How can I help children when I don’t work with children?

 How Can I help Children when I don't work with children?By: Patricia A. Cody, PhD, MSW

Patricia is the Lead NAFCIES, fulfillment and ARCRI Evaluator at AdoptUSkids and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Steve Hicks School of Social Work. For National Adoption Month, Patricia so graciously wrote a guest blog on her important work for TXICFW. 

I started my child welfare career after receiving my MSW. I accepted a position as a foster care caseworker at Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) in Washington, DC.  When I started, CFSA was coming out from under federal receivership after being sued. Things were in flux as the District of Columbia transitioned back to self-management in child welfare.  During my first year, there was significant turnover in the Director position, and one Director even made the news when she was arrested!  I began to question what I had gotten myself into!

My first day on the job turned into a road trip.  My supervisor needed a female to attend the placement of a female teenager in an RTC. This young lady was driven several hours south of her family by strangers she had never met, dragged through hours of intake meetings, asked to unpack and count all of her belongings in front of strangers and told to make herself at home. I couldn’t imagine how this place would ever feel like home to her.

As time went on, I had the same kind of experiences that most workers have:  horrific stories of abuse and neglect, disrupted placements at 5 pm on Friday, long hours, late nights in the emergency rooms and endless hours waiting for court hearings to begin.  When I interviewed for the job, I was asked how I thought the new timeframes in ASFA (they were new back then!) would impact how we worked with families.  I was prepared with my policy analysis and academic answer but I was not prepared to be left at the hospital on a Saturday morning with an infant, my personal vehicle and no car seat after the family he was to be placed with changed their mind and left!  I was not prepared to get ringworm from my first pair of siblings. I was not prepared for a colleague’s advice to not wear pants with cuffs as I might bring home cockroaches.  I was not prepared to be asked to write a tip-sheet on how to hospitalize a child after hours, as a senior worker after only working there for a year! And I certainly was not prepared to hold so many of my “cases” in my heart for so many years after working with them.

I loved my kids and my families, but the system seemed like a constant source of barriers for them and for me! I started thinking about my work from a different perspective.   On a micro level, I was moving children out of successful placements based on ridiculous technicalities, hospitalizing children rather than doing appropriate permanency plans, and requiring birth parents to adhere to service plans that had no hope of resulting in a healthier family for their children.  I was putting small band-aids on big problems and soon realized that there was no process for reviewing practice and improving how we served children. I figured that I needed to work on a macro level to create change in the system I was constantly fighting.  I enrolled in a PhD program and jumped into this new approach with both feet.

AdoptUSKids LogoI now work on the AdoptUSKids evaluation team and have been involved with this organization since 2002. AdoptUSKids is a project of the US Children’s Bureau that provides tools and technical assistance to help child welfare systems connect children in foster care with families. As part of the evaluation team, we work with several partner organizations to evaluate their programming activities.  I left direct care to create system change, and now I spend my days buried in research and evaluation.  Some days it is hard to remember how my work directly impacts children, but it does.  Recently, AdoptUSKids released new guidelines on writing photolisting narratives for waiting children. The work behind this publication was tremendous. Our evaluation team played a large role in identifying issues in narrative writing and helping the greater AdoptUSKids team determine the magnitude of these issues.  We have spent the better part of the past year reading narratives about children from all across our country, shedding tears over the reality of some children’s lives, feeling frustrated by how some children are portrayed and celebrating when a narrative that we read was no longer available because the child had been placed for adoption!  In recent weeks we have been seeing an awesome response to the new guidelines, changes in state practice around narrative writing and wonderful strengths-based narratives becoming active on the AdoptUSKids website. I have never met these children, but our work is positively impacting them nonetheless!

This month is National Adoption Month, a time to reflect on the work that we do in adoption and a time to challenge ourselves to do better for the children and families that we serve.  Whatever your role in the child welfare system is, find meaning in your work and stay focused on it. Always look for ways to evaluate and improve your work and never forget the children who need us to do better every single day!

To learn more about AdoptUSKids and the resources they have to offer, please visit their website here. #NAM2017 #adoptionmonth