October 8, 2016

The Road Home

Is she excited or terrified?  Filled with anticipation or apprehension?  There are so many emotions inside that it is nearly impossible to distinguish where one leaves off and another one begins.  Today is the first day of her new job, one she has dreamed of and worked hard to achieve.  As she fastens her ID badge onto her new lanyard, she looks once again at the words printed underneath her name: Social Worker.  She can hardly believe that she works for a child protection agency.  That she has an amazing opportunity to make a difference in children’s lives!

The very first case assigned to her involves a tiny baby girl, recently born in a nearby hospital.  The baby’s parents do not have the ability to care for their baby, but finding a willing and qualified foster family has proven to be quite a challenge.   Current foster homes are full or only take school age children or specialize in teenagers with behavioral challenges.  And many foster families, even the excellent ones, are reluctant to care for a child with special needs.  Fear of the unknown tends to paralyze even the most willing heart.

Child Protective Services (CPS) finally identifies a family who lives in another county an hour and a half away.  It is not an ideal situation, especially since the goal is for this child to be reunified with her parents, but this family has a good reputation in the foster care community, and they are not only willing, but excited about welcoming this little one into their home!

What the naive social worker lacks in experience, she compensates with much vigor and enthusiasm.  If the goal is for this family to be reunified, then she will, she promises herself, do everything in her power to make that happen.  She will help pave the road home.

She registers the parents for classes.  She schedules appointments for them.  She submits referrals for community resources and services that will help fulfill the requirements that the court has set for them. Every Tuesday she drives a 3-hour round trip (twice!) to transport their baby to visit them.  She contacts them frequently to find out how she can help them succeed.  

Her strategy seems to work, sort of, until she is assigned another family to assist, and then another and then another, until her case load has reached the maximum that her agency allows.  It becomes nearly impossible to attend all the court hearings, make all the monthly foster home visits, supervise all the parents’ weekly visits with their children, attend permanency planning reviews and staff meetings . . . and still have time to complete the mountains of paperwork that is required each month.  How can one person possibly do it all? 

How can she spend an entire day each week transporting one child to a visitation (to which the parents may or may not show up), when the legal team is waiting for her report in preparation for court?  When the psych hospital is waiting for her to make a decision about one of her teenage clients who is threatening suicide?  When a biological parent is camped outside her office waiting to complain that she isn't doing enough?  When it’s the last day of the month and 10 foster homes in 3 different counties are waiting for her to make a home visit?  When brothers and sisters who had been separated into several different foster homes haven’t seen each other in 3 months because no one can transport them?  Can anyone really blame her for quitting after barely one year?  She feels terrible, like she is abandoning the little girl who was her very first case, but what other choice does she have?  She needs to consider her own personal health and sanity. (1)

Her replacement, Social Worker #2, is also young, just starting out in a career that she had been anticipating for quite some time.  The challenge, though, is that she is new to the job and the agency, and she doesn’t really understand yet how everything works.  With every request, question, concern or comment, she gives the same answer:  I don’t know; I need to ask my supervisor.

Her job is further complicated by the fact that she is now entrusted with ongoing cases, which represent broken families, traumatized children, grieving relatives, and weary foster parents.  There are thousands of facts and historical details and nuances and varying perspectives that she knows nothing about.  It’s like overhearing the end of a heated conversation, and being asked mid-sentence, So what do you think?  Everything is too overwhelming and complex and stressful, and the responsibility is simply too great for her inexperienced shoulders.  After only a few weeks, she leaves her position without giving notice.  (2)

Social Worker #3 is strictly temporary.  She makes it clear to all of the families that she cannot offer any information about their cases and cannot answer any of their questions.  Any scheduled court hearings will be postponed.  Because her own case load is already full, she explains, she cannot, by law, assume responsibility for any more children.  She is only filling in until a new social worker can be hired and trained . . . which may take a while, since the whole county has a hiring freeze in effect.  This leaves literally dozens of families without a social worker assisting them. Vulnerable children with no one to represent them or advocate for them.  The foster parents of the little child, who is now a year and half old, begin to pray fervently.  Please God, protect this child who is falling through the cracks!  Please don’t let the bureaucracy cause her to get stuck in the system! (3)

It is with some relief to them, when, two months later, Social Worker #4 calls to introduce herself, and they find out that she is older, wiser, and has been a social worker for many years.  Finally!  Someone who can help!  With her first home visit, however, the small hope the foster family have quickly vanishes.  The woman is experienced, yes, but any compassion she may have had at the beginning of her career has been replaced with brisk professionalism.  She is so task-oriented, in fact, that she barely greets the foster parent at the door and doesn’t even acknowledge the precious child whose life and future rest in her capable hands.  She simply wants to check the boxes on her forms, get a few signatures, and be on her way. 

She takes a seat at their dining room table and then asks curtly, without looking up, How do you spell her name?  How old is she again?  It is so disheartening!  It isn’t that she doesn’t care about the children who are assigned to her; it’s that she can’t possibly know all the children who are assigned to her.  Everyone involved in the process – children, parents, social workers, foster parents - is transient and temporary.  No point in getting too invested.

Even without the warmth and display of personal interest, at least this social worker is doing something.  Trying to make some progress and take steps to provide permanency for this little one.  So it is shocking when, after only two months, Social Worker # 5 calls the foster parents to say that, thanks to a department reorganization, she is now on the case.  She is not particularly interested, however, in what has happened in the past 19 months of this child’s life; she wants to view the case with “fresh eyes” instead of relying on her predecessors’ opinions.  She wants to take her time, review the files, get to know all the people involved, and make her own informed decisions.

What does this mean?  That the process is starting over from the beginning?  That this innocent child is no closer to permanency than she was when she entered the foster care system nearly two years ago?  It doesn’t make sense!  It all seems so unfair!  How long does this child need to wait before someone finally makes a decision and files the right paperwork with the courts?

Haven’t the foster parents learned by now?  How could they so easily forget . . .  just as the flickers of hope can be fleeting, so are the flickers of discouragement.  It is barely a month later that the roadblock of idealism is removed from the scene, and Social Worker #6 is appointed to the case.

This time, for sure, this new staff member promises, things will happen.  Permanency teams will soon convene to discuss the case.  Court hearings will soon be scheduled.  The parents’ rights will soon be terminated.  Adoption petitions will soon be filed.  But first, unfortunately, she will be away from the office for a few weeks on a leave of absence.  Unavailable.  Silent.

And this is where the sweet little one’s case stands today.  Stuck.  Almost two years and 6 social workers later, her future is just as uncertain as it was when she was born.

Such a tragedy that so many children are stuck in such a broken, inefficient system!  Why would anyone want to be a part of that?  Why would foster parents choose – voluntarily! – to upset their perfectly peaceful families by being involved with such a tumultuous, unpredictable, faulty process?

Here’s why . . .

The little foster child, almost two years old now, is strapped into the back seat of her foster mother’s car.  As they pull into the long shaded driveway after an afternoon of errands, she shouts in her little sing-song voice one of her favorite words, Ho-ome!!

In her innocence, she doesn’t know that so many different social workers have been assigned to her case.  She doesn’t know that court hearings come and go and nothing is happening.  She doesn’t know that her paperwork is sitting on someone’s desk, untouched.  She doesn’t know that she is a statistic in a defective social services system that sometimes seems to limp along.

All she knows is that she is home.  She is home with the people who love her like crazy and, no matter the obstacles, refuse to give up on her.  She is home where she is safe and sheltered.  Where she is told, every day, what a treasure she is.  Where she is free to grow and learn and enjoy the carefree childhood that every little one deserves to experience. 

She is a part of her state’s foster care system, whether it runs smoothly or not.  Whether she has 1 social worker or 20.  She doesn’t have a choice.  But her foster parents do.  By choosing to be foster parents, they can provide this sweet girl with nurture and consistency and the love of a family while she waits.  They can shield her from the harsh realities around her, and instead, provide her with a parent’s love and care and comfort and training.  They can offer her ordinary days living in an ordinary home with an ordinary family.

And best of all, they are the truly lucky ones!  They are the ones who get to hold her and tuck her in at night and be the recipients of her wet kisses.  They are the ones who get to hear her little footsteps running down the hall in the morning.  They are the ones who hear her shout from the back seat of the car, Ho-ome!!

Why would foster parents choose – voluntarily! – to upset their perfectly peaceful families by being involved with such a tumultuous, unpredictable, faulty process?  With a road full of roadblocks and turns and detours?

Because of innocent children just like her, that’s why.  While she is waiting for permanency, they can love her.  They can hold her hand along the way.  They can walk alongside her on the road home.

(1)  Burnout/Secondary Trauma (also called secondary traumatic stress or vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue) can occur when a professional experiences stress or symptoms of trauma when working with traumatized children and families.  www.childwelfare.gov/topics/management/workforce/retention/workforce-retention/turnover/burnout/
(2)  With inadequate pay, tough working conditions, lack of recognition for a job well-done, chronic stress, emotional exhaustion, and overwork, is it any wonder that social worker turnover rate can be as high as 95%.   www.practicenotes.org/vol4_no3/cspnv4_3.pdf

(3)  Here’s a frightening statistic:  Children who have one case worker achieve permanency 74.5% of the time. With two caseworkers the chance of permanency decreases to 17.5%. For those with six or seven case workers, the chances of leaving the foster care system before becoming an adult are almost nil.  www.uh.edu/socialwork/_docs/cwep/national-iv-e/turnoverstudy.pdf

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