I have been blessed with a job that allows me to travel across the nation and help states and agencies learn how to provide support for foster/adoptive families. A colleague asked me over dinner if this was something that I had always envisioned myself doing. I had to say “no” because I originally went to college to become a pharmacist. That path changed when I realized that chemistry was not something my brain could grasp. My path was derailed by a “storm.” I didn’t give up—instead I rebuilt and changed majors. A few professors saw my passion and drive, and they gave me a new route. So here I am—helping those who are also just as passionate.
It’s Sunday morning, and the news reporters are begging the people of Florida and those in the path of hurricane Irma to take cover and be safe. While the weather will calm, it is just the eye of the storm and more dangerous weather will hit again. The training team I’m with on this trip is in the path of the hurricane, and we are seeing preparations taking place to combat the storm’s effects in the Appalachian Mountains. Rangers closed the national park because the impending storms will bring down trees and rocks. Winds and rain could likely cause power outages and damage to the community. We too, came up with a backup plan to address the possibility of the unpredictable damage in our location.
This is much like what I am seeing in society as a whole. It seems like most people are weathering a storm and the battle is real. When asking a hostess at a restaurant how she was doing, she said, “You know those days when you wake up and want to cry, but don’t know why? That is the day I am having.” The brakeman on a tourist train said that he really enjoyed his career in the delivery industry but the stress and physical demands got too difficult for him because of his age—he is only in his fifties—so he ended up taking a much lower paying job with the railroad. And we hear it from numerous child welfare workers who say they feel like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders, and they are exhausted as they continue to advocate for the children they care so passionately about.
The culture of child welfare is the hurricane. It is wrought with inconsistency and turbulence, and the path can change at any time. Sometimes there seems to be a bit of relief, and then the issues churn and resurface. It is a career where trauma is always at the forefront, and the passionate people continue to “ride it out.” Those who decide to stay strong and ride the storm are the people who have allowed the passion of their career to become a lifestyle. Take, for example, the owner and editor of a small magazine who will drive across the country to visit with folks who have chosen child welfare as their life’s path.
Or the young man who is walking across the country to bring awareness to the realities of foster care. Or the foster care worker who is gives back because of her personal experiences. Or the foster mother who takes a Saturday away from her family to assist another foster mother getting CEUs for licensure. Or the leader of a community who quits her job so she can seek a certification that will allow her to help strengthen the system.
Or the director of a tribe who wants to keep children connected to their culture. These are the people who will continue to advocate and hang in there when political leaders make decisions that add to the turbulence of the system. They are the state workers who continue to implement best practice strategies into their services when the administrative leaders turn over due to political appointments.
They are the caseworkers or other professionals who continue to take calls from families in crisis when they are also dealing with personal issues or trying to take much needed self-care time.
In order to continue to keep these passionate people safe from the damage of the storm, child welfare leaders and decision makers can keep them supplied with ways to remain emotionally healthy and energized. Let’s look at how leaders and decision makers can help.
Preparation for the storm:
Take a moment to look at how you as a leader communicate with the people you are leading. Assess how you communicate with everyone on the team. Are you taking time each week to visit with everyone, check in and share information that both directly and indirectly impacts their role?
Email and texting is good for a quick FYI, but those communication methods should not replace spending one-on-one time with the people providing the service.
The people your agency serves and the staff who have survived the storms in the past have knowledge and experience related to lessons learned. They can share strategies on how the problems were solved in the past.
Listening to the voices of the “consumers” are where you are going to hear about the struggles that exist for them. You become a better advocate by helping them overcome the road blocks that are in place to keep them “safe” yet create more stress. Foster parents and alum can help us learn a lot about how to better the system.
During the storm:
Take note and provide validation to the people who are feeling exhausted, overwhelmed and taking on trauma. Now is not the time to put in regulations to try to manage the crisis. This will only come off as micromanagement, and people will either give up or put up defense mechanisms. All people, regardless of how strong they appear, need validation that their efforts to hang in there will make a difference for the people they are serving.
As a leader, if you provide others with hope, they will pass that on to the youth and families.
It is important that everyone stay calm and patient through the turmoil. During the crisis, it is natural to retreat to fight or flight instincts.
Like a hurricane, if you run into the storm, you face grave harm. During the chaos of the system, it is helpful to remain calm and patient so that others around you gain a sense of safety and hope.
After the storm:
Make sure to acknowledge the efforts and work that everyone put into making it through the turbulent times.
2. Regain energy.
Working in a system that is crisis- and trauma-driven takes a toll on a person’s energy and health. Make sure that during the down times (or eye of the hurricane) people are given permission to take time to regroup and prepare for the next round.
Like meteorologists and science have developed better tools to predict and keep people safe in storms, child welfare has refined tools and strategies to identify best practice standards. We need to strive to use those tools to provide support, encouragement and hope to those who are riding it out so that once the storm passes, they can regain the energy to keep going.