Some got angry - you could see it in their faces, their jaws clenched, and they got progressively more harsh as they crossed items off their list.
Some weren't fazed at all - they blithely Xed things off and never looked back.
One woman cried - she didn't elaborate, but I wondered how close to home we'd hit.
And me? I felt progressively more anxious and nauseous throughout the whole thing.
I'm that social worker . Maybe not right now, or any more, or all the time - but I'm that social worker nonetheless.
And it is not fun to be faced with yourself.
Disclaimer: The following are my thoughts about the exercise we just participated in. Sometimes, when I refer to "I" it means "me personally" and other times it means "we social workers/foster parents/participants in the system". I'm not saying that every social worker has done every single one of these things - but that overall I've seen them all happen. I know I've never claimed to be perfect, but that doesn't make it any easier to admit to some of these things. Most of the questions are rhetorical and I do not claim to have an easy solution (or any real solution at all). But, I believe that self reflection is at the core of the difference between a mediocre social worker (or foster parent, or human being) and a really good one - but that doesn't make it pleasant.
When the activity started and we crossed off # 2, I felt my stomach drop. My mom is pretty much everything to me. But I tried to remind myself this was just an activity in a training. But it still made me feel uneasy to actually put a line through her name. Now, I've never been the one to actually remove a child from their parents - I was a 'follow up' worker. But I have had to tell children that they couldn't visit their parents right now or anymore at all. And I have had to tell them that they couldn't be near their favorite uncle or cousin because of an allegation. And I've been the one to tell a child that they were never going to return home. None of these things is ever easy - even when the child takes it okay, its not pleasant to know that I'll always be the one associated with that memory.
Then we had to cross #5 off. This has actually happened quite a few times in my childhood, so I knew how to feel. My family moved a number of times when I was growing up. I remember leaving familiar beds, familiar rooms, familiar neighborhoods and schools. I hated moving (I know, what kid doesn't?) but I was the most adaptable of my siblings. As long as my family was going, I knew that I would be okay. And I generally was - new schools were always rocky, but I always made friends eventually. Then we would move again. Even now, as I am packing up my apartment to move less that 30 miles away - and actually much closer to all my friends and support system - I get nostalgic and emotional. So number 5 hit a little closer to home. This has always been one area that I felt like I could relate to some of the kids I work with - even if only a fraction of it.
Next, came #3 - I began to feel a little panicky at the thought of not being able to talk to my friend Kass again. Seriously, she knows more about me than I do. I have told her about some of the darkest, ugliest sides of myself. I have also shared a lot of joy, hopes and dreams with her. She is the person I go to when I need to make a decision - everything from whether to go back to therapy or which earrings to where out. I barely know how to get through a couple days without talking to her! What if someone showed up tomorrow and told me I couldn't? But children rarely get to hold on to those people in their lives. Instead, they get ME - their social worker - a veritable stranger who is telling them to "trust me".
I thought #4 was going to be my last straw. I absolutely LOVE being a Godmother. A lot of my friends have kids and I've been a nanny and a babysitter to lots of children who I've cared about over the years. But when I was asked to be a Godmother to Noah - it was a not just an honor, it was a moment of healing for his mother and me. And my Goddaughter Ava - she was the answer to over 2 years of prayers as her mother struggled with infertility. I was the only one who knew about her last two pregnancies because she couldn't keep telling people when she lost the baby. I love that I have known Ava longer than anyone other than her parents! I can't imagine anyone having to power to come in and take my presence in their lives away from me or them. But what about when I walk up to an 8 year old, who has always been the "parent" to their younger siblings, and tell her that she can't act that way anymore? When I tell her it isn't appropriate? When I tell her she needs to step back and "be a kid" when her sole purpose in life has been to keep them safe and alive? When I tell her she needs to let more strangers take over her role? I tell myself it is the 'right thing' - that she 'deserves' to be a kid - but what does it feel like to her?
And did you catch the beginning of step 4 when I apologized for not getting back to you sooner? Did you feel insulted, hurt, or angry because I'd kept you waiting? I bet it didn't really make you feel better at all when I told you that I was "busy", did it? I've said that WAY too many times - not because I was looking for a convenient excuse, I usually HAD been in the middle of three crises at once! But that probably didn't make the person I was neglecting feel much better.
And oh my gosh - number 9. I have been in this situation before. I have had children call me for months on end - long after I ceased to be their social worker anymore - asking me if I'd found their stuffed animal, the one they'd had since they were a baby. And another who still talks about the bicycle that he got for Christmas- but never got to ride because by the time the snow had melted, he had moved and they wouldn't send it to him. And I struggle with whether or not I was sensitive enough when I asked if they wanted to get a new one. I mean, what are we teaching them when we suggest that something beloved can just be replaced by buying a new one at a store?
Number 8? Because we moved around a lot, I eventually gave up on dance lessons, which I loved as a child. At 14, it was just too hard to keep starting over with new studios, new instructors, new classes. I have regretted it (and sometimes been bitter about it) ever since. We do this to kids ALL THE TIME. They love football - but when we move them in the middle of a season, they miss out. Or they move around too much to participate in any activity. Or they haven't even been given the chance to find out what they might love...
Number 7 and number 4 - we are often so busy trying to reunify biological families that we forget about "families of choice". We forget that it is not just parents that make children feel safe and secure and loved. We assume one religion will be as good as the next to a child. Even if they are both Christian churches - why don't we think about how different one service might be from the next? Having grown up in the church, I know that those things are a comfort to me even now -sing the same songs, praying the same prayers, listening to the same words that I have been hearing since I was a little girl. It brings me comfort every time. But we assume children won't notice. Maybe they won't - but I wonder what we rob them of if they never know what it is like to rely on those consistencies either.
Number 6 was hard because, when we place a child in a multiracial or multi ethnic home, we tell ourselves that we are color blind. That it doesn't matter, or that we will make up for it by being sensitive and taking them to eat familiar food and "celebrating their differences". Please don't take this to suggest that I am against trans racial adoption. But we do it so casually now days - but do we really stop to explain it to the child? And do we make efforts to educate those who will come into contact with the child? Or do we just get angry when someone makes an insensitive remark?And lastly, number 1 - this makes me angry at the system and also at myself. I have been way too cavalier about the issue of siblings to children. Yes, I always have made efforts to keep older siblings in contact. But I admit that when I was new at the job, I was more lax about babies being separated. And even as I've grown in my journey as a social worker, I see many still saying, "but their parent's rights have been terminated for years and they don't even know this new baby". As if that gives us the right to keep siblings apart? Even though they may not know the difference now - what will they think when they grow up and find out about their baby brother? And how dare I suggest that siblings are easily replaced by new ones in a family - just like the lost toy above? We always want to celebrate new families - and I'm not saying we shouldn't - but I think we need to be more careful about it.
Indeed, when I look at the this whole exercise, I reflect on why I would even involve myself in these scenarios. LK asked a very pointed question on "Step Four" - she asked if I liked my job. And here is the truth:
Sometimes I love my job and sometime I hate it. When I stood in the court room and recommended that a judge order that a child be returned home to their parents - I love it. When I have watched a mother surrender her rights to her child - I hate it. When I tell a child that they will get to stay and be adopted into their foster family - I love it. When I have to move a child for the third time in a year - I hate it. When children are safe, loved, and happy - I love it. When I am part of the devestating chain reaction that Child Welfare often is for children and families - I hate it.
I do not get to choose whether the system exists - it will keep right on going whether I am a social worker or a toll booth operator. Families will still be broken, children will keep experiencing these things, and someone else will take my place. I know all of these things to be a reality in the world today.
Maybe some day the system will change - I'll get my "dream version" of Child Welfare and children won't have to experience all of these things.
But until that day, these children need social workers who can look at that whole list above and think, "How can I do this better?" and "How can I make it easier?" and "What can I change to ensure it happens less often?"
I am not blind to the faults of the system or my part in it. But I am also not grandiose enough to think that I can change it all. However, I am hopeful that I can change it a little bit. That I can make positive changes in the way I work with these families. That I can hold myself to high standards and look at my own actions and the way it affects the families on my caseload.
Its not enough to change the whole system - but if I tried to take on the whole system, I'd burn out in a week. I have to focus on doing the absolute best I can for the relatively small percent of people who's lives and circumstances I can affect and change.
How many times have I said ALL of these things to a child? Too many to count. Sometimes their trust in me was rewarded - they returned home, they found an adoptive home, they were safe, loved and happy. And other times, I became just one more person to let them down.
One of the hardest realizations I ever got was when I left my first Child Welfare job. Keep in mind, I wasn't a "high turnover" social worker. I had worked with most of these children for 4 years! I wasn't a "visit once every couple of months" social worker - I had seen most of them on a weekly basis for hours at a time. I'd taken them to doctor's appointments, sibling visits, Six Flags, the movies, and to new homes. I loved these kids and thought they'd be so sad to find out I was leaving. And, most were - but there was one thing I heard from almost every single one;
"You were my (insert random number) social worker."
This exercise really hit home and opened my eyes to the things we expect of our children in foster care, the way we talk to them, and what we inadvertently teach them.
How did it open your eyes?