A Public Education: Foster Youth Share Experiences with Social Workers
The first part of a two part segment featuring Holly Kernan, Jennifer Rodriguez, Heather Matheson, Miriam Yarde, and Ricardo Ramirez.
On Thursday nights during the spring semester, Fostering Media Connections Director Daniel Heimpel teaches a course called Journalism for Social Change at the University of California, Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. Journalism for Social Change explores how solution-based journalism can drive public and political will to advance positive reform in the child welfare system.
On March 13, Holly Kernan, the news director at KALW, a public radio station in San Francisco, led a thoughtful conversation on the big issues children who experience foster care face.
In the first of this two part series, Holly queries Jennifer Rodriguez, director of the Youth Law Center, Miriam Yarde, a student at UC Berkeley, Heather Matheson, a student at San Francisco State University and Ricard Ramirez, a member of the California Youth Connection, on their thoughts about the people meant to be the anchor in their lives: social workers.
Below you can read the entire transcript of this section in the conversation.
Daniel Heimpel: We have a very nice conversation that will be led by Holly Kernan, who is the News Director for KALW, who also teaches at Mills College, who has done great work around child welfare issues, done great work generally. You have built up the newsroom at KALW, so we’ve got more than one voice in local radio in the Bay Area thanks to this woman right here, so thank you for that. We have Heather, Miriam, and Ricardo who are joining us to have a conversation about child welfare and the reasons why [and] what happens to kids who enter the system.
Holly Kernan: Well, thanks for having us here. We have got our panel of experts to really kind of delve into this issue.
Miriam Yarde: So my name’s Miriam, and I’m a sophomore at Cal. And I entered care as a newborn. And I was in care, I bounced around in care, until I was 12 years old. And my experience in care; I’ve had good homes, and I’ve also had bad homes.
Ricardo Ramirez: So, my name is Ricardo. I am currently in my second year at Fresno City, and I entered the system when I was 12 along with my brother and my two sisters, all younger than me. And I’ve had good placements, I’ve had bad placements, I’ve had in-between placements. Foster care system is kind of like a rollercoaster ride; I’ve been through… I am currently in my 38th foster home. This last one though I’ve been at, I want to say, close to a year and a half now, so this one panned out. And I’ve been in four group homes. I’ve hit a lot of areas of the system. And, well, since leaving the group home, two weeks before I turned 17, I’ve only been in two foster homes. And one which lasted about two weeks. For some reason they were thinking when I turned 18, I would have to leave under AB 12 you stay until you’re 21 now. Foster dad had a problem, foster mom didn’t, and so I turned 18 and this last foster home accepted me, even though I was 18 years old already, and I’ve been with them for about a year and a half. And that’s a little bit about me.
Heather Matheson: I’m Heather. I entered the foster care system when I was 13 years old. I’ve had four placements. Some good, some bad, some really good. I am a third year at San Francisco State, and I am studying Visual Communications Design.
Jennifer Rodriguez: Okay, well, I am Jennifer Rodriguez and I am the executive director of the Youth Law Center. I’ve been a lawyer there, let’s see, for the past six and a half years, and prior to that I was the legislative and policy person for the California Youth Connection. I actually grew up in CYC; CYC was where I decided that I wanted to become a lawyer.
So that’s a little bit about my trajectory. And I was in foster care quite a while ago compared to the actual youth you have in the panel, but when I was in care I was basically an institutional kid. I spent two years on the street, and ended up formally getting taken into the system when I was 12. Even though Child Welfare had been involved with my family since the time I was born. My very first placement was a group home, because I was a street kid, and so when you’re a street kid you are used to being awake at night, sleeping during the day time. I had a lot of behaviors that didn’t lend themselves well to being in a family environment, and the problem with group care is once you get into one group home, it’s really, really difficult to get into a family placement. So I learned lots of new behaviors in the group homes that I was at; and every new behavior that I added on to my resume, it made me even further disqualified to be in a family home. So I went in sort of knowing how to hustle in certain ways, learned how to steal vans, and run away, and do all kinds of other things that I hadn’t known how to do and been exposed to prior being in a group home. So I spent all of my teen years in group homes, shelters, juvenile hall, psychiatric hospitals; basically, every kind of institutional care you can think of, I was in it. And then finally, aged out at 18, and went to Job Core, which was the best institution that I was in, outside of the system. And that’s where I got my GED, and was sort of able to get a foundation to launch my life.
Holly Kernan: And launch it you have. Well done. So you brought up the social worker question, and I just wanted to find out a little bit more about what that relationship is like., and what makes a good social worker? I know you’ve got something to say. And I think you do to. What do you think Miriam?
Miriam Yarde: So what makes up a good social worker?
Holly Kernan: Yeah.
Miriam Yarde: So, a good social worker… she’s understanding, she does not try and force a relationship upon you, she… I’m trying to think of my good social workers. She’s comforting. She checks in with you when she’s supposed to.
Holly Kernan: How often is she supposed to?
Ricardo Ramirez: Once a month.
Miriam Yarde: Yes.
Holly Kernan: Once a month. And when you were a little kid, try and think back to five, or six, or seven, what did it feel like to have to interact with this social worker?
Miriam Yarde: So, I learned to hate social workers. When I was five years old, I had a social worker who I never saw until one day, she was like, she told me that my mother had passed away. And that was it; that’s the last time I saw her. She was not active in my life at all.
Holly Kernan: And it seems like I hear that from so many foster kids. Why is this so common? Or, maybe it isn’t such a common experience if having that social worker who is supposed to be your main advocate, right? That doesn’t feel like that’s what the relationship is?
Ricardo Ramirez: To get a little opinionated real quick, so social workers, last time I check in San Joaquin, they haven’t hired a social worker in about nine, ten years. So their job security is pretty good. And as long as they are doing their paperwork and moving through, and you are a piece of their paperwork, and as long as they are pushing that through they’re pretty good, they don’t have to be comforting or understanding. They just have to do their paperwork, do everything they’re supposed to do, and push it off. So a lot of social workers won’t take that extra step, and make you feel like a person rather than a piece of paper. They’ll just knock everything out and keep moving like they’re supposed to, because they are not evaluated on that, and if they do that or if they don’t do that, it’s not going to make them lose their job or anything.
Holly Kernan: How important are they in terms of your experience in the system?
Ricardo Ramirez: They control your experience in the system.
Holly Kernan: They control your experience in the system. So they have a lot of power? And do you think, Jennifer, that this is changing at all now?
Jennifer Rodriguez: No, I don’t. I mean, from a policy perspective, I mean, to touch on what you [Miriam] said and what you [Ricardo] said, one of the issues is that in terms of this training that social workers get; social workers have approximately one class in child development during the course of their MSW training, so if you ask social workers what they know about child development, they’ll say they studied it. And when you look at the curricula, you’ll see that they took one class in human development which sort of spans birth to adulthood. And, so, they don’t get training on how to talk to a five year old and help you deal with grief, and loss, and trauma. What they’re getting is sort of an overview.
The other thing that’s happened with social work over the years is that because so many incidents have happened where social workers have; I mean, a child’s experience is controlled by social workers. You’re entire experience is based on decisions that an individual person makes. And we all know when people make decisions, especially when they’re just sort of, I mean, excuse my language, but when they’re off the top of your butt, you know, you don’t really have any basis — if you walk into a home and say, “Is this child at risk?” They’re not using any sort of, typically even when they’re is a structured decision making tool, or some other formal, it’s your opinion about what that child needs, what that family needs. And so there is lots of points where mistakes can be made. And so really we don’t — in years with the mistakes, what we’ve ended up doing is making it very manualized.
We’ve given social workers a lot of tools, like here’s one checklist to fill out, here’s another tool use to asses, and I think what happens is that social workers take all the tools, they take all the paperwork that you hear talked about and they distance themselves from the actual social work. From the work of being able to talk to youth, to being able to have conversations with them, being able to build a relationship. And to me that’s what social work actually should be, it should be a relationship or somebody who that can connect with you, sits down and says, “I care about you. I have empathy for your situation. What do you need? Tell me what you need.” And then, particularly with older youth, let me help you figure out how to make a plan. Not let me tell you what you’re going to do with your life, because that’s not helpful to anyone. That doesn’t help you in the long run of your life. The only other place where that is simulated later on is prison. And if you go to prison, yeah, someone will tell you this is what you do at this time, and this is way — but in real life, when you’re an adult, you have to learn how to do all that on your own.
The other thing I want to say on your point, is that social workers are unionized. And that creates an issue, because really any mistake that a social worker makes, it is true that all they sort of have to do is show up and meet sort of bare minimum expectations. And nothing will happen to them. And it’s very, very difficult to hold social workers accountable for the mistakes that they make, or for errors like not going to see a youth monthly when they’re supposed to. Now I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with unions, but it is very, very difficult in terms of accountability in the system when you do have a union in place with somebody who is supposed to – who is so directly involved in controlling a youth’s life.
Holly Kernan: I wondered just — I am going to sound incredibly naive here, but it just seems like this would be a piece of the system that would be relatively easy to change ‘cause it’s a culture shift, right? You’re not asking for more money in the system, you’re just asking for a different orientation, or for some training probably. But, I mean is this something you’re seeing the needle move at all? Is this something you guys are pushing at CYC? What — I mean, it seems like such a critical thing that shouldn’t be that hard to change. Why is it?
Jennifer Rodriguez: Well, there has to be a fundamental belief about what’s happening here that the youth that the social workers are working with are not just clients who receive services, but they’re actually people who have opinions and should be involved in their own life. And I think CYC has helped a lot in sort of changing that perception. And you guys can probably share experiences about when you’ve done trainings for social workers, some of the perceptions that have changed, of maybe some of them never even knew that you had thoughts or opinions or recommendations of your own until you were given that forum.
Holly Kernan: So, if I were a social worker right here, and say I am representing a whole conference of social workers, what are maybe five things that you would want me to do differently, or think about, or be aware of?
Heather Matheson: I would want social workers to talk to you like you’re a person, and not just like a caseload. Like I had one good social worker, in the whole time I was in care, and she, you know, cared and she showed up on the right days and returned my phone calls, and all that. But the rest of them, I couldn’t get them to return my calls, couldn’t get them to help me do the things I needed to do. My last social worker before I aged out would come once a month, would not look at me in the eyes, would read his little thing and say, “How’s your health?”
Holly Kernan: Like a questionnaire?
Heather Matheson: Yeah, “How’s your health?” And then he would write it down. “How’s school?” He’d write it down. Wouldn’t ask any follow-up questions, just a simple, “Good. It’s fine,” would work out, and then he’d go, “Okay, I’m going to talk to your foster parents now. You can leave. Go get them.” Then he’d leave after. And the last meeting that I had with him before I aged out he said, “All right. Have a nice life.” Have a nice life. So yeah, I don’t know, that would be my biggest thing is, you know, we have all these people in our lives who didn’t treat us like we were people, and then we finally get put into the system, and you know, these are the people who are supposed to care the most about our well being. And we’re just questions on a piece of paper.
Holly Kernan: Paperwork.
Heather Matheson: Yeah.
Holly Kernan: It seems that to get to your comment about institutionalization being treated, you know, as a piece of this institution as opposed to a human being. What would you say to the social workers of America?
Jennifer Rodriguez: I mean, I would say number one they need to understand how important their job is. I don’t feel like social workers actually understand the gravity of like, what we’ve entrusted them with. I mean they are, they do hold control over basically every element of your life. They make decisions about where you’re going to live and who is going to care for you. And to me that, that was the biggest impact for me that it wasn’t really… I had lots of different social workers. I moved through lots of different counties in the Bay Area and I’d see the social workers sometimes once a month, sometimes every few months, and, you know, some of them I didn’t like, some of them I did like. My favorite ones took me to McDonald’s. I mean, they were almost insignificant. I don’t ever really remember them ever really doing social work with me. But they did have control over everything. They had control over the visits with my family. They had control over the decision about whether I was going to return home. My social worker was the only person I could go to when things were happening in my placement. And she decided whether I was going to a level 14 group home, or staying at a level 12 group home. She held every decision in her hand. And I’m saying “she” because I actually had all female social workers.
Holly Kernan: Did it feel like she was wielding that power over you?
Jennifer Rodriguez: Some of them it felt like they were wielding their power, and others it just felt like they didn’t care. They were on their job and it was not any different to them then if they had a job, you know, making water bottles at a factory. When it turned five o’clock they were off the clock, and you know, you couldn’t reach them, they wouldn’t return phone calls, they wouldn’t… And to me now, looking I just want them to understand: do you understand this is actually bigger than even parenting your own kid, because you’ve got a child who basically every single adult in their life has let them down up to this point. And now you have the power, you have all of this power in your hand. You need to use it responsibly, and you need to understand what it is that you stand in the way of a good outcome, a bad outcome of a child being abused, of a child dying at the most extreme. I mean, I feel like they don’t, number one they should understand it, and then number two, you should feel excited and invigorated by that, like, “I have the chance to really change somebody’s life.” Not — most social workers that I talk to seem like they feel like sort of depressed and hopeless by that feeling, and I would want them to feel excited like, “What I do matters.” And, you know, I mean, it’s the same for any of us who work that in the system. We should feel like we really matter. That people are depending on us, and there are people who don’t have a whole lot of people to depend on.
Holly Kernan: What about you?
Ricardo Ramirez: Repeat the question one more time.
Holly Kernan: So, I’m representing the social workers of America here, and you get to tell me the stuff I should be, I should start thinking about.
Ricardo Ramirez: So, okay, I want to go off her’s and say also empathetic and know where we come from, because I know my rap sheet didn’t look too good. I had multiple placements, I went in, pigging back off what she said, what she said earlier, “Okay, let me see your foster parents.” It’s show up in a few CYC skits I’ve seen where they talked to the youth and they’re like, “Okay, well you can go now.” Call the foster parent, “Now, what’s really going on?” They don’t believe anything you say. You know, sure they write it down and be like, “Now, how is she really doing school? How is really doing with her health? How is she really like this?” You know, like, they don’t believe anything I say. The second thing would be taking that extra step. When I was in care some youth find that social worker where before you go into a house they’ll have, they’ll arrange you a house meeting. And you can go, you can meet the family, you see what it’s all about. It’s usually fake but you can go meet the family.
Holly Kernan: What do you mean it’s usually fake, like?
Ricardo Ramirez: Like, okay, I was in this one house where I went, I met the family on a weekend get away, and I’m like, “Okay, this is cool.” They take me out to eat, and I was like, “Well, I’ve never been there. That’s pretty cool.” Fancy restaurant, at least to me, I thought I should have been wearing a suit or something. You know, so I was like this was cool, they were really nice. Yeah, this time free time, you can do this, and you know, I was like, “Okay, I really like this family! All right move me in!” And then like day I moved in, not even twenty minutes I get unpacking, and they come in the room and they’re like, “Okay, this is how it really works.” I was like hella thrown off; I was like, “Whoa.” So that’s how it’s fake. But a part of that is, I’ve only witnessed the family visits about three out of the thirty-eight fosters homes I’ve been in, where I got to visit the family first. Yeah, I just — here’s your new family, you’re with them. And then it’s kind of like a weird, awkward getting to know each other moment. I don’t know. The foster care sucks, like you’re taken away from your family, you know, you’re ripped from your school, everything, go to a new house. They say, “Here’s your new family. Here’s your new school. Here’s your new brother, your new sister, new mom, dad.”
Teddy Lederer is a journalism intern for the Chronicle of Social Change.