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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Finding Our Bravery

When someone enters the field of child welfare, they’re told a lot about some of the physical and emotional strains that it places on you. The frustrations of bureaucracy, traveling to different boroughs, “resistant” clients, and late night visits are just some of the everyday frustrations that we face. We expect these issues to challenge us emotionally in terms of our fortitude, of being able to push past the tiredness or the anger. But to me, the emotional difficulties of child welfare are far more subtle and complex than that. We continuously challenge ourselves on a number of levels, all of which shape our experience and ability to forge ahead with the work we do.

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One of the greatest challenges I think child welfare workers face is the need to be brave. Bravery presents itself in many forms, whether it’s dealing with a difficult supervisor or coworker, recommending the removal of children from a home, or putting on a stoic face when you know someone is about to scream at you. It also means something different to everyone; what scares me might be something that you can do without a second thought. Whatever your particular fears or anxieties may be, bravery is about acknowledging your issues and stepping up to the plate regardless. Unless you’re a robot – or just really ill-suited for this job – you will definitely face this issue. Probably time and time again.

It might seem strange that as someone whose very job is to assess safety and risk, I struggle a lot with confrontation. But as a preventive worker, I like to act like the parents’ advocate, and it takes a lot for me to get oppositional to the family’s stance on something. To reframe, I’d rather engage with a problematic attitude than say “You’re wrong! Change!” My reluctance to confront the family directly is often a good thing because it allows us the space to engage and work on change slowly and more genuinely. On the other hand, if I focus too much on normalizing their frustrations, I feel like they take it as validation and the rest of the conversation goes out the window. I’m telling them it’s normal to feel this way, so why change? Part of becoming a good worker is finding a way to balance between confrontation and engagement, but it’s not always easy.

I had an experience with a family not too long ago that really made me deal with this issue of confrontation. One of my clients who suffers from multiple mental health diagnoses was voluntarily hospitalized for a few weeks and had her sixteen-year-old daughter temporarily move in with her older sister. Once there, the teenager loved it. She was able to focus on her schoolwork and relax without having to constantly care for her mother. When mom was finally discharged, the kid didn’t want to go back. ACS had gotten involved and was saying she couldn’t go back, so I encouraged her to stay as well. It seemed like the arrangement was working out for everyone, except for the mom who had come to rely on her teenage daughter for company and support. Understandably, she was devastated.

I felt like I had done the right thing, because a teenage girl was now able to improve her grades in school and focus on applying to college. She was living something resembling a normal life without having to deal with her mother’s insomnia, paranoia, and constant negativity. In spite of all these positive changes, I could not stop thinking about how I had now isolated her mother. With the daughter gone, I could technically just close out her case, but I felt deep down that it was wrong. Feeling the need to be either validated or challenged, I brought it up to my mentor during one of our one-on-one sessions. We spent over an hour exploring my fears of confrontation and feelings of guilt, role playing a conversation between me and the mother, and even making me acknowledge how my own personal history was interfering with my perspective on the family.

So what was I afraid of? My mentor eventually made me verbalize it, though it took the better part of an hour to get it out. I was afraid that mom would look me straight in the eye and blame me not only for making her child leave her home, but for being the catalyst for the deterioration of her mental health. It didn’t matter how “right” the decision had been, this woman was suffering for it, and I knew that. I just couldn’t handle her telling it to my face. Sure, I wrapped all this up in other excuses, like my concern that she might have a meltdown if I went to the home. I can’t lie now, though; it was self-preservation.

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Someone in foster care might read this and laugh at my fears. “He was afraid of dealing with a parent whose kid he took away? I have to handle that all the time!” Well, I don’t. My agency’s preventive program has a 1% rate of removal for our families, so it’s not something I’m accustomed to doing. More so, this wasn’t a clean-cut removal by the system, it was a teenager making an independent, informed choice. No court action, no foster care, nothing even written on paper besides my progress notes in the state database. Now this mother felt like her child had been taken from her, and I could hide behind nothing besides my belief that it was for the best.

It took a while for me to find the courage, but I finally reached out to mom. While her first response was indeed to blame me, she moved past that surprisingly quickly. We started talking about her mental health needs and she even agreed to do a home visit, where I discovered that her post-hospitalization treatment had been mishandled. Two months later, I’m still involved with the family so that I can make sure she’s getting the therapy she needs and that the teenager and her big sister are living together peacefully. Mother and daughter are even working on their relationship, a work in progress which I’m currently trying to facilitate healthily.

10 Steps for Overcoming the Fear of Making a Change

I’m still working with mom to help her understand why her daughter wanted to leave in the first place, which has been a series of uncomfortable conversations. Sometimes, though, you just have to suck it up and say it like it is. It might be harsh, and it might temporarily damage your relationship with that family, but it could also spark the change that needs to happen. Since this experience, I’ve gotten a lot more confident in my ability to have difficult conversations with parents, even when I know I’m going to face some resistance.

My point in writing this story isn’t just to describe a difficult case, or to talk about my personal struggle in overcoming a deep-seated anxiety. I wanted to show through narrative how bravery isn’t just a blind, unpremeditated act of courage. Too often those actions are the result of foolishness. No, bravery is recognizing that we all have our faults, fears, and anxieties, then finding ways to move past it when they prevent us from doing the best work we can possibly do. I didn’t just “get over” my fears of confrontation – I challenged myself through role playing and some deep introspection with a trusted friend. I made myself acknowledge what was keeping me back and actively plan out how I would overcome it. Put plainly, it took work.

Think about your own flaws and how they might hold you back. Now imagine what it would take to break free. What preparation would you need? Words of encouragement? The support of a colleague? How many lengthy conversations or deep breaths? Take some time out of your day to think about it. Maybe you’ll find yourself ready for a challenge.

This is what bravery is. It’s a learning process, and one that you’ll have to embrace in order to push yourself in this ever-so-hectic field we call child welfare. Ultimately, every act of bravery will help you become a braver person – and that’ll make you a better worker, advocate, and inspiration for change.

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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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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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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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Daughter

On this final Wednesday of National Adoption Awareness Month, we celebrate the opportunities we’ve had to partner for permanency this month and throughout the year so that more children are connected to safe, loving, and permanent homes.  There are over 100,000 young people  who wait an average of 2 years for the opportunity to be with their adoptive families.    As many of you prepare for your Thanksgiving feast with your loved ones, we want to leave you with this touching story from the Adoption Stories Network about the moment we hope every child can experience – where they are acknowledged as son or Daughter. Read more here

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