When Words Heal: A Day in the Life of a Clinical Social Worker
My grandmother was in foster care back in the 1920s. In reality, there wasn’t much ‘care’ in the system back then. Unprotected by law, orphans and impoverished children were shipped out as laborers to farms and households in rural America. My grandmother spent years working for her keep after being separated from her brother. Although she searched for him as an adult, they were never reunited.
Her stories always stuck with me, and I grew up wondering what causes children to end up in foster care. Eventually, it became my full-time job. Today, I’m a clinical consultant, which means I work in every facet of the foster system, including youth services, placement and, post-adoption. If there are troubled kids, I’m involved. My job is to get to know them, coordinate their therapy, advocate on their behalf, and put them in the best place to heal.
It’s not easy. By the time kids are in our programs, they’re hurting. They don’t want to trust anyone, so they build a tough exterior to hide behind. Parents and social workers come to me, confused and frustrated, trying to help kids who refuse to be helped. I’m tasked with changing the way we view foster kids and explaining the reasons behind their behavior. We’re creating a new culture in the foster system: one that teaches adults to be advocates, not adversaries.
I hope by writing this piece, more families will be inspired to step up and help nurture kids, like “Simon,” who come into our care. Simon’s family emigrated from Haiti, but was removed from his father’s care. He was in foster care for nine years, struggled in school and was shuffled from home to home. He was never adopted. We didn’t have extended foster care back then, so when kids turned 18, they ‘aged out’ of their entire support system. Legally an adult, Simon had nowhere to go and none of the skills he needed to survive.
Later, I got the call: Simon had robbed someone at gunpoint – his way of trying to get money for food – and was being held for deportation. My phone number was the only one he knew. We scrambled to contact his relatives in Haiti and even asked a college professor on a mission trip to bring him resources. Simon hadn’t been to Haiti in over a decade, he didn’t speak the language, and his closest relative there – his mother – was living in a tent.
The last time I heard from Simon was in 2012, when he told me he was scared. His family took advantage of him, and he was living on the streets. How do you move on from that? I’ve never stopped thinking – if I simply had done more for him, I could have prevented this from happening.
But that kind of thinking bogs you down. You can’t let yourself be alone in the trenches on tough cases. My colleagues are my lifeline; they tell me when to step back and look at the bigger picture. We are making a difference. For every tragedy, there’s another kid we were able to reunite with family, adopt to a loving home, or support into college or a career.
A few years ago, “Ava” came into our system from a failed adoption out of the Ukraine. Her adoptive parents painted a scary picture of her and claimed she threatened them. But Ava’s behavior didn’t match her profile. As soon as I sat down with her, I realized she was an average teen girl – athletic, beautiful and ambitious – who had no one to rely on but herself.
People got nervous when they read her file. They saw her through the lens of stigma, instead of as she really was, and they wrote her off as a lost cause before they even met her. I reached out to Ava’s case manager, who saw the same qualities in her that I did. She became her mentor, and although progress was slow and stumbling, Ava was adopted into the family, shortly before her 18th birthday. After that, she stayed involved with the program, and we’ve had the great pleasure of witnessing her success. Ava trained in cosmetology, married, and now has a child of her own. I still wonder how much her life was changed because one person was willing to look past the labels she had been given.
That’s what drives me. Both Simon’s and Ava’s stories tell the same truth: The ability to talk to someone openly is lifesaving for kids in foster care. After years of distrust, they need a relationship that’s solid and relentless. They need to know it will be there no matter what they give. And while both Simon and Ava found someone to confide in, there are plenty of other children in the system who need that positive role model. I’m using Foster Care Awareness Month (May) to encourage families to explore the possibility of opening their hearts and homes to children in need.