Welcome to the (Foster)hood

1 03 2013

One of the toughest things about working in the child welfare system is dealing with all of the petty, bullshit, infighting. (You thought I was going to say it was the sadness of children, didn’t you? Fools, social workers thrive on kiddie tears, they’re like Gatorade!)

ACS, the government agency, runs things. They hand out contracts to places like Anonymous Agency to do the preventive and foster care work that they don’t do themselves. Because ACS has the money, and they’re the government, they have the power. Sometimes it seems like we work for them, instead of the way it’s supposed to be–we work with them, for a common goal. In response, we might get a bit persnickety. “Oh, I have to be at that meeting? Well this isn’t enough notice, I don’t know if I can.” “I referred the family to a different type of parenting class than the one you insisted on, because it was more appropriate according to my professional assessment.” Persnickitiness begets persnickitiness, and it becomes a cycle.

Why am I getting into this? Because all of that infighting, and those power struggles, affect people’s lives. Most tragically, it affects children.

My friend Rebecca, rock star Brooklynite of the Fosterhood blog was set to adopt a child born on February 24th. She’s a foster parent in great standing, and is currently fostering an infant. The mother of the little girl born on the 24th has older children in foster care, and knew she wouldn’t be able to keep this baby. The foster agency facilitated some meetings, and mom chose Rebecca. Rebecca got a crib, researched the special hell that is double strollers, and got the call the day the baby was born to come meet her daughter. She named the child Clementine, which is on her birth certificate, along with Rebecca’s last name.

It’s not clear quite what happened next. Miscommunication? Stepped on toes? Incompetence? Crankiness? Whatever the case, the agencies were not in agreement and there was a lot of talk about “how things are done.” Clementine was sent to a strange foster home, and her mother wasn’t aware of this until Rebecca let her know. Two mothers are devastated, and a child is in unnecessary limbo.

I’m not asking for people to block the steps of City Hall wearing “Free Clementine” shirts. (Passerby would just think you were giving out citrus fruits, and it wouldn’t help.) But perhaps you could send Rebecca a little support?

Or maybe just read her story, Clementine’s story, and remember what can happen when we forget our priorities. We’re all working towards the same goal, the safety and well-being of the children entrusted to us, and permanence for them. Anything else is unacceptable.

Social Workers on Film

4 09 2012

Everyone’s favorite foster care blogger, Fosterhood, talked way back in the day (what, I have a long memory) about how inappropriate the movie “Heidi” turned out to be for children in foster care. I’m sure it’s happened to all of us. You have fond memories of a something from your childhood, show it to the children in your life, then realize how bizarre it was for you to have ever  enjoyed this.

Like when my mother read “The Velveteen Rabbit” to my brother and me, and had two sobbing children on her hands. (We were only three and five, but that book is sad.) Or when my aunt thought the 1970s version of The Poseiden Adventure would make for a great family night, for the kids too young to go see Terminator 2. Her eight year old daughter cried for hours, and swore off nautical adventures for a lifetime. And I haven’t showed it to a kid yet, but I watched Labyrinth a whole lot as a child. That movie’s alternate title is “”David Bowie’s Balls. Also Puppets!”

It’s even more complicated when you have children who are in foster care, or in some other sort of shitty familial situation. You don’t always know how they’ll react. When one of my girls was in a psychiatric hospital, the book Precious started going around, and eventually they did a movie night. Yes, some girls related, but it was also traumatizing and offensive to others. Sorry, but no one wants to hear, “Precious? That movie totally reminded me of you!”

Movies are tricky. Stories geared towards children have a profound fascination with horrible lives for children. Harsh orphanages, evil stepparents, and more dead mothers than you can shake a stick at. Plus tons of young women who see a man as their savior. I mean, come on Cinderella. You could have made bank if you worked with the mice to start your own fashion line, instead of chasing after a prince you hardly know.

On the subject of Disney, my goodness do they deserve credit for getting better. Mulan, Tiana…I can think of way worse role models.

I’m trying to determine which are good, which are maybe all right, and which should be avoided at all costs.

Big Daddy

I’m putting this in the avoid like the plague column, and not because it’s Adam Sandler. Though I do think we kind of said all we need to say right around Happy Gilmore. I saw this movie in theaters with my aunt and two cousins, both of whom are adopted. Everyone was just a little uncomfortable. The kid getting dropped off at the door, about to be snatched away until a biological parent (genes trump all!) shows up out of nowhere. It was a weird message.


I’m listing this one as “OK.” In the negative column, kids should not be expecting a bald millionare to swoop in and rescue them. There’s also a lot of talk about unwanted orphans and them being used for cheap labor. On the other hand, it’s a period piece. Things were shitty in the 1930s, and now they’re shitty in a totally different way! Annie doesn’t magically find a way to be happy by discovering a living relative (like in that unforgiveable Shirley Temple version of A Little Princess) but she makes it work. And you can totally convince your kids to clean your house until it shines like the top of the Chrysler Building, because they’re “playing” Annie! Trust me on that last one. I was so foolish.


No no no no no no no. One of the mothers I work with was planning to become a foster parent. Her eight year old biological daughter saw this movie, and became convinced that any foster child that came to them would be a murderous dwarf.

Despicable Me

This one does feature the orphan warehouse trope that I don’t care for, and kids being brought back from whence they came, so it’s questionable. But overall, I think it’s ok. We wind up with a non-traditional, imperfect, happy family. And SocialJerk kids love those minions.

Problem Child

I watched this a LOT. I borderline aspired to be like it. Whatever, it was the 90s. But the message that your parents will “return you” if you’re bad is not one anyone needs. There should be a secure attachment test in order to see it.

Lilo & Stitch

This might be my strongest yes. Not just because this movie is freakin awesome and hilarious. Not even because it features a social worker named “Cobra Bubbles.” (Though it does. It really, awesomely does.) The story is about a (non-white) little girl in kinship care. Of course there’s still the reopening of the scary social worker coming to check on them and maybe take the kid away, but at least for once she isn’t in an old school orphanage that more closely resembles a modern animal shelter. And the fact that the social worker is genuinely trying to help, while being a total badass comes across nicely. It also ends with the line, “This is my family. I found them all on my own. Is little, and broken, but still good. Yeah. Still good.”

I mean, come ON!

Country Bears

Now, I’ll be honest, I’ve never seen this movie. You know, because it’s based on a Disney ride and isn’t the first Pirates of the Caribbean. I just remember the commercial, in which a bear asked his human family, “Mom? Am I adopted?” To which she replied, “What? Of course not!” I think I remember it so well because of the tear my aunt went on about the idea of denying that your kids are adopted like it’s something bad. So no.

Hunger Games

This movie is not about kids in foster care, for once, but it is about a couple of kids with a profoundly shitty situation. I can think of a whole bunch of parentified children who can relate to an absent dad and mentally ill mom, fight to the death notwithstanding. It’s relatable, but also clearly fantasy, so it’s not too much. And girls can totally kick ass and shoot arrows.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

I love Lemony Snicket. So does just about every kid I know. It’s exactly what it sounds like. These kids’ lives are unpleasant. But the real theme of the move (and the books) I think, can be summed up in the following quote: “And that might seem to be a series of unfortunate events, may, in fact, be the first steps of a journey.” Yes. Things are rough, but we’re moving forward.

Of course, whenever in doubt, just stick with everyone’s favorite magic orphan.

Be half that you can be

2 04 2012

I can’t speak for all social workers (never mind, I will) but my job is very cyclical. When I started, I inherited about six cases from another worker. In an inappropriately short period of time, I had signed another six. As a result, a lot of my cases are on a similar time frame. And for some reason that can never be known, everyone falls into crisis at the same time. Oh, you’ve been evicted? That means someone else is going to be hospitalized, someone is going to have a new CPS case called in, and I’m going to hear from a school that one of my kids is setting fires.

This month, four of my cases are ready to close. We say “ready.” The city gives us a twelve month window to work with families. When I started as an intern, we had up to two years. Following this logic, you’ll want to stay tuned for the development of our social work time machine, in which we go into the past to prevent the problems from ever happening, saving the government millions.

Of course, a case being open for a year is not an acceptable reason to close. A family isn’t sent on their merry way on their one year anniversary with Anonymous Agency. We can keep cases open longer, and we do, we just get penalized for it. Never mind that it’s very hard to do meaningful work with resistant, unmotivated families in less than a year. So sometimes, we take what we can get.

I’m really happy about two of these cases that are closing. “Really happy” might not be exactly the right term. I’m sad because I love these families and I’ll miss them, but I’m thrilled that they’ve made so much progress and done so much work that they are really, genuinely, ready to move on from having services.

Two out of four. Fifty percent. I’ll be honest, I’m kind of elated with those numbers. Doing it right half the time is really only a moment for celebration in New York Mets baseball, and social work. If your dentist told you that half of the time he doesn’t pull out healthy teeth, or your mechanic bragged that 50% of the oil changes she performed didn’t result in the car catching fire, you’d probably be looking for another professional. In social work, though, there are so many variables (new crises, family’s involvement, personalities of everyone involved, other helpful services in the family’s life…) in addition to the fact that we’re dealing with things as fluid, unpredictable, and subjective as mental health, family relationships, and parenting skills.

One family that is having their case closed was referred by ACS, due to excessive corporal punishment. The case was called in by the school, and while the parents didn’t totally agree with the call, they wholeheartedly accepted the help. “No one wants to hear that someone is worried about them being a good parent, and you get defensive. But then we thought, yeah, maybe we are hitting and yelling too much, and things can be better.”

I love them. Don’t take them from me.

This family is my crowning achievement. Except they’re not, of course. They’re awesome, but they’re not my creation. They did the word, because they wanted to and they wanted better for their kids. That meant that I could really do my job. We worked together beautifully. If only I could produce a video of us all holding hands and skipping into a meadow. (I should probably ask my friends where they’re all taking their engagement photos they keep putting on Facebook.)

The next family that is closing and actually ready for it came in of their own volition. They had been referred by ACS in the past, but returned voluntarily when the oldest daughter turned 13 and the family members thought she might be possessed by demonic beings.

This family is in the unfortunately common position of sliding back a bit into old habits, particularly acting out behaviors for the now 14 year old hellspawn daughter, just as the case is closing. They’re hesitant, but they can recognize that they’ve done a lot of work. The teenager who wasn’t doing a thing around the house now gets her baby sister ready in the morning and walks the dog twice a day. The mother who could barely look at her child without speaking cruelly, now laughs with her and plans activities for the two of them.

Another family is moving on to foster care services. This is often considered our greatest possible failure, as we are in the business of prevention, but this scenario is a bit different. The children are moving into their grandmother’s care, the person they stayed with almost exclusively as it was, and still have their mother in their life regularly. Foster care was something that needed to happen. But it doesn’t create much of a change for these two young girls. It does give their grandmother, who I would like to submit to the Vatican for sainthood (that’s how it works, right?) or at least send flowers, a bit of money and a major headache. Grandma asked if I could remain with the family, as she’s not connecting well with her foster care worker and she and I had a good working relationship. (Note: this is due to the fact that the family is delightful.) She needs some support, especially now that her daughter is pregnant with a third child, and is still mentally ill and on drugs. Bureaucratically speaking, though, this can’t happen. So we’re done.

The last family has been a roller coaster, and not the fun kind. They’re a great family, but the violent boyfriend is still in the home. He’s on his best behavior for the moment and has never hit the children, so all of the people who have any power in this situation (I’ll take ‘people that aren’t SocialJerk for $500,’ Alex!) have decided that it’s fine for him to stay. Because domestic violence is a total mindfuck, mom doesn’t want to leave him, even though she’s afraid he’ll go back to his old ways as soon as the case is closed. We can’t keep it open to babysit forever. That’s just not how anything works. All I can do is safety play, safety plan, safety plan with mom and the kids, talk with mom about the importance of continuing her individual counseling, and make sure that they know that they can always come back if they need to.

Fifty percent success this month. Maybe a bit more or a bit less, depending on how you look at it. Some months are better, and some months are worse. Realizing that you can’t help everyone, and that some families will leave your life the same way they came in, or maybe even worse, is a frustratingly important thing to understand about social work. We are in the business of helping people, and, at the risk absolute certainty of sounding painfully cliché, helping them to help themselves. As much as we want to, we can’t fix people. I can’t stay with that 14 year old and her mother until things are perfect, because I don’t know if I’ll be at this job until 2026. I can’t move in with another mother to protect her and her children from a potentially violent man. I can only care about my families as much as I can, and work as hard and as well as I can to make sure that they get the best I can give. If that’s fifty percent, then that’s what it is.

At least I’m still better than the Mets.

Social Workers of Summer

1 06 2011

Summer is here! You can tell because the fire hydrants are open. Also, the social worker showing up at your door is sweaty and rambling incoherently about camp. Getting kids into camp is not easy or fun. Tracking down updated physicals is such a nightmare that I’ve been tempted to forge immunization dates. (What, it’s not like I’ve ever done it.) And then there’s the delightful experience of navigating waitlists, because apparently everyone else getting a child into camp is some kind of psychic.

Long story short, it keeps me busy. So without further ado, I present to you my first ever guest blogger. She goes by RealityTx–for a dose of reality, one post at a time. Play nice with your new baby brother, jerks.

Camp is Craptastic

Last week found me celebrating that all of my kids had applications to camp and would be able to go. I jumped, hollered, and cheered–something not necessarily welcome in an office full of cubicles. But, my compatriots shared in my joy as I said that all of my kids were in camp.

Let me go back a bit further. Summer camp is the BANE of my existence as a child welfare worker. For most of you, the spring season brings April showers and May flowers. For child welfare workers, it brings the headache of finding a camp willing to care for the kids we work with for the entire summer, ideally for free. The best case scenario is that a local, free camp can be identified, camp forms can be filled out, and recent physical forms can be obtained.

A kid is not considered “in camp” until the full application is complete including a physical form from a doctor. I found a local free camp for one child that I work with who happens to have a sibling in care plus two foster siblings who are camp age (ie. 5-13 years old.) That’s FOUR camp applications to be completed and FOUR medical forms to obtain.

Celebrating too early can put bad juju over the entire camp registration process. That’s what I did last week when I realized that I found camps for all of the kids I work with, plus two more that I dont. (Yes, we are also required to do our foster parents a favor by locating camps for their biologica children as well, since they’re well-paid nice enough to take our kids into their homes.)

Today I call to check in to see if my kids would still be attending camp. Sure enough, the bad juju came to bite me in the ass because I was informed that all 100 slots have been filled and there is a waitlist. With a stack of at least fifty sheets of papers, no less. I was kindly invited to still submit the forms because the kids can be added to the waitlist–the person couldn’t tell me how many kids were on there anyway–so here I am, less than a week later, scrambling to find a camp for these four kids.

Apparently, forty completed applications the first day that the applications were being given out (like how the hell is that even possible?) and all one hundred slots were filled as of last week. What a difference a week makes! Maybe next week I’ll have placed all of these kids in camp, and I can really let loose with my happy dance.