Most social workers know the analogy of the old man and the starfish. As the story goes: a young woman, jogging along the sea shore, stopped when she came across a strange scene. The beach, she observed, was covered with starfish, having been thrust upon the sand by violent waves. Unable to live outside of the sea, those tossed furthest away were dead or dying. There were so many of them she feared to count. More curiously, an old man was slowly picking up the still moving starfish, one at a time, and tossing them back into the sea. She approached the elderly gentleman and asked him, “Why are you doing this? The numbers are too large to save them all. Your action will not make a difference”. He smiled at her and tossed another starfish into the churning sea. Then he replied, “it made a difference to this one”.
As I have been blogging about child abuse, Vicarious Trauma, Stress reflexes and burn out of those in the helping profession, I have gotten comments from others who were not social workers. They have sometimes remarked on the benefit of shining a light into the dark corners of abuse and the effects on not only the children, but also on the workers. What often follows is, “But what can I do”?
There are so many ways that you can be involved in helping make a difference. Some require very little commitment and some require an enormous commitment. The beauty of it is that knowing of the opportunities, you are more equipped to decide how you can help. I will start with small commitments and build my way up.
Sponsor a foster child for Christmas
Although the State does have funds and will provide gifts for children in Foster care , with the number of children in care and the State Budgets, the need for sponsors is great. Children who spend Christmas away from their families really only want to be home. But the opportunity to provide their Christmas wishes brings not only excitement and Joy to their hearts, but also a way for you to make a small but meaningful impact on a child. In my county, we partner with the Salvation Army Angel tree to get sponsors.
Be a Mentor
Many children that come into foster care, have had no strong role models from which to learn social norms, coping skills and appropriate stress responses. Further, some have come from generations where education was not a priority, therefore they display little motivation to succeed educationally. They need Mentors. Most county child welfare agencies partner with churches, non-profits and private agencies to match each foster child with a Mentor. A mentor would spend quality time with the child: having social outings, helping with school work or tutoring with the underlying message received by the child being: you matter; you are important; you have the right to succeed. Of course there is a stringent vetting process to ensure the Mentor is a safe and trustworthy person able to add quality to the life of that child.
Become a foster parent.
Becoming a foster parent for a child traumatized by abuse is an immense commitment. Allowing a child to move into your home, your family, your heart requires a long assessment by you with your family on your level of commitment. A foster child will test your mettle and often make you question your decision. Because he is scared. Because, despite your smile, he doesn’t feel safe. Because he is angry at everyone but his own family for the abuse he incurred.
If you hang on tight, grit your teeth, be consistent in your acceptance and protection of him, he will start to feel safe. His walls will eventually come down. He will become part of your family. It might take a month or a year depending on his trauma and the level of services he is receiving. But it is a process many wonderful foster parents have come through.
Fostering is a huge committment and definitely not for everyone.
Encourage a Social Worker
As we discuss how you can make a difference, let’s not forget the social workers carrying the burden for these children every day. Noticed I said “for the children” not “Of the children”. These children are not a burden. They are a blessing. Their hearts are full of trauma and social workers try to help them bear the burden by listening to them, providing services to meet their emotional needs and demonstrating to them unconditional acceptance.
So how can you help a Social worker? Just fill their buckets. Recognize their contributions and champion their cause. When you hear an awful “social work” story, remember there are two sides. Because of confidentiality social workers cannot defend their actions by telling you what “really happened”. Yet the media often portrays them as heartless beauracrats. I am here to tell you that is not my experience at all. Social Workers make a decision to enter a thankless, low paying profession out of a real commitment to helping families. They work all hours of the day and night, leaving their own children (even holidays), to respond to child safety emergencies.
If you know a Social Worker, tell them you appreciate what they do for families. You may not make a difference to all social workers….But it will make a difference to that one.