A Caseworker’s View of Removals

Author’s note: This is a guest post from a child welfare professional. It is necessary to seek out the perspectives of everyone involved in the foster care system, and to learn a caseworker’s view of removals.

Removals. There are many definitions of the word. Sometimes, removals can be good things; such as the removal of a brain tumor, or a pesky rodent in your crawl space, or the removal of an unwanted weed in your garden. Other removals can be tragic; such as the removal of a parent from the home due to death, or the removal of a pet from a home due to neglect, or of a teenager’s cellphone due to poor grades (tragic to the cellphone-dependent teen).

But what about the removal of children from their homes? Some may say tragic. Others may say good. I would like to share a story about the removal of children from their home, and let you decide. 

I worked a case recently where our office was sent orders to remove three teenagers from an unsafe situation. Upon arriving to the home to carry out the removal of these youth, it was sudden, pure, chaos. Myself and my co-worker arrived at the home with law enforcement where all three youth were inside the home, supposedly planning their escape.

Lots of pleading and knocking on the door. Kids were in shock, screaming, crying and shaking uncontrollably. Eventually, we were able to get the kids placed. It was 2:00 am when placement was made. I got back to the office at 3:30 am. All together, the removal and placement of the kids took six hours – basically, an entire night.

The following day was a holiday, so our office was closed. I tossed and turned as I tried to sleep. I kept thinking about how traumatic the experience had been for those youth, and for myself and the other worker. During our 6 hours with them, we were called “monsters”, we “stripped them of any self-respect and dignity” they had, that we take kids for a paycheck, we didn’t care about them, we made their lives a living hell, and that we were useless workers.

Six hours of belittling and degrading. Six hours of holding back tears. Six hours of feeling so sorry for what they were experiencing, that we couldn’t feel sorry for ourselves. We were hungry, tired, and trying to make trauma-informed decisions for youth who could’ve cared less what we felt. 

I laid in bed awake the next day worried sick. From adrenaline rush to total exhaustion, I wondered if they were okay. I thought about them being dropped off with strangers, going to a new school, and how they were visibly shaking walking into their foster home.

I couldn’t sleep. I laid awake for hours thinking about how I could’ve better handled the removal. If I had said enough encouraging words…if I fed them enough…what my next encounter with them would look like. If I felt all of this…. what were they feeling? This is a caseworker’s view of removals.

I drove to work the following day; into the parking lot so slow you would’ve thought it was ice covered. I hesitated to turn my car off. I sat there in the parking lot and cried. I didn’t want to go in. I didn’t want to be a “monster” as those youth had put it. I didn’t want to participate anymore. It was very clear that I had secondary trauma from that removal. Some would give us accolades for removing those youth from a neglectful and abusing home life, but I have some questions to pose. 

What could we as a society do to prevent removals from happening? What could we do to provide proactive services to at-risk families? What could we do to provide supports to youth in crisis? What could we as a society do to assist workers who do have to work with childhood trauma, thus often incurring secondary trauma?

What extensive damage may we unintentionally cause that could possibly be worse than remaining in the natural home with supports? Did we really provide all preventative efforts?

Please pray for these youth, and any other youth who are at-risk. Please pray for workers who have to work with these families on the daily basis who see and hear more than one could typically stomach. Please pray that doctor, juvenile officers and law enforcement officers can see the whole picture and the lasting impact that may come from signing those papers.

A caseworker’s view of removals is often heartbreaking, and I ask that you please pray for guidance on how you might help this broken system. 

a broken girl

Sitting across from her, our eyes met. A broken girl. One with potential, but a past so heavy that it weighed her down. Familiar pain, with a hint of resistance filtered the air. Soon, tears, rich with sorrow, rolled down her cheeks. Have you ever felt grief? I don’t mean going through the emotions of it, but actually feeling it as it permeates the air? It was our companion on that day; a bitter, suffocating ghost of what should have been.

Inhale. Exhale. Deep breath. I said, “Okay. We need to discuss what happens from here. The case is coming up very soon for permanency so the Judge will want to know what we are going to recommend.” As her case manager, I had worked with her for over nine months. We both desperately wanted success. She loved her baby, that was never in question.

“Where you are at right now and the way the case is going, I believe the team is going to ask the Judge to change the goal to adoption.” She nodded, then said, “I know. It’s what’s best for him and I want that. I can’t do this. I can’t parent. I love him so much but he deserves more.”

Tears tried to push their way down my cheeks, but I held them back. Not now. I had to remain professional. A broken girl she was but in that moment, her resilience shone bright. “Okay, let’s talk about the type of family you would want for him.”

Pausing for a moment, our eyes met again, “I trust you to pick them. I’d like for him to have a dad and a mom, ones that will always treat him like he deserves to be treated…to love him.”

Before I could get another word out, she lost it. Her body collapsed a bit. She tried to wipe away the tears but she couldn’t. They were her messengers of grief being released into the world. “Caroline, thank you. You have been so kind to me and treated me better than anyone ever has in my life, including my own family.”

This was almost too much for me to take in. Gut-punch. Twinge of ache in my heart. As her case manager, I played a huge role in determining her fitness to be a parent. The termination of parental rights summary would be penned by my hands. I would testify to it, search for an adoptive family and eventually place her little boy there.

“Oh, you’re welcome. I’ve really enjoyed working with you and wish things would’ve turned out different. I want you to get help. You deserve a better life.”

Wiping away tears, she reached out for a hug. I gave her a long one; perhaps, the most genuine one she ever had. We said our good-bye’s and she left. I never saw her again but held onto her words as I searched for and placed her precious son with a loving family who lived out her hopes for her son.

The system failed her. Her parents failed her. Perhaps, in many ways, I failed her. This world did, as well. Trauma. Addiction. Homelessness. Chaos. These things were her constant companions since childhood; the only way of life that she had ever lived. Even as an adult, her companions never left her side. Always there. Like an unwanted shadow.

It is easy for us to look at people like her and question why they just don’t work hard enough to get their kids back. Would we be capable of doing so? How would we feel if trauma was our only childhood friend? What if addiction slithered its way into our soul? Or, homelessness and chaos walked alongside us throughout our lives? Could we manage? Would we?

I think of her, often; that broken girl whose life symbolizes sadness. Did she ever receive help? Is she is out there alone fighting her demons? Will trauma, addiction, homelessness and chaos remain her constant companions?

Years ago, a broken girl sat in front of me. In many ways, she never left.

the “broken” system – it’s been one of those days

His information came to me in an email.  I opened it up, read the narrative, clicked on a video and my heart sank.  The 9-year old, Harry Potter look-a-like little boy, who my husband and I met at a birthday party over the summer, is in need of a family. My heart dropped as I thought, “The broken system…it’s been one of those days.”

“Watch me do this!”, he said to my husband.  He giggled and played and just soaked up my husband’s attention.  We were there for another boy who was in foster care and now has his forever family.  We met this little guy by chance.

I called my husband and said, “Remember that little boy at the birthday party?  The one with the glasses?”  My husband knew immediately who I was talking about.  “He needs an adoptive family.  He absolutely adored you.”

“You are making me sad.  It’s just one of those days”, my husband said.

My husband also works in child welfare.  “One of those days” is a phrase that we have often said to each other.  I wish I could give you an exact count of the number of profiles of children in need of an adoptive family that I’ve read through the years.  A profile is a synopsis about a child in need of adoption.  One part of my job is to send out adoption profiles to my staff who, in turn, send them out to foster and adoptive families.

It breaks my heart to see repeat profiles – ones of kids whose profile is sent out multiple times in hopes of just one family that might show interest.  The majority of these kids are over the age of five, have significant trauma, and are a handful, to say the least.  However, behind their age, their behaviors and their histories, they are children.  They play dress-up.  They love Lego’s.  They still believe in Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny.

They yearn for a Mommy and Daddy who won’t leave.

I have worked in child welfare for over seventeen years now and I still fight back tears when I fully ponder what is going on with children.  I get angry.  I threaten to walk away.  I fight cynicism.  Yet, I remain.

Having worked in the system for so long, I have heard “the system is broken” more times than I can count.  Yes, there are many things about the system that needs to be fixed.  Yes, we have a lot of work to do.  I agree with all of this.  However, when I sign people up for foster care classes knowing that they really just want a baby or I see profiles of kids in need of a family sent out over and over again, I find myself wondering if it really is the system that is broken, or if it is just us. 

Maybe what is broken is our perception of child abuse and neglect, our vision of how good we think adoption should feel and our systematic way of turning our heads away from the problems at hand.  It’s easy for us to say, “Someone will step up or someone might adopt that child.”  It’s much harder for us to say, “We will step up.  We will adopt that child.”

First, let me state that there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to foster a baby.  My husband and I did this and we are glad that we did.  We got to experience the precious love of babies.  We watched them as they walked for the first time, called us “Mommy and Daddy” and began to explore the world.  We were also blessed to be able to adopt them.

Now that my kids are older and I walk every day in the struggles of their lives, I recognize that if they were in need of an adoptive home right now, their chances of getting adopted would be slim.  That reality breaks my heart.

Is the system broken?  Sure, in some way it is.  Are we broken?  Yes.  I wish that every single child and youth in need of a permanent family would find one.  I wish that more people would step up and say “yes”.  I so wish that people understood trauma better, age didn’t make a difference, adoption was understood as being hard and not rosy, and that each kid was given a chance at experiencing what it truly means to belong.

If we want to fix the broken system, then we need to take a hard look at our expectations and desires.  The kids in it are not perfect (no kid is).  They have experienced things that a lot of us haven’t.  Their brains have literally been changed by trauma (scientific fact).  They can’t change overnight.  They can’t undo what’s been done to them.  They cope the best they can.  They are often in survival mode.  They may not even realize any of this.  We can, though.

We can accept non-perfect kids.  We can learn how trauma changes the brain.  We can change our expectations of adoption.  We can empathize with children who have been forgotten and given back by too many people who promised forever.

We can understand that it won’t feel good all of the time and that a child’s history matters, but their futures matter more.

Their futures matter more.

I don’t believe for one second that God intends for children to be without families; not for one minute.  This is why after all of these years I still have days like this.  I know that Jesus leaves the ninety-nine to seek out the one.  I pray that we do this as well.  I still have hope, though.  I know that nothing is impossible and as long as there are children who need families, there are those of us who wake up day in and day out and do our best to end the scourge of abuse, neglect and children without families.

The broken system… It’s been one of those days,

but it will pass…until it happens again.