No case is impossible
By Teresa Burt | Sept. 11, 2023
This blog was written in celebration of Child Welfare Workers Appreciation Week Sept. 11-15. Read more remarkable stories on our Facebook page.
“Every family is unique. Every child is unique. …
We do best for our families when we come together to serve them with excellence. Our families need us.” — Teresa Burt
One of my most memorable experiences working in child welfare was one of my first cases in 2006. I was assigned to an almost 16-year-old girl who was living in a mental health residential program. Her goal was adoption, and she had spent most of her life in care and had had a failed adoption.
I travelled from Sanford to Osceola for my first visit with her. That shaped and impacted the rest of my child welfare career.
This youth had significant behavioral and cognitive challenges. I was told she would stay in this placement and age out eventually. After meeting her and driving home, it really bothered me that she seemed to have been “written off.” I was brand new to child welfare, but I had a hard time accepting this as her reality.
During that first visit, she asked me if I could take her out the next time I visited. Not knowing all the rules, I just told her I would find out. After being given permission, all future visits involved me getting her and taking her offsite. Our very first visit was to McDonalds (her choice). She ordered chicken nuggets and French fries that she ate with honey. We had an excellent visit, and this was the start of a beautiful relationship that has impacted me for a lifetime.
Over a period of time and a lot of advocating, we were able to get her stepped down from a residential program to a “regular” group home. While she was placed there, I learned about Equine Therapy and felt this would be a good option for her. It took a lot of advocating and getting special funding, but we were successful. I was the one who would take her to her sessions and was amazed at this modality of therapy and how responsive she was to it. We were then able to get her stepped down to a therapeutic foster home. The transitions were not always easy, and things did not always go smoothly, but it was my mission to advocate for her.
Before she turned 18, we were able to navigate through the Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD) process for her, which led to her being able to go to an APD home after aging out. She did OK in this setting after 18, but life for her was always a struggle. She later was able to be moved to APD housing in the community with a supportive living person who would check on her.
I would lose contact with her off and on over the years, but usually around her birthday in May, she would always reach out, and wherever she was, I’d go get her and take her to a special dinner for her birthday. I was at the hospital when she gave birth to her first child and there as she tried her best to parent that child. Without a family and her limited cognitive abilities, this was very challenging for her, and later her son was adopted by another family.
My heart broke for her, and it often felt like it was too late to make the real impact that could have put her on a different trajectory in life. Because of her, it made me very passionate to advocate and fight for each child and family I had the privilege to serve as a case manager.
Never give up
Over the years my role changed, and now, as an operations manager, I am passionate about motivating case managers to advocate for their families and children â€” to never see any case as impossible. I understand the value of never giving up on that right connection and never leaving one stone unturned. Child welfare is messy. It can be exhausting at times, but when I get bogged down, I remember my “Jennifer.”
Right after Jennifer gave birth to her first son, my adopted daughter came into my life very unexpectedly. My daughter, too, came to me with a lot of traumas, including a failed adoption. Having had the experience I had with Jennifer, it helped me advocate and navigate the systems â€” to fight for my daughter.
She came into my home on five very strong medications. She was 9 years old and unable to color, cut with scissors, open packages and do basic things for her age. She had very little hygiene training. This was eight years ago this month.
Today, she is on no medication. She is a junior in high school. She plays on her school volleyball team, participates in the fine arts program with her youth group and is thriving.
It has not been an easy journey, and we are still faced with the effects of her traumas, but my girl is shining. She now inspires me to keep going. To keep advocating. To keep fighting for a system I believe in.
Every family is unique. Every child is unique. Every case must be served in a unique way. I’ve learned it takes a true team approach, and we do best for our families when we come together to serve them with excellence. Our families need us.
So, on the tough days, I remember the beginning and look at my daughter. This helps me regain my focus and stay true to the mission of what we do.
“I am passionate about motivating case managers to advocate for their families and children — to never see any case as impossible. I understand the value of never giving up on that right connection and never leaving one stone unturned.” — Teresa Burt
*Burt is operations manager at Embrace Families’ Seminole County Service Center. She wrote this blog in celebration of Child Welfare Workers Appreciation Week Sept. 11-15. Read more remarkable stories on our Facebook page.