Experiences from 30 years with Social Services
By: Sheryl Martinez MSW, Licensed Clinical Social Worker
“The judge agrees with your worker’s recommendation. Fernando can return home now that his mother has completed treatment and found an apartment," the social worker stationed at court tells me over the phone. I am sitting in my cubicle and the adrenaline kicks in. I jump from my chair and let out a muffled, “Woo hoo,” of excitement. The unit clerk looks at me funny. I can’t wait to call the social worker, who is visiting a different child, and give her the news.
Later that day, working on a different case, one of the other workers and I sit in a cool, gray conference room and inform a grandmother, “If we can’t get your home to meet these minimum standards, then we won’t be able to place Stephanie with you." She looks at us with pained eyes as she wonders how she can afford to make the necessary changes.
These are a few examples of my experience as a social worker in adoptions, and later as a supervisor of a unit of social workers. I was recently reminded of the frequent emotional ups and downs of those 16 years. An episode of the TV show, This is Us, dramatizes the stressful nature and powerful responsibility of being a foster parent caring for children whose parents are in jail or otherwise unable to care for their children. It also highlights the struggles that many modern parents face.
During my tenure working with children and families, I supported and advocated for foster parents and relative caregivers who were often hoping to adopt or to become legal guardians of a child they had raised for years. Many caregivers are fearful. They perceive they are at risk due to rumors of an imperfect, arbitrary, and autocratic system. They worry that if a child is injured in their care, even if unavoidable and accidental, that they will lose that child and perhaps other children in the home, including their biological children. I encouraged caregivers to see that the love and commitment they provide to a boy or girl is worth the risk.
Similarly, I empathized with and counseled biological parents who struggled with such things as addiction, poverty, the aftermath of past trauma, personality or other psychological disorders, and/or a developmental delay. Parents often appear angry and defensive. Some parents make excuses and blame others for their circumstances. And many parents identify feeling vulnerable under the perceived microscope of the, “system". Parents receiving child welfare services either have their children in their care or others are attempting to reunify them with their children. In either case, child welfare workers make great efforts to help parents retain their children or to reunify them with their children when safe to do so. In some cases, by paying one month’s rent or purchasing a refrigerator, we help family members overcome barriers to being a functional family and get on with their lives.
Then of course, and most importantly, there are the children and youth who have come to the attention of child welfare services. Many of them want nothing more than to have a normal, stable, and loving home to grow up in. Children generally do not choose to be in the “system”. If they spend their formative years with their biological family, then how their parent raises them is all they know. Many of these children consider some maladaptive parenting techniques as normal and comfortable. Adapting to the parenting style of a foster parent or to new habits that the biological parent tries teaching is a great challenge. Children repeat behaviors that had become habits. They provoke the type of parenting they are accustomed to. These behaviors then push parents and foster parents to their limits, resulting in a desperate call to the social worker. Certain types of support, such as paying for an after school program, relieves stress and improves coping in these situations.
As in the, This is Us, television episode, there are many lessons to be learned along this journey. [Spoiler alert]. The foster parents gain greater empathy for the biological parent. And the biological parent eventually begins to appreciate the actions of the foster parents. Social Workers celebrate positive outcomes when they occur. But we are frustrated when we fail to accomplish goals that we believe are in the best interest of children. For example, we are devastated when parents sabotage their own efforts by repeating the behaviors that brought them to the attention of the child welfare services in the first place. And we dread a call from an out of home caregiver to request the removal of a foster youth. Timely, practical support increases the chances that families will succeed.
I hope that my concern for and commitment to the children and families I served is evident in my writing. However, I ended my work with children and families and am now working with adults in a medical setting. Despite the fact that this work is critically important or maybe for this very reason, I became exhausted by the challenges. My emotional investment was both a blessing and a curse.
By serving on the Board of the Southern California Children’s Endowment, I work through some of my ambivalence. I continue to contribute to the welfare of children in need. I reach out to former and current colleagues that are working with children and families to fulfill unmet needs. The Endowment provides support that keeps biological families together. And for those children who cannot be reunified with their biological parent(s), the Endowment helps relative and foster parents to provide stable, safe and loving environments for children.
Social Work & Ways to Help
By: Kyle Kacic Children's Social Worker - L.A. County DCFS
I have been working for the County of Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) for 4 years as a Children’s Social Worker (CSW). I currently work in Family Maintenance and Reunification. As a CSW, I have seen firsthand the impact of substance abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and poverty, on children and families as a whole. Every family’s situation is different, but the need for empathy and the need to assist families wishing to stay together never changes.
The impact social workers have on families is crucial because we want to help families eliminate risk factors that may be putting children in harm’s way. Social workers have a responsibility to assist families in receiving services to help parents reunify with their children or keep the children safe in the home. Such services could include low cost to no cost referrals for parenting classes, domestic violence counseling, substance abuse rehabilitation centers, housing assistance, transportation assistance, sexual abuse counseling, anger management and drug testing.
In some cases, children must be removed from their homes because they may be in physical or emotional danger. In these cases, the children can be placed with family or in a foster home. When children are placed with family members, it can become difficult for the family to provide clothes, food and other essentials because of cost. DCFS will pay the family members a monthly stipend to help with the cost of such items but payments may not be received immediately because of the delays that come with processing the paperwork.
In one such case, a family I was working with had four children detained from their mother and were placed at their relative’s home. The relative needed assistance with getting the children sheets and blankets for their beds, food, clothes, diapers and school supplies. I reached out to the Southern California Children’s Endowment (SCCE) for assistance while the relative was waiting for her payment from our department. The SCCE quickly helped provide all of the items listed above and made a traumatic situation easier for the children. The relative was very grateful and believed she wouldn’t have been able to help the children without the assistance from SCCE.