Adoption is a niche that I fell into serendipitously. Long before I knew what “social work” really was, I knew that I wanted to help people. I wanted to work with vulnerable populations, specifically. So there I was fresh out of undergrad with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. I needed a job and child protective services made an offer. I found myself in the adoption preparation unit, carrying a caseload of 29 kids whose parental rights had just been terminated and who would age out of foster care alone unless I found them a permanent home. As a 22 year old, I was both overwhelmed and invigorated. I was forced to develop organization, assertiveness, strong boundaries and self-care skills quickly—it was truly sink or swim. On my worst day, a day that involved a child’s death and the hospitalization of another child, a day that started 48 hours of no sleep, my mom asked me, “Why don’t you just quit?” She’s my mom and she didn’t want to see me hurting, so why not find something else with more hope and less heartbreak, something with more room for advancements and a larger paycheck? It was a legitimate question.
So, why, after 15 years, do I continue work in the adoption sector of child welfare?
Here’s my answer:
Dave Thomas once said, “These children are not someone else’s responsibility. They are our responsibility.” I love everything about this statement. It speaks to a fundamental societal truth; a truth that often gets overlooked and minimized in state capitals and legislative sessions. People matter and our children deserve our time, resources and consideration. As a social worker, I am called to protect the unprotected. As cliché as it sounds, I am one of the fortunate people, who get up each and every day and make the difference in the life of a child—it’s a serious role; it may be my job, but it’s my client’s entire life.
Adoption work is a study in emotional polarity. When things are good, they are very, very good. When things go bad, they are very, very bad. So bad, that the field loses workers at an alarmingly high rate—who could have blamed the 22 year old me for walking away from a job that caused me to deal directly with a child’s death? This same job forced me to send love and strength, through my eyes, to a nine-year-old girl as a defense attorney tried to discount the fact that she was sexually abused. The work is hard, and unfortunately, dreadfully real.
The key to my continuity in this field is the fact that I am no longer employed as a CPS adoption worker. For eight years, I have been a Wendy’s Wonderful Kids recruiter. The heart of the work is the same, but the day-to-day is much different. I carry a very small caseload, which allows me to spend my time where it matters—with my kids and potential families. When things are bad, I am able to work through the situation more directly. Trust by all parties is paramount in getting to know a child, preparing them for adoption, addressing issues, working through feelings, selecting the right family and helping the family blend successfully. Without having the time to put into a relationship on the front end, there is no trust. I am able to utilize my clinical skills in a field I am passionate about, without being burnt out by the “system” as a whole.
Are there days where I feel “done?” Where things go terribly wrong, where I feel hopeless and that all of my efforts futile? Every. Single. Week. But these kids…our kids, they are our responsibility…my kids…they need someone and they have a way of reminding me that I am that person for them.
“D” is an almost 13 year old boy on my caseload. He is 12 years old and has been in foster care for 10 years. He has been on my caseload for eight years. In fact, he was the first kid I ever added to my WWK caseload. He has had one failed adoption and two long-term placements in residential treatment. I would be kidding myself if I said that there were not times that I just wanted to give up, tell myself I had done all I could do for him, delete my failure from my caseload and move on. Guess where D is right now? In the home of his great aunt! She is finishing up the licensing process in order to finalize his adoption. I first spoke to this aunt in 2009, just after she had taken custody of her four grandchildren. At that time, she was unable to be considered as a placement option due both to D’s needs and the needs of the other children. Because she was not an immediate placement option, CPS decided that it would be “too confusing” to introduce this relative into D’s life. It was better to continue to search for an unrelated adoptive family without the complication of biological family. For six years, this aunt called me to check in, to see how D was progressing in his foster home, in his treatment centers, with his adoption plan. In those six years, D had four different CPS caseworkers, four different placements, three different CASA volunteers and endless medication changes. I was the one variable in D’s life that never changed, the one person who his aunt knew she could call and get some kind of information on his well-being. I was also the person that was able to see the changes in her situation (two of her grandchildren grew up and went off to college!) and helped her start the process to take custody of D. Guess what? D is THRIVING. He still has the problems that he has always had, but knowing his aunt loves him and has claimed him as hers has made a tremendous difference in his motivation to do better in all areas of his life.
Eight years of my feeling hopeless. Eight years of worrying about another young man aging out of care and becoming homeless. Eight years of feeling like I was spinning my wheels and doing NOTHING to help a child born into a life and raised in a system in which he had no control. It took eight years for the pieces to fall into place, for me to see the big picture, and to realize without a shadow of a doubt that my work matters, with each and every child. Eight years to create ONE moment for a child in which he knew he was going to a permanent home. My kids are my responsibility. The WWK child-focused model works and we are changing lives.
I am so thankful for miracles, big ones like D’s adoption, and the everyday miracles as well. I get phone calls from kids out of the blue thanking me for being there for them years ago. I read Christmas cards from families year after year and I’m sent high school and college graduation announcements. It’s the small details of an ordinary life that make the big picture incomparably beautiful. They remind me that there is nothing else in the world I would want to be doing with my life. It is my job, but it is my passion. These children are our responsibility.
I will close with one more experience that speaks to the heart and soul of what it means to be a Wendy’s Wonderful Kid’s recruiter. On December 18, 2014, I found myself at an adoption finalization hearing for Becky. On that day, Becky was two weeks away from turning 18, had spent 16 years in foster care, had four failed adoptive placements, and two years before had begged the court to order a change in her permanency plan—she was done with adoption. The details leading to her actual adoption finalization are many, as are the difficult details of 16 years of life in foster care, but it is safe to say that her life story left a tremendous impact on the people around her. The courtroom was packed—with former judges, former attorney ad litems, CASA, caseworkers, therapists and friends. The love and support in the room was tangible. When it was over, it took hours for me to sort through my emotions, finally able to put words to my feelings:
“Day to day, my chosen profession is not an easy one. But occasionally, there are days like today; where I am privileged to be part of moments so overwhelmingly beautiful and full of grace that my heart nearly bursts with gratitude. Family matters y’all.”— Personal Facebook post 12/18/2014.
Above all else, family matters y’all.
Grace Lindgren, is a Wendy’s Wonderful Kid’s recruiter and works every day to find forever homes for children in foster care.