As a foster parent, I've worked with more than a few social workers. And I definitely have had some, ahem, less than kind thoughts about social workers. I'm not proud of it, but we all do it. I think foster parents get resentful of or judgmental of social workers for lots of reasons.
Because we think they're being hard to reach on purpose. Because we are stretched super thin sometimes by the demands put on us as a foster parent and it gives us a short fuse. Because we think that they make decisions that end up harming our kids or their families on purpose. Because they seem like they have all the control and we have none of it, which makes us feel like it's their fault when things go south.
Whatever the reason, it's pretty common for most foster parents to feel frustrated with their kids' social workers. Here's the thing though: 1) Foster parents aren't perfect either, and 2) Social workers are people too. I partnered with a local social worker friend (NOT any of our agency workers and NOT someone who's worked on any of our kids' cases. Don't get any ideas detectives.) who was able to anonymously answer some questions that I had about the experience of being a social worker. My questions, and her answers, are the epitome of "real talk". We weren't holding anything back.
I hope our conversation gives parents who work with social workers a little bit of insight into what it's like to be on the other side of that divide.
1) What made you want to be a social worker?
I decided to become a social worker after several years of working directly with kids and realizing that what I was doing was a bandaid on a bullet hole. I wanted to make systemic change and saw social work as a way to get the education and experience I needed to make that change. I choose to work in child welfare due to my professional and personal experiences in that area.
2) As a foster and adoptive parent, I've worked with some amazing social workers who are professional, easy to reach, and clearly passionate about helping children. Unfortunately, we've also dealt with LOTS of other social workers who are impossible to get in touch with, don't communicate the truth to anyone involved, and make little to no effort to get to know our kids. What's your take on "bad" social workers?
"Bad" professionals exist in every field. Social work is not an exception, unfortunately. I would say most child welfare social workers who foster parents perceive as "bad" are just super burnt out. Caseloads can be high, the pay isn't great for the amount of second-hand and first-hand trauma we have. Often times I am putting out fires and am not as available as I would like to be. Some days I'm so emotionally exhausted from admitting a child into a psych hospital and then I have to turn around and drive 50 miles in traffic to get to someone's house to do a home visit and I'm not on top of my game. Some days I sit down to write an email to update people and one of my cases has an emergency and I have to spend the rest of the day figuring that out. Or I've been up all night on an overtime shift because we once again have a child without placement due to lack of specialized foster homes. Often times we are responsible to lots of people- legal parties, foster parents, our own supervisors. Plus all the rules, regulations, and paperwork that exists. And sometimes we ourselves may be in the dark about what is going on and the first time we hear something is at court. Of course, this isn't to excuse bad behavior but this job is taxing. And I have to consciously remind myself some days that I have to care. Sometimes I go through seasons of having to put a lot of effort into a case that is on fire and can only put minimal effort into my other cases because they are more stable. Pretty much I would say give grace to your social workers and assume good intentions. I try to extend the same to the families I work with and I'm one of the lucky ones. I have a great supervisor and team who is able to help me out.
Wow. That answer bitch slapped me ya'll. And I deserved the slap! How many times have I been irritated with a caseworker who wasn't answering their phone about a problem that wasn't an emergency? Meanwhile they were actually frantically racing to the ER with a child in crisis? Also, that part about how their jobs are hard because there are not enough homes open to kids who need specialized care? That's real. That's OUR problem. When the majority of families don't even do foster care, and the ones that do only take healthy babies and toddlers ages zero-five, that leaves social workers in a difficult spot when it comes time to find a safe home for the 9 year old with mental health needs or the 16 year old wheelchair user.
2) What are some things that you believe foster parents should do to help children stay connected to their parents and relatives while in foster care? What are things that they do that stand in the way of that connection?
I love when foster parents are willing to help their foster kids stay in contact with their biological parents. First off I would say be open to seeing the biological families as people. And hurting people. Most kids end up in the foster care system due to trauma. Some of it is generational trauma, others are parents who are coping with their trauma in unhealthy ways, such as substance use. Or parents who do not have healthy relationships. It's so easy to get caught up in being angry at the parents for what happened to the kids but trauma and unhealthy coping skills is at the root of most child welfare cases in my opinion. I've seen foster families have journals that they put into the kids' bags at visits that let the biological parents know what is going on in the kids' life and allows them to write back. I also love it when parents print off pictures or text me pictures that I can text to the parents. And be open to phone calls and visits with parents or other members of the family in public places. Put your own feelings and discomfort aside and look at what's best for the kids. Most kids want to be connected with their family and community. Do that as much as possible and don't bad talk the bio families around the kids. Go get your own therapist or support group if you need to vent. Be positive around the kids and don't make snide remarks. Kids pick up on that.
As for what not to do, first, examine your own biases. Could your foster kid have a "better life" from a materialistic point of view if they stayed with you? Probably. Is that in their best interest? Maybe not. Kids belong with their biological families whenever it is safe. And I don't mean safe from a white savior point of view. Foster parents who tell me from the first meeting that they are willing to adopt their current foster kids when the case just opened put up red flags in my head. The point of foster care is to reunify children with their families. And I want to be sure that you are 100% committed to that. I have foster parents who make scheduling parent-child visits very challenging or who actively say stuff to the kids that is against their biological family. That makes me upset and it just serves to hurt the children more. Be open to the biological parents and know that they are humans just like you.
That part about not basing your feelings on what's best for the child on materialistic factors is SO important! A nice suburban home or access to a fancier school or more expensive clothing will never replace the chance for them to live within their family of origin. Never.
3) Do you ever feel like boundaries are hard to maintain as a social worker? One thing I sometimes get very triggered by is the possessiveness that social workers have had over the children we've cared for. It has upset me at times because as the foster parent, you spend the most time with the child but get to have the least input into what's best for that kid. And then the social worker sees them twice a month but acts like they're raising them!
Oftentimes I am answering to so many people and some things are out of my control due to policy. I think that is where some of this protectiveness comes from. Like I am the one at court who gets chewed out by lawyers if the kids aren't getting what the lawyer perceives that they need. But also yes, boundaries are hard. I think about the kids and worry about them even once I'm off the clock. And oftentimes social workers may have access to additional information about the kids that aren't being given to foster parents due to confidentiality reasons (think past cases and investigations). So yes, it does suck when we come in for our visits and ask you to do things that you may not agree with. But also there's usually a reason why we're doing that. I often hear foster parents say they hate being told how to parent by social workers. But know that we may have reasons for saying some of the things we do. We also see foster parents crash and burn sometimes so some of that protectiveness may come from having to place children in different homes and knowing what has and has not worked in the past. Ideally, foster parents and social workers would work as a team to make sure that the kids are getting what they need. When I trust my foster parents that comes more naturally. Feel free to push back (in a nice and respectful way) on social workers and ask why they are asking you to do the things they are. Sometimes I get so busy I forget to tell people the why behind what I do.
Her point about having past experience with foster parents crashing and burning (and subsequently giving up on the child in their care) is very valid. We have to make sure that when we say yes to these kids, we are giving them our best, most committed, most unconditional yes. It's very hypocritical that some foster parents want to push back on a caseworker and then turn around and give up on the kid the next day. Which brings me to my final question...
5) How do you feel when kids on your caseload are disrupted from their foster placement? What are your thoughts on disrupting kids?
Disruptions happen. I would rather a family disrupt then not and end up in a crisis. I highly recommend only taking kids that you know you can provide for. For example, if you have young children then taking a kid with anger outbursts may not be a good fit for your family. Be honest from the get-go while also being open to taking in kids that may "stretch" you a bit. The foster care system is far from perfect but every time a child leaves a home that is a loss for them so ideally that would be minimized as much as possible. Seek help early and often to try and prevent disruption. Also give us a heads up if you feel like the placement is slowing (or quickly) bursting into flames. I would rather know at say 8 in the morning then 5 pm on a Friday when you feel like you can't make it the whole weekend.
Seek help EARLY, and OFTEN. And ACCEPT the help you're offered. That is so important. I know help is sometimes hard to find, but I've also worked with fellow foster families who actively avoid the help I'm offering (invites to support group, invites to connect with other families who are going through similar things, community resources) and then turn around and disrupt their child's placement.
I hope this helps prospective and current foster parents get a window into what social workers in the foster care system experience. I know I was a bear for our first county caseworker to work with. She was pregnant at the time, and even her big old belly didn't make me stop and consider all the challenges she was facing while also working my kids' case. Luckily for me she's a nice person who forgave me for my short tempered emotional ass behavior and now we are Facebook friends and she sometimes reads this blog (Hey girl! Sorry I emailed your supervisor criticizing your work while you were just trying to get through your job without your baby falling out on the floor.)
I'm so grateful to my friend for spilling the tea on what it's really like for social workers in the foster care system. Some follow ups on topics discussed in this post...
If you want to hear more about why our family does not believe in normalizing placement disruption, read this post
If you want to hear more about how being part of a support group can help you be a more patient, more regulated foster parent, read this post
If you're interested in learning how to do a better job keeping your kids connected to their parents and family members while they're in foster care, read my upcoming post. It's going to be all about the mistakes I made with my kids' parents, and what I would do differently in hindsight.
Let's remember to partner with our kids' social workers. Like my friend so wisely stated, the kids always benefit when we work as a team. Hand in hand ya'll. It's the only way we'll survive this crazy system.
A big thank you to the social worker who listened to me cry after every SAR during the last year of my first boys' case. Thank you to the social worker who matched me with Julian. Thank you to our family worker, and ALL of our agency workers, for being kind and patient, for believing in me and my crazy little family, enough to call us about our THIRD boy.
And thank you to that first county social worker for reaching out years later with nothing but kindness and forgiveness for the young, overwhelmed foster mama who had previously treated her so poorly. I know now that she and I were both just doing our best.