More than 20 years ago, I met a beautiful, brown-eyed little girl. She was barely a first grader. I was a newly minted master’s level child welfare social worker assigned to help her. I had countless conversations with her as I attended school meetings, carried out home visits and took trips seeking services for her. We laughed and we disagreed, but most of all we kept trying and watched each other grow.
I was delighted recently when she wrote to me on social media. She talked about how I used to stay “on her butt” growing up, but she listened to me because we shared the same last name and that fact made her feel less alone. She expressed thanks that I loved her and didn’t look at her “as a job.”
She added that without me constantly picking her up after she’d been suspended and reminding her that she was better than that, she might never have become better. “I might have been stuck on drugs like a lot of my friends,” she wrote. Her experience taught her never to give up and always to be her best – encouraging messages that she now shares with other young people.
Virtually every child welfare social worker can point to similarly moving stories of children they’ve helped along the path from the foster care system to better lives. As we observe National Social Work Month in March, it’s good to take a moment to honor their dedication.
The practice of social work within the child welfare context is often marred by funding shortfalls and by headlines about the ways the system repeatedly fails families and children. While there is an unsettling truth to that perception, that’s not the full picture. Unfortunately for the highly skilled social workers who work daily on behalf of young people, we too often fail to recognize and support their work.
A child welfare social worker stands in the midst of chaos and confusion – often with families who have been largely marginalized – and seeks to identify strengths that society, and sometimes families themselves, struggle to recognize. The social worker’s goal is to empower families to care for their children, to help young people realize their potential, and to build systems to effectively respond to their needs.