by Serena Hanson, LMSW
Can we spend a few minutes thinking about the oak tree? The oak tree is known in many different cultures and faith systems around the world as a symbol of strength. Celtic culture suggests the oak is said to carry magical powers. The bark of the oak is sometimes said to have medicinal ability. Oaks are associated with gods of thunder, and the Holy Bible prophet Isaiah refers to the Israelites as “Oaks of Righteousness” (Isaiah 61). The oak is designated the National Tree in at least 14 countries around the world, including the United States, and six states have designated a species of oak as their official state tree.
Oak wood is selected for its strength and endurance in the building of everything from furniture to timber-framed buildings, and oak wood was commonly used in the building of great ships, including the USS Constitution, the first ship of the U.S. Navy. One particular tree, called the Seven Sisters Oak, in Louisiana is said to be about 1,500 years old and has a trunk circumference of 38 feet. Live oaks are known to grow to between 40 and 80 feet tall. Perhaps the most interesting fact about the oaks is that their root systems will grow to almost mirror their height, pushing down as deep as the tree is high and branching out as wide as the branches! The oak can withstand incredibly strong storms, like tornados and hurricanes. Even when they are stripped of their leaves, oak trees survive because of their strength, their curvy branches, and their incredible root systems.
My story resembles one of a brutal storm—a hurricane that builds and builds out at sea, until reaching land with a heavy blow, leaving an imprint of damage and destruction in its path. The story started with an alcoholic father, a co-dependent and abused mother, abused and battered and emotionally beaten down children, building over 12 years, until finally exploding into circumstances out of my control.
I was a child in foster care. My six years in foster care included three foster homes, two stays at a temporary shelter, two stints in a group home, and an emergency foster home, finally ending with life as an adult, aging out of the system at 18 years old, with no permanent family or soft place to land.
Like most people, as you read this story, you may be focused on the turmoil...the storm. Remember, though, there’s always calm after the storm. The winds die down, the rain stops, and the sun comes out. Reporters show up and begin to talk to survivors, looking for those with resilience, strength, and determination to rebuild and move on. The resolve to be bigger than the storm becomes the focus of the story. It might be said that we begin to draw strength from those still standing with the strength of an oak tree.
Over time, the mighty oak tree is said to have adapted to the strong storms that are common along the southern coastal regions where they are commonly found. Hurricanes have tested their very structure, and the tree has adapted to sway and give instead of snapping. One writer shares his observation in an online post:
“I watched some large branches break from oaks here. Wind gusts would blow and bend/twist them more and farther than you would think was possible. Then when the wind would suddenly die off momentarily, some of the larger limbs, when snapping back into position, their mass would carry them well back beyond normal, that’s when they would break.” – Author unknown
Did you notice when the branches would break? When the wind died down and the branch tried to return to its resting place.
Our systems of social services can, sometimes, be compared to the winds dying down. We work really hard to give the children and families a time of rest from the storm, to come in and reinforce their branches, build on their strengths, and in the process, sometimes they break. They fall off the wagon, relapsing into their addiction. They find another bad relationship. They miss another visit with their child. They deny. They lie. They disappear. They leave another program or shelter. They die by suicide or engage in self-harm. They act out and make yet another bad choice. They break the law. The mental health issue takes control. They give up. They break, just like those huge oak branches that snapped when trying to find a resting place after stretching and flexing with the storm.
I want to ask just one question: Why are we surprised, or even frustrated, when they break?
At that point, they’re so accustomed to bending and swaying with the storms of their life, that they may not recognize our system is actually a break in the storm. Instead, it feels like a shift in the wind, and they overextend, causing a break. The care we define as safe, predictable, and stable feels like a brand new storm for our clients.
For example, think back to my story for just a moment. The “safety” of the system meant I was, essentially, the one living with the consequences of my parents’ actions. I was not only a victim of my family, but also of the system—a new and different kind of storm. What do I mean? When you consider that I made excellent grades in school, never ran away, wasn’t on medication, didn’t use drugs or alcohol and wasn’t sexually active, you can see how the system didn’t always seem like a place of rest from the storms of my childhood home. My abusers continued to live their lives. Once certain decisions were made, their involvement with the same “systems” I was now living in, completely stopped.
I would suggest to you that it’s time we shift our attention from the breaks we see in the clients we serve to the strength shown during the storm. Can you identify the power within these incredible people that allowed them to sway and bend with the winds of the storm, to withstand the damage from the hail, to avoid getting struck by lightning, for so long? Is it possible, if we work WITH these strengths, that we might see fewer breaks in their lives?
I believe we have a responsibility to focus on the strength of the children, youth, and families we serve. I believe we have a moral obligation to build them up, to reinforce them, and to anchor them on solid ground—to help them spread their roots as deep and wide as their stories might take them above. I believe it is when we work with them in the most individual way that we will allow each of them to truly be strong.
I found my strength, my determination, my hope, and my stability in my education. I dedicated myself to a life of learning and to making my own way, earning a master’s degree in social work. I’ve been working to improve the systems of care that affected my life in such a dramatic way for more than 16 years. I have devoted my life to being a voice for those mighty oaks that are coming up in our system now, reminding others of the incredible possibilities that lie ahead for each of them, and that the oak can withstand many powerful tests and storms because the roots are strong, despite what we might believe about their past.
You see, our clients’ roots are buried in their survival. Their roots are in their instincts. Their roots are in their determination. They each have a set of roots that are somehow just as big and wide as the struggles we see when we look at their storm. Many believe it is this incredible root system that helps the oak survive for hundreds of years, no matter the storms that pass.
The roots need help to thrive, however. Fertilizer, water, sun, stable and nurturing soil are all necessary, and that’s where social workers come into the story. If we want the clients we serve to be strong, we must feed into their lives the nutrients of love, encouragement, support, resources, follow-through, commitment, honesty, individuality, and respect. We must teach them that, although their roots may have been planted in pain, struggle, and difficulty, the roots go deeper and spread out farther than the pain can reach. We must show them—NO, we must walk alongside our clients and demonstrate for them—how to bend and sway so they don’t break! We must be on the journey with them, not providing direction from the sidelines. We must adapt our systems and programs and interventions, so we don’t cause our families to overextend their branches, but instead, we truly become a gentle place for them to rest, to find strong soil, so they can be nourished and rebuild their strength, to weather the next storm. Remember, they may not be seeing our systems as calm after the storm, but rather, a new storm building energy, with the power to create turmoil. We need to listen to the voices of our clients when they are trying to tell us what they need. We need to remember that our cookie-cutter approaches, or “that’s the way we’ve always done it” ideals may not be what our clients need from us.
It is my hope that we will begin to see our clients as fledgling mighty oaks. We will look ahead many years and picture their awesome brilliance and enduring power. We will recognize that they will, someday, produce seeds that will be planted and will grow to develop their own root systems.
Social workers have the power to completely change family trees, to influence future generations of root systems. When we go beyond the call of duty, we have the potential to produce thousands of strong Mighty Oaks. Our clients will be survivors! That is the incredible gift of being a social worker.
Serena L. Hanson, LMSW, a survivor of childhood abuse and alumnus of the foster care system, earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and family counseling from Barclay College and a master’s in social work from Newman University, both in Kansas. After more than 16 years working in foster care and adoption, she has worked with countless foster and adoptive families, and worked with hundreds of CASA volunteers to advocate for children in the courtroom. Serena has been affiliated with the CASA program in Wichita, KS, and the CASA state association in Oklahoma. She has been an adjunct faculty member at the University of Oklahoma–Anne & Henry Zarrow School of Social Work since 2011. Serena also operates, independently, as a child welfare consultant and trainer. Connect with Serena online at http://www.whenfostercaregoesright.com.