Tag Archives: social work

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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Transitions

contributed by Heather-Ann Schaeffner

“…like twelve of us are going to Ikea after training today.”

“Let me see your map of the living room.”

“I have to stop at home first, I forgot my coupon.”

“You should try to get a sponsorship from Ikea, we’re going to spend thousands of dollars there today.”

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Last week concluded the third #ChildrensCorps Summer Training Academy at Columbia University’s School of Social Work.  After five weeks of note taking, lectures from some of the most influential educators and professionals in the child welfare system, role-plays, networking and knowledge-sharing the thirty-eight new members (our largest class yet!) are ready and eager to start work in the field.  Some have already begun their two year commitment as early as this past Monday.

Similar to the families they will serve, the transition will not be easy.  A number of them are acclimating to the New York City lifestyle, claiming their independence, some are starting along a brand new career path and totally changing the pace of their lives. Over the next two years many of them will be faced with some of the toughest challenges of their lives.  They will cry, think about giving up, one or two may even decide that this work is not for them- this is a reality.  What is also a reality and probably the most important reality,  is knowing that every one of them in this process has grown already, and will continue to grow.   The seed of their positive thinking will be planted at the agency they work at, and in the families they serve.

I heard a mixture of excitement and trepidation at lunch, but the air was light and happy. The room was bursting with their enthusiasm for humanity and their desire to affect positive change in the lives of children and families who benefit greatly from folks with this sort of uplifting demeanor to be a resource for them on their journey through the difficulties of life. Many of these corps members uprooted their entire lives just over a month ago to move to New York City to fulfill some inner need, desire, or calling for social justice and child welfare.

So here they are, after five weeks of unpaid training, about to furnish their new apartments, seemingly entirely at Ikea.

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Image by Heather-Ann Schaeffner

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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

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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Jackie of all Trades

I am a detective.

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

I am a therapist.

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

I am a bridge.

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

I am a parent.

Sometimes I am awake at all hours worried.

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

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

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

I am a historian.

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

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

I am a preventive case planner.

Social Workers Change Futures

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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