There is no mistaking the look people give you when you tell them you work for child protective services. The follow-up is usually something between,“I couldn’t do that job,” or, “You must be a saint.” Well, I am definitely no saint, but I am an Ongoing Case Manager (OCM) for SaintA. OCMs work with families whose children have been placed in out-of-home care, in a foster home or in the home of a relative. The one thing that is consistent about that job is that every day comes with ups and downs. Some of the downs bring you down for weeks, but some of the ups can keep you on cloud nine for weeks, some maybe even months! Not too long ago I got to experience one of those ups, and for me it was like having my soul set on fire and having your heart break a little at the same time.
Child welfare case management has taken a shift the last few years. There is more focus on the impact that past trauma can have on the development of our youth. I think to most social workers now this concept seems like almost second nature, but a few short years ago there was little to no connection made between past trauma and the potential effects it can have on youth development. My organization was fortunate enough to be chosen to participate in a three-year research program funded by the Shaw Fund of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. As part of this program, my team and one other received special training in trauma informed care, including the use of an assessment tool developed by Dr. John Briere.
One of these assessments is given to each child on both teams once every six months. (Bear with me a little longer I promise it gets better after the educational piece is complete!). The two assessments are known as the Trauma Symptom Checklist for Young Children (TSCYC), which can be completed by caregivers/parents when the child is 3 until 12, or the Trauma Symptom Checklist for Children (TSCC,) which is completed by the children from ages 8 until 17. Essentially these assessments are used to measure posttraumatic symptomatology in children, in other words how children’s past traumas are affecting them today in six clinical areas: anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress, sexual concerns, dissociation, and anger. Phew! Don’t worry if some or most of that looked like French; the point of this is less to understand the assessments and more for you to relive the emotional experience.
I have a child in my caseload who we will call Rachel. She is a 10-year-old little girl who completed the TSCC. She does not exhibit any behaviors that would be considered “abnormal” for her age, which generally would not be significant except that the level of traumatic events she has experienced makes this one of the most resilient little girls I have ever met. Upon completing the assessment, Rachel answered most of the questions in a manner that I would have expected. As I sat across the dining room table from her with her caregiver next to us, I asked her permission to discuss some of the assessment questions with her. She smiled her big smile — you know the one where all your teeth show! — and said okay. That’s when the magic began.
This smart, resilient, funny, creative girl sat at the table and poured her little heart out. Rachel has a never spoken much about her past or memories of her past, even with her caregiver, who happens to be a relative. But this assessment, which took her maybe 25 minutes to complete, gave her the opportunity to open up in a way she was never given before. She described in great detail her memories of walking the streets at night because she and her family had no home to go to. She told me about missing school, and, even when she went, how the other children were mean to her because she “used to be stupid” and did not have clean clothes like them. She talked about seeing strangers hurt her family and not understanding why. She expressed fear that someday people are going to hurt her, too, and she will not know why. She talked about saving her school meals because she didn’t know if she was going to have dinner.
There the three of us sat for the greater part of an hour, listening to Rachel discuss memories, express fears and try hard not to cry. Her caregiver and I spent time reassuring Rachel and discussing her concerns and fears. As you can imagine, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room by the end of our meeting.
As the meeting came to an end and Rachel was walking me to the door, for the first time she asked if I had spoken with her family. From the look she gave me, I knew this was less about curiosity or whether I had spoken with her family than about her concerns that they may still be wandering in the dark because they don’t have a place to stay. I spent the next 10 minutes crying in my car before I could drive away. This simple test that didn’t exist to me five months ago was the key to letting this little girl share her story, her fears and her pain for the first time, to me and her caregiver.
Most social workers don’t like to admit they started this job with a desire to save the world. I am not ashamed to say that once upon a time I was that same doe-eyed girl who hung her imaginary cape in the closet every night after work. Don’t get me wrong, I still wear my cape under my business casual clothing, and every once in a while it shows. But now I live for moments like these, those ups that give you enough hope and refuel that fire inside you enough to get you through those downs and beyond.