In 2005, after sending out resume after resume, I was hired for a job I did not want as a foster care case manager. I did not want this job so much that I showed up to the interview in a denim suit and I did not try too hard in the interview.
They hired me.
This job turned out to be the most rewarding and growthful of my career even to this day. I had to dig deep every day and face the grim realities of race, poverty, inequality, and some truths about the privilege in my whiteness, but also some things my privilege could not buy.
I had decided earlier in my career to just show up where I was needed and bloom where I was planted. So, I threw myself into foster care case management. In the first few weeks, I was sent to observe my first family court hearing: a Termination of Parental Rights hearing. There were several children involved so the court room was packed with lawyers and Social Workers and who knows who else. And me, someone who knew nothing about these two people, there to watch them sign away their children.
I did know that the mother and I were the same age and had been born in the same hospital.
I listened to the lawyers make their case for TPR. They listed the reasons each parent was unfit. I listened to the judge ask repeatedly and in different ways, "Do you understand you will have no right to make medical decisions for your children? Do you understand you will have no right to make educational decisions for your children? Do you understand you will not have the right to see your children?" Each parent responded to each question. It was clear they had been prepared and were already resigned to the outcome. This hearing was a formality.
I thought about this mother and I, as infants, going home to very different worlds. I felt humbled by the trajectory of our lives that had brought each of us to be in that court room. I knew that there was nothing different about us but our circumstances and that perhaps, but for those circumstances, she could just as easily have been one of the people in a suit in that room, and I just as easily resigned to judgement.
I carried this moment with me for the next three years in my work as a case manager.
One of the slippery slopes in Social Work is in how we manage our relationship to our clients' behavior. It is easy to slip into judgement and then gossip, criticize, eye-roll, and otherwise condescend to our clients to their face or behind their backs. It is common to find veteran Social Workers who are burned and burned out who relieve their distress in this way.
I don't need to tell you that this harms clients, even if we think they do not know what we say about them. I do know that it also harms us and increases our risk for burn out, puts us in victim mode, and poisons a system already toxic to everyone in it. As healers, we must guard out hearts and our tongues for our well-being, as well as our clients.
I've been yelled at, cussed out, hit, bit, betrayed, and disappointed by clients. I've spent weeks going above and beyond to get something in place for a client, something they said they wanted, something that could really make a difference for them, only to have them no-show, change their mind, or otherwise sabotage what we had worked so hard for. It is easy, and understandable, that good-hearted, well-meaning, and hard-working Social Workers resort to badmouthing their clients.
Through it all, I would come back to that court room. I am not a victim. My job is to help. I get to go home every night. My client's life is 24/7 and I do not know what I would do if I lived their life. Probably whatever it was they just did. I tended to my disappointment and refocused on getting clear on what I could do and where I could do it. I did not invest myself in rescuing anyone. There are no saviors in this work. We must let that go quickly, if we are to really help. Our job is to sand the rough edges of our very rough systems for our clients. Our job is to offer help. Our clients are not beholden to us to accept it. Embracing this is the key to protecting our own hearts so we can be maximally effective. It also deeply respects the dignity of our clients.
By managing my expectations, staying in my lane, and focusing on getting clear about what I CAN do, I can minimize burnout from disappointment and feel good about what I do, no matter how small, that does make a difference.
You can do great work.
Karen J. Helfrich, LCSW-C
As a therapist, mother, daughter, partner, and seeker, I am always on the journey toward a more peaceful, authentic life. I hope to share knowledge, insights, and the ongoing unknowns I find along the path...