By: Jessica Bradstreet, LCSW
I am a social worker. I’m often burnt-out, stressed out, and have to-do lists everywhere I turn around. My computer desktop might just earn me an Axis 1 diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, as I have files within files within files, all appropriately named and organized according to job duty the file falls under, category within that job duty, subcategories, and on and on. My Outlook inbox, another madhouse, with “flagged” e-mails to follow up on (I know I must drive people crazy with the number of times I check up on and re-check up on things—this is my public apology to those people), and e-mail archive files with saved important information, also organized into different folders by category and relevance.
I have worked hard to get where I am. Yet, as a social worker, I know that one must continue fighting, because it does not matter most days how hard you work. There is still more work to be done. When I leave my job at the end of the day, someone else does not pick up the shift. When I am done for the day, the job is not shut off like a computer. I work with people...they don’t stop at 5 p.m. as I am driving home in traffic.
No, no matter what time I drive home, whether it’s an early day because I have completed all of my to-dos for that day, or whether it’s been a very long day, people keep living, keep needing, and the fight still rages on. On an early day, some argue that I am still not so lucky, because on that early day, I may still be responding to e-mails or calls until after 10 p.m. (the calls are usually me staffing and consulting with the employees that I supervise, don’t want you thinking I’m talking to clients that late!). Was it really an early day? I’m not sure. I am over-worked and under-paid.
Frankly, I work my butt off. But I don’t always see it that way. One of the things I can say is that I do not punch in on a time clock. I manage my own time (for the most part), and I am my own boss (pretty much, although I work for a private agency). There are a few positives!
However, there is always work to be done, things not getting done, and my own professional reputation is still blooming. So, I charge on. To the next day, the next crisis, the next need. I do not have near enough support or resources to do my job. But still, I fight my way to get as much as I can get done, done. I have not given up.
Occasionally, I am recognized or appreciated. Sometimes (not often enough), something good happens for one of the foster children in my program. Something I’ve fought for, the fighting pays off. A child who needed to see a dentist gets to see a dentist. An adoption happens. A child “gets better” with the hard work and help of a good team.
I guess that is what keeps me going. At the end of the day, I know that without some of my hard work, my team’s good skills, my annoying e-mails, and my kick-butt organizational skills, something that needs to happen might not happen. And there is always more work to be done. More good work. By a good social worker.
The reason I do it—foster children. Children taken away from their families because of abuse and neglect. They all have a story, a need, and many layers of personality and being. They are all taken, and they are put into a system that sometimes does more damage for them than the damage done to them on their home-front. You see, one thing that I truly believe in—although I am speaking as a professional, not a mother—is that children need stable, healthy families who teach them right from wrong and nurture and love them in a safe home.
Many children in our country, next door, at our neighborhood schools, are not getting this need met. Shame on those parents. Or shame on their parents for allowing the ignorance to carry over into another generation. Or shame on our country for not providing more education, prevention, and resources to stop this cycle. Whoever is to blame, rightfully so, they are taken away. And foster care begins.
Many good things can come from this removal, sometimes even permanent healing for a child or a new permanent home. However, my point is that any and every child needs this second chance at the life that he or she deserves after the first one, which is out of my realm of control, is done to them.
As a young child, I knew that I wanted to help people. I was raised by a bleeding heart mother (not a social worker) to rescue stray animals, feed the homeless man every Sunday on the way home from church, and feel sorry for the children who did not have.
Growing up, I—like every other child—dreamt of what I wanted to be “when I grew up.” I once wanted to be a veterinarian, then decided I could not ever stand to put an animal to sleep, so I decided to go along with something in the “hospital helping” arena. So, after high school, I went to community college with a plan for a two-year degree. I had not found anything I was truly passionate about, but I honestly did not know there was such a passion at that time.
In my beginning college courses, I became curious about what else was out there. I began a preoccupation with what made serial killers turn into serial killers. At that time, I decided that what I really wanted to be was an F.B.I. agent, a forensic psychologist, chasing down and exploring the minds of serial killers. After this “awakening,” I knew that I wanted more college than a two-year degree. I was ready to spread my wings into a four-year college.
Once there, I learned that this “dream job” of mine was not a field with many openings, and the mere thought of wearing a police uniform seemed revolting. I changed my major to psychology, only to learn that that was not my calling, either. Too many theories—not raw “helping.”
I visited the social work department on a whim, a recommendation from my sister-in-law, who raved about the many opportunities of a social worker. I changed my major that day.
I began volunteering, deciding to try my hand at child welfare. I have never once looked back since finding this “passion.” I began on my path as a volunteer Guardian ad Litem. In this volunteer position, as a college student with no degree, I was assigned my own cases. It was raw, all right. I felt like I was doing something that mattered. I became important in someone’s life who needed the compassion I had to offer. I felt as if I was working front stage with an important cause. I have felt like an important asset to the field ever since.
I continued on to receive my master’s degree in social work. I began working right away, obtaining a job as a caseworker. Here, I began to learn the gut and grit of a social worker. The training I received in no way taught me how to do my job, I was thrown to the wolves, with a degree, a heart, and rent to pay. I trudged through. I made my way, learned the ropes, returned phone calls on my way to and from work, researched people’s needs, found referral sources, typed like a speed demon, and ran multi-tasking circles around my office and around the city of Jacksonville, FL.
Soon, a position opened up where I could be a master’s level therapist for troubled foster kids. I thought I had hit the jackpot. I put in my one month’s notice, worked late to properly and professionally transfer my cases, and off I went to my next venture. I was now armed with some real experience and had a few tricks up my sleeve about the oh-so-confusing and overwhelming child welfare and dependency system world.
I kept soaring. I did not stop. Within one year of being a therapist within a small, therapeutic foster care agency, I was promoted to Program Supervisor. I was two years out of graduate school, 26 years old, and I was sharp as a whip, creating organization within the entire program’s systems of managing paperwork, intake, services, and so forth, while also managing a caseload.
I am now the ripe age of 28 years old. I have received my license within the state of Florida, I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. I am fortunate to be able to be flexible with my time (single, no children). I am also blessed with a calling, and I am a bright, fighting advocate with a heart made for foster children. I like to think that the agency that I work for appreciates me, or will appreciate me, but I can only hope and believe that if they’re letting me manage my own program without breathing down my neck too much, I must be doing okay in their eyes.
Sometimes, and quite often, my relationships, social life, and sleep are affected by my job. I have learned to enjoy quiet, peaceful nights in and often trade them for going out. I do still, however, make sure that I am able to take some time to unwind and enjoy myself. Most times, somewhere in my head, or at any time, a work task lingers, an idea pops into my head for how I can better advocate, or my phone rings with an emergency.
Sometimes, as a social worker, it’s a question you’ve never heard. Something you do not know the answer to. You are learning every day and no day is the same. Find the answer, figure out what to do. You’re a social worker. This is your job.
I enjoy voicing my “social work” or “child welfare” opinions, but always try to remain objective, open, and professional. I am still a young social worker, and there is much to be learned. But I believe that the foster care system deserves more funding, more resources, and better advocates. I do not know if this will ever be accomplished.
I tell myself I do not wish to ever burn out of this field. I want to be a foster care ranger. I want to be remembered. I want to make a difference. However, in the dark times, I sometimes wonder, “How much more can I take?” The foster care system needs more and better advocates, maybe smaller caseloads, more training. I often see things slipping through the cracks and things not being handled appropriately or in a timely manner. There are people working with these children who do not understand their need for urgency, their trauma. Maybe some of these people are burnt out. Yet, still, these are children’s lives and needs.
Some foster families are not held to the standards that they should be. Proper parenting of our abandoned children is sometimes not the focus. I’ve seen times when the risk of a lawsuit trumps the best interest of a child. Sometimes, it’s like, God forbid we get in trouble for taking a risk for the possibility of betterment on a child’s behalf.
Foster care adoptions are not always given the attention that they need. The children (when old enough) are not involved, the entire team is not always included in selecting a family, adoptive families sometimes are not given enough information, or the prospective parents lack the knowledge of the sometimes complex personalities of our little ones who have been subjected to abuse and a troubled system. Biological families are given too much time and not enough good resources to get themselves together and do right by their children once they are given back. I firmly believe that each move for a child is a separate loss. Children are often denied the truth, and our nation’s youth are further shown that the world cannot be trusted.
I believe, as a social worker, that it is my duty to advocate by any means possible on behalf of a child’s best interests. I handle things not outlined in my job description, offer above-and-beyond support, and try to adhere to my mission of ensuring that all of a child’s needs are met somewhere along the way of them crossing my path. I honor the importance of continuing training in my field and am often enrolling in the next (free or low-cost) training course, reading about a “hot” topic, or somehow expanding my network and knowledge base.
This, my friends, is the life of a social worker. A social worker, whom if I do say so myself, is dang good. And who is also a fighter, a lover, an advocate, sick of seeing children suffering, and stressed out.
I encourage you, fellow people of our nation, to care. Care about children, foster children, and how these lives can so suddenly be changed, and how these changes affect them in the long and short run. These are your neighbors, your children’s school/play mates, the next generation.
I encourage you, advocates, policy makers, to hear this out. Find my passion and fight for it.
I encourage parents to become educated. Parenting, attachment, bonding, behavior management, the importance of nurturing, all of these important topics of prevention.
I encourage those with a burning flame for this cause, to do something big. And do something good.
I encourage you, those wishing to go into the field or those in the field, to find balance. Do not lose your mind, but certainly, do not let a child’s needs wait.
Is this possible? I am not so sure myself. But I seek to find this balance, as I am thankful and, forever, a social worker.
Jessica Bradstreet, LCSW, received a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the Florida State University College of Social Work. She has worked in the child welfare system in Jacksonville, FL, since 2007, as a caseworker for foster children, a child therapist for therapeutic foster care children, and now as a program supervisor of a therapeutic foster care program. Jessica became licensed in 2011.
This article appeared in The New Social Worker, Summer 2012, Vol. 19, No. 3. All rights reserved. Please contact Linda Grobman for permission to reprint.