By Jessica Bowker
Local 21 members Kim Medina and Elisabeth Morris are Child Welfare Supervisors in the County of Alamedaand are members of thePACE Chapter. PACE workers have very difficult jobs- they are called into situations where families are in crisis and where children may be victims of neglect or abuse.
Child welfare work is divided into “front end” and “back end” work. Front end work includes reports of neglect or abuse, screenings, and investigations, while back end work occurs after it has been determined that a child is unsafe and that child has become a ward of the court. PACE workers like Kim specialize in child adoption and seek permanency for children who have become wards. PACE workers like Elisabeth spend much of their time working on cases and facilitating Team Decision Making Meetings (TDMs).
TDMs occur when there is a child who might be removed from their family, who has already been removed from their family, when placement needs to change, or when a family is being reunified. “Workers like Elisabeth are in these meetings, sitting across from birth parents whose children have been removed from their care. It can get very emotional. The work is hard,” says Kim. She reports that co-workers often need to share their trauma with each other to help deal with the emotional aspects of the work. “There are some incredibly difficult and disturbing stories,” she says. And that can take a toll on front line workers.
The principal of a TDM, says Elisabeth, is straight talk. “We need to say very direct things,” she says, “and we have to do so while remaining calm.” Her role as a moderator in these situations is to listen, be respectful, and to really take into account ideas and opinions of stakeholders in the child’s life. TDMs were created to include family members and other important people in a child’s life when developing a plan for the child’s future.
Both Kim and Elisabeth are vocal about the need to involve communities in the process of caring for these children.
In Alameda County, there is a history of mistrust between the African-American community and The Department of Children and Family Services, where children removed from their families have been disproportionally black. Kim and Elisabeth emphasize that their job as Supervisors is to make sure that their staff is aware of this history and of the power differences in their interactions with African-American families and other families of color.
“We have to be aware of biases and we cannot let them get in the way of families being together,” says Elisabeth. Kim agrees, and says that it is not acceptable for Child Welfare Workers to impose their ideas and values on families that live differently than they do. An explicit goal of the Department is to continue to reduce the numbers of black youth in the system by both rooting out bias in the Department’s assessments, and implementing strategies for early intervention that are aimed at keeping families together.
The hardest part of the job for these women? For Kim, it’s seeing generations of children in foster care because of lack of housing, jobs, and opportunity. Elisabeth says that people almost always love their children, but don’t always have the resources to care for them.
And the best part of the job? “Hope,” answers Elisabeth, “having it for a family and a child when they don’t have it for themselves.” “Being a voice for a child who can’t speak for themselves,” says Kim. “The child’s needs are always foremost.”