Lessons of a First Time Social Worker: The Story of John

I was a new case worker when assigned to an 11-yr-old boy who was placed in a foster family who accepted kids with more severe behavioral and emotional issues. For the sake of confidentiality, I’ll call him, John. Before I headed out to visit John, I took the time to read his lengthy file. Attachment issues, defiance, a medical condition and a substantial amount of loss are words to describe what this kiddo was facing.

With the knowledge in my mind, I went to my first visit to meet him and brought along my own high hopes of establishing rapport with him. As I entered his foster home, his foster dad yelled his name out and said, “Your new case worker is here to meet you.” Silence. Not a sound or movement. Again, his foster dad said, “John! Come out and meet your new case worker.” After a few awkward moments of stillness, I decided to go to his room and introduce myself.

I gently tapped on his door, opened it and said, “Hi, I’m Caroline.” As I looked around the room, I found John sitting in a corner as if he was cowering a bit. I walked closer, looked at him and said, “It’s really nice to meet you.” He did not look at me and did not say a word. I then said, “If you ever need anything, please call me. I’ll be visiting you a few times per month. I’ll see you soon.” And then, I walked out.

I told his foster dad that I had planned on visiting John every few weeks and would like to take him out and do fun things with him. His foster dad said that sounded great (although, I’m not sure he initially believed me because he had probably heard that before). As I got into my car, I sat there for a moment, shocked by what had happened and saddened by the broken boy who had cornered himself in his room. As a case worker with thirty or so children to work with, I was stretched thin, but within the first moment of meeting John, I knew I had to try a little harder to with this one.

An important piece of case management is follow through. This not only applies to paperwork, court hearings and other tasks, it applies to children. It especially applies to children. Despite being busy, I knew that I had to see John on a consistent basis and follow through with my stated plans of taking him out of the home and doing things with him.

After my first visit with him, I sat down with my supervisor and discussed the interaction (or lack thereof) with him and my plans for trying to establish a relationship. There was just something about this kid that broke my heart and I was determined to get through to him. She agreed and gave me the go-ahead to do what I needed to do in order to help John along the way.

Over the course of the next six months, I picked up John every few weeks and took him to various places. We painted pottery together, went ice-skating, played in a park, hit the mall and ate out at a few different restaurants. I was not reimbursed for any of these expenses nor did I expect to be, but I knew that this precious child’s life was worth the investment.

During this time, John barely spoke to me and was timid about looking me in the eyes. He would sit in my truck as we listened to music and just stare out. Once I got him to the place we were going, he started to grin a bit more, occasionally laughed and began to open up to me. John was very artistic so I often took the time to places where he could use his talent with activities related to art. It also gave me the opportunity to encourage him in his artwork.

Nearly seven months after first meeting John, after an outing, I pulled up to his home, he got out, and I said, “I’ll see you soon. Have a good night.” Like usual, John did not say a word, opened his door and ran to the front door of his foster home. I watched as he started to walk in and then suddenly, he bolted back towards me, waving his hands and said, “Caroline! Caroline! Thank you for taking me out today.” There it was; the moment I had been waiting for. After seven months of persistent and intentional interactions with little response on his end, this child that I worked so hard to gain trust with, said my name.

As the year or so went on, John and I had developed a good relationship. I believe he trusted me and that was huge given his history and struggles. Throughout the years, I worked hard on finding him an adoptive home and after several failed placements, I finally found a family who was willing to take him in, love on him and adopt him.

Not long after he got settled into his new home, I decided to take a position with a different agency. It was a hard decision. Child welfare is extremely draining and I noticed the wear and tear it had on my personal life. I was sleeping a lot less, dreaming about the kids on my case load and worrying for a good majority of the time about their lives. I felt completely responsible for these little lives; yet, I knew that I was only one person and could not necessarily control how their lives would end up.

After I made the decision to leave the job, I spoke to every foster family and child that I worked with. John was the last one that I told. I dreaded it. I feared what it would do to him and to me. As he and I sat together in his room, I explained that I had taken a position with a new agency and would be transferring him to a new case worker that was going to do an awesome job. Once again, silence filtered our interaction. In that instant, the child that I had worked so hard to bring out of his shell, slowly sank back into it.

John did not cry. He did not say a word. I gave him a hug and told him what an honor it was to meet him, to be his case worker and that I wanted him to have the best life ever. As I left his room, he stayed behind. I could not get to my car quick enough. Once in it, I lost it. My tears were uncontrollable. In that moment, I still believed that I had made the right decision for my life but the little souls, especially John, that I was leaving behind had permanently made marks on my heart. Saying good-bye was so hard.

About a year or so after I started my new job, John’s case worker notified me of his adoption hearing. I was ecstatic to be able to attend it. When I entered the room where the family was waiting, my eyes met his and he grinned. I went over to him and the first thing he said was, “When you left, I cried.” Oh, my heart.

As I watched the Judge declare him a legal member of his family, tears flowed down my face. This child who was so weary of the world, turned people away, sabotaged placements, and who cowered in the corner of his bedroom, finally had a family to call his own.

A lot of years have passed since last seeing John. While I do not know whatever came of his life with his adoptive family, I think of him often. He is a young adult now and I’d like to think that he has grown into a responsible young man who is getting every inch of out of life that he can. I hope he has settled into his own, making good choices to secure his future, still drawing and using art as an outlet, and that he understands that deep impact he made on my life. Even more, I truly hope that he continues to have a place to call home, a soft spot to land when he needs to, and others in his life who consider him a treasure.

Foster parents, volunteers and case managers, you need to know just how much of an impact you can and do make on the life of every child you work with. Even if a child rejects you, keep trying. Don’t ever give up or doubt your own worth in the landscape of children’s lives. The ones that are the hardest to understand are often the ones who need us the most. Never forget that what you do matters immensely to a child.

When it comes to foster parenting, and working within the child welfare system, there are terribly difficult decisions that must be made. The system is not pleasant and can be very frustrating regardless of the angle to which you are viewing it. It is not perfect and there are flaws; yet, there is also the potential for change and growth.

There is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes; middle of the night safety checks, drying of children’s tears, encouraging a youth who is struggling, advocating for a child’s needs, and not giving up when every other adult has. Most of these things are done with barely a notice and certainly with very little to no recognition or financial incentive. There are nay-sayers who do not understand why you care so much and others who choose to only believe negative aspects of the child welfare system. What these people need to know is behind every statistic or decision that is being made is a child whose value is far greater than any recent data. You know this. You work with kids like John day in and day out. It is because of the kids like John that you are not giving up.

I am still working in the child welfare system but am no longer in the role of a case manager. Because of this, I am not interacting daily with children and youth in the system and I no longer bear the responsibility of deciding the future for foster children. While I enjoy my current position, and understand that I am still a part of the system and can impact children’s lives, I will admit to missing case management and being on the front-lines.

I learned a great deal about life while working with children; especially John. I walked away from the position in full recognition of how fortunate I am to have been raised in a loving home where I was given every ounce of support and opportunities that I needed. Working with John was one of the best experiences I have ever had. He had a tough shell but underneath it, was a hurting little boy who just needed someone to trust.

If you are involved in the child welfare system (in any role), never forget that kids listen to and watch you. If you say you are going to do something, then, do it. Their future, and in many respects, all of ours, depend on it.