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Questions for my Would-Be Therapist

We do not take credit for our families’ successes and accomplishments, so why are we so quick to blame ourselves for their downfalls and breakdowns?

I’m going on two years in the field and I can say that my number one struggle remains to be setting and maintaining emotional boundaries.

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estabilishing personal boundaries can be really difficult

 

Already an issue due to the very personal way I approach the work, I find this separation almost impossible the longer I remain working alongside each family. Over time, due to the nature of the general preventive model, I am enmeshed in every way within my “strictly professional” relationships. From having a comprehensive understanding of their histories, their day to day realities to the hopes and dreams they carry for the future, it is not long before I begin to carry these as my own; before I pour my time, passion and effort into helping them achieve their goals because, damn it, they deserve it. Each and every one of them deserves a shot at stability and certainty; a moment for the chaos around them to release them from its grips, for the dust to settle so they can finally see and believe in their innate ability and self-worth. And I was put into their lives to help them with this, entering with promises already broken by virtue of my utter powerlessness to impact such entrenched patterns of injustice.

Walking alongside them day after day, I am overwhelmed in the face of the structural and cyclical blockades that threaten to strangle their capacity for self-determination. Ultimately it is all unbearably out of my control. How do I continue to pour myself into these hole-filled containers when so much of me already remains in puddles on the floor? How do I make a job sustainable that inherently triggers the failed efforts of my past to fix my own family?

I am starting to see that this is what likely leads to my feelings of personal failure when things go awry- the way they more than likely would have whether I was present in this capacity or not. Despite rationally knowing that I was not the cause of these breakdowns, my empathetic prowess works to my detriment in not allowing me to separate their devastation from my own.

It seems I care much too much. But how can I reconcile this with my fear of apathy and hopelessness jading and hardening my soul? How do I continue in this fight without allowing it to break me down in the process? How do I strike this fundamentally important balance?

I don’t have the answers here. Nor do I have the funds to afford a therapist that might be more able to guide me to them. So where am I to go? Despite my consistent efforts towards self-care- maintaining a vibrant social life, doing yoga, etc etc, I cannot seem to shake these deep questions I am confronted with each and every time I step back into the office. I try to write it out in my journal and reach out to professional contacts for advice, remind myself that I am planting seeds for individual impact and I will never truly know how far that impact will reverberate out. I repeat the golden mantra of social work that “All I can do is all I can do” but somehow through all that, it just never seems to be enough.

Ultimately, my fears extend far beyond my own personal mental health concerns/existential dilemmas regarding my purpose in life. There is a startling lack of support and flexibility given to most front-line staff making the conscious decision to dedicate their lives to these efforts. I believe that among the multitudes of egregious social injustices that need to be addressed, the high turnover rate within social welfare agencies due to widespread compassion fatigue and burn-out  is an important one to talk about because it systemically perpetuates many of the issues we set out to ameliorate. Statistically, a majority of social service providers choose this profession based on a strong personal identification with the population they serve. Thus, the inevitability of transference/countertransference, vicarious trauma, and other triggering experiences must be adequately supported to keep our fellow warriors in the fight instead of allowing it to break them down. If we are not given agency support and a safe space to collectively grapple with these emotional minefields, we are increasingly unable to provide this care to those we serve. In fact, the lack of consistency and apathy that prevails when these challenges go unacknowledged can result in disserving those we wish to help.

Much like what I believe my families could truly benefit from, I think we as direct practice staff need to coalesce for our common good. We need a safe and consistent space to come together to address and support each other through these trademark textbook symptoms that we face on a day to day basis that go on compounding like interest over time. Although I have yet to find the time and energy to formally channel these frustrations into a funnel of productivity, I aim to develop a curriculum to be used as a guide for us as a community of social workers to unpack the emotional baggage we so often carry alone in this line of work. A space where we share and acknowledge the burden we willingly accepted when we chose this as a profession. Where we come to realize and understand that while we made that choice alone initially, we are all in this fight together and need each other if we intend to make it out alive. Or if we simply want to avoid the additional cost of traditional therapy;)

Front-line workers need to support one another.

Front-line workers need to support one another.

So. Who’s with me?

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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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Overcoming the Devils

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“We don’t get many days like this.” Not a line one expects to hear at the closing of a High School Valedictorian’s speech but one that so powerfully captures the essence of life as a 19-year-old graduate in Foster Care. As I sat at the ceremony then and as I reflect now on my past year of work, this statement not only applies to youth in foster care but also to those who work relentlessly to change this.

On my first day of work, I asked each young man to write down their “words to live by” as well as the one place in the world that they would travel to if circumstance was no barrier. I hoped to use this to create a wall in the cottage that could grow as new residents came and serve as a testament to all those who left. One in particular recited a Bob Marley lyric I know well “Overcome the Devils with a Thing Called Love.”

Social Workers, notoriously branded as do-gooders are not immune to life’s devils. There is the devil of working more for lower wages. There is the devil of others looking down on you for being over-worked and under-paid. There is the devil of working with other over-worked and under-paid colleagues who take out their daily frustrations on you. There is the devil of bureaucracy. There is the devil of doing everything in your power for your youth and families only for your efforts, for reasons beyond anyone’s foreseeable control, to inevitably fail. There is the devil of becoming every kind of Social Worker that you swore that you never would.

Working within a metropolis such as New York City one can in a few short subway stops travel from a neighborhood of extreme poverty to the literal epitome of excessive wealth. Across the country, youth of color remain represented in Foster Care at a disproportionate rate. LGTBQ youth in the foster care system face increased homelessness. At its best, the systems we employ keep children and their families’ safe; create opportunities for growth, and in doing so remedy some of the harsh realities of this systemic oppression. At its worst; these systems employ the same cycles of oppression to their youth, families, and staff. It is not difficult to become both victim and perpetrator of this cycle that at its root is really just fed by hopelessness.

Hopelessness is bred through an exhaustion of all possible options. I am not hopeless. To begin, all work on a fundamental level is “Social Work.” With the opportunity, everyone who is capable and willing works so that they can sustain and generally better life in our social environment. “Social Workers” should not be the only individuals in this world loaded, even symbolically by name, with this task. When we realize that the systemic cycle of oppression, inadequate mental health care, and poverty is a burden that we should all share regardless of our profession, we have tackled the greatest obstacle. As Rita Mae Brown once said, “don’t hope more than you are willing to work.”

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Above all we most effectively help others when we help ourselves. Funding aimed at strengthening preventive programs that can work within homes before removing children from homes allow families an opportunity to effectively parent, addresses trauma early on, and prevents system overload. Agencies and Social Workers that continue to strive to cap caseloads through mandates, pay higher and fairer wages by re-evaluating the budget, and reduce burnout by allowing the flexibility of occasionally working at home make small movements towards this goal. Those in leadership roles who treat Social Workers with compassion and value their strengths will find that Social Workers treat their youth and families the same.

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One of the most respected therapeutic crisis intervention trainers on our Residential Treatment Center campus opens each session with a personal anecdote. On his way out of campus after a long late night shift, a resident in crisis darted out in front of him and ran into his car. While the resident was not injured, everyone around them immediately surrounded the young boy. Paralyzed by what had just occurred, after checking on the boy, this trainer sat in his car, un-sure what to do next. Surely he contemplated whether it was worth coming back to work the next day or ever again. Unexpectedly, the boy’s mother approached the Trainer and asked how he was doing. If not for this small gesture, this now well-respected Cottage Supervisor may not have made it another day on the job. As we make tiny dents gradually over time, we will see good work get better. At the heart of all gut-wrenching positive change, after all, is that thing called love.

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Redefining “Adulthood”

“We can do no great things; only small things with great love.”

-Mother Teresa

 

I had high expectations for my new life in NYC. Much like the heroines in the romantic comedies that fill my Netflix queue, I imagined that the city would transform me. Surely I would be absorbed into the vibrant ebb and flow of the concrete jungle, experiencing just the prescribed amount of triumph and heartbreak before emerging a stronger and more confident woman. I have lived in New York City, splitting time between Manhattan and Brooklyn, for a grand total of 29 days, and I am already a different person, but not in the ways that I anticipated.

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The dream: move to NYC and grow-up

In the years since I graduated from college I have wrestled with the term “grown up,” trying to decipher what exactly it means to be a grown up and how I would know when I was finally a fully functioning adult. After four years of college and two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Rwanda I could certainly see growth in my character and development, but based on my deep love of children’s movies, a lack of crystal clear goals for my future, and a propensity for allowing my bank account to hover just above the minimum, the elusive label of “grown up” seemed to be still out of reach.

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that’s a lot of steps – maybe I’ll just wing it. Everyone’s doing it, it can’t be *that* hard.

I was thrilled to accept a position with Children’s Corps because I am passionate about working with children and the program offered me an opportunity to try to change the world for the better. I also viewed NYC as my opportunity to live independently in an environment that would push me to confront all of the boundaries preventing me from making the grand leap into adulthood.

I hoped that apartment hunting would be my first successful solo venture into the adult world. I had visions of my NYC self, the epitome of maturity and independence, meeting with landlords, negotiating the lease, and securing my ideal apartment. In reality, instead of blossoming into a sophisticated adult, I often found myself playing the role of a petulant child. I struggled to manage expectations and keep a positive attitude as I dove into the chaos of navigating the Craigslist apartment market. Throughout the process I did not feel mature at all, and almost every visit was narrated by a whiney voice chattering in my head. The rooms are too small. The commute to work is too long. The owner has six parrots in the kitchen. I’ll have to harvest an organ to pay rent.

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Hunting for an apartment on Craigslist can be more than a little challenging.

I did eventually find an apartment, and in the process of acclimating to the city I have learned the value of HopStop and Seamless, opened a new bank account, invested in quality headphones for the plethora of train rides ahead of me, and hailed my first cab after new shoes gave me blisters. I wrote a check to my landlord with enough zeros to induce a bout of nausea and filled out stacks of paperwork for the HR department, ecstatic to see all the zeros on my first real salary. All the aspects of my “adult life” started to fall into place and yet I was lacking the epiphany signaling that I was magically an adult, somehow really making a difference amidst all the chaos, sorrow, and violence that plagues our world.

On the first day of shadowing at my agency they were not quite prepared for me, so I had a lot of quiet reflection time. My supervisor gave me a few reports to read and I devoured every word, drew family maps, and studied all aspects of the particular family described in the documents. Three children, two foster homes, an absent birth mother, and two children freed for adoption. I studied the facts, prepared a list of questions I wanted to ask my supervisor, and left that day feeling somewhat confident in my abilities to do this job. The next week I followed another case planner to visit the children, and within a few moments all of the facts and figures jumped off the papers and manifested before me in the shape of three adorable young children, running in circles around my legs and begging to play catch with their new ball. I played basketball with the 3 and 2 year olds, held the baby’s chubby hands as she gurgled and cooed in her stroller, and talked about the children’s progress with both foster moms. I cared deeply about the children when they were numbers and names on paperwork, but to have the kids right in front of me evoked a mixture of joy and panic all at once. Reading about a family, engaging myself in constant theoretical debates about how to best support the people I work with, was nothing like meeting them in person. In that moment the case was no longer theoretical and all the possible solutions I had brainstormed would need to be decided upon and implemented, with real consequences to accompany every choice. The enormity of my job, and the many responsibilities that I have in order keep these children safe and happy, all while moving swiftly towards the best possible permanency goal, was truly overwhelming.

I will be working with many children over the next two years and it can be rather intimidating to contemplate all of the work that stands before me. I don’t want children to languish in the system but I don’t want them to be rushed into unsafe situations. I want children to be reunited with their parents but that will not always be possible. I want to keep siblings together but extenuating circumstances will sometimes keep them apart. After my first visit with the children on my caseload I spent an enormous amount of time pondering how I could be most effective in my job as a case planner.I made a list of the qualities I hope to embody as I embark upon this new journey, and I realized as the bullet points spilled onto a second page that the tasks involved in this job would never be simple or easy. Luckily, I know that I am not alone. There are many other people who will come together to make decisions about what is best for the children. When I am unsure of how to handle situations or escalating stress levels, I have not only my agency colleagues to lean on for support but also the entire staff, and all the members, of Children’s Corps.

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It turns out that I was right to expect change when I moved to NYC, but the catalyst is not the city- the work is. I find myself constantly inspired by the families I will work with and my colleagues in the field of child welfare. For every worker I have met who is burnt out and exhausted there are ten more who love what they do and exude passion and empathy in every interaction I have observed. I am so excited to start working with families at my agency and beyond grateful to be a member of Children’s Corps. I have a month’s worth of training, enough handouts to make any tree-hugger cringe, and so much more to learn. I am working to redefine “adulthood” based on the revelation that my life will not be comprised of one great contribution, but a multitude of small efforts- some of which I will completely screw up- some that will end splendidly, and all of which will be based on a true love for the work I get to do each day.

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What I’ve Learned in Children’s Corps Summer Training

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Ok all joking aside, I have truly learned a vast amount of knowledge these last 4 weeks of training. I’m still not entirely sure of what I’m getting myself into.  I do understand that I am more prepared than most people entering this field of Child Welfare but that doesn’t mean I am better than the people I will be working with. I am very humble to have been given this great learning opportunity that I will be embarking on in the next 2 years. I know I will be taking many paths and most likely hitting bumps along the way. I want to use the blog as a space for me to share any successes and challenges I come across. My goal is to share the diamond in the rough that is Child Welfare and show people the many surprises that arise.

 

As Barry has said consistently throughout training: “It Depends”. I take this as a learning point that means no matter how much he can teach us about how to do the work in the ideal world, it truly depends on each person’s experience and how they handle it. .

 

I hope to at least touch the life of one person and truly make a difference.

With all that being said, I want to leave everyone with 2 quotes to remember as we embark on the next 2 years:

 

  • “Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists…it is real…it is possible…it’s yours.” – Ayn Rand

 

  • “The naked truth is always better than the best dressed lie.” – Ann Landers

 

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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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