Light in a Dark Tunnel – Sometimes hope can make all the difference

“It’s unfair that you get to spend Thanksgiving with your family and you’re not letting me have my kids home,” my client said. I felt guilty and it did feel unfair.

After the home visit, I returned to the agency and pleaded with the administrators to allow the children to spend Thanksgiving with their mother.

“Sorry, Joselyn. We can’t risk having the kids home given the allegations.”

I wanted so badly to give this mother something to feel good about. But I had no choice. I had to explain that she could spend Thanksgiving with her children at her mother’s home, but that at this time the agency would not allow the children in her home.

I tried to mask my own sadness as her face filled with despair.

I Wanted to Be the Hope

At the time, I was 21, with no children, while she was 22, with 3 children under 5. All had witnessed domestic violence. They had come into care—a year before I became her case planner—when she attempted suicide after her abuser was released from jail. She also had a substance abuse history.

I could not imagine even having a child at my age, let alone having three and having gone through all that. Maybe because of that, I felt a strong connection to her. I felt like her life shouldn’t be so hopeless when she was still so young.

Hope is something the families we work with often lose. Having children in foster care can feel like walking in a tunnel and finding no exit and no light. Meanwhile, I was brand new to the job, and filled with positivity and energy. I wanted to be the ray of sunlight surfacing in the crevices of that tunnel.

Helpless and Enraged

Holding on to hope wasn’t always easy, though In the first 4 or 5 months, my client would call and tell me how frustrated she was, and cry out of desperation because she felt trapped.

She was impatient with her children. She didn’t seem to realize that her oldest son’s tantrums and defiance might be from witnessing domestic violence and then being in foster care. He also had special needs, and she was consumed with anger and frustration at his behavior.

At the same time, she often seemed completely helpless. Once, during a weekend visit at her mother’s house, her son spilled a gallon of milk and cereal all over the floor and then lied about it. She was so overwhelmed that she could do nothing more than send him to his room and clean up the mess herself.

Conflicted and Stuck

She was inconsistent with services, too. I can’t even remember how many referrals I made for her that she didn’t follow through on. Then came allegations that she was drinking. Because of that, her weekend visits with her children were taken away.

Her own failure to follow through on services was largely responsible for her lack of progress. Still, when she lost time with her children or had some other setback, she seemed to feel even more hopeless, and would do even worse than before.

At times, I also felt hopeless. It was painful to feel like my efforts were futile. It was as if I were pedaling on one wheel, unbalanced, conflicted and stuck.

A Moment of Transformation

Then in January 2014, about five months after I started working with her, the decision was made to change the goal to adoption because the mother had been so inconsistent with services.

When the agency filed to begin termination proceedings, the mother’s tears were like an ocean. She thought the decision was final, even though, in reality, she still had time to prove herself and bring her children home. At that moment, she contemplated surrendering the children to her mother. But I didn’t want her to make a decision out of desperation. I wanted her to understand what her decision would mean.

So with a stern voice I told her: “The moment you surrender your children is the moment that, legally, you do not have any decision-making power for your children. Your name as the mother on the birth certificate will be replaced with your mother’s name.”

Her face was filled with total surprise and I can still hear her saying, with sassiness and firmness: “Oh, hell no.”

It’s hard to know when a parent is going to start believing they can do it. In this case, it was then that I saw her transformation.

Making a Connection

After that, she changed one thing after another for the better.

When I got the case, she was not attending therapy. She’d been assigned a male therapist. Placing a female domestic violence survivor with a male therapist seemed like a serious error to me—one that could make her not want to go to therapy at all. Yet I’d made about three referrals to new therapists and my client had always said that the clinic was too far or that she’d forgotten to go.

But after her goal was changed to adoption, she did go.

Almost immediately, she developed a great relationship with her new therapist, who was female and bilingual, like my client. My client informed me with a giggle that her therapist “keeps it real. She even curses.” This therapist helped my client see her strengths—and seeing her strengths helped her work on her weaknesses.

Finding Support

Around this time, she also reached a new level of comfort with me. She’d send me photos of her children and keep me informed about what she was doing with them. She opened up more about her past as well.

She also started dating an old friend who proved to be an important support in her life. Over time, he began to play a larger role in the family, assisting financially and emotionally. All these supports made such a difference in my client’s growing confidence.

The Skills to Parent

Despite her progress, she continued to struggle with parenting her oldest son. But finally, two years into the case, the agency recommended that the mother enroll in a special needs parenting class.

At first, Mom was hesitant because she had previously completed a parenting class that hadn’t helped her. But this class was different. Her son had been diagnosed with ADHD, and the class gave her parenting techniques designed specifically for a child with ADHD.

A New Beginning

Over the 12 weeks of the course, I saw her become more patient with her son’s challenging behaviors. One time when her children were not sharing, instead of yelling like she would have in the past, she took the toy from the oldest and patiently spoke to all three children about sharing. Another time, when her oldest had a tantrum, she allowed him to cry. Later, she spoke to him, and he was able to calm down.

Her growing ability to understand her children’s needs was obvious not just to me but to everyone. While she was still in the middle of the class, the agency and courts agreed to trial discharge.

Today, she, her husband and all her children live Florida. She and I remain in contact and she reports that she is happy.

A Reason to Believe

Once upon a time, a mother was denied her children for Thanksgiving. Today, she is able to witness every holiday and every day with her family.

As a case planner, holding onto hope for someone who doesn’t have it is one of the hardest things to do. In the beginning I did it because I was walking around with rose-colored glasses. Now I do it because I’ve witnessed the success even in cases that once seemed hopeless.

 

For two years, Rise ran writing group with frontline staff at Sheltering Arms, a foster care agency in NYC, to get their perspectives on working with parents: http://www.risemagazine.org/2016/04/caseworker-series-introduction/

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.