It’s been a long week, and I’ve not had the time I generally care to have to dedicate to a particularly cohesive entry. I’m writing on my lunch break today. I have felt like I’ve been in the finals week of grad school between private clients, my full-time job, and rushing to complete materials for submission for this year’s ACA conference. Those have been time consuming, but it’s also been an emotionally draining week – more Department of Social Services and Child Protective service calls and cases than usual. I have always found that it is not the calls themselves that get to me with these agencies, but the difficulties I have witnessed in my clients – it often seems they do the opposite of what the client feels they need.
At best, being in the system isn’t easy for children. Simply being stripped away from their family for a reason they may not understand is often the beginning of deep-seated self-doubt. Why is this happening? What could I have done differently? What did I do wrong? What is wrong with me? These questions aren’t always internally generated either – they may suggested by the adults in their lives as well. These children are subsequently thrown into a system of doubt and instability - foster care placements are sometimes as abusive and traumatic as the situation the child was removed from. This may go on until they hopefully find an adoptive family who is willing to bring them in for the right reasons – not to get a government check.
It also seems that sometimes when DSS or CPS services are needed the most – they fail to come through. Teens become acutely aware of this it seems and I’ve had it shared on more than one occasion that after an investigation “doesn’t turn anything up”, the home environment gets worse. Parents seem able to play Jekyll and Hyde as they move between their interactions with social workers and their families. This makes children all the more hesitant to engage in treatment, because at times doing so may have very real effects on their home life once a report is made.
Of course it is not the case that this is how these reports always go – I have certainly had cases where the system intervened when necessary. These children are often thankful to some degree, but may still be involved in the chaos that is foster care. I suppose we’re susceptible to some of the same things our clients are – remembering the failures of the system more easily than its successes. How we as counselors engage with this system is something that I don’t believe we pay enough attention to in our training – we are separate, but at the same time a part of. Not employed by but mandated to report to. This can be an especially difficult thing for clients to understand and us to work through – they may desperately want to share and work on themselves, but full disclosure from them may put them at risk. I’ve flat out had teens tell me “I want to tell you and work on this, but I can’t because you’ll have to report it.” Striking a balance between these two positions is a difficult task, but one that once done, engenders a significant amount of trust within a child. They may come to see us as both an advocate for them and also to some degree, as being powerless in some sense as well. Recognizing that others care but are also human can be a powerful experience for a client.
With all of that said, it can be helpful to recognize and acknowledge our scope and ability. It is my job to provide unconditional regard, support, and advocacy, but I often lack the power to create change when it is needed most. Being powerless doesn’t feel good, and patience is not one of my virtues, but I am able to take solace in the fact that I’ve done my job to the best and full extent of my abilities. Persistent effort and patience will hopefully pay off.
Ben Hearn is a new professional who is currently working as a school-based counselor. He is passionate about working with trauma and enjoys applying the fields of neuroscience, philosophy, ethics, and psychopharmacology to counseling practice.