When a foster care agency first receives a case, the agency is required to make contact with the family within 72 hours. During the first contacts, case planners are expected to establish a positive connection with parents. But making that connection can be a challenge when case planners also represent the system that has taken parents’ children.
When I first meet with a parent, they are often at the lowest point in their lives. Most were trying hard to be good parents before they met us. The message our arrival sends is that they have failed. They are often angry, sad, lonely and disoriented.
During that first meeting, I worry about many things. What if I can’t connect to this parent? Are they going to cry? Can I make this any easier for them? Is it fair to expect them to take in all the information I am sharing during such a terrible time? What if they are angry?
I also know I wield power over my clients’ lives. To me, this is painful. My goal is to help families, but because the system has taken away their control, I often feel like I am doing the exact opposite. My ultimate goal is return power to them and bring humanity and respect into a relationship that is, unfortunately, lopsided.
The first way I try to do this is by being as respectful and supportive as I can no matter how parents are reacting. This can be done over something very small. It can happen through eye contact, through recognizing that you and the client have something in common, or by doing something as simple as thanking the client for coming in that day.
I also try to understand ways my clients may have been made to feel powerless in the past, and what it might mean to them to feel so powerless again.
All the families I’ve worked with face financial challenges and are people of color. Many have been unable to protect their children (and themselves) from discrimination and violence, or faced a lack of empathy from the multitude of systems designed to help the “disadvantaged,” but which also fail.
Histories of Powerlessness and Trauma
Additionally, both the children and parents we serve have experienced trauma. They’ve often had experiences throughout their lives that stripped them of their power and control. In turn, many of our clients have developed challenging responses to protect themselves when they feel out of control again.
One of the children on my caseload who has been moved through 10 different placements including multiple hospitalizations has come to believe he has only one form of control: breaking other’s property and threatening staff and peers. I understand his reaction. While he consistently voices his desire to move to a foster home, his treatment team doesn’t think he’s ready. As a result, he feels he is not being listened to. To him, that feels like a really good reason to get louder.
With parents, we often don’t know as much about the hurt they may be feeling inside when they’re yelling on the outside. As a case planner, I try to reach through the anger to recognize the source of the pain. It can be a struggle to remain calm during times of extreme emotion. But these are the times parents need the most help giving constructive voice to their feelings and developing a plan to meet their and their children’s needs.
Honesty and Transparency
I also try to share power with my clients. What helps me most is being as honest and transparent as possible. That means giving parents all the information I have during every stage of the case.
One of the most useful things to help parents understand where they are in the child welfare process is the court report I have to write. Many of my parents were in the system before I began working with them and typically they never knew what the case planner was going to say in court or what surprises they’d face when they arrived there.
In order to help build trust, every few weeks I review with them the service plan and progress and I tell them exactly what I would say in court based on their actions. This gives them a chance to share their view of the case and to regularly have the opportunity to troubleshoot issues with me before court.
I also ask parents what they think the court needs to see in my report and what they need to do in order for me to write a report that would move them toward reunification. Almost always the parents have clear ideas, and voicing those ideas, instead of being told what they have to do, seems to help them take those steps.
By speaking about the case regularly parents feel respected and “in the loop.” It also makes court less stressful. Over time this transparency has helped me build trust.
By providing this consistency I was able to help one mother move from twice weekly supervised visits to trial discharge over the span of about five months after the case had been stagnant for a year.
This mom was one of my first clients and someone who would have been called noncompliant. “Noncompliant” is a phrase used to describe parents who aren’t engaged in services. This phrase doesn’t mention the efforts a parent has made or the challenges they may face meeting those requirements. It just says, “You’ve failed.”
According to reports, this mom was often angry, sometimes rude. She had a substance abuse problem and was completely disengaged from her child. You could tell by the tone of the case planner’s notes that the relationship was very negative and likely hostile.
When I first met this mom I recognized where some of her hostility might be coming from. I learned that her child had been in care for over a year and she had not been able to make any improvements in her case. At every visit, mom made sure to explain to me how upset she was with the agency and how little she believed I could make a difference.
I also learned that mom herself had been in foster care. She didn’t have anyone to vent to or trust.
…To Trust and Independence
I told her that I understood that she was upset, and that my goal was to be there for support. Still, her anger and outbursts continued. But as I worked openly with her—sharing what I would write in my report based on her actions, as well as what I wanted to write in my report in order to help her reunify—it was clear that she appreciated the honesty. As she saw me report not only the challenges but also her successes she began to become more open to suggestions and she came to rely on me for support.
During those first five months, she called me a lot. But over time, she became more and more independent. By the end of our time together, she had met all mandates, taken extra steps to baby-proof her home, and developed a stronger bond with her adult family, potentially increasing her sources of support. I was proud of her, and I told her regularly.
I remember the look in her eyes when she told me she had enrolled herself in a preventive program that specialized in working with mothers with children under 5. She was so proud. She was no longer doing what the system was asking her to do. She was doing what she felt she needed to do to take care of her family.
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.