I watched out the window as one foster family loaded three little ones into their car, spent time talking to the other foster family, and eventually drove off. I thought to myself, “I bet those children have no idea that the family who has tucked them in bed the last few months of their lives will no longer be tucking them in.”
I do not blame the foster family – life happens, situations lean themselves to not being a good match, often trauma is so intense that it does not create a safe situation, and after all, we are all just human. Sometimes, foster families have to let go of children they are attached to.
I watched the foster-mother wipe away tears from behind her sunglasses, and made a mental note to check on her after the weekend. I listened to the case worker cry in the lonely confines of the bathroom, and then checked on her after she planted herself at her desk.
During all of this, my mind escaped back to when I was a new soldier in the awfully disgusting, seemingly inhumane, and never-ending war of child abuse.
My first “case” was a six-year-old girl with brown eyes, blonde hair, tomboyish temperament, and an infinity to act older than her age.
I received her file, which happened to be a very thick binder, on my desk the very first week I started my job. “Here’s your first case. She’s disrupting from her adoptive home”, my supervisor said. “You need to find her another foster home that might be interested in adopting.”
In situations like this, case workers are left to scramble and search for a new family to be found. I remember calling county offices asking…essentially pleading for a new foster family for the little girl to whom I had not even met.
Shortly after my frantic calls, I drove to her foster home..the one that promised forever…introduced myself to her…stacked her belongings in my truck…buckled her in…and drove her to the next foster family.
I literally remember every moment of this experience. I can see the pictures on the walls of the family who gave her up, and I remember the awkwardly silent ride to her next home.
I also remember reading her file, and the many others that crossed my desk through the years.
I recall the initial trauma I felt when learning about the extent of abuse that had occurred in the lives of the children who had just started their own walk in the world.
I got angry. I cried. I wondered where the heck God was while all of this was going on. I became motivated. I worked a little harder than I thought I would. I became passionate about the field that chose me. I prayed.
The little girl whom I bared the responsibility of finding a family did get adopted by her new family. Even after she became comfortable with her new family, she would run and hide when she saw my white truck pull in the driveway.
I’ve been reading about the impact of child welfare work on social worker’s lives. Poor sleep, stressed relationships, depression, nutritional issues, weight gain, nightmares, and secondary trauma all seem to creep up in the lives of workers in the front lines of child welfare. And, let’s be honest…social workers do not make a lot of money…at all.
Having been in child welfare as a professional for thirteen years, and a former foster-mother (now mother through adoption), I find myself with the ability to tuck away the painful reality of it all into a corner that I very rarely enter anymore.
I do not know if it is possible to process all of the information of tragic life stories that I have read through the years. Sure, there are the moments of grief and anger that are witnessed as they unfold in the lobby of the office before my very eyes. I still cry from time to time about the very nature of what is truly going on in the underbelly of our seemingly idealistic and happy communities.
Although I am weathered by the years, it really does not get easier. It just becomes less traumatic, more expected, and a seemingly natural part of life.
That seems awful, doesn’t it? Why in the world would child abuse and neglect become a part of life?
To be honest, if I dwell too much on it all – the sounds of children asking why they can’t go home with mommy, babies crying from feeling stressed during visits, and mixed up, lonely children being bounced from home to home – I end up getting angry.
I get angry that God would allow any of this. I am reminded and aware of freewill, but it does not make me less outraged, less saddened, and less frustrated.
There are many opinions about children’s protective social service workers. If there is media attention, it is usually centered around the one case of hundreds where something went wrong. Attention is very rarely spotlighted on the day-to-day choices that case workers, juvenile court officials, child welfare attorneys, and foster parents have to make.
It does not capture the tender moments of social workers picking out gifts (often from their own money) for “their kids”. It does not show the hours of work spent by workers in the field.
Attention does not get up in the middle of the night to answer the “on-call” phone, travel to a meth lab in the middle of the night to pick up children who are confused and weary from the unknowns, or visit with adults trying their best to turn their lives around.
It does not celebrate when permanency is achieved through adoption, or when children, whom desperately love their parents, are able to return to them.
It does not hold a raging or sobbing child who seeks comfort from the stranger who just took her in. It also does not lend an ear to listen to older youth as they wonder about their future.
Media attention definitely does not highlight the words of encouragement case workers, juvenile court officials, child welfare attorneys, and foster parents speak to the families and children who find themselves caught up in the system.
I have listened as people (whom did not know that I work in child welfare) slam foster families, children service workers, and the system as a whole. I have been shocked by their opinions of how easily this war could be fixed. I have also found myself wondering, “What are you, opinionated one, doing about it? When have you called a child welfare agency to offer your time and talent? Have you taken the time to care enough to bring a child into your home, support a family who is struggling, or advocate for change?”
For my fellow child welfare professionals and foster families in this unending plague of child abuse, remember this, everything you do matters…a lot.
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” –Robert F. Kennedy