Tag Archives: child welfare

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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… that one time I couldn’t find my kid .

On New Years Day at 10:30pm, I received a text saying that one of my foster children was not returned to his foster mother. I was getting ready for bed and I didn’t want to respond, but how could I sleep not knowing what is happening? So… I texted Ms.Todd*, foster mother, and asked her if he was still missing.

me: Is he still missing? Ms. Miller’s [birth mom] cell phone is off; here is her home number. I tried calling but no answer.
her: No, she still hasn’t dropped him off. I texted her, I called her, I called her mother… no response. I called the on-call and I am waiting for them to call me back. I hope everything is alright. I am beginning to get worried.

At this point it was 11:30pm, and I had no idea what to do. This wasn’t supposed to happen! I had just talked to Ms. Miller the day before about her progress… this will not go well!

Let’s go back a couple of days… it’s Tuesday 12/30/14, and Ms. Miller called me. She is asking for an extended visit with her boys. I had received her most recent drug screening and it came back positive for marijuana. I had a long discussion with her and stated that I would email our lawyer to see if they will approve the extended visit, but I also have to inform them about the positive drug screening.

The lawyers wrote back and they recommended to suspend overnight visits until Ms. Miller has consistent negative drug screenings. This was not going to go well. It took so much to get Ms. Miller where she is now and if we suspended overnights, I believed that Ms. Miller would revert back to not being consistent with her service plan. After consulting with my supervisor, we decided that we would allow one-night overnight visit with Ms. Miller and she would have to complete a drug screening immediately. Continuing over-night visits would be determined after the drug screening results.

I called and informed Ms. Miller of the denial of her request; I informed her to come to the office the next morning to pick up her son, Tyler, and to have a discussion about moving forward. She came bright and early; we spoke about the drug screening [I showed her the results]. She denied that she is smoking. I explained that I don’t know if she is or not, but that random drug screenings are a part of the service plan, so she needs to stop being around it if that’s what’s causing the positive screening. I explained that we will have to suspend visits if the next test is positive. Tyler arrived and they left. Happy New Years!

Fast forward to 01/01/15 at 11:30 pm and we do not know where the foster child is; we can’t get a hold of birth mom.

Are they okay? Is anyone hurt? I’m going to get in so much trouble!
Please… please let us find him. 

At midnight, I called the on-call since Ms. Todd has not gotten a phone call back. I was able to relay information and the supervisor stated she would call Ms. Todd. The supervisor stated that she’s going to tell Ms. Todd to file a missing person’s report with the police. I waited by the phone for Ms. Todd to call me. I couldn’t fall asleep. I facebooked Ms. Miller and her boyfriend. I was desperate to get a hold of someone. I was thinking about how traumatizing it’s going to be for Tyler if the police goes to the home and he is there. But what are we supposed to do?

Finally, Ms. Todd texted at 1:30 pm and stated that the police just left, they were going to Ms. Miller’s home, and she was finally going to sleep. All I could do was try to sleep. I woke up the next morning and rushed to the work. There was an email already in my inbox detailing the events from the night before. At 9:30 am, I received a phone call from Ms. Todd and she stated that Tyler was dropped off to her home at 9 am by Ms. Miller. Ms. Todd wasn’t able to speak with Ms. Miller.

Oh, thank goodness! He’s safe.

I was so angry; I was so tired. I wanted to cry; I was so scared for both Ms. Miller and Tyler. But I wonder how Ms. Miller felt. I wanted to know where she was coming from, what determined her actions, and how can we support her as we move to suspend her overnight visits. I know that when we meet I will have to explain the facts of the night before; I will have to explain why overnight visits are being suspended; and I will have to tell her that trial discharge is delayed. All of these topics will be hard to discuss with her, but it needs to happen.

This career field is no joke and we will have surprises like these all the time. What I have to remember is the ultimate goal… keeping the children safe. As long as that’s at the forefront, whatever we do, whatever we say… it will always be what is in the best interest of the child.

At this time, the best interest for Tyler is to suspend overnights. 

*All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.

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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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Year one- The Aftermath

Hi Jess-

It has been awhile… what a whirlwind of a summer, huh? I’ve been doing all right for the most part… back to school definitely comes with a lot more work but its exciting since I have been preparing most of my families all summer and now we will see what comes of it. I’m trying to be hopeful. Unfortunately the last couple weeks have been extremely emotional and hard. I went to my first funeral on Tuesday for a child from a family that I had worked with before my medical leave. Her friends and family often called her Monsta. She had sickle cell anemia. She was 9.

Although I’m no longer working with the family, this whole experience has highlighted for me how truly batshit crazy of a job this is… that the unmatched vulnerable nature of my position is one that is simultaneously beautiful and ab-so-lutely terrifying.

I have realized that what we so often laxly refer to as “caseloads” are in reality an extended web of close and trusting relationships that do not end once a case is transferred or closed. That by virtue of entering into a family and getting to know them from the inside out the way we do, we will go on carrying that profound level of knowledge and understanding of who they are, where they came from and the obstacles they face- and with that- all of the dreams, hopes and compassion we develop with and for them over the course of that relationship. We come in rooting for them all, even though we know that statistically, many of them will not be able to achieve the heights we help them to aspire to- for reasons far too complicated to simply blame on individual failures or shortcomings. We find ourselves feeling frustratingly stagnant at times because of these invisible ceilings that our families are up against, and even more-so by the blatant blockages and limitations we are bogged down by as the workers slated to support them through these minefields of oppression, poverty and discrimination. But how are we to feel when sickness and death rip one of our soldiers out of the fight before she is even given the opportunity to confront it for herself? When we cannot point our fingers of blame at the ism’s society has seemingly maliciously created and unjustly imposed? Grief has the ability to swallow you whole because there is nothing and no one to blame for the unexpected loss of a child who suffered (although she would never show it) from a genetic disease.

To watch and be a part of the most raw and intimate moments of each family’s lifecycle thus far has been equal measures of wildly beautiful, inexplicably frustrating, and heart wrenchingly painful. I am but a little over a year in and I have this pleasure/curse of carrying with me the full spectrum of human emotion and experience, not only for myself, family, and friends, but extended now to 20+ sets of parents, grandparents and children- and that is overwhelming to say the least. Although I hate to describe it as baggage or weight that I carry, in moments like these it is hard to see it as anything but, and I must admit that this realization scares the shit out of me. Throughout the course of this year, my deep and far reaching empathetic capacity, something I initially thought would be a great asset and strength in this field, has simultaneously been my biggest downfall. And I’m not quite sure how to feel about that yet.

In order to make it through this first year as a child welfare warrior, I have had no choice but to (try to) come to terms with this limitation, and all limitations that get in the way of creating and fostering the lasting change that my families need to sustain in order to ensure the safe and nurtured development of their children. I thought I had mastered it- that the trick was simply in framing my role with the families that I work with as that of a modern day, female version of Johnny Appleseed (we’ll go with Jenny); planting small seeds of hope, motivation, accountability, and healing each time I had a conversation with my parents and their children. I told myself that like all seeds, they would take time and care and the right environment to flourish into saplings, let alone to begin taking root in the individuals I was asking to change. I told myself that what I so often felt as personal responsibility for my families’ lack of progress (I don’t have the clinical skills, for a start) was in fact beyond both my own or their control. That, despite my title as Preventive Case Planner, I could not, in fact, have prevented (or planned) many of the crises my families have experienced over the last year. When I recognized that this left me with the role of holding their hands through the crises, picking them up once the dust settled, and trying again to guide them in the right direction- a weight lifted off my shoulders. That, I could do. But to pick my own self up, to pick up and support my co-worker who has stood by them through it all in a way I honestly don’t think I could’ve handled, let alone how the family will even begin to pick up the shattered pieces of their universe after a tragedy so deep… this will be a constant struggle for us all.

Moving forward, which is all we can really do, I’m daunted to no end to think that this may be the first of many tragedies like this to impact me and the people that I work alongside and care about. At this point, it is impossible to say if my capacity to cope will only get stronger or if I will even be able to bear another.  Still yet, through the tears, I am driven to continue being a positive force for these families who are all too often socially isolated and disempowered and left to languish on the fringes of our society. Despite the baggage it brings, the endless complexity of human relationships still fascinates me unlike any other field of study, and this is not something I can easily turn my back on- this truly seems to be my soul’s purpose, and I fear that it would not be fulfilled if I ran away, even and especially if it was to protect myself.

Attending M’s funeral this week was one of the more difficult experiences of my already tumultuous life. But it wasn’t about me. It was about her family and friends, all of us as a community of souls who were blessed to have known her smile, coming together to show our support and send out our incredible amounts of love and appreciation that we knew her while we could, because what else can we possibly do? All of us, no matter what we choose as a profession, are given chances every day to share our light with those around us that need it, sometimes desperately. And we can all agree that this world could use a little more light. I’d like to think that through the hardships I will be able to remind myself that this is not only a worthy endeavor but a pretty damn cool job description at that.

Although I am still reeling from the loss of a vibrant and incredible baby girl I had the pleasure to know during her short stay in this life, I look forward to the birth of yet another just around the corner that awaits another family in my ever extending web. Life is absurd in its endlessly fleeting and unpredictable nature- in both its light and darkness.

Only together, as brothers and sisters of the human race, will we be able to fully embrace it, celebrate it, mourn it, grow with it and triumph over it.

With love and a forever bleeding heart,

K

PS. Guess we might as well turn this into a blog post, eh?

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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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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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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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Meet the New Class

Their youthful presence and zealous energy will have you thinking our corps members are all 20 something’s with the pomp and circumstance march still playing in their heads. While this is true for a number of them, we select from a diverse pool of people from all backgrounds who have the right amount of courage and maturity in them to commit to this type of work.

You’ve already heard from one of them already, Kristin Gowin.  Check out her blog post, “The Pseudo First Day and Snow Patrol.”  Ms. Gowin, originally from Knoxville Tennessee, made New York her home when deciding to pursue a graduate level degree in psychological counseling with a specialization in mental health before her bout with Children’s Corps.  She cites her experience working in as domestic violence counselor as her inspiration for joining the corps.

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“It was during her Master’s level internship experience working as a Domestic Violence Counselor/Advocate at The Children’s Aid Society’s Family Wellness Program that Kristina realized the passion she has for working in community agencies in the child welfare system. After completing her Ed.M. program Kristina joined Children’s Corps and is now employed at The Children’s Aid Society as a Sociotherapist in the Treatment Family Foster Care Program where she provides in-home supportive counseling to high-need youth and foster families. Kristina’s ultimate career goal is to work with youth and families as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor using trauma-focused therapy in both community agencies and private practice settings. “

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Pictured here (-r): Kristin Jones and Miriam Kwietniewska. I think these two would agree that the PEELED Snacks that keep them looking young and jubilant! =)

Some of them have families of their own and some have undergone major career, lifestyle and location changes to do meaningful work.

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Kaya Ceci, originally from Hawaii, has spent a significant amount of time volunteering in Latin America before joining the corps here in NYC.

“I recently graduated with my BA in Psychology and Latin American Studies, which ultimately led to my disillusionment with the field of Psychology for many reasons- principally, its tendency to pathologize individuals rather than the societal factors all too often leading to their circumstances. Originally from Hawaii, I had quite the nomadic childhood- bouncing between 9 different states over the years. This familial instability and the arduous lifestyle that fueled it have ignited my empathetic desire to empower children and their families to be proponents of their own social change. My volunteer experiences with the marginalized youth of Latin America have also sparked my sense of personal responsibility to use my education/life experience to benefit the lives of others who are systematically denied those very rights. I am excited to have found a career that accommodates my critical views and desire for change!” 

We are fortunate to have people from far and wide answering our call to action and we are equally excited to have individuals who’ve been locally born and bred like Steven Franco representing both for the men in child welfare and the native New Yorkers.  Steven, like many of his peers,  sees Children’s Corps as a way to do his part in leaving the world a better place.

Steven Photo

Steven Franco

As you can see, there are several differences that make this group unique.  Eager to learn the ropes from veterans who’ve already made careers in the field, collaborate with others who share their passion for justice, sprinkled with a little tenacity, a lot of personality and doused with even more optimism, these individuals all share the belief that their time is marked with the opportunity to make progress.  It is a belief that has been held by classes preceding them and that will be apparent to those who encounter them.  Don’t believe us?  MEET THE NEW CLASS 

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The revolution will be televised.

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by | September 12, 2013 · 4:05 pm