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.