Tag Archives: foster care

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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Your Plans vs. Reality

The presence of a consistent and committed social worker in the life of a child in the foster care system has a significant impact on the outcome of that child and family.  Our Children’s Corps program fundamentally is guided by that fact.  Achieving that positive outcome varies from case to case and it certainly doesn’t always happen the way one would anticipate.  The message below is an example of a successful start to a positive outcome for a young child who was on the case of one of our members.    

 Hi Jessica!

I wanted to give you an update on how things have been going. It’s been a crazy two weeks!!!! I got my little guy in a home in which I thought from the beginning would be good for him. It is a home he was in respite while they moved him right when I got the case. It is culturally appropriate and in a home with much fewer children. There were a few hurdles (a couple of school visits for me and a very close call to having him taken to the hospital) but I really think for now I have him settled in a school that is willing and able to work with him and in a home that he feels safe and is aware of his needs. I have also got him set up for evaluations so if we need to move him into a therapeutic home in the future we can do it quickly. I’m working with the therapist to get a referral out to a community therapist. I am also meeting with *Kara on Saturday and was planning to talk with her further about it. I also got mom a little more on board with making sure he understands things like it’s not okay to try to run away from school…. It was tough but I really think these two weeks have made a big difference!

And of course now that I put all this work in, finally got him comfortable with me (enough that I was able to calm him down successfully during a break down at school) and got mom on board they are transferring him to another case planner. It is good and bad of course. The case planner has been working with the family since the beginning and I only had this boy and his brothers for these two months that their caseworker was on maternity leave. This way one person will be working with the whole family and all of the kids and will really know what is going on. But of course I am a little sad! It’s kind of crazy how the most challenging case can be the one you are saddest about when it moves on from you. (click to tweet) It really provides a little insight on how difficult it can be when your cases come to a close and how you always need to be preparing for it. I mean I was only working with them for two months!!

I just wanted to update you. It was a bit stressful, but again all that time and energy it seems, for now, has paid off. Thanks for just listening when I needed to vent. Sometimes it’s just nice to know someone has your back when you aren’t 100% positive with what you are doing 🙂

Hopefully see you in a few weeks at the next meeting

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the person referenced.

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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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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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Letting Go

People who know me  from afar might be shocked to learn that I’m kind of a control freak. They might notice my scatterbrained personality that tends to spill over in every interaction, my tendency to set my alarm for PM instead of AM, my pattern of eating leftover pizza for breakfast, and assume I’m a mess. As a 24-year-old trapped in a teenager’s body who cries over episodes of The Office, I think this is definitely a fair analysis. However, when it comes to my job and my day-to-day life, it’s a completely different story.

Basically: I really, really, really need to be in control. Of. Everything. I need to be running the show. I need to know what I’m getting myself into. I need to be the one making decisions, writing lists, and delegating tasks. In high school, when people would mention things like my “strong leadership skills,” it was just a nice way of saying that I tended to barrel to the front of the group and start bossing others around. I think I have definitely relaxed in many ways as I’ve grown, but the desire to completely control my day-to-day–which currently is my job–remained–well, until recently.

It’s been exactly one year since I arrived at the Children’s Aid Society and began my job as a sociotherapist in Teen Foster Care. It’s hard to think about everything I have learned over the year, because my brain would explode, so I just want to focus on perhaps the biggest lesson—one that I have learned and re-learned, over and over, in daily interactions, for the past 365 days.

Yes—I have learned to relinquish control. In my job, at least–which is a start.

Here’s the thing about my job that’s incredibly obvious: teenagers will do whatever they want. Positive or negative, well-thought-out or not.  Another obvious point, though one that took me longer to accept– it remains true that I have zero actual say in some of the choices my youth might make. An easy example–I cannot physically MOVE them to and from appointments–no matter how hard I try. I cannot lead a young adult by the hand into a room to take a GED test for the fourth time, or into a mandatory job orientation, or to their living room for a home visit. This realization is not radical, and it shouldn’t be. Going into my job I was aware that my expectations would and should shift as I began to get to know my clients better.  It took about ten minutes to learn that I was not necessarily a top priority for some of my youth–which is totally understandable! They had, and still have, so much going on. Very quickly, I was faced with the realization that relinquishing the control over my day-to-day work was probably going to be one of the only ways I would be able to stick it out.

The first few months of my job, I seemed to be in panic mode every single time there was some kind of problem, even relatively tiny–i.e., a youth missing a doctor’s appointment, getting suspended for two days from school, losing an ID for the third time, etc. It was not, of course, a relaxing way to live particularly when these events combined with bigger, more complex problems that I actually really had to focus on to help solve.

So I took a look around. Having been lucky enough to be granted dedicated, supportive co-workers, I needed to figure out how they were dealing with everything. I zoned in on my supervisor, and soon I began to notice that each time she was presented with any sort of work-related issue–positive or negative, minor or major–she responded in the same way: by simply saying, “Okay.” No panicking. No flicker of stress. Just a calming affirmation that she had heard.

This floored me.

How could she be so calm in situations where the youth that we worked with just did not seem to care about showing up? Or completing important paperwork? Or even responding to calls? Teens who were on the cusp of aging out, who needed housing, who needed jobs, who along with us were racing against the clock to secure some sort of permanency.  It is important to note that some of the teens in our small unit did not have these tendencies–but many did. 

During those first few months, if our supervision sessions spiraled into me talking through my frustration about a client’s behavior, she would listen, shrug and say, “All you can do is all you can do.” At first I was skeptical.  “Was it really as easy as that?” It seemed to work well for her. So we started there.

All I can do is all I can do.”

As time progressed, I repeated the mantra in my head whenever a stressful situation arose. I really had to work to apply it to my everyday professional life, but soon it seemed to start sticking.  I began to realize that between the hours of 9am and 5pm (or 6pm, or 6:30pm…), all I could do was try to be the best sociotherapist for these teens that I could possibly be. Then I could go home and flail on my living room carpet or stress-cuddle my cat and be as much of a mess as I wanted.

But at work, it was different. Each relationship with a client is unique–it was all about doing all I could to meet each where he or she was at. That meant listening, or talking, or not talking, or doing crossword puzzles, or watching one horrifically bloody scene from a Twilight movie (one of my teens convinced me it was worth watching–I beg to differ). It also meant using frustrating moments as teaching opportunities which went both ways. It meant reflection and conversation, goal-setting, and planning. It meant cutting some slack for both the teen and myself. Sometimes it meant shifting expectations. Sometimes it meant taking baby steps and rewarding tiny victories.

Things began to shift. For one, I was relieved. I was being more productive at work because I didn’t jump up and try to hastily problem-solve every single situation that arose right that second. I was able to take a deep breath and say, “Okay.” I was able to begin focusing my attention on appreciating positive behavior instead of becoming frustrated by negative behavior. And at the end of the day, I realized, it’s just not about me. I learned to not take things personally. The comfort that might have come with me being able to influence my clients to make every appointment, sign every paper, change every negative behavior–it just wasn’t going to happen.

And that’s life.

That’s life.

Learning to let go of the desire for control over my job has been an incredibly rewarding experience, one that I was bound to learn sooner or later. I’m glad I learned it sooner. That’s both the up-side and down-side of social work–things get real, fast. I choose to consider that an up-side. I feel grateful for everything I have learned the past year and look forward to learning more and more.

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The Finish Line

Wow, what a two year journey.  I really have not posted in some time, but I felt, “What the hell?”

1.

First, I wanted to say CONGRATS! to the class of 2011.  Honestly , I think it should be class of 2013 since it’s when you finish not when you started that counts, but I think I’ve been overruled on that point.  Anyway, I am so proud of the remaining members who stuck it out and pushed forward.  I would have wished that our whole class made it, but honestly its just a testament to how strong the remaining members have been.  All of us had different paths – some through flower beds and others were more like mine fields.  I think our experiences helped us grow as individuals, at least I think I did.

2.

I want to thank Children’s Corp for giving me an opportunity to serve, pay my dues, learn, and grow as a professional in this field.  They never told me it would be easy and everything they warned me about was true, but the support was there if I needed it.   As the new crop of classes come in and take on the gauntlet of fire, my advice to you is stay strong, stay focused, stay positive, and keep laughing. As George Carlin would say, “Don’t listen to the BS. It’s bad for you.”

3.

I really don’t know what all of my classes plans are moving forward, but good luck, stay in touch we are like a fraternity now which means when all of you are big hot-shot administrators in 20 years you have to at least give me an interview seems only right.

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Social Work? But Why

Fostering Change for Children sat down with a few Children’s Corps members and asked…”Social Work? But why?” Here’s what they had to say.

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by | May 13, 2013 · 4:32 pm

Fairy Tales and Sad Tales

from the book, Are you my Mother?

About a year ago, I witnessed what was at the time a very sad story.  Jarrell* came into foster care at birth.  He had three older siblings who had been in care for nearly three years, and a one year old brother who had also been in care since birth.  In the previous three years, Jarrell’s birth parents had not made even minimal strides towards change that would allow the children to go home.  Even at birth, while not impossible, it seemed unlikely that Jarrell would ever be reunited with his birth parents.  When he was born, Jarrell’s siblings were placed in two different foster homes, and for various reasons, neither family was able to care for Jarrell.  The five siblings would be separated between three different foster families.

Jarrell was placed in a very loving home with Ms. Washington who instantly fell in love with him. Before Jarrell was born, Ms. Washington had planned a two week vacation with her twelve year old son for his birthday, but the baby was placed in the home nonetheless because it seemed like a good fit long-term.  So after about two months with Ms. Washington, Jarrell was placed in a respite home for two weeks during her vacation.  Ms. Washington returned from vacation, and after about three months was totally enamored with Jarrell and committed to being an adoptive resource for him.  A month later, there was a sudden death in her family, and she had to travel out of state to support her family members for a short period of time.  Jarrell was placed in a respite home again.  This time, Ms. Washington requested that Jarrell be placed with a friend of hers who is also a foster parent with the agency.  She said that she had grown so attached to him, and this way she could leave knowing that he would be very well cared for and that she could call her friend regularly while she was gone to check in on him.  For twenty-one days, Jarrell was placed in another respite home.  He adjusted well when Ms. Washington returned, and for two more months, all was well.

Then one day I received a frantic call from Ms. Washington.  She was in the hospital with her mother, who up until then had lived with her and helped her care for Jarrell while she was at work.  Her mother had just had a stroke, and it was looking like she was not going to fully recover.  Jarrell was home with her back up resource, but she said that she was not sure how she was going to be able to continue to care for Jarrell.  Over the next few days, I spoke with Ms. Washington several times and reviewed different scenarios and options with her to help her decide what would be the right thing to do.  Her mother would need a permanent full time caretaker, and she was told that it was possible her mother would not live for very much longer.  She wrestled with the decision and truly put her whole heart into it, but ultimately decided that despite how much she loved Jarrell, she would not be able to care for him any longer in the way that she felt he deserved.  So we began the search for Jarell’s fourth foster home.  He was six months old.

The story of foster children bouncing from home to home is a common one, and it is always a heartbreaking story.  but this was a baby!  A cute six month old, baby who slept well, ate like a king, and was healthy as could be.  It killed me to think of the injustice that was being done to this helpless little child who had arrived in the world to such unthinkable instability.   It was worse that the instability happened once he arrived in foster care, not before.  But there was no fault to be found, it was simply what seemed to be horrifically unlucky circumstances.

Our homefinding team found a family for Jarrell almost immediately.  The young couple, Sarah and James, had become certified foster parents literally two days beforehand, so this would be their first foster child.  I later learned that they had also gotten engaged just a few weeks prior to officially becoming foster parents.  I called them to talk details and make sure they knew whatever they needed to know to ensure this was a commitment they wanted to make.  I spoke with Sarah first, who asked me a million questions, and then said she would call me back after speaking with her partner.  Then, about a half hour later, James called back and the first question he asked was, “How soon can he get here?”  It was a Thursday night when we spoke, and the agency’s one car was going to be in use all day on Friday, so I explained to him that the soonest Jarrell could arrive in their home would be on Monday. James sounded sorely disappointed, but accepted the three day wait.  He asked a thousand more eager questions about Jarrell, and then after promising to touch base first thing Monday morning, we hung up.

James called back two hours later with an unforgettable urgency in his voice.  He said that he and Sarah had an idea, and asked, “Would it be possible for Jarrell to come today if we go with you and pick him up in a taxi?  We’ll pay for it!”  Four hours later, I was in James and Sarah’s living room, looking on as Jarrell looked at them, and they looked at Jarrell, and, after answering a thousand more questions, I left them to get to know each other.

That night was when this sad story stopped being sad.  Nearly a year has gone by since then.  Sarah and James are as committed as could be to being Jarrell’s adoptive resource, and have worked hard to make sure that Jarrell is able to have relationships with his siblings.  Jarrell is walking, and talking.  Despite constant efforts to work with them, Jarrell’s birth parents have more or less disappeared, and the termination of parental rights process is underway.  When I visit Sarah and James’s home now and see Jarrell and his foster family interacting and going about their daily routine, it’s hard to imagine Jarrell being anywhere else.  After such an unstable and tumultuous entrance to the world, Jarrell is finally settled.  When I am in their living room, with toys and children’s books abounding, I don’t feel like I’m in Sarah and James’s living room, I feel like I am in Jarrell’s living room.

In retrospect, I realize–and I think James and Sarah realize too–that the urgency they felt that night when they spent an exorbitant amount of money on a cross borough taxi ride was because they knew that Jarrell was meant to come to their home.  They felt it, and they just could not bear to wait any longer.  To them, waiting for Monday was like waiting to cash in a winning lottery ticket.

Jarrell’s story is a bit like a fairy tale.  If you talk to any caseworker, they will more than likely have at least one fairy tale story of a child bouncing from home to home to finally end up exactly where they belong.  More often though, especially with older kids and youth, the fairy tale goes more like this: the child is placed in a foster home and at first things are okay, but time goes by and they start to act out.  The emotional turbulence of foster care placement, coupled with the impacts of pre-foster care neglect or abuse, surface in the home, or in school, and eventually the foster parent decides they just can’t do it anymore.  The child is moved to a new home, the behaviors escalate, they move from home to home, and years slip by.  With each move, behaviors continue to evolve and escalate, and it gets harder and harder to find a home for youth labeled with Oppositional Defiant Disorder or Disruptive Behavioral Disorder.  They steal or a break curfew, or a fight, or a lie.  They’re aggressive, or they’ll curse you out.  They cycle through what feels like every home in the agency, until after their seventh or tenth move, by some miracle, something shifts.  Behaviors subside, they are coming home for curfew, they are going to school and passing their classes, and it’s been months since they have gotten in a fight–it’s been months since they have been in the same home!   The caseworker holds her breath as if it’s the calm before the storm.  And when it seems the storm is finally about to approach, the youth confides in her caseworker that she has changed her mind, and she would like to be adopted.  The foster parent wants to adopt her. The caseworker simply looks on, mystified in those first several months of home visits, as the youth and the foster parent joke with each other, laugh, smile, and generally act like family.

Of course it’s not perfect.  You can’t go from hurricane season to perpetually sunny skies overnight.  But a major shift occurs.  Because now, when the storm comes, rather than being the end of the road for an almost-would-be-family looking on with a mix of guilt and relief as the youth packs their bags, it’s just a difficult and frustrating time within a family.  It is not pain and stress free, but it is part of what it means to be this particular family, and the fact that they truly are a family is what matters most.  This feels like a miracle.  This feels like a fairy tale if there ever was one.

I said that nearly every caseworker will have some magical story about a child or youth who bounced from home to home until finally arriving at the perfect match, and lived more or less happily ever after from then on.  This is great, but here’s the problem–the sad reality is that for every one magical fairy tale story that a caseworker has, they more than likely have ten stories that have the same beginning and middle, without any happy ending.  The youth bounces from home to home, and continues to bounce from home to home, or gets stepped up to residential care when behaviors continue to escalate, often until they age out of foster care, as alone in the world as ever.

Various religions and spiritual traditions espouse the idea that as we come into this world, we actually choose our parents. We specifically and deliberately choose our parents for the lessons they have to teach us, and for the support or the challenges they provide us with– that we provide for each other, really– that allow us to continue on our journey throughout life, and our parents on theirs, on precisely the path we need to walk, with precisely the right resources we need to walk it.  This idea was introduced to me for the first time several years ago, and the experience of hearing it had that rare quality of being inflamed with inexplicable enchantment and a woefully irrational but exceptionally forceful sense of truth.  This concept has stayed with me over the years, and has been drawn out with a strong sort of magnetism over my time working in child welfare.

From where I stand–as a foster care caseworker, working day to day with families who have had their children removed from their care, bearing witness to unthinkable acts and long-term patterns of parental neglect and abuse—from this angle, it is impossible not to call this framework into question.  It just doesn’t make sense. “How could anyone choose that childhood?  How could anyone knowingly walk into that kind of pain?”  But at the risk of offending those comfortably attached to a range of differing worldviews and confirming my possible insanity to a great many others, let’s assume for a moment that this concept, that we choose our parents, is more than a cute idea, but is actually a bonafide fact of human existence.  If we choose our parents, how do we make sense of foster care?

The majority of foster children come into care, their parents address the circumstances that brought them to us, and the children go home.  But several other children are born to parents who simply will never be able to take care of them.  That does not mean that the parents will not be Mom or Dad in whatever capacity they are able to manage, but they will never be able to be full time caretakers for their children.  What remains, then, is a parent-less child who has to find their way through the jungle of the world, in hope of finding their new home.  For we are human, and day to day I am becoming convinced more and more that a major part of being human is needing a family.  As humans, we need a family to support us, not just until we can hunt on our own, but for life.  And so we find so many children around us on journeys from home to home, in search of the family that they chose but for some reason could not be born to.

Sometimes when I hear the stories of children bouncing from home to home, I am reminded of the children’s book Are You My Mother?  A baby bird hatches while, unbeknownst to him, his mother is out searching for food.  With no one to care for him, the chick sets off into the world searching for his mother.  He asks a kitten, “Are you my mother?” and then goes about asking the same question to a hen, a dog, a cow, a boat, a plane, and, in desperation, a bulldozer.  Nearly hopeless, the chick finally ends up back at the nest where his mother has just arrived, and the two meet for the first time.  This is similar to the story of many of our foster children, except that their version of “Are you my mother?” after a while often sounds more like curfew breaking, fighting, cursing, and cutting class.  I’d be willing to bet that if that little chick had not found his mother after the bulldozer, he too would have cursed out the next fire hydrant he came across when the fire hydrant was unwilling to take him in.

Like the little chick, our children are searching for their families, whether they know it or not, in each family they come across  And like the chick who opens his eyes to the world for the first time and seeks out his mother in something so farfetched as a bulldozer, our children’s search is made all the more difficult by the fact that they have never known that for which they search–a home full of unconditional love, a family that will never tell them they gotta go, no matter what.  But one can only search so far and so wide for something one has never known without giving up hope, without getting so pissed at the world, or so numb to the world, that the will for the journey is lost altogether, and life becomes no more than a constant series of reactions.  The objects of this search must make themselves more easily found.  They must be searching too.  The journey needs to be shorter.

I always ask foster parents what made them decide to become a foster parent.  Among the foster parents I most enjoy working with and most respect, the answers are surprisingly similar.  It just came to them one day.  Or, being a foster parent had been in the back of their mind for as long as they could remember and they just couldn’t justify not doing it anymore.  Or, a foster parent recruiter stopped by their church/community center/work on a particularly auspicious day, or a recruitment flyer serendipitously fell into their hands right as they were thinking about what next step to take in their life.  Anyone who knows what it feels like to truly do what you love, or to truly follow your heart knows what a calling feels like, and knows the rewards of following that calling.  For many of our foster parents, they arrived here in response to a calling.  Often, when I witness and hear stories of foster children who endlessly bounce from home to home, I wonder if for each and every one of these children, there is someone out there who hears a calling to become a foster parent, however irrational or out of the blue it may seem, and ignores it.  And I wonder if they feel this abstract sense of something missing, a hole waiting to be filled, an odd sense of waiting for someone they have never met before to come home.

We desperately need foster parents.  And what we really need is GREAT foster parents.  Foster parents who understand that when their youth finally arrives in their home, they may not act as happy to be there as the foster parent may have dreamed of.  Foster parents who have the patience and empathy to understand that this youth has been on quite a journey through the jungle of the world to finally arrive there, and the journey has taken quite a toll.

I asked Jarrell’s foster parents recently if they think Jarrell will have any siblings in the future. They told me, yes, he would.  But they couldn’t possibly imagine having any biological children of their own, as they had once thought they might.  They said that they knew that being foster parents would be an amazing experience, and they knew that every child is special, but Jarrell is just so extraordinarily special, and at this point, he is absolutely their son.  They told me that if he had not ended up with them, there would have been something missing in their lives.  They might not ever have known it, but Jarrell would have been missing.  Yes, they said, Jarrell will have siblings, but they would open their home to any of the many other children in foster care who would arrive in their home asking, “Are you my mother?”, and they would say “Yes, yes!–well, not your biological mother, you’ll always have her, and we’ll let her be part of your life if that’s the right thing, etc., etc.–but yes!  If you’ll have us, then yes.”

I have found that the greatest of the great foster parents are the ones who are here because they are wise enough to know that they are not only here for the kids.  They are here for themselves as well, because they know, without knowing how, that the experience of being a foster parent will bring them endless, immeasurably wonderful gifts.  They were wise enough to not ignore that voice in their head that said that perhaps someone is waiting for them, looking for them.  They heard and listened to the voice that said, “You—yes you—it’s time to let me find you.”  No matter how little sense it may make, no matter how many children of their own they already have, no matter that they never really planned to have children at all, no matter that they have been a foster parent already for eight years and had intended at that point to close their home when the intake worker called them with that one last request, no matter that they know absolutely nothing about foster care, or even about children, no matter that they haven’t met the “one” yet and really had hoped to have children with him, or her.  The greatest of the great foster parents are the ones who find the courage to recognize, though they couldn’t possibly know it enough to articulate it at the time, that they already have children, and that their children are looking for them.

I question at times if I can really speak so authoritatively on these things that have only come into my purview in the last year and a half.  But then I remember what I do every day, what it feels like when I experience those fairy tale stories, whether it is kids finally finding their new homes, or kids going back to the homes they were born into.  It is indescribably amazing to bear witness to the complexity of the many lives unraveling and getting pieced back together all around me.  I often feel as if I am in a movie, or as if I have suddenly woken up at age eleven, on the brink of entering the realm of reason and rationality, to discover myself in the middle of my favorite fairy tale, with a wand in my hand, a yellow brick road ahead, and a fairy companion fluttering above my shoulder armed with pixie dust.  Magic IS real after all.  There may not be literal dragons or fairy godmothers or trolls under bridges, but there are parents who, when hope is almost lost, somehow see the light, and are able to take their children home.  And there are children who come into the world for one reason or another far distanced from the only parents who are able and meant to care for them–there are these children who search, and there are foster parents who allow themselves to be found.  And when they find each other, miracles happen.

Over the last year and a half, I have met my fair share of dragons and fairy godmothers.  Magic is absolutely, positively real, and I know what it feels like.  But I also know what almost-magic feels like, would-be-magic, the half-magic of a child furiously searching while a would-be parent somewhere out there pays no mind to that insistent inner voice telling them they are needed.  It’s heartbreaking. And more often than not it is distressingly out of my control.  In times like that, all I wish is that I had my pilots license, and a plane.  I would call in sick and spend the whole day flying my plane back and forth over the city, a big red banner trailing behind me.  It would say, “Wake Up Could-be Foster Parents!! Wake up and let yourself be found!”

*All names have been changed

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The Constant Fight Between Following Rules and Doing What’s Right

thetimeisalwaysright

I look at the clock and see that it is 11:55 AM. I am preparing for a six month Family Team Conference at noon; it’s the second FTC that I’ll have with this particular family since I began at the agency. Our goals for the second conference are very much the same as those of the first: Julie* is expected to maintain contact with the agency, complete a drug treatment program, and consistently test negative for drugs. Before I started working here, Julie had already been in and out of several drug treatment programs; in fact, her son was placed into foster care after she relapsed and left him alone at a mother-child treatment facility. Since I have known Julie, she has been in at least six different drug treatment programs—and I have only been here for seven months. The FTC will begin in five minutes and I still have no idea if Julie will show up.

I have not seen Julie since our last conference, and I have only spoken with her on the phone a few times. She will usually call me after she has settled into a new treatment program, and I am always relieved to hear from her. Her phone calls mean that she is not lying in a gutter somewhere in the streets of New York City. When Julie calls, I tell her how great it is to hear from her, how proud I am that she is so proactive about getting herself into treatment. I remind her to call me if she ever needs help, or needs someone to talk to, and offer my assistance if she needs help being referred to services. I also remind her to keep me updated on the progress of her treatment so that I can make sure that her positive progress is documented.

Julie is the mother the whole world loves to hate. She is the mother who struggles with a drug addiction, who takes the blunt force of judgment and criticism from people who refuse to understand why she would continue to use drugs if it means never seeing her son again. Julie tries. She tries so hard, and she is an amazing person and mother. She is incredibly sweet and soft-spoken; she is honest, resilient, loving. She talks about her son and her face lights up; she would give him the world if she could. But Julie carries a monster on her back, and every day she faces the challenge of throwing that monster off of her shoulders knowing that it will be anything but easy. She knows that pushing that monster away means having its claws dig deeper into her skin, holding her clothes until she is numb, until even the thought of pulling away feels far more excruciating than anything that monster could put her through. And so Julie stays, wrapped tightly in the arms of a creature that won’t let her go.

The conference begins 20 minutes late, and eventually, Julie does show up. She looks terrible; her clothes are dirty, her hair is a mess, and she says she is sleeping on the streets and hasn’t showered in over two weeks. She also says that her Medicaid has been turned off and she has been turned away from hospitals, shelters, and rehabilitation centers while struggling with symptoms of withdrawal and not a single item of clothing except what she has on her back. Julie cries and says she gives up.  I don’t blame her. But while I fight back tears and try to tell her that there is hope, I also know that I am about to remind her that we need to begin filing a Termination of Parental Rights because her son has been in foster care for too long and on paper, she hasn’t made any progress towards getting him back.

I ask Julie to come to my office, hoping that I can help her with any of the issues she brought with her to the conference. I speak with my supervisor and learn that there is very little that I can do; I can send Julie to the Medicaid office, send an email, make some phone calls, and ask around the office to see if anyone has clothes that might fit her. I direct Julie to a drop-in shelter so that she at least has a place to sleep, but I know that she will walk away feeling just as she did when she walked in—hopeless. And suddenly I see the one thing that I can fix for her right now, and I offer to take her to Target to buy some clothes.

One caramel frappuccino, some basic clothing items, and a grand total of $130 later, Julie is finally smiling. Before she leaves, she tells me that she can’t remember the last time someone did something nice for her without expecting something in return. She hugs me and walks away. I feel good, knowing that if nothing else, someone was kind to Julie today. As I walk back into the agency, I am confronted by a few coworkers who ask where I had gone with Julie. It is quickly brought to my attention that caseworkers are never supposed to go shopping with parents, and I am told in whispers that I “really should not have done that.”

The rest of the day, I struggle with this. I struggle with the fact that so many of these families are viewed merely as clients, not as humans. Julie’s birthday is just a few days after mine and she is only three years older than me. She could have been me. I could have been her. And any day now, she could lose the one person on this earth who keeps her going and gives her hope, her son. It will be my signature, my suggestion on a page that says she no longer has the right to see his face, hear his voice, hold his hand. Still, I know that I must do what is in the best interest of Julie’s son; even if that means that he will be a part of a different family for the rest of his life. This is not the first time I will have to make a decision like this, and it certainly won’t be my last. In this job, there will always be moments when I must do things I do not want to do. But sometimes, I need to do what is right—even if it means breaking a few rules.

*name has been changed

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Celebrating National Social Work Awareness Month

National Social Worker Month

“Weaving Threads of Resilience and Advocacy: The Power of Social Work.”

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by | March 1, 2013 · 10:00 am