My daughter called yesterday with some exciting news. She has decided to go back to school to be a social worker. I almost choked. I see social workers as the people who ruined her childhood. She sees them as the friends on the other end of the phone who got her through it.
Is it possible both are true?
Lauren came to me when she was 12 years old. She had been in the foster care system for seven years. She had been through many placements and many social workers. The one who brought her to me was new to the case and did seem to really care about her. But then, they were always nice to Lauren, just not to her family.
Here is the short version of her story: Lauren’s mother lost all three of her kids for very good reason. But she was divorced from their dad and he wanted to take them in. Then the kids said he was molesting them, so they were placed in foster care. He was criminally charged, and when he went to court the judge asked the oldest, “Is anyone making you say your father molested you?”
She answered, “Yes, Mom says she will never feed us again if we don’t.”
The case was thrown out. All three kids have since told me he never molested them.
But dad didn’t just get the kids handed back. He had a safety plan (a misnomer, if I ever heard one) that said he had to take parenting and anger management classes, visit each of them once a week in three different parts of the state, hold down a job for a given period of time and find a place to live with four bedrooms.
When kids are returned from foster care, they can’t share a bedroom with anyone. When dad wasn’t able to accomplish all this, his parental rights were terminated. The social worker who put the plan in place warned him she was not on his side.
His parents were the only family left. They visited the kids as often as they could and were trying to get a foster care license so they could take them in. Then they made a mistake. They gave them comforters for Christmas. The social worker of the day deemed that to be a reminder of the sexual abuse (which didn’t happen) and told the grandparents that they were now forbidden to see or contact the kids.
The kids were left to believe their grandparents had abandoned them.
When Lauren came to me I was well-known as an outspoken foster parent, critical of the system’s quickness to remove and reluctance to ever return kids to family. I had been a foster parent long enough to recognize that the kids I got were rarely from actual abuse and that most of them loved their parents and wanted to go home. In other words, the system in our state was out of control.
But I had protested loudly enough that the governor asked me to participate in reforming the system by joining a committee with that goal. By the time I got Lauren, some real philosophical changes were happening. The case worker who asked me to take Lauren chose me because she knew I would get her back in touch with her family — and I did. I adopted her but then went to court and got joint custody with her father. She moved back in with him.
Ten years have gone by. Now Lauren is a wife, a mother and a hairdresser. She lives in the same town as her dad.
And she wants to be a child protective worker!
My kneejerk reaction is that she is joining the enemy. But maybe I am wrong to think that way. Even during the bad old days I had some very good workers. (And some bad enough to retaliate against me with false accusations, but that is a story for another time.) And some of the bad workers seemed to be able to change with the new philosophy. Others left because they weren’t able to change.
It makes sense that Lauren would want to emulate people who were kind to her. She has experienced their kindness since she became a parent, too. That really surprised me. Most of the kids I fostered had parents who had grown up in foster care. That was one of the things I found most disturbing, that we claimed to “rescue” these kids, to “protect” them from abuse, but the second they became parents and weren’t perfect, we wanted to squash them like bugs.
Lauren had quite a bit of contact with the system after her first child was born. She and her boyfriend were young, poor and both grew up in foster care. Things went wrong that would have triggered a removal in the old days, a seemingly well-intentioned removal to prevent something really big and bad from happening. What seems to be understood these days is that the removal itself is something big and bad to everyone involved, including the child.
So, what do I think is the best way to prevent injury in a high-risk situation? Take some of the load off. Remove some of the stress by putting help in place, in the home. That’s what they did for Lauren. Without criticism or accusation, they talked her into moving in with an older relative who was retired and happy to help. They sent her to classes, but very practical classes, not anger management which would have done nothing but make her angry. And they helped her get rid of the baby’s daddy.
Now she is married to a good guy and is a really wonderful mother of three. And she is going back to school to be a social worker. I’ll bet she’ll be good at it.
Mary Callahan is an author in Maine.
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