Changing Industry Perspectives – Reshaping the relationship between caseworkers and parents

Interview by Keyna Franklin

Katya Smyth is the CEO and founder of the social change organization The Full Frame Initiative.

Katya Smyth

Q: Can you tell us what you learned about services from running On the Rise to help women in crisis?

A: I knew going in that programs and systems tend to see people as problems. What I came to appreciate is how hard it is even for frontline workers who don’t want to see people that way to not do that. Everything is set up to see people as problems. In child welfare, the first thing someone gets to know about you – it may not even be true – is often something you’re not proud of, it’s some of the worst chapters of your life. I’ve learned how important it is to step back and start with the assumption that there’s a whole lot missing we would never guess from the situation someone is in. Everything is set up to keep people from seeing people in the full frame of their lives, yet it’s possible to do it.

Q: What did you see that helped women cope with crises? 

A: If we support people in having access to well-being, it’s a lot more likely the problems at the surface of the crisis can be addressed in ways that actually work for people. We all need to feel that there are places we belong. If we provide not just services, but places where people are safe and can contribute, they can start to feel like a valued member of the community. We need to co-create solutions with people, not “case manage” them. Given just how many folks have trauma histories, it is particularly important that we recognize that need for people to have outlets for people to show their value and contribute. Not being seen as valuable is very triggering for people affected by trauma. Even as we support individuals, we need to work to change the systems and the policies that are driving the problems in the first place. 

Q: What did you see that actually made it harder for women who were under a lot of stress? 

A: Often, programs and systems ask people to focus on the big picture, long-term goals from the start. You’re in crisis now, but you want to go back to school. That can feel big and overwhelming. What helps people in crisis is to focus on the immediate next steps that can be taken and knowing what’s already in place that can’t be thrown up in the air. 

Q: What are the “core needs” that you found that people need to focus on?

A: Connections and places where we belong. People seek to be connected to other people. We need people we depend on, but also to feel that people depend on us. For some people that’s family, for others it may be a space where you can contribute and you’re helped.

Safety. We all are driven to feel some amount of safety, but how each of us experiences safety is really different. It has to do with our gender, orientation, race, and age, so our drive for safety is individual. Safety is personal—it’s not the same for everyone. 

Stability. Are there predictable patterns in our days and our weeks? This is important for everyone, but especially people making a lot of change. For example, we use anchors, the tiny little habits we have in our day that we feel really off if we don’t have them and then we can’t function. For a little kid, that may be a song a parent sings before falling asleep. For an adult, it might be drinking coffee or making their bed. Familiarity in just knowing where things are because they are always in the same place. We need some things to stay the same so we can try new things. Part of being in crisis is that there is so little familiarity in your day. Our bodies and our minds are trying to find things that are familiar before we try something new.

Mastery. It isn’t about being perfect or the best at something, it just means we have some ability to influence our future and what’s happening now and our relationships. We need to feel we matter and have purposes and value.

Meaningful access to relevant resources. Access to food, shelter without shame or stigma. For example, there might be a Whole Foods near my neighborhood, but if I go in and use my EBT card and the cashier doesn’t know how to use it, I might feel completely out of place. Technically, I have access to food, but I’m not going to go back there again, even if I know I need food in my house. Avoiding shame is a really deep drive for us.

Q: How can parents who are being told what to do actually be heard about what their family really needs?

A: If you don’t disagree with the change you are being told to make, but you see all these roadblocks, start by agreeing to the change and then explain the challenges.  For example, I’m asked to move away from my mom so I will have stable housing. I’m really motivated to get into housing that doesn’t trigger my kids’ asthma, so I’ll say that. But I also know that if I move away, I’ll lose my mom as a babysitter and without a back-up babysitter I might lose my job, and then lose my apartment and become homeless, so I’ll say that next. 

We often begin by trying to tell someone why the thing they want us to do is impossible or will make things worse, but if you can start by agreeing on the change and explaining your worries, that can help someone think about it. 

Q: Now you’re training systems to think differently about how they work with families. Can you tell us how you’re helping systems change their thinking?

A: Most of the people who work in systems got in to help. They are caught in systems as much as everyone else is. Not saying that to justify bad behavior, but it’s amazing to me how much workers know about an allegation and problem and how little they know about a parent and a child. They don’t realize that either. This is the way we expect people to work. Change is not overnight, but when workers realize how much the crises are manufactured for everybody, there are some shifts that can happen. 

Q: What have you learned is effective in your work to change the culture of systems?

A: We learned that you need a leader who doesn’t just believe frontline workers need to do differently, but believes that everybody needs to start looking at people and the problems differently. Part of that is bringing peers along that see themselves as advocates for well-being that’s not about reinforcing differences, but saying caseworkers and families are so much more alike than different. 

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