Over 40 years ago I was prodded to take a job after college with the Department of Children and Family Services. Reluctantly I skipped Europe and entered the world of full-time employment in child welfare. The job chose me, rather than the other way around. Last week there was discussion at the office about how best to retain workers. It got me to thinking about why I have stayed with this work.
As I began a week-long trip visiting children and their caretakers in their homes throughout the state, I thought maybe it would give me some answers.
While visiting children in placements, I came close to the angst and dreams of teens in residential care and the strength of foster parents about to adopt three siblings and add to their already large adopted crew. I also encountered the commitment of relatives willing to care for their grandchildren, nieces and nephews permanently. Lastly and sorrowfully, I saw the dilemma of incarcerated youths.
The girls in residential care spoke of their deep resentment of being placed in what they see as another planet — rural Wisconsin. I could only focus on the anger of one of them, which filled the room. Another girl presented a positive face, hiding the underlying trauma of her life. Others shared the depth of disappointment they feel toward their parents. They struggled with connecting the dots between their dangerous behaviors and placement here. And yet, they spoke of learning to love themselves and shared their dreams – rich and meaningful, in marked contrast to the self-destructive behavior they exhibit.
As I pass through the eighth locked door, look out at the high barbed fences, I know this is not a foster home, college, or even a residential treatment center. This is jail, plain and simple. I head to the girls’ unit and find myself inspired by a diminutive, size-4 girl with dark hair and eyes and intense energy. Not the hyperactive kind, but a focused, goal-directed energy that I did not expect in this setting. Her caseworker speaks of her determination; the girl speaks of her dreams: “I always wanted to write a book; I wanted to be somebody.” When I correct her and say that does not need to be past tense, she smiles. I have just spoken out loud the dream she dares not admit. She wants to counsel other girls who have been traumatized. I believe she will.
Next stop, “the hole” as the 17-year-old boy calls it. I pass through another eight locked gates/doors, and I enter another world. The staff don’t smile. They watch — every move, everyone, on guard. The boy, too, watches everything, everyone, on guard. His eyes dart constantly. He’s barely able to look at me. Therapists call this hypervigalence. I call it trauma.
This boy acts as if this place is easy, a piece of cake, fun. This is posturing and a glorification of fighting. He calls himself “thugged out.” I wonder if he really is or if this is all a survival plan. He doesn’t see a future; he wonders if he will live past 18. He is adamant that the “therapeutic groups” are a waste and he won’t go. He laughs at the workers who think they make a difference. He says he doesn’t feel bad for the victim of his crime; he’d do it again. Again, I wonder, is this true or is it hiding his fear?
For all the bravado, this teenager is filled with wisdom, speaking to me about how we are all the same, that he and I and the guards are not really different, we are all struggling in life. My sister wrote a book years ago, speaking about children in our system, naming the book “Disposable Children.” He speaks of his “homies,” who he says have never disposed of him. It all saddens me; I have nothing to offer him. I fear our system doesn’t either, not because we don’t care, but because his struggles are simply so different. My answers don’t fit his reality.
When I leave the secure unit, walk back to my comfortable life, I pray that his inability to see a future for himself will not prove to be true.
I found answers as to why I have stayed in this field; it is to see children wrestling with forming their lives from what has been given to them, to see parents and relatives give children what they need, it is to see the “kindness of strangers” who take in hurt children and love them. I wonder how they have survived this long, how they will move forward.
Much is written today about resiliency. On this trip, resiliency was my map, found in the faces of these children.
I will leave it to others to see if there is anything in all of this that might assist in social work’s efforts to retain good workers. My struggle is to imagine life without this anchor to resiliency unfolding before me daily in the lives of the children, parents and caretakers.
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