My sister started her job as a foster care case worker straight out of college, a bright-eyed, big-hearted twenty-one-year-old who loved the idea of working with children and families, and the thought of making a difference. The position is notorious for high burn-out, but my sister is that unlikely combination of softness and steel—she could handle it, she said.
A few months later she called me in tears: “This job is killing me.”
I know my sister. She is the sort of warm, sunny person whom complete strangers tell their darkest secrets. She’s counseled friends and classmates through breakups, coming out, and suicide attempts. If anyone seemed made for a difficult and emotional job it was her.
In the beginning, she told herself it was just a steep learning curve. So she didn’t complain as she learned books full of acronyms and government protocols. She didn’t complain on the phone from the office at 8 p.m., or while working from home on a Sunday afternoon. She spent most of Christmas Eve making phone calls about a particularly difficult case, and only said she hoped things would get easier soon. But they didn’t. They kept getting harder.
Much of her work revolved around helping biological parents whose children had been removed based on abuse or neglect, and who now had to prove to the courts that they could be responsible caretakers. She created service plans identifying parents’ strengths and needs and referred them to services like housing, substance abuse groups, or social support systems. Each referral required meetings and phone calls and case notes and follow-up. She had to meet with each child once a month and squeeze in monthly meetings with biological parents, foster parents, therapists, service providers, and trips to the courthouse to give testimony on the cases’ progress.
All of this “for the same salary,” she said, “as a good waitress.”
She also had to deal with the new stress of people blaming her for their problems. Foster care workers have nothing to do with a child being removed from a parents home—that’s Child Protective Services—but parents often blamed my sister for the loss of their children or the slow advance of their case.
She faced torrents of abuse, for being young, for being inexperienced, for not having children herself. She was insulted and belittled and called in the middle of the night.
“For bio parents and foster parents and kids, this is their life, this is their world, this is their number one priority,” she said. “Meanwhile your phone is ringing, you have a kid who’s gone AWOL, another kid’s Medicare isn’t working, and you’re desperately trying to prioritize everything. It’s impossible to do everything you can for your clients. You are only one person.”
Faced with looming, court-ordered deadlines that didn’t budge for vacations or sick days she found herself forced to compromise—it was the impossible choice between doing her job well and getting her job done. After six months in her job, she felt herself slipping into survival mode.
“I was putting my clients needs above my own mental and physical and emotional health,” she said, “And it was killing me. You can’t pour from an empty cup. When I was starting I was so young full of hope and excitement, and I ended up just crushed.”
My sister started to notice that the other social service providers in her clients’ lives were struggling with the same weariness that she was. And a haggard, resigned group of people who tended to write off clients without ever getting to know them. “For your own sanity, you stop seeing people as individuals,” she said.
Instead, she began to notice an “insiders’ club” feel among service providers. Moments after arguing a woman’s case in court, an attorney once sidled up to my sister, who was giving testimony against the woman. “Good luck with that one,” he murmured conspiratorially, “she’s batshit crazy.”
My sister saw her path laid out in front of her and it terrified her. She didn’t want to stop caring, and didn’t feel like she could settle for a level of service less than what she felt her clients deserved. So she quit.
This is my sister’s last week in her job, after almost a year of emotional and physical exhaustion. She quit at a time when her schedule had almost calmed, when she was almost used to the tyranny of a thousand emergencies. She quit not because she couldn’t do the job, but because she couldn’t do it well.
This is not a story of her failure, but of the failure of a system to ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable are met. Right now, my sister says, the foster care system isn’t working in the best interests of the people it’s set up to help. With too many cases and too little support, case workers, and their clients, are set up to fail.
But people aren’t talking about it, partially because failures in the system are attributed to its participants who aren’t expected to be able to succeed. People aren’t talking about the fact that parents feel hurt and alienated by the system. People aren’t talking about how long the system takes, or how it fails to address all its clients’ needs. People aren’t talking about the twenty-two-year-old case workers crying in their cubicles at the end of a particularly hard day.
And until people start talking about it, things aren’t going to get better.
My sister spent a year with some of the city’s neediest people, whose problems and even existence are invisible to most people. What these people need more than anything, she says, are strong social support systems that give struggling people help with the difficult task of being a parent, so that the brunt of caring doesn’t fall to a case worker with a dozen other cases.
“These people just need someone on their sides to look out for them, to speak up for them,” she said. “It’s the hardest job in the world, but it’s the only way things will ever change.”