By Tamika Williams
More than 20 years ago, I met a beautiful, brown-eyed little girl. She was barely a first grader. I was a newly minted master’s level child welfare social worker assigned to help her. I had countless conversations with her as I attended school meetings, carried out home visits and took trips seeking services for her. We laughed and we disagreed, but most of all we kept trying and watched each other grow.
I was delighted recently when she wrote to me on social media. She talked about how I used to stay “on her butt” growing up, but she listened to me because we shared the same last name and that fact made her feel less alone. She expressed thanks that I loved her and didn’t look at her “as a job.”
She added that without me constantly picking her up after she’d been suspended and reminding her that she was better than that, she might never have become better. “I might have been stuck on drugs like a lot of my friends,” she wrote. Her experience taught her never to give up and always to be her best – encouraging messages that she now shares with other young people.
Virtually every child welfare social worker can point to similarly moving stories of children they’ve helped along the path from the foster care system to better lives. As we observe National Social Work Month in March, it’s good to take a moment to honor their dedication.
The practice of social work within the child welfare context is often marred by funding shortfalls and by headlines about the ways the system repeatedly fails families and children. While there is an unsettling truth to that perception, that’s not the full picture. Unfortunately for the highly skilled social workers who work daily on behalf of young people, we too often fail to recognize and support their work.
A child welfare social worker stands in the midst of chaos and confusion – often with families who have been largely marginalized – and seeks to identify strengths that society, and sometimes families themselves, struggle to recognize. The social worker’s goal is to empower families to care for their children, to help young people realize their potential, and to build systems to effectively respond to their needs.
When family and social supports aren’t present, social workers cultivate new ones for our most cherished resource – children. They engage with partners ranging from biological families and communities to managed care organizations, court systems and legislators. They meet children and their families at moments of crisis. Family units may never be the same and childhoods face possible disruption by a seemingly never-ending spiral of uncertainty.
In those difficult moments, social workers are there, striving to support children and families through the crisis to a resolution that promotes well-being. In the case of the child I once shepherded, it also means remaining in the background long past “case closure,” standing ready to share reassurance and pride for accomplishments both great and small.
While my focus is child welfare, I would be remiss if I didn’t also applaud the social workers who work in other sectors such as police departments, hospitals, mental health clinics, schools, philanthropy, nonprofits and large companies.
For many of the nation’s 870,000 social workers, appreciation rarely happens in the moment. Sometimes it takes years to know the extent to which their efforts helped turn a child’s life around. When or if that confirmation comes, take time to let your heart soar – to recognize that you helped provide light and hope when someone was in a dark place.
This March and always, I thank the thousands of dedicated social workers across the Carolinas for every act of advocacy, every demonstration of love and tireless commitment, every effort to go above and beyond.
You matter. Your work matters. Social workers matter. Happy Social Work Month!
Tamika Williams is the associate director of the Endowment’s Child and Family Well-Being program area. Prior to joining the Endowment in 2011, she worked for 13 years as a master’s level social worker in child welfare.