–By Donna Cohn, Supervisor, Lutheran Children and Family Service
In the field of Child Welfare, we often ask ourselves why we do this work. The work is stressful, emotionally taxing, and the hours are long. This is my journey.
I originally applied to undergraduate school in the Social Welfare program, not because I knew what a social worker did, but because I thought I would like to study sociology, psychology, and political science. These subjects all focus on human relationships, and I guess that is why they were of interest to me. My undergraduate program included a field placement in which I spent one semester at a private child welfare agency in central Pennsylvania. I found the foster care and adoption field to be very compelling, and so I looked for jobs in child welfare when I graduated. After 11 months as a houseparent in a children’s home in Philadelphia, I was hired into a social work position in Foster Care at Lutheran Children and Family Service. Initially, I loved the work. In foster care, I worked with children of all ages and families of different backgrounds and cultures. The work was different every day. I often visited in family homes, but on other days I could have appointments at a school, medical or mental health facility, or court. But after five years, however, I was sad, tired, and drained. I left the foster care position believing that I would never do that work again. It was time for a job that had more routine and less “drama.”
I went to work at Temple University’s Measurement and Research Center for the next 16 years. It was a secure but demanding job in the test administration and test scoring office at Temple, and over time I found that I felt less and less connected to work that made a difference like that I experienced in social work. Although providing a service of scoring college classroom exams, running large-scale standardized testing for programs such as the College Board SAT, and giving people a “second chance” by taking the GED high school equivalency exams were important, I felt increasingly distant from doing work was meaningful to me.
I spent a great deal of time researching employment options, but the urge to go back to social work became stronger and stronger. I was fortunate to come back to a social work position with Lutheran Children and Family Service in 1999 in a Foster Care position. I loved the way that LCFS appreciated my work and rewarded my contributions. A little more than a year after I returned to the agency, I accepted a role as a supervisor in the Adoption unit at LCFS. In Foster Care work, we are faced with the very difficult decision about whether a child should return to the care of his or her family versus having the parental rights terminated. However, in Adoption, that decision is already made. For me, on an emotional level, that was an enormous relief. In Adoption, we help to create permanent families for children and youth. Most of the time, closing the case has a happy outcome.
In the past few weeks, when I was asked to write a “blog” about my job, I thought that I should write about the struggles and successes with these children and parents. Not all of our situations are happy, and some matches of children and families do not work out. Even though we have been asked to take on more work with less support, there are still many touching stories in the Adoption and Permanency unit. But my thoughts kept coming back to what I value most about working at LCFS – my amazing staff.
Over the past 13 years, I have been extremely fortunate to have built a strong and solid team of talented individuals to make this important work happen. My employees are dedicated people who will send me written work at midnight when there is a deadline, complete home visits in the evening or on weekends because that is the only time they can see their child, and make sure that their files are complete and accurate in order to get through our inspections successfully. These workers are the ones who figure out how to get a doctor’s office to respond when we need to clarify a medical report about a client, what the immigration law requires to help a family get an orphaned relative to the United States, what to do when a child appears to be hearing voices or having a “melt-down” during a child preparation session, and how to help a child write a letter to a deceased birth parent to help the child cope with their grief. Most of my employees have additional responsibilities at LCFS. Some also have other part-time jobs to help pay their bills. None of them work a “9 to 5” job. And, as regulations increase and funding doesn’t, the work gets increasingly difficult to do well. The number of workers and support staff has been reduced in order to help balance a budget for my program that hasn’t been increased in ten years.
I don’t think there is a week that goes by that I don’t wonder why I left a management level position at an administrative office at Temple University to deal with the underpaid and undervalued work of caring for kids who have been separated from their families. As budgets and people are cut to make financial ends meet, I ask why we continue to do this work. The case managers are a dedicated and talented group who provide amazing service, and I’m not really sure what keeps them going except for loyalty to their children, their families, and to me. I do know, however, why I stay at LCFS. I would never find another place to work with such amazing people, doing this incredible work, and regularly making a difference in the world.
Lutheran Children and Family Service (LCFS) is a non-profit social service agency and division of Liberty Lutheran, providing a broad scope of services to a diverse clientele throughout Eastern Pennsylvania. By relying on a wide network of individuals and agency supporters, our dedicated staff is able to provide families and children with services from a variety of local, state, federal and community resources. Services include foreign and domestic adoption, foster care, refugee resettlement, Best Out of School Time (BOOST) after-school program, BOOST summer camp, and the West Philadelphia Senior Community Center.
If you or someone you know would like more information, go to the Lutheran Children and Family Service website or call 215-456-5700.