Celebration week offers opportunity to inspire and be inspired

Sept. 18, 2023

Child Welfare Worker Appreciation Week was Sept. 11-15, and to celebrate, staff at Embrace Families and its community partners shared the unique experiences they’ve had with a child, parent, caregiver or colleague that inspire them to this day. They also took time to remember what motivated them to work in child welfare and what keeps them in the field.

Those reflections are included below, revealing how the work each team member does makes a difference to thousands of Central Florida children and families.

No case is impossible

Teresa (left) and Deborah Burt spend time together.

Seminole Operations Manager Teresa Burt says one of her most memorable experiences working in child welfare revolved around a teenaged girl who was living in a mental health residential program.

She had significant behavioral and cognitive challenges and had spent most of her life in care. She had also experienced a failed adoption. Burt was told the teen would likely stay in that placement and age out.

“It really bothered me that she seemed to have been ‘written off,'” Burt said. “I had a hard time accepting this as her reality.”

And she didn’t. From that moment on, Burt decided no case was impossible, a belief that underscored the raising of her own adopted daughter. Read about her remarkable journey dedicated to helping children succeed.

Making dreams come true

Even as a child, Esma Dennis wanted to make sure kids had the love and care they needed. Now, she’s living that dream, first as a foster parent recruiter and now as an adoptions recruiter at Embrace Families’ Seminole County Service Center.

“Being a foster parent recruiter with Embrace was amazing. I had the opportunity to be in the community 90% of the time, engaging with businesses, churches and schools on the need for foster homes. Although every person I encountered may not have decided to foster, they partnered with me in many other ways to make our children in care comfortable.

Esma Dennis and her family celebrate the holidays.

“When I was a young girl, I remembered my neighbors not having much. The children were loving and fun to hang around. I would tell my aunt and grandma, ‘I am going to be a social worker when I get older, so I can make sure kids have dolls and clean clothes.’

“As I got older, my aunts became foster parents and adoptive parents, and watching them love on kids who were less fortunate than our family made me want to make my dream come true.”

Someone they can count on

Angela Hall says the connections she makes with the children and families she serves keep her going as a diversion specialist at Embrace Families’ Orange County East Service Center. And those strong bonds let her kids know she’s someone they can count on.

“What inspires me to work in child welfare are the connections I build with the families and children we serve.

Angela Hall and her dog pose for a selfie.

“I started as a dependency case manager in 2018 and formed a strong connection with two sisters who were placed into foster care. I still have a connection with those sisters to this day and just recently got to celebrate their 15th and 18th birthdays with them. They have since been reunified with their mother and have made so much progress.

“Although it’s just two children, I feel like I’ve been able to make a difference in their lives by being a constant person they can count on to show up for them.”

Grit, skill and a little bit of the miraculous

Stacia Liptak says it takes “grit, skill and a little bit of the miraculous” to care long-term for kids from difficult situations. And she knows it from first-hand experience.

Now, as an adoptions specialist with Embrace Families’ Orange County East Service Center, she’s made it her mission to do whatever she can to give parents the support and tools they need to be the best parents they can be.

“When I was choosing a career, I wanted to work in child welfare because of my previous experiences volunteering in orphanages as a high school student, in addition to my personal experience as a sibling to two adopted kids. While I was initially drawn to child welfare because of my interest in helping kids, what has kept me in child welfare is my passion for helping the parents of kids from hard places.

“When I was a foster parent between 2018 and 2019, I had a long-term placement of two girls that was challenging but really rewarding. I still have a relationship with those girls to this day, and they mean the world to me. However, I had a very difficult experience with a subsequent foster placement that left me traumatized.

Stacia Liptak and her family enjoy a day out.

“While I had thought I would be a foster parent indefinitely, my journey ended abruptly by my surprising trauma because of this difficult placement. I was floored at how one difficult placement for just a couple weeks could almost immediately break down my ability to be a foster parent — at the time, I had a master’s in social work and academic training in the field of trauma, in addition to a career as a certified child welfare professional.

“This experience has led me to believe that caring for kids from difficult places in the long-term takes grit, skill and a little bit of the miraculous. In my years in child welfare, I’ve alternated between various roles, but I have always done so with the intention of helping set up the parents of kids from difficult places with their best chance of success.

“At Embrace, we believe that kids belong in families, and I believe that too, but it’s the success of those families that determines the success of those children much of the time. I want to be in child welfare to do my part in helping families navigate the difficult and sometimes bureaucratic challenges of a system tasked with supporting these families. I feel that my job is to make their job easier in any way that I can to give their family and their children the best chance they have to do a difficult thing.”

Coping, hoping and new life

Dan Mawhinney, a.k.a. Woody from the animated movie “Toy Story,” takes some time out at one of his favorite places.

When his work as a medical child advocate gets tough, Dan Mawhinney says he

goes to his happy places, but he also reflects on a poem that reminds him he could not have a more rewarding career.

“When the work gets tough, I go places and do things that bring me joy. I also reflect on a poem by Monique Smith called ‘Why Be a Social Worker.’ Toward the end it reads:

It’s the light in people’s eyes, when they first find that hope.

When they empower themselves, and finally learn to cope.

It’s watching them find a new life, one they actually want to live.

It’s the joy of the families, as they reunite and forgive.

It’s that one day you wonder, ‘Am I really making a difference in what I do?’

Then your email reads, ‘I am happy and well, and I want to thank you.’

That’s when you know … There could not be a more rewarding career.

I have received an email like this. Years later, well after my case closed, a parent thanked me and the hard-working team she had for the help we gave to her family, and she said her child was still doing well because of that help.”

Making things happen behind the scenes

Tennille Torres and her youngest child share a ride in an aerial gondola.

Tennille Torres may not be on the front lines helping children and families, but her work as lead human resources generalist gives Embrace Families staff the support they need to be the best at what they do.

“When I was called to interview at Embrace, I had no knowledge of child welfare outside what I had seen on the news. I interviewed, and when I left, I immediately called my husband and said, ‘I have to get this job.’

“In the nine years I have been with Embrace, I have seen the amazing work our front-line staff do. I am constantly amazed by the empathy and passion they have for this work and the families we serve. Child welfare is hard and underappreciated.

“While I can’t be on the front lines, I am happy to be in the background for our staff and support them in any way I can. … I love this organization and what it stands for. We are always trying to do our best for the families we serve. But we don’t just focus on the families, we also make staff a priority, and we care about them just as much.”