This story is part of Rise’s series by frontline staff at foster care agencies about their experiences working with parents.
I had been working as a case planner for about a month when I met Mr. G.
Before he walked into my office, other workers and even my supervisor told me that this father was difficult.
I’d also read up on the case and saw that in three prior court hearings he’d lashed out against the worker and his ex-wife. He’d said that the case was his ex-wife’s fault. He’d said that the case planner wasn’t listening to him, was asking too much of him, and was just telling him what to do. I imagined him to be a tall, strong, menacing-looking man with tattoos and a shaved head—someone who took crap from no one.
As he stood in front of me for the first time, he did not look that way at all. He was my height, 5’8”, maybe an inch taller, slim, wearing glasses, with a full head of dark hair. He had a mustache and goatee and he was Puerto Rican like me. He looked a little like my own father.
Echoes of My Past
Mr. G wasn’t happy to be talking to a new case planner. He’d had eight workers before me, and he was upset that he had to re-tell his story to me. But he said he’d give me a chance because I was the first male case planner he had seen that spoke both English and Spanish and was also Puerto Rican.
Still, at that initial meeting, he was defiant, questioning whether I was capable of doing my job, and challenging anything I asked or said. He did not want to do parenting classes, take random drug screens, or cooperate with visits. He said he had to work and could not come to the agency every week to see his kids.
His voice wasn’t loud but his tone was aggressive. He would interrupt whenever I spoke. Sometimes he would pause to let me speak, but then he’d go back to controlling the conversation. He also kept getting up and saying he was leaving.
This went on for about 20 minutes. Inside, I had a strong reaction. I kept saying to myself, “Maybe I am in the wrong field? Maybe this isn’t for me.”
My thoughts went deeper the more he spoke. “Oh man,” I thought. “He reminds me not of my father, but of my stepfather”—a man I’ve had a love-hate relationship with for so long.
Resentment and Frustration
“How can I help this father when he is just like the man I’ve struggled with since I was a preteen?” I asked myself. What I felt for him at that moment was resentment. I couldn’t empathize with him because every word that came out of his mouth was to me an excuse.
I also felt powerless. I knew that I could help him if he would just stop and really talk to me. But whenever I asked a question to help me understand his case better he would tell me to read the files and do my job. That made me feel small.
At moments I felt like maybe I needed my supervisor. I didn’t feel like I was going to yell at him. That’s not my style. I just thought maybe I wouldn’t be able to help him at all. I felt myself pulling away, which is a pattern I sometimes have when relationships feel overwhelming.
A Moment of Connection
Then out of the blue, during his angry speech, Mr. G mentioned something painful from his past that I had dealt with in my own personal life. I am going to keep what he mentioned private, because I think that including it would be a violation of his privacy and my own. But it was enough to switch the gears in my mind. What he went through took him down the wrong path. He felt ashamed and judged by everyone.
While I had gone in another direction, I didn’t judge him. Instead I suddenly saw him more as an equal. I felt like I could help him because I could relate to him and understand his anger. Yes, he was angry at the agency, the courts and the changes in his case planner. But he was also angry at old feelings of helplessness and at reliving painful moments. Those were things I understood.
So I took a deep breath. I looked at him—I wanted to reach him any way I could—and in my most empathetic tone I said, “I get it. I get why you are angry. I would be angry too. Eight case planners, three supervisors, three cases against your family and about 12 court hearings, and still no movement or change in your family.” His voice, while still loud, began to change. His body language began to shift. He was no longer in a hurry to leave.
“I want to understand what you have all been through,” I continued. “I’m not going to read about it until I hear about it from your point of view. I want to see it from the eyes of the person who is living with the consequences and then maybe I can help you with the process.” As I spoke, he seemed to feel heard, like someone understood the pain he was experiencing.
The Limits of Understanding
I would like to say that it was a smooth process after our initial meeting. That wasn’t the case.
But slowly he began to call more. He began to show up for his visits. He went to parenting classes and submitted to random drug screenings. It’s not to say he didn’t have his days when he still raised his voice at me and threatened to not do anything. But then a few days later I’d get a call with an apology and he’d done what he needed to. Eight months after we started working together, the judge returned his children to him, after almost four years in care.
I think parents are defiant when they feel judged, ridiculed, or treated as criminals. They feel helpless, scared and angry at the situation they are in. Sometimes parents are also reliving feelings of helplessness from their pasts, like Mr. G. In our first meeting, Mr. G gave me a taste of just how powerless he felt.
Case planners react in different ways when a parent is aggressive. It’s simply the case that we all have moments when we get triggered or the pressures of the job get too much and we lose it with parents. I have seen case planners cry. I’ve witnessed them hang up the phone on parents. Others become just as angry as the parents and become authoritarian.
It’s especially hard when parents act in ways we don’t understand. A mother or father who gives up all her rights to a child is hard for me. When parents don’t come to see their children it breaks my heart. With Mr. G, what helped was understanding what he’d been through in his life. But lots of times, we don’t understand what parents have experienced or why they do what they do, either because they won’t let us in or we get too caught up in how they’re behaving to see how they’re feeling.
Self-Awareness and Self-Control
I don’t like to be authoritarian with parents. It feels like an abuse of power. It also makes my job harder, and it makes it less likely that parents will find the strength to be there for their children. Parents get that we have to enforce services. They get that they will lose their children if they don’t comply. They already have the whole weight of the system coming down on them. They don’t need us to yell, judge, or threaten them.
One thing that has helped me manage my feelings is paying attention to my own feelings and where they come from. With Mr. G, my own experiences helped me relate to him, but for a while they also got in my way. I have one co-worker who has personal issues in her relationship and with her family. When she is dealing with parents who are in a similar situation she gives them too much personal advice, and then she gets angry when they don’t listen. I think this is her personal struggle coming through.
Whenever I can, I try to find ways to understand what parents are struggling with and empathize with them but also keep my own patterns out of their lives. Mr. G taught me that there is often pain underneath the anger, and feelings of helplessness behind the aggression and control. Not all parents are going to share those feelings with their case planner. But giving parents the space to talk and be heard can go a long way in reducing their anger, and our own.
READ THE SERIES:
Transparency and Trust – As a caseplanner, I know I have power over parents’ lives – and I try to share it.
Making a Connection – A moment of understanding changed my relationship with an angry father.
Partners in Planning – When parents are supported to participate in planning, we can make better decisions.
Overwhelmed – High caseloads and paperwork make it hard to invest in human connections.
Meeting Parents Where They Are – Accepting my own feelings helped me accept the parents I work with.
Safe Enough to Grow – Both parents and caseworkers need to feel supported and accepted.