Impressions of a Social Worker

Lately, I have been thinking about two lines from a book I read years ago called " The Little Prince" by Antoine De St. Exupery. "It is only with the heart that one sees rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye." It occurred to me that foster parents live this quotation on a daily basis as they work with the children and families served by the New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth and Families (DCYF). The following story comes from an experience I shared with one of the foster parents in my area. It is a sample of the many stories that those who work with foster families hear frequently.

Anna's experience with the biological parents of the foster child in her care was both positive and rewarding. About five years ago, Anna received a call from a DCYF social worker who asked her to meet him at a local hospital at mid-day. He said that a baby would need foster home placement directly from the hospital. Curiosity and a sense of urgency accompanied Anna as she arrived at the hospital. The social worker was there to meet her. Anna described him as "a handsome man, tall and slender" who appeared holding fashionable sunglasses. He did not fit her concept of the stereotypical social worker. He introduced himself as Michael Grey. Michael told Anna that the baby in question had been sent home with his parents at birth. Later, the child was brought back to the hospital because of a lingering cold and, in the course of a routine chest x-ray to determine the cause, fractured ribs were discovered as well as cuts and bruises in his mouth. The parents could not give adequate explanation for the cause of these injuries and a determination was made that it was not safe for the infant to return home prior to a DCYF assessment.

Anna entered the designated room of the pediatric ward at the hospital. Claire, the young mother, was sitting in a rocking chair, holding her baby, Thomas, on her lap. Later, Anna confided, " You know, moments like these, in reality ,happen very quickly, but in my mind, they appear to be happening in slow motion. People usually have their guard up, but I was able to see Claire in a totally unguarded moment. I was not prepared for what I saw.

In that fleeting moment Anna observed dread, a feeling beyond fear, on Claire's face. " It was as if you could see into her soul." Anna said, " It was such a revelation for me when I saw that! I could not have told you where the social worker or the father of the baby were, although I had seen them when I entered the room. What I did see was that Claire loved her child. There she sat in the rocking chair, holding her newborn baby. She looked at me and she knew: "Here is the woman who has come to take my baby away!" It was difficult for Anna to maintain balance in this situation due to the strength and intensity of her feelings and emotions.

Claire is a stocky, dark-skinned black women of imposing presence. Her baby, Thomas, is interracial, bearing the coloring of both his black mother and his white father. Anna had not known about this in advance. She related to me that she might have gotten caught up in concerns about ethnic differences, but her spontaneous response went beyond that. Anna saw Claire with her heart. She saw what is essential, what is invisible to the eye. She and Claire met in an area beyond differences. At their first encounter they connected and shared an intensely deep moment of human suffering, and in this moment, a bond was formed.

It was the beginning of a relationship which would last a year and a half and would be the foundation for successful co- parenting including visitation and the eventual reunification of the child with his parents.

Anna had experienced Claire's human-ness and she felt compassion for her. Her initial sense of Thomas' father, Alan, was that he was immature, however, this was an observation, not a judgement. During the times when Claire and Alan visited Thomas in Anna's home, they chatted conversationally about alot of things. Claire fed and changed Thomas and Alan played with him. Alan used to "zoom" Thomas through the air, eliciting smiles and giggles from the enthusiastic baby. There was no doubt in Anna's mind that Alan loved his child. "He loved Thomas in the best way he knew how to love a kid. I could see that he was proud of him, too," Anna said. When she watched Alan tenderly giving love to his son it was hard for her to perceive him as a violent, macho guy, but she knew that side of him existed. One day, Alan arrived for a visit with a cast on his hand. Anna asked what had happened. Alan responded by saying, "It was better than punching Claire!" Anna must have felt that it was okay to push it further because she asked him again, but WHY did you punch the refrigerator?" (Foster parents are encouraged to elicit the biological parent's views on situations and issues). Alan responded sadly, "Its the situation."

Anna liked both Claire and Alan. Claire taught Anna many things that she had not known before. Thomas' hair got dry and frizzy and Anna asked Claire what she should do about it. "You gotta put grease on it! Get some baby oil or Vasoline!" Claire instructed. Anna complied and she also learned to cut his hair. Thomas looked so handsome.

Anna had to walk a tightrope with Thomas' parents because they harbored a lot of anger toward the Agency, however, she wanted to maintain a friendship with them. Looking back on the situation she recalls thinking, "Many people don't know how to be parents. Love comes with too much baggage for a lot of people." Through caring for Thomas, Anna grew in her understanding of the strengths as well as the limitations of many of the families with whom she works and it has enriched her perceptions.

A women at a drug store looked at Anna for a long time and then, as Anna was leaving the store, the woman said, "Your husband must be very dark." Anna noticed that some people, when they thought Thomas was her child, viewed her one way, but, when they found out she was a foster mother, they instantly viewed her in another way. "Like when you go to the doctor and you give them the Medicaid card the first time, before they know who you are, they think that you're a `dirt bag.' Then, when they find out that you are a foster mother they say, `Oh, how can you do that?' They think you're a saint! It's the same with caring for a black child if you're white. First you're looked at questionably, then, when people know you are a foster mother, their attitude reverses and they tell you or convey in some way, `Poor little black kid.' I learned what prejudice feels like."

The Director of the New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth and Families, has said, "The families we work with live with their doubts and fears behind the armor they have created for their own protection." They are "people for whom struggle has been a way of life. We work with parents who have never been nurtured, valued, supported or made to feel worthwhile. How do you give what you never had? How do you respond to unending criticism and blame by others who offer little assistance and feed into fears that you really aren't, and never will be, good enough?" She continues urging her staff saying, " It is our job to be different. We should enter the life of the families with whom we work by focusing on their strengths and verbalizing our awe of their survival skills. We must do everything in our power to enlist their assistance, for without it, we can go nowhere."

We are being asked, as foster parents and social workers, to collaborate with the biological parents with real love and compassion. That's going to be a big stretch for some. Yet doesn't personal growth come from making a stretch and taking a risk?

Elizabeth Ustick, Child Protective Service Worker andFoster Parent Licensor

New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth & Families

To view other "Stories of the Heart" selections go to the Stories of the Heart Contents Page.