Tag Archives: case planner

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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Jackie of all Trades

I am a detective.

I have to ask every kind of question imaginable to understand each family. I ask about their income, public assistance amount, unemployment, drug use, disabilities (mental or physical). I ask about their backgrounds; where they grew up, how many siblings do they have, who are they close to, why don’t they talk to their father, their baby daddies, their baby mommas. I ask about every single personal detail you can think of that can be used in the future. It is hard to think that the smallest, seemingly insignificant detail, can serve to help a family. Most of this happens organically when clients divulge information themselves.

I am a therapist.

Families tell me so many stories of physical abuse, sexual abuse, growing up in foster care, domestic violence, and the list goes on. My job is to listen. My job is also to keep track signs of possible cognitive delays, mental illnesses, and any other impairment that may hinder their ability to provide a safe environment for their children so that I can refer the family to receive support from professionals. The other day, a 17-year-old told me that her grandmother had a stroke, she saw her mother again for the first time in years since she abandoned her, her sister was raped all within two weeks.

I am a bridge.

I refer families to service providers that will counsel them. I search the Internet frantically looking for resources that will give them grants for much-needed basics. Sometimes this happens at night, when I am home and I think that Ms. So and So needs some furniture in her home or that teenager that was a victim of sexual abuse that needs a good girl’s support group. I have emailed my coworkers looking for clothing donations for a mother and her two-year old who do not have winter clothing.

I am a parent.

Sometimes I am awake at all hours worried.

When I hear about something terrible that happened in the Bronx, I think about every child on my caseload. When they mention the neighborhood I work in, I panic.

The other day, as I was arriving to a home visit, a channel 7 van was parked right outside. I panicked. A sigh of relief escaped my soul when I saw my kids were alive and well.

On weekends, I worry that something may happen and I will not find out until Monday.

I am a historian.

I document every single interaction with the families, the interactions that occur between family members, and collateral contacts in the form of progress notes, court reports, and FASPs.

I am always amazed at all the details I remember of all the families I work with.

I am a preventive case planner.

Social Workers Change Futures

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Still here

I am approaching the 1.5 year mark as a foster care case planner, which seems like an appropriate time for reflection. I have been through some tough times, but through it all, I am still here. Same position, same location, and two of the same original families assigned to me. I have conducted late night weekend home visits, physically removed kids from being on trial discharge, been chastised by judges, spent nine miserable hours one day at PATH with a family, and so much more. Caseworkers have crazy stories.

If I was in the same place now that I was at anytime in the first nine months or so, I would have already quit. I am strong, but not a masochist. Becoming a good case planner takes time. In the beginning, I was constantly making mistakes, even though they were mostly small ones. I would call the wrong person, forget to schedule a meeting, let foster parents walk all over me, get lost on the way to a home visit, etc. It is incredibly stressful to have so much responsibility for people you are just getting to know in a job you are trying to understand. As time goes on, some things start going well and each success makes the day go smoother.

I still make mistakes all the time, but now I know my families and my agency staff well enough that things work out just fine. I have formed a support network at work and I have good rapport with my families. My mistakes are not as stressful anymore, particularly because there are so many successes. Four children I’ve worked with have been adopted, and one was just freed for adoption through a clean surrender to a family member. Eight children have returned to their parents’ care, and two teens have been placed in the homes of incredible foster parents who are willing to care for him as long as is needed outside of a legal adoption. One of my kids has a mentor through Big Brother Big Sister. Another kid just won the spelling bee for her whole school, and she came into care because of medical and educational neglect. My work involves service providers, biological families, foster families, and other caseworkers. These successes would not be possible without the involvement of other parties. Regardless, I work hard and I care about the outcomes.
Two months ago, I received what my agency and the courts say is a high risk case. This fourteen-year old kid was arrested for stealing from his mother, who then placed him voluntarily in foster care and moved six hours away. She has not visited with him since, but he desperately wants to be home with her. He has many difficult behaviors and multiple mental health diagnoses. On paper, this kid looks like he has little hope. He is with a dedicated foster parent who works overtime making sure that he is safe and receives as many services as possible. She came into my office yesterday and said that she was thinking of giving her ten day notice for him to be removed from her home because his behavior was out of control. She explained that again this past weekend he left her house Saturday morning and came back late at night, refusing to tell her where he went. I dropped what I was doing and listened to her for an hour. At the end, she agreed to keep working with him, and it is clear that she cares about him. She even told me that after being a foster parent for eight years, I am the best caseworker she has had, because she can tell that I work hard and care about the kids. I do not take that lightly.
That evening, I received a phone call from her saying that she sat down with him, trying to figure out where he has been going. He said he went to his paternal grandfather’s house in Brooklyn, who bought him some clothes. He gave her a piece of paper on which his grandfather wrote his name and contact information, as well as the same for this child’s father, who is living in Florida. He then asked the foster mom if he could maybe go see his grandfather every weekend. I couldn’t help but cry a bit as she told me this. This kid, who the courts and the agency has been so worried about because his known family has basically abandoned him, now has potential to have family connection on his father’s side of the family for the first time in his life. Maybe he could even meet his father. Now that is a success. There is a lot of work ahead of me to engage the family to help plan for this kid, but I am hopeful. This is why I am still here.

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