"If you [as a caseworker] come with a servant’s heart and meet the family where they are, you can make a real difference."
Dr. Sharen Ford of Focus on the Family and her daughter, Jennifer Rice, both have experience in the “trenches” of agency work in the foster care system. They share what it’s really like, what the challenges are and even how the job can affect your personal life. This peek into “the other side” is eye-opening…and it’s encouraging to note that agency workers truly do want the best for each child on their caseload.
The various roles in child welfare
Sharen’s role in child welfare was to oversee the functions the county workers do—county workers do the investigating, removing, interacting with the family and generally work within their community. Her role for the state of Colorado was to oversee these functions, as well as help write policies and interact with leaders and legislators so that the county workers can do their jobs well.
Jennifer, on the other hand, considers herself a “foot soldier” in the child welfare agency at the county level. She spent 12 years working predominantly with adolescents who were trying to get home or who were about to age out of the foster care system. Some had been victims of abuse, including sexual abuse.
Jennifer originally wanted to go to law school, but found that practicing law was too far removed from advocating for and touching the population she wanted to work with—she wanted to use her advocacy skills to work with children and teenagers.
Sharen admits it’s awesome and humbling for her daughter to follow in her footsteps, but also shares that it was hard for her when Jennifer was working with sex abuse cases. In those situations, she realized the great importance of covering her daughter in prayer—she needed someone advocating for and supporting her in these difficult circumstances she was dealing with.
Sharen herself became a social worker because her family has always been a family that helped—and social work is a way of giving back and helping her community. In her current role, she is able to inform legislators about how child welfare workers touch people’s lives, even at their weakest moments.
Most social workers go into the field because they care about people. Sharen shares an example of how Jennifer worked hard to go the extra mile to make sure each child on her caseload had more than one gift for Christmas—that they knew someone was mindful of their situation.
How does a child welfare worker handle the hard situations?
Jennifer, who worked with children who had been sexually abused, says that it’s very helpful to have a mentor—someone who can walk the path with you. “A mentor can help guide you on the decisions you have to make on someone else’s behalf,” she says.
Another thing she learned while working with sexually abused children is that the child welfare worker can’t go into a situation thinking the worst or that reunification is impossible. “Sometimes you’ll think you can’t do it [let a child go back to his or her parents], but there are cases in which the parents simply have a lack of education about what’s okay and what’s not okay—perhaps because the abuse has been generational in the family. The harm may not be as intentional as it seemed originally—and there are ways to help.”
If the family is open to making changes and accepting help, things can turn out okay. If not, you can feel good about trying to provide everything possible and then doing what’s necessary to keep the child safe.
Education about appropriate touch and relationships are important for children. “Kids need a baseline and a ‘full’ line to be able to measure for themselves what’s okay and what’s not okay.”
Working in the child welfare system is hard, but humbling work. “If you [as a caseworker] come with a servant’s heart and meet the family where they are, you can make a real difference.”
Sharen adds, “It’s important for workers to realize they have biases—but they have to filter out their own biases to get to what’s in the best interest of the child.”
How do you handle the emotional toll as an agency worker?
Jennifer again emphasizes the importance of seeking out a mentor, plus making sure you, as a child welfare professional, have outside interests and hobbies that have nothing to do with helping families or children—something that allows you to decompress. “I have friends that hike every weekend, or others travel or read. Having a different outlet is very important.”
She also stressed the importance of building a team. “If you build an awesome team, you can build each other up outside of work. You can make sure each other is okay and check in with each other.” Good supervisors are very beneficial—they can be supportive as a worker and a person outside the data they have to crunch. The team is made up of people you can joke around with, but also pass things off to each other when the situation with a family gets too heavy for you to carry alone.
Good co-workers will also be able to call you out when you’re closing yourself off or showing signs of compassion fatigue. Those teammates who can speak into your life and say something as simple as “take a break” or “maybe you need to trade cases or move to a different position in the agency” are invaluable. “They help you be the best, most authentic self you can be.”
Sharen agrees, saying that the weight of a decision about whether a child should or shouldn’t be returned to their home is very difficult. But when you’ve done all you can, and can’t think of one more thing to make it safe for the child to go home, you can recommend parental rights be terminated without too much extra stress. It’s a hard decision, but when you do all the diligence of making sure you’ve offered supportive services, so that your supervisor, team and legal counsel know everything’s been offered, but the parent(s) still haven’t done them, the decision is less difficult. “The decisions weigh on them; it’s a hard decision, but the right one in that moment for that child.”
Jennifer agrees, adding, “The weight is still there, but you’ve made the decision with the family knowing the possible outcome.” This means the agency workers make sure the family is part of and aware of the possible decisions.
“The weight is very heavy if you’re making the decision on your own,” she says. If you’ve done everything you can do for the family and progress hasn’t been made, you lay out the plan. They can make progress with the tools you provide, and you’ll walk through it with them. Often, parents will self-identify their own neglect for succeeding in the plan.
“You have to have the conversation up front, and in the middle, and at the end,” says Jennifer. “You know you’ve done everything you’re supposed to do—so there’s much less weight on your shoulders.” Seasoned child welfare workers have learned this—those who go out and try to save the world on their own will find it much harder.
This is where a good supervisor is so important—to help workers get their process lined up so that opportunities aren’t missed on the worker’s part or the family’s part.
What about support from local churches?
Sharen says she felt very isolated until later in her career; while her own personal church provided support for her, other churches in the community were not as involved in helping the foster care community. In her current role, she stresses the importance of the faith community and the government agencies working together to make a difference for the families in the child welfare system.
Jennifer has felt more supported in her church because it has a strong foster care and kinship care focus. “I feel like I’ve had a lot more success in the faith community because I have a personal faith walk and I am able to advocate for the kids.”
She also feels it’s important to recognize trends. “Churches are the ones who have food banks, clothing closets, even grandparents who are willing to take care of kids.” It might not be the church as a whole, but there are often people within the church who are already doing the work.
“Churches are an awesome community partner,” says Sharen. “We have the same goal—we want kids and families to flourish in the community.”
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Meet Our Guests
Dr. Sharen Ford currently serves as the Director for Adoption and Orphan Care for Focus on the Family. She retired after 30 years of service with the Colorado State Department of Human Services, Division of Child Welfare as the Manager for Permanency Services.
Her daughter, Jennifer Rice, is a graduate of Grambling State University, has a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Denver and is a licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). She served 12 years in Child Welfare working with an emphasis in adolescent services in a large county department of human services. Jennifer has a 13-year-old son.
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