Children Keep Me Going

Rebecca McCulloughIt’s hard to believe that I am still a social worker after 33 years.

Being a social worker is a difficult job and is never a “nine-to-five.” The children keep me going. The cases that make my job worthwhile are the ones where biological families turn themselves around and reunify with their children. I believe every child deserves permanency. I believe sibling connections are important, even when they can’t be together.

I started in 1985 as a Case Management Social Worker at the height of the Crack Cocaine Epidemic. In those years, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) set about finding homes for children, providing family maintenance for kids who could not safely remain in their homes and offering referrals to biological parents for counseling, drug testing and rehab programs. I easily drove over 1,000 miles a month, trying to keep families together.

I went on to work in the Foster Family Home Section. In this department, I became a PS-MAPP Trainer (Permanence and Safety: Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting), training and assessing people who wanted to become licensed resource parents and teaching them about loss, grief and discipline.

Resource parents are crucial because healing is an important part of the process for all involved parties. And time is relative, as every child’s situation is different. If biological parents are motivated and have insight, some things like housing and unemployment can be handled quickly. Drug abuse and criminal activity may extend the reunification process but it is possible for families to reunify successfully. When all else fails, adoption is the next step to permanency for the child.

Anyone interested in becoming a resource parent needs to be informed about the youth in the foster care system. Challenges such as separation, grief, loss and the impact of trauma on young lives are a painful way of life for children. Prospective resource parents need education and training so they can support this population. Children can’t articulate how they feel, so they act out or communicate through their behavior. Adults see negative behavior (which is a child’s language) and strive to manage it, without ever addressing the child’s feelings. This impedes learning. So it’s important to have skilled and insightful resource parents, because some kids have no viable relatives near them and nowhere to turn. These children need a place to heal and recover from what they’ve seen and heard and the disappointments they’ve experienced.

One particular story of a parent I worked with stands out. She was a well-educated, single mom who lost her children due to drug abuse and criminal activity. As I got to know her, I was able to support her healing process with resources and updates about her children. She eventually got back on track and reunified her family. Today, this woman is a grandma and works for DCFS as a Parent Partner for the Parents In Partnership (PIP) program. PIPS are those who previously had an open case with DCFS and successfully stabilized their life and want to give back.

Working in the Relative Assessment Project was invaluable and taught me that relatives deserve the same training and support that licensed resource families need to have per state and county guidelines. Extended family members need resources and support in order to understand trauma and act as informed parents for their grandchildren, nieces, nephews and other young family members.

For example, grandparents think that because their grand kids come to live with them, they know the best way to parent. The reality is that “Grandma” does not have a formal understanding of the impact of grief, loss or other traumas on the children. She may not realize that prenatal drug exposure leads to behavioral and cognitive delays and/or challenges. She–like teachers and other adults in the community who think the child is “bad” or “fast”–has forgotten that the child’s issues are not organic but the result of their unhealthy introduction to the world. In this instance, a social worker’s relative assessment would treat “Grandma” as a resource parent and offer her training, educational and psychological resources as well as a stipend to assist her with parenting her grand kids.

As a social worker, I relish the opportunity to prepare families for permanency for children with abuse and neglect histories, especially children of color. In 2015, I became a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) to increase my knowledge of the mental health needs of resource/adoptive applicants. Obtaining my license has sharpened my assessment skills to allow me to understand whether it’s the right time in a family’s life to foster/adopt and/or help them find other ways to assist foster youth. After all, a match needs to benefit the child.