March is National Social Work Month, and I’ve been thinking lately about how and why I became one myself. After I finished my undergraduate degree, I knew I wanted to pursue a graduate degree in social work. Upon completion, I was eager to practice and gain experience. Weighing a few options, I accepted a coveted adoption social worker position and declined an offer to be a child protective services social worker. It was 1998, and I was looking forward to the opportunity. I was relieved that I could begin my career in my chosen specialty area within the field.
In favoring adoption over child protection, I avoided the dreaded knocks on a family’s door and the tense conversations that follow a report of child abuse and neglect. I would never have to go before the court to file a petition to remove a child from a home and hear their pleas to stay. I wouldn’t have to answer the looming question, “Ms. Tamika, when can I go back home?”
I thought adoption guaranteed I could practice social work at a safer emotional distance. The child was already out of the home, the court had terminated parental rights or the parents had relinquished them, treatment and therapy had helped the child deal with grief and loss, and the promise of a new family — ready to expand and eager to love — was on the horizon. All I needed to do was prepare the child and the adoptive family for adoption. Of course, it wouldn’t be easy, but I could help children AND experience most of the joys of social work.
I didn’t know then that adoption would force me to have a conversation with a young child who’d tell me she would rather stay in her current home than move again with a sibling. While they were close, she had tired of moving and wanted a stable life, even if it meant they were no longer together. I would have to separate siblings.
And I did not envision sitting with a teenager who had just suffered the sudden loss of his foster mother — the third mother figure he had lost in his life — and saying to him that remaining in the home was no longer an option. The family could not care for him. For the only time in my career, I excused myself and walked to my car to cry.
All of this was so unfair to both children and these injuries continued to alter their childhoods significantly. This wasn’t supposed to be the version of social work that I practiced, but in reality, social work — no matter the area of concentration — is exactly this. It is complex, challenging, traumatizing… and worthwhile.
Thousands of skilled social workers make this world a fairer, less threatening, more equitable place for all of us. We are trained in the principles, core tenets and theories of the discipline. We follow ethics codes and hold up the values of human dignity, diversity, equity, inclusion, social justice, systems change, and advocate for causes and for people that have been ostracized and marginalized.
It was my honor to serve in the public sector until 2011, when I joined The Duke Endowment. Our Child and Family Well-Being program area aims to ensure all children in the Carolinas grow up in families, safe from maltreatment and supported by nurturing parents and caring adults, enabling them to live successful lives. We support best practices, test innovative approaches, and advocate toward that end through our grantmaking. We work with social workers, therapists, clinicians and child welfare experts in the public and private arena toward that goal. We fund programs in North Carolina and South Carolina that seek to support, develop, and give social workers the tools to do their work.
The examples I shared are not the end to the stories. I continued to work with these young people and they were able to participate in supportive programs that fostered resiliency through treatment. I have seen them flourish into adults. I’ve attended weddings and I’ve heard them retell stories of the numerous days we spent together driving to appointments, and how they remember looking at my eyes through the rearview mirror and the conversations that kept them going.
Thank you is not a word social workers hear a lot nor is it a requirement. Still, they have thanked me for caring, and for never treating them like they were merely part of my job.
Social work is worthwhile and so are the social workers who do this work. This month and every month, we celebrate social workers!
For more information on Social Work month, please visit the National Association of Social Workers online.