permanent placements for the children (ages 7 to 13). I broke down.

In spite of all the problems and instability, the one constant in the lives of these children was their mother. While mom had grown more weary and drained over the year, the children remained high spirited and resilient. This mom was clearly doing something many things right no matter what her ACS worker said.

Unfortunately, this is where their story ended for me. It will be someone else’s job to see the next chapter of their story unfold. I am left mourning the loss of a woman who faced countless struggles and at times made me feel my weariest as her worker, but who unquestionably championed at being a mother.

My work with this family taught me that while my role as a social worker may often feel unclear, unsatisfying, and ultimately, not enough, it does not mean the work/effort/connection was in vain. There are not always clear lessons to be learned or closure to be gained. And I am learning to be okay with that.

My thoughts are with her children.

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Thanksgiving Thoughts and Reflections

In the spirit of this giving season I want to give some of my thanks, thoughts, and reflections on my first three months working in child welfare as a member of Children’s Corps (CC). As my job has become increasingly demanding and my emotional involvement increasingly present, the mission of Children’s Corps has become even clearer to me. Children’s Corps provides a tightly knit support network for us to turn to when we need guidance, advice, a sounding board, a friend, or a mentor. These things seem obvious and necessary for those of us who are members and who take advantage of CC’s resources, but Children’s Corps was created to address a need in the employment of case planners in foster care. Fostering Change for Children (FCFC) examined the system on a macro level and noticed disturbing trends in employee turnover, lack of adequate supervision, and overworked, underpaid, burnt-out workers.

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This is a serious problem and clearly change is necessary. FCFC took a step. Instead of tearing down and radically changing the structure of child welfare, Children’s Corps works within the system to set up supports and structures which can transform the problems into permanent and lasting solutions. In the end it’s really quite simple. Workers need support, positive reinforcement, guidance, and training. Children’s Corps provides these things. And it’s working. 88% of CC workers stay after one year, where only 66% of the general case planner population is still working after the same amount of time. The vast majority of Children’s Corps workers stay in the field of child welfare even after the two years of commitment to the program. I’m lucky enough to have a fantastic supervisor who is a Children’s Corps alum. It seems that providing new workers with these things (support, positive reinforcement, guidance, and training) is creating a new generation of workers who stay.

So first I want to say thank you to Children’s Corps. You guys rock. Second I want to make some observations with CC’s mission in mind: it has become increasingly obvious to me that the families I work with in my job are in need of the same fundamental support, positive reinforcement, guidance, and training that we as workers receive from Children’s Corps. The predominant difference is that these families did not choose to be in the system whereas we made the conscious and slightly insane decision to enter into this field.

As Children’s Corps has re-envisioned the experience of child welfare workers, let us as those workers strive every day to re-envision the experience of our families. Imagine equipping our parents and children with the support, positive reinforcement, guidance, and training that Children’s Corps has modeled for us. What would that look like? How might things be different if we focused on creating community support networks for our single parents with limited familial ties or help? What would happen if our strength based approach to family engagement centered around positive reinforcement and the development and sustainability of those strengths? How would it help if we guide families through the system, inviting  them to be a part of the conversation, with an emphasis on compassion and care, instead of on deadlines and requirements? How might that change the narrative? Or, what would happen if we equip and train parents and children with skills to prevent future trauma and pain? In a perfect system I would like to see the only necessary services be preventive instead of reactive. Perhaps this all seems too unrealistic. But I have worked in this field for only three months and therefore am allowed my idealistic visions of how we can engage with our families. I’m not asking to change the system, but rather, what Children’s Corps has provided for case planners I hope to provide for my families.i-dont-pretend-we-have-all-the-answers-but-the-questions-are-certainly-worth-thinking-about-inspirational-quote

As Children’s Corps workers we are fortunate to have this support network backing us and setting us up for success in our future careers. I believe it is our duty to get creative and collaborative with how to implement that structure in the lives of our families.  I don’t have the answers but I clearly have a lot of questions and a whole community of support. That’s the first step.

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What is the question???

Yesterday there was a hearing for a mom who has one child in foster care (for almost 4 years now) and one child that was paroled to her in a mother child inpatient program at about 3 months old. The hearing was regarding the removal of the younger child based on the fact that dad was arrested and it appears as though mom had lied to the court on a couple of occasions.

Just to provide context to this story, mom used to prostitute and use heroine . The first born child was born positive for opiates and was placed in foster care. The Foster Parent whose home the child is placed in is intelligent, loving, a professional, and provides a two- parent home with all the amenities for this child. Two years into the child’s life, mom got clean, and became pregnant with baby #2. Baby #2 was placed with her sibling for 2-3 months, and then paroled home to mom.

Mom has completed, and I would say benefited from, all of the services that were required of her, most importantly drug treatment. She is applying for housing and is working full time because as she reports “April* (I changed the name) is used to nice things in her foster home and I want to make sure I can give her nice things too.” THIS STATEMENT ALONE, tells me mom is forward thinking, concerned about her child’s well being and permanency; she knows her daughter’s life will be an adjustment and wants to work in order to provide a quality life for her children, just like the one foster parent does for April*. (Names have been changed)

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Back to the hearing; right before FCLS (Family Court Legal Services,) went into the courtroom the Case Planner called me and asked if we would allow unsupervised visits. I also received a call from FCLS asking if there was any reason why we can’t move to unsupervised visits. I responded that mom and child have model visits, loving, attentive, affectionate and playful. And I stand by this. The question was not, whether mom exercised poor judgment by endangering the health and safety of her child nor was the question about who is a better parent.

SO I answered honestly and said, in light of dad being arrested and despite suspecting that mom has lied about some things along the way, I feel the child is safe with mom and should be allowed to move back to unsupervised visits (the parents were having unsupervised day visits until dad’s arrest after which the judge ordered supervised visits at the agency).

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The FCLS attorney told the court that she spoke to a supervisor who said mom is a model parent and has had very positive visits.

The Foster Parent, who attended the court hearing (attends all court hearings, which I commend her for), used her superwoman powers and arrived at the agency within 20 minutes to talk with me and my administrative supervisor. The Foster Parent was extremely angry with the decision to allow unsupervised visits, felt side swiped and betrayed by me saying that the mother had model visits with her daughter. She claimed that I never shared this information with her (which I have on several occasions), wanted to know my definition of a model visit, and how many times I supervised these visits. She questioned why I didn’t think it was a safety issue that mom is a prostitute, smokes and hangs out with other prostitutes.

HERE’s the thing. In my opinion, FOSTER CARE IS NOT ABOUT BEING THE “BETTER PARENT” It is about permanency, safety, and well-being. SO, when a court allows a parent to continue to try and reunify, then is it my responsibility to work towards and support that goal. This is not some kind of contest, where the best parent “wins.” In that case, yes some foster parents would “win” that contest, and in some cases, bio parents would win over the foster parents. It frustrates me to think that a foster parent would think that I am not looking at these children and families from a safety and risk perspective, because I am and always do. The truth is, mom is not using, she is working, seeking housing, taking good care of her baby, and is working towards reunification with her other child. Yes, mom has used poor judgment and may make more mistakes in the future but it is not my job to judge her or prevent reunification just because the foster parent is able to provide a more stable and secure home environment and the potential for certain life opportunities that mom might not be able to afford. While this is sad, its not the point. Who is to say the best interest of the child is stability and potential outcome over sibling and mother connection, when maybe both can occur. We can only look at what is happening today and has happened over the last 5 years; we cannot project what may potentially happen in the future.

I have been riled up for almost 24 hours now. The foster parent was so angry with me when I said to her that child welfare is about a minimum degree of care. Okay, I know its not about that. It is about ensuring safety and removing the risks that brought the child into care. ISN’T IT? OR HAVE I LOST MY MIND? I want to make families whole, and I want kids to be safe, and I believe the child would be safe with mom just as she has been safe with the foster parent. I am not taking anything away from this amazing foster parent who is fighting for what she believes to be this child’s best interests, but it doesn’t make me wrong. To top it off, at the end of the argument she said she hopes I never have children. That was a low blow and I know she said it out of anger. But all these kids are my kids, and I am doing the best I can just as she, and birth mom are doing.

I am not sure we are always on the winning side of things in child welfare. Because truth is the child feels like this foster parent is her mother and at this point the bio mother is more like a step-mother. Maybe I can’t change that. Maybe the court won’t change that. But until reunification is not possible and I believe the child is not safe, I will continue to support family reunification.

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Survival of the Fittest

Some days I feel like my job sets me up for failure. Weekly home visits for 10 families, lengthy progress notes, lengthier reports, phone calls, chasing after collateral information, group supervision, clinically preparing for sessions, meeting model requirements… the list goes on… and that’s when there are no crises. All of these tasks are required to be completed all of the time. In 35 (paid) hours a week. Go!

I have no shame in admitting that at any given time I am neglecting something, often consciously. Eight months into this job, I do feel like I have found my stride in getting quality work done in a timely enough fashion without overworking. But there is this assumption in my profession that has gotten horribly twisted and needs to be called out: social workers aren’t in it for the money has become social workers should be expected to get all the work done in however many hours it takes simply because they care. The altruistic, social justice motivations inherent in the profession have been exploited to make social workers work (or feel like they should work) an insane number of hours each week with no additional financial compensation. After all, we’re not in it for the money, right?

Let me just dispel that myth right now. I am in it for the money. And the benefits. It’s called being employed. And the funny thing about being employed is that I expect to be compensated for my honest hard work because I need to support my life. I’m also in it because I’m passionate about direct practice and the communities I serve, otherwise I could easily be employed at a far less stressful job (and make more money). But that would also be less impactful and fulfilling.

So I feel like I’m faced with two equally unappealing options: 1) complete everything required of me in as many hours as it takes or 2) stick to a 40-hour work week and accept that the quality and timeliness of my work may suffer from time to time. Option 1 is simply not sustainable (or sane). Option 2 doesn’t sound too bad until I realize that much of my “work” is directly connected to my clients’ wellbeing. In other words, it seems my only options are that I can either overwork and burn out or feel guilty and/or anxious for work left undone (and families left unattended to in crisis).

The field of social work loves talking about how to practice self care in order to achieve this elusive work/life balance, but we are working within systems often diametrically opposed to fostering workers’ wellbeing. In fact, I feel like self care takes the onus for our wellbeing off the industry and places it back on us. So not only are we expected to work crazy number of hours and be responsible for an unrealistic amount of things, we also are supposed to make time to take care of ourselves. And when we take off work, we are still expected to meet the same requirements and deadlines… It’s ironic that we work with a population that experiences systemic oppression not totally dissimilar to the oppression we workers face in trying to serve them. No one is surprised by the high worker turnover, but it surprises me how much our profession has come to accept it as inevitable.

Before anyone assumes that this is the rant from yet another disillusioned, burned out social worker, let me take a moment to acknowledge how motivated and fulfilled I am feeling in my work overall and how I feel it is the right place for me to be at this time. I am figuring out how to maintain my peace of mind in spite of the limitations and burdens. This is precisely why I feel the urgency to voice these thoughts and hopefully begin a more meaningful dialogue that goes beyond my own venting, because I really do still care. In order to effectively advocate for our clients, we need to advocate for ourselves. To be skilled, compassionate workers, we need skilled, compassionate treatment from our work environments. Until then, this field will continue to feel like the survival of the fittest.

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New Year of Growth

More often than not, the new year presents us with renewed energy and awakened feelings of hope for the future.  It is important that on the hardest, coldest, and most unrelenting days of our lives, we harness the energy we have at the start of the year because every day is an opportunity to make a difference, to change, to get it right.  Here is a message from a Children’s Corps member about some of the lessons she is taking with her to work in the child welfare field.

Hi Jess,

I’m doing well 🙂 I’m sorry I couldn’t make the holiday party. I came down with a cold and I am currently without a voice. It’s been a long few days. Things are going okay. I’m trying to live by this motto “Own the mistakes, count the victories, and trust the process.” So far I’ve made a lot of mistakes and it’s been stressful. The victories are great though! I enjoy connecting with my kids (which is my strength lol) they’re awesome and make me feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m growing up in areas that I wasn’t previously mature. Learning office politics, agency culture, and that I am not likable to everyone- all a part of the process. Needless to say, I am having daily temper tantrums within myself as I go down this path. Thanks for checking in with me.
Love and Peace
New Year, New Growth (1)
To learn more about how you can participate in the Children’s Corps program, visit http://www.fosteringchangeforchildren.org/CC

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Optimistic Observer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better.

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

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