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Reality of social work: What professors can’t teach

by Jen Day-Thompson

In 2005, I couldn’t wait to graduate college and begin my career in the “real world”. I envisioned sexy suits and the privilege of spending paychecks on happy hours and making my home look like an advertisement for Pottery Barn. Graduation day couldn’t come fast enough.

After many celebrations and talking with friends about my big plans, I started sending out my resume, responding to job ads that required a psychology degree. I was absolutely thrilled to have two job offers. I ended up accepting the offer that paid slightly less because I really liked the woman who would be my direct supervisor. I was hired by a non-profit organization as a mental health case manager for foster children.

Contrary to my vision of a plush office overlooking the river, I shared an office with four other case managers. I wore jeans and flip flops every day since our agency wanted us to seem approachable to children, and I could barely afford WalMart with my paychecks, let alone Pottery Barn. Our building was a former group home with no hot water and a roof so old that a cat actually fell through and landed on a staff member’s desk one afternoon. True story.

Despite the drawbacks, I absolutely loved my coworkers and dealt with the frequent annoyances with humor. The job itself was a learning experience, and not just in the metaphorical sense, but the literal as well. I had moved to Jacksonville only three years prior, and since our caseloads spanned all of Jacksonville, I was forced to learn every nook of this vast city like the back of my hand. As case workers we traveled to the homes and schools of our clients for visits, and with large case loads and up to eight visits per day, my only chance of being successful and productive was to avoid getting lost at all costs. GPS navigation systems weren’t as popular at that point, so Mapquest was my tool.

Reality Community
I learned quickly that just because a foster home is licensed does not mean that it’s in a safe Jacksonville is the largest city in land area in the U.S. Photo of part of the downtown area was taken from the Friendship Fountain. [Photo by Kay B. Day]neighborhood and that Mapquest is, more often than not, wrong when it comes to Jacksonville. I also learned that social work, which was essentially what I was doing, is not the self-fulfilling career that college programs make it out to be. That became more and more clear each time I received a new case and read allegations about the on-going sexual and physical abuse of children, or child neglect cases that left five year-old children to dig for their dinner in garbage cans.

After earning my master’s degree in Criminology, I accepted a new position as a prevention specialist with another local non-profit agency. The program I worked for received referrals from the Department of Children and Families, and our goal was to work with at-risk families, in their homes, to prevent their children from being removed by the state. I fell into a routine quickly with this new position as I was accustomed to working in the field and providing services.

What set this job apart the most from my first job was that I was no longer traveling to licensed foster homes that were seen by various case workers on a daily basis. I was going into homes that weren’t being monitored by anyone. These were real families, and I was going into their real environments. The neighborhoods I was traveling into were featured regularly on the six o’clock news for drive-by shootings, sexual assaults and drug deals gone bad.

I was told multiple times by friends and family members who are police officers that I had no business going into those neighborhoods alone, as I was expected to do. Some of my clients that I would go to visit would jokingly tell me that I may not have tires on my car when I left their homes. Other families would tell me that a girl like me, 5’3” and about 115 pounds, driving a fairly nice vehicle, would have to be crazy to come to their neighborhood alone. I always smiled and told them I was perfectly comfortable, and what scares me the most is that sometimes that was a little true. One of the most important rules of social work is to never become complacent in the field. And that lesson was not in any of my textbooks or college lectures. I learned that on my own.

Frustrations with the system
I got up for work every day with a slight sense of anxiety. I spent some of my home visits watching shadows dancing on walls, trying to determine if there was someone else in the home, someone that could potentially pose a threat. I sometimes found myself in a client’s living room, discretely eyeing the front door and the strange male who had emerged from a back room blocking my path. I often had to wait a good two hours to even think about cooking dinner after I got home from work because I had come from a roach-infested home and literally had to brush insects from my pants as I left the visit.

It was also draining to spend almost two hours on a parenting lesson with a young, single mother, only to witness her threaten her 1 year old with a belt at the close of the lesson because the child wouldn’t leave her alone. I never did figure out how a person is supposed to teach a mother to be nurturing. Some may call me a pessimist, or maybe just a poor teacher, but I would advise those people to do that job for a month and get back to me.

The only thing that kept me from losing my mind and quitting that job was the support from coworkers. I was again surrounded by a wonderful and dedicated group of social workers who helped each other find humor in the day-to-day frustrations and dangers of the job. I recall one morning when I was particularly frustrated. I had driven almost to Georgia for a scheduled home visit with a client, only to find that they were not home. This being the third missed visit with this parent, I was pretty heated when I finally got into the office. As I was ranting about my wasted morning, one of my coworkers arrived at the office. I could tell she was having a rough day as well, and when I told her my sad story, she simply said, “Well, I sat in pee.” All we could do was laugh.

I never knew what a day at this job would bring, and I learned more about communities, crime and the perpetuation of cycles of abuse, violence and poverty than I ever learned in a textbook. There were success stories, including the adoptions of children into loving families and at-risk mothers getting on their feet and proving that they could be good parents despite their pasts. Even still, the constant stress associated with the risks of the job finally gave me reason to seek a new position.

I am now a victim advocate working with children.  I work from the office, so my traveling days are over. My jeans and flip flops have been replaced by suits and high heels, and I can at least afford Publix once or twice a month. However, my professional aspirations have changed since graduation day in 2005. I now hope to obtain a Ph.D. that will allow me to teach college and graduate students in an effort to prepare them for the realities of social work.

Advocates for children
I also hope to establish a platform that will give the children in our society a voice, a way to speak out against violence and abuse. They are reliant on others and there aren’t enough of those “others.” My experiences have given me the tools and the knowledge necessary to do these things, and if I can achieve these goals, my dreams will truly be fulfilled.

Truth be told, I overestimated the value of Pottery Barn anyway.

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Reader Comments (4)

I am an avid parental rights advocate and after reading your accounting of your jobs, I have some questions that I'd like answered by a social worker. I haven't yet met one that I thought would even know the truth if it jumped up and bit them on the ass but maybe, just maybe, you're one of the few honest ones.

Why is it that once a social worker decides that they don't like you or your spouse that they force you apart? I was told the only way I was going to keep my children was if I left my husband. Now, I had no job, no money and no family support. Besides, my husband was not abusive or negligent to our children and me leaving him would have meant I was admitting he was an abusive father. I did move out for 3 months but it didn't work out and I had to go back. I couldn't allow my children to live on the streets. Was that better?

Second, once a child is removed from your home, why are services that you are required to undertake delayed for up to 6 months? Then they use that there's not enough time for the parents to complete the necessary work and judges rubber stamp "TPRs" (termination of parental rights), especially if the children are in a foster/adopt home.

At what point did CPS stop being about the children and start being about the money? My guess is in 1997, right after the Adoption and Safe Families Act was signed into law, giving states federal bonus money for each child adopted out of the foster care system. How much was YOUR yearly bonus? Every state employee gets a performance bonus and social workers are no exception. Social workers in North Carolina get theirs every September or October. I overhead 2 social workers talking and one said, I got another TPR today, I hope it was in time for my performance review for my bonus. Please explain that to me.

How can you make decisions about parenting when you have no children of your own? Social workers make those determinations on a daily basis all over America. Some are barely out of college and have no clue what it's like to be a single parent, much less a poor one who cannot seem to break the cycle of poverty. So they place them in foster homes, cutting all ties with their biological families and then place them on high-powered drugs if they are not compliant.

If foster parents are not in it for the money, then how come the children are kicked out of the home on their 18th birthday when the monthly checks stop coming in? A real parent wouldn't do that. But then again, we aren't paid...nor should we be paid...for the pleasure of raising our own children.

And last but certainly not least, why are the natural parents not given a dime to help improve the quality of their lives (like job training, a clean and affordable home, that sort of thing) but foster care providers are given a hefty monthly check (up to $900 per child), food stamps, WIC, Medicaid, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, PLUS any child support the parents are forced to pay? How is that fair?

So if you would, tell me how I can help my clients level the playing field. Oh, and unlike you, I don't get paid a dime for helping these families fight CPS and help them regain custody of their children. You get paid to destroy them, I get nothing for repairing the damage that social workers cause. Unfortunately, you're way more successful at your job than I am at mine because of the sheer incompetence, greed, corruption and abuse of power wielded by CPS social workers.

I seriously doubt that you'll answer these questions but it would be nice if you did. I know you're going to deny what is written here because you have to defend your profession but the problem is, we all know the truth. I work hard to expose the corruption and greed every single day and I'm sick and tired of reading where another foster child has been beaten, raped, sodomized, gone missing, abused, neglected and killed at the hands of the very people that was supposed to be protecting them from their biological parents. Did you know that children are way more likely to be abused in foster care than in their own homes? Google foster child deaths and abuses. Read my blog as it is filled with story after story. The link to my blog is http://cpsasystemoutofcontrol.blogspot.com. There is another great blog called Legally Kidnapped. The web address for that is http://legallykidnapped.blogpost.com. And the last one goes to http://stopcorruptdss.wordpress.com.

Thank you!

Brenda Alexander

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBrenda Alexander

Hi Brenda- Thank you for responding to the article I wrote and for bringing up such valid arguments about our child protection system. I would most definitely like to answer as many of your questions as I can.

I can't tell you how many times I have argued with other professionals in the field who do not seem to understand that, without their partners, financial stability can be close to impossible for some mothers. Many social workers come into a family's home, tell the provider he is no longer allowed contact with the children he has been supporting, and then offer the mother no ideas on how to financially support her children. Many of the agencies, specifically in my community, that are supposed to offer financial assistance to families in need have no funding left and simply turn families away. There is no unity among the agencies who should be working together to find a way to strengthen families instead of putting up road blocks.

There are major differences from state to state in regards to the TPR process, a process I'm a little familiar with having worked with foster children. I saw very few TPR's and actually found that many of the parents of our children had been given several opportunities to complete their case plans for reunification. However, I sometimes found that the workers responsible for administering the parents' case plans fell short of making all of the requirements accessible to the parents.

I am more than happy to discuss my yearly bonus. I have never gotten one. None of the agencies I have ever worked for have had the available funds to give bonuses. As a matter of fact, I have been employed on grants several times, which doesn't even offer job security, much less yearly bonuses. I am not in this field for the money, and if I were, I would have surely moved on to a different profession by now.

I have also been questioned numerous times regarding how a social worker can administer parenting lessons if they have no children of their own. I can only speak from my experience with the prevention program I worked for. Our curriculum simply taught parents about the developmental milestones children should reach at different ages. This helped parents to have more appropriate expectations of their children, thereby reducing their stress levels and helping them to be more patient. Essentially, the curriculum provided parents with a lesson in child development, a course that many college professors, who have no children, teach.

I am in no way an advocate of the foster care system. I have had numerous children removed from foster homes that I felt were detrimental to children's emotional, and sometimes physical, well-being. I feel that, if the state continues to deem biological parents incapable of caring for their own children, the foster care system must be seriously improved. Florida is actually working on a foster care redesign project right now. The goal of that project is to stop removing children from their families and help biological parents improve their families' quality of life.

I would like to conclude by saying that the prevention program I worked for specifically strived to keep biological families intact. I apologize if I did not make that clear. My job was to prevent the Department of Children and Families from removing children from their parents.

My passion lies in preventing the abuse or neglect of children by any person, whether it be the biological parent or foster parent. I fully agree that there are many downfalls of our system, and until these are addressed, we will continue to face hardships. I hope that I was thorough in answering your questions, and it is refreshing to hear from someone who is also so passionate about our youth. Thank you for your comment!

Jen Day-Thompson


I graduated last year and have been trying to choose a career. According to google search you're one of the few posts by real people that I found looking for "reality of social work". So thanks for posting, you're absolutely right about the fantastical self-fulfilling image. Do you by any chance also have any insight on public health social work? Thanks.
February 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSam
Hi, Sam,
I'm glad you told me that--this article continues to draw interest and apparently it's a popular search topic.

I've emailed the contributor to let her know about your question and I'm sure she'll respond.

Thanks for visiting The US report. best, Kay B. Day/editor
February 9, 2011 | Registered CommenterKay B. Day, Editor

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