She had that faraway look in her eyes that I knew all too well. I had been in my new position as a school social worker for just a few months when a new worker from our local child protective services agency responded to my school. She had been given instructions to conduct an emergency removal, and the child was to be picked up directly from my office. It took me no time to realize she had never done this before. She had likely entered the field with abundant enthusiasm, as is often the case with bleeding hearts, but only experience can adequately prepare one for this work. She’d get there; she just hadn’t taken her lumps yet. She had likely been walking tall and strong with no sign of slowing down, so this sudden obstacle had the potential to put her on the sidelines. I couldn’t let that happen so I held her hand through the process, as I had been in her shoes countless times between the years 2000 and 2016. Removing a child from their caregivers, regardless of the circumstances, is simply unnatural. I wanted to tell her “how to be,” but “how to be” isn’t a teachable tool. You have to figure it out. You have to fall down, get up, fall back down, and get back up. Once you’re limping, they’ll trust you.
I recall a situation years ago in which I, too had to remove a child from his biological family’s care. The emergency removal took place abruptly and the family didn’t see it coming. I had been conducting such removals for a long time, but in that moment I realized I would never become desensitized to watching a family crumble before my eyes. Thankfully, I’d learned “how to be” with this family. They actually embraced me before I departed with their infant child. The court didn’t rule in their favor the following week, and yet again, in the parking lot these family members embraced and thanked me. Let me remind you: they were the defendants in this case, yet there we were, hugging it out. Their attorney looked absolutely perplexed and reminded them of the circumstances. He couldn’t understand their displays of affection. But I knew why.
This family and I had been cultivating a relationship for months. I had faced the daunting task of coaxing the grandfather out of his bedroom, as previous social workers had reportedly had no luck engaging him in conversation. This family had recently moved from out of state and were still adjusting to their new city. In these moments it's important to take in your surroundings, so I started looking around. On the first home visit I noted the grandson shared his name with a prominent social justice icon. On the next, I noted the images of Civil Rights leaders adorning their walls. Although there were issues to be addressed, this was clearly a very proud and community-minded family, so I pieced it all together and gave it a shot. Within ten minutes, we were all chopping it up. Coincidentally, I had visited their old neighborhood years previous. In fact, as a performer I had participated in an outreach concert in the housing development on that very block. I couldn’t follow every detail they unraveled, but I knew just enough to engage them. On subsequent visits we continued to build the relationship, and in the midst of some significant concerns that ultimately led to the child removal, a bond had been established.
This is why they didn’t view me as their enemy. This is why they embraced me as I placed their beloved family member into my car and took him away. This is why they hugged and kissed me after court with no concrete answers regarding their anticipation of a reunification with their loved one. But they had hope.
That’s my word: give them hope. If we search for common ground and plant ourselves there, people will respond. In the midst of difficult decisions, people don’t forget kindness.
Getting started as a new social worker is hard, but once you face that first figurative hurdle, do yourself a favor and try to surmount it. Even if you trip, don’t take yourself out of the race. Walk it off and finish.
Believe me, you’ll get over that hurdle the next time. Limp and all.
If you're not ready to fall, you're not ready to hurdle.