I believe that loving and caring for my own children has been the only way for me to endure the heartbreak of being social worker. When I tell people what I do for work, they usually say, “That must be heartbreaking”. It’s more heartbreaking than you can imagine. I work as Social Worker in a poor urban school in Richmond California, a city that has a reputation as one of the most violent communities in Northern California. The school is for kindergarteners through the 12th graders whose behavioral and emotional problems have caused them to be kicked out of most schools in the district. Most of the kids have been to three of four different schools by the time they are in 3rd grade. Many of the kids are in foster care or live in group homes. Many live with single parents, mostly mothers with fathers who in prison, dead or unknown to them.
I supervise five social workers who provide counseling to the children and families. I listen to the social workers tell stories of children whose families cannot afford beds and so the children sleep on the floor. A little girl in foster care, who wears the same dirty sweatpants and boots to school everyday and whose foster mother refused to comfort her while she cries at the doctor’s office. She was placed in foster care because she was neglected by her mother, who is a drug addicted and continues to be in and out of drug treatment. I listen to the story of a young boy who also lives in a foster home with foster parents who tell him when he misbehaves that they will not let him live with them anymore. I listen while I am told about a little girl who told her social worker that she carries a knife in her backpack because she says she needs it for protection. Another little boy shows his social worker a letter from his mother, who is in prison. She said that he carries that letter with him everywhere in his backpack. Another child, a five year old at the time, was hit by a car at 2 in the morning while riding his bike. One little boy is taken to day care center after school where he remains until his mother gets off of work at 11 PM.
We make lists: call the child’s attorney, make child abuse reports to Child Protective Services, see if the parent will come to a meeting, do a home visit, call the Child Welfare Worker.
I used to work with kids but when I had my own kids, I took time off before returning to work as a supervisor. My mother warned me that working with children would be more difficult once I had my own children. She was so right. Now I call my mother and tell her the stories of the kids and we both cry. My mother tells me stories of when she was a 20 year-old nurse on a children’s hospital ward. She said she still thinks about children who were scared and sick, without a parent to comfort them. She tells me it’s ok to cry; that my ability to feel, really feel the suffering of children is what motivates me to do the work that needs to be done. I want to leave, go to another job, an easier job. My friend asks me why I don’t work with less troubled children or start a private psychotherapy practice but I can’t. It’s not that I feel that I am making such a difference. It has more to do with bearing witness to the lives of these children. In some ways it allows me to appreciate what I have, what my children have. I took my children to the school over a school break. My son said, “Mom, where is the swing set??” There is no playground equipment at the school, just a grouping of portable classrooms on cracked asphalt surrounded by chain link fence.
I tell people it is heartbreaking. I think of these children when I lie down at night with my own children. I think of the child going to sleep in a group home to the sounds of other children yelling, crying, voices of strange adults. I imagine the family with no beds for their children and children left alone at night, scared and alone…the sounds of gun shots and adults fighting. I can’t save these children; instead I tell myself that I can love my own children. I can hold them when they are scared and protect them from danger. I wake up many mornings with a sense of dread. I ask myself, if my husband made enough money that I could stay home, would I?? For now I have to work, and so I will. I’ll listen to the social workers while they tell the stories that make my throat ache and when I get home at night I will hold my own children closer.
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