I love my job! I work with amazing kids, the best colleagues in the business, and fabulous foster parents. Some people have questioned my sanity when I talk about “loving” my job. “It must be so hard,” they say. “How do you leave it at the office?” they ask. For me, it is the people, the kids, my colleagues and friends, and the foster parents and their families who helped shift this from a “job” to a career, a passion--a mission, if you will.
As someone who has been blessed to have a long career in the field of social work, it’s easy to think that I’ve seen it all. Occasionally, the universe and circumstances combine to loudly remind me that I am clearly wrong in this assumption. Throughout my career, it is the relationships with others that have sustained me through some of these really dark, stark times. I remind myself that the caregivers truly are the change agent in a child’s life. A strong bond between foster parents and a social worker can be the difference between a failed placement and a positive outcome in the life of a child.
When you work in the intimate environment of someone’s home, the vulnerability, commitment, and grit are evident in every corner of every room. Dinner simmering during a meeting, a blank medical form on the table for tomorrow’s appointment, the duffle bag stored in the corner packed and ready for this weekend’s visit when last weekend’s visit was cancelled… literally every figurative nook and cranny of a foster parent’s life is filled with the presence of the child placed in their care. These are sacred spaces for all involved.
There is a camaraderie that is unmistakable between social workers and foster parents. We share in the colossal responsibility of healing deep wounds, providing new smile-worthy memories, while also tending to unmet medical needs, school credit deficiencies, and every circumstance in between. Helping these kiddos understand they are worthy--of time, of attention, of support, of love, and unconditional positive regard. Every moment counts. We celebrate successes, laugh at the absurd, and cry for the losses together.
But as a social worker I am well aware that I can always, ultimately return to the safety of my home. The foster parent remains in that sacred space 24/7, 365 days per year, to face the fears, battle the demons, and then rise the next day to do it all over again. We, as social workers, must always honor and respect this difference.
This is not to say that the foster parent-social worker bond is all hearts and flowers. Just ask any foster parent about required monthly paperwork/documentation, times of discord within the team, or any number of frustrations that arise when you care for someone else’s child while working so closely with others in the very core of a child’s life. However, in the context of a respectful, honest relationship, every conflict can be mediated with the relationship remaining in place, often made stronger. I often think that these are the moments we do our best work….when we can model having respectful conflict, talking through it, and continuing to maintain a positive, respectful relationship, professional and otherwise.
Several years ago, one of my foster parents was in strong disagreement with the team’s recommendation that her foster child remain in her “school of origin” (the school she was attending when she was moved into foster care, which is the preferred school placement as it is thought to maintain consistency for the student), even though it meant an hour and a half commute to and from school every day. The foster parent strongly advocated in accordance with her youth’s preference for “a fresh start” by asking to move her to the school nearest the foster home. There was significant disagreement within the team about this issue, with the discussion becoming emotional, but always respectful and direct. The foster parent and I agreed to meet, just the two of us, to discuss the pros and cons of the situation. We were able to settle on a good compromise--we’d try a trial period of 60 days at the new school with the understanding that the teen would have to transfer back to her former school if she struggled to attend or she wasn’t able to focus on her grades and behaviors.
The team agreed to the compromise. The foster parent’s and youth’s preferences were honored. Later, the youth remarked, “I usually have to throw a fit to get people to listen to me.” Because of our respectful relationship, we were able to communicate our differences and arrive at a compromise without raising our voices and with the relationship intact. In my opinion, this is positive role modeling at its best. And the youth completed the remainder of the school year at the new school with zero cut classes, only one minor behavioral incident, and grades of Cs or better (including two As!) in all of her classes.
The bond between a social worker and foster parent is almost holy. Because of it, hearts are patched up, sometimes even healed. There is no other profession for me. I witness almost daily acts of courage that give rise to goose bumps, successes that leave a perpetual smile on my face, and, yes, a few setbacks. When a foster parent and I symbolically latch our arms beneath and around a child, it cements the foundation of our relationship. We are in the trenches, together. Professionally, it is my “sweet spot” and there is nowhere else I’d rather be and no one else I’d rather have accompany me on the journey.
If you have questions or are interested in becoming a foster parent and want to learn more, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.