When I began my career as a social worker, fresh out of graduate school, and someone had asked me why I chose my career, I would have answered like this: “I chose social work because my passion is to help others, volunteer, and work with children. I want to be the voice for those who do not have one. I want to help give children a happy and healthy environment. I want to make a difference in the lives of others.”
Though I still feel these things, I realize now that I wanted to be a person who could fix all the problems. After two years in the field, I have learned that social work is full of triumphs, tribulations and many things you can’t foresee. Social work is not black and white, but several shades of gray. Here are a few things I have learned being a family case manager.
As a caseworker, when a case first comes into court at the temporary hearing, you get a blip of information on the family (child’s name, age, mother’s name, and allegation of abuse and/or neglect). It can be difficult not to pass judgement on the parent or adult responsible for the allegation, but you start to gather information. Once you begin working with the family, you gain insight into trauma the parents have experienced, such as domestic violence in their childhood or current relationship, being in out of home care as children, generational drug and alcohol abuse, family stressors and barriers to resources and/or support.
You also gain insight into what the children have experienced. As a case manager you must stay neutral while a child tells you what they have seen or been through, either tearfully or as if it is a part of their everyday normal. Sometimes children will tell you they are hurting through their behaviors, such as fighting at school, throwing tantrums and not listening. As case managers we do not problem solve, but rather heal — heal the wounds of the family through services and resources, to help them become whole again.
The foster care system is full of sacrifices from all sides. The biological family sacrifices a family member into the child welfare system, and desperately tries to pull them back out. Biological family members will step forward to care for their own, even if they have multiple children of their own, so the child can be comfortable and with people they know. A grandmother will tearfully agree to a transfer of guardianship because she knows her daughter will not be able to become sober. A biological father feels helpless in prison because he cannot change the fate of his child on the outside.
A foster family opens their home to a child they have never met. They sacrifice the normalcy and routine of their home to care for a child who has seen and experienced life way beyond their years. Foster parents sacrifice their hearts — loving a child for months and having them return to their biological parent. And foster parents sacrifice their time by working through the tantrums, emotions, and healing process of that child.
A family case manager sacrifices a full night’s sleep due to nightmares and stress, and lies awake wondering if their child client is also lying awake in the new, unfamiliar home they dropped them at that evening. They sacrifice the rapport and relationship built up over months of time with their adult clients when they testify as to why parental rights should be terminated, and why it is in the best interest of their children to become available for adoption. They sacrifice time away from their family as they rock a 6-month-old baby to sleep in the office because they were just removed from a parent who killed the other parent. The foster care system is full of sacrifices, big and small.
The most important thing I have learned is how love can be found in all forms; a foster family throwing a birthday party for their foster child, an opportunity they never had before; a family case manager attending a graduation of a child on their case load after months of truancy and suspensions; a biological parent working hard being engaged so their children can come home for Thanksgiving.
Social work is not black and white, but several shades of gray. Being a family case manager is not an easy role. You feel pride in the work you do because it is your purpose and your calling. The triumphs outweigh tribulations. You learn to celebrate the small things because small goals met is progress being made. You have great days, like when you tell a biological parent their child is coming home to them. You have bad days, like telling a parent you have filed for termination of parental rights. As a family case manager you laugh, you cry and you celebrate. You lean on your team of co-workers and look to your supervisor for guidance and reassurance that you did the right thing.
I’m grateful for what I’ve learned, and I would not change a minute of this hectic passion of mine.