Everybody remembers their first day in their professional career, in one way or another. Either remembering the butterflies of the unknown or the anxiety of meeting new co-workers or even the excitement of finally using the skills that were learned in school. I remember being handed a list of children’s names of whom would be assigned to me. My first position out of Graduate school was as an “in home therapist.” The expectation was that we would travel to see all of our assigned children both in their home environment and in their school environment. All of my kids that I was expected to see, their ages ranged from 5-18 years old. I noticed while looking over my paperwork that there was a little girl, “Erin”only five years old. Next to her name, the paper read: “Current Issues: enuresis at night, anger/aggression, removed from biological mother and siblings, nightmares and cries often.” I was scheduled to visit her for the first time in her foster home.
I walked into “Erin’s” foster home and sat down with her foster mother attempting to acquire clinical information about “Erin” and her current treatment needs. “Erin is scared to go to bed at night- she says that is when the monsters come in and hurt her Mommy… We suspect that she has been either sexually abused or at the very least present in the same room when her mother would have men come into her bed.” Erin is very angry, cries easily and is very easily distracted. She has nightmares and is afraid most of the time.”
I sat there listening intently to “Erin’s” foster mother with goosebumps all over my body, especially with this being my very first home visit as a social worker. I had only graduated with my masters degree two months prior to this exchange… the exchange that I will never forget.
This beautiful brown hair, brown eyed, cautious little girl came over to me. “Erin” asked, “what’s your name?” I replied, “I’m Kristi.” “I miss my Mommy… I want to live with my Mommy!” The tears of this little girl began to flow and the heart of this very “green” social worker began to break. I left my first home visit after one hour of obtaining historical information on this five year old little girl. I was exhausted…emotionally and physically drained. My first day as a social worker and I felt as if I broke all of the rules that I learned in Graduate school which included the repetitive mantras echoing in my head “do not show your client your feelings as it will burden them, do not allow yourself to become emotionally attached, if you have a strong reaction or feeling about someone or something, be sure to seek consultation!”
I followed “Erin” from foster home to foster home, from her first school setting to her 5th school setting, from inside the courtroom to supervised visits with her mother and siblings. I followed “Erin” as her state assigned case workers changed over and over again. I followed “Erin”as her assigned counselor for nearly four years and I broke every rule that I learned!
I cried after leaving her at some of her foster homes. I cried after hearing her tell stories about being mistreated and being bullied by her foster siblings. I cried each time she wept about missing her mother and her brothers. I cried after testifying in court for her. I cried when “Erin” would ask if I could be her Mommy. I spent many hours consulting with peers and colleagues about “Erin’s” case- I remember saying “if I could, I would take her home with me.”
Not for one moment do I regret letting my heart care so much about “Erin.” Not for one moment do I regret shedding tears over what some colleagues in my field may refer to as a “client.” This relationship tested my every skill as a social worker, as a professional, and as a child advocate. I learned so much about myself because of this therapeutic relationship. I learned that I will probably never become “cold” or so far removed from those individuals in which I serve, nor will I allow myself to hold back on being “me.” “Erin” knew in her heart that I truly cared a bout her and that no matter how many foster homes she was placed in, that I would be visiting her. I never let “Erin” know just how much her situation affected me. However, what I continued to reiterate to her is that I cared. I told her that I may not be able to take her pain away or place her back with her mother as she wished, but that she would always be able to talk to me as long as I was her counselor.
I ended up leaving the agency of which I was working for soon after “Erin” was permanently placed with a wonderful foster family who would’ve liked to adopt her. I felt as if I could leave without abandoning her, like she was feeling about so many other people in her life. I left the agency and life continued…
It was approximately two years later and I was shopping in my local BJ’s store. I heard “Erin’s” voice. I reminded myself that I was not supposed to acknowledge her, yet I was so anxious to see how she was. I turned the corner and there she was! “Miss Kristi! Remember me?” Right behind her was her foster mother- I was relieved to know she was still with the same family. “Erin” greeted me with a big hug and even bigger smile. I was able to easily reciprocate with a large genuine smile. “Erin” and her mother told me that the courts would still not allow her foster family to adopt her, even years later and more disappointments from her biological mother. “Erin” filled me in on her academics and church involvement. Things seemed to be going well for”Erin.”
It is approximately four years from my last encounter with “Erin.” I’ve heard that she was no longer with her foster family and that as a teenager she was having a lot of difficulty; running away, getting involved with the wrong friends, having school issues, etc. I’m saddened when I think of “Erin’s” troubles which seemed to have started long before she really had any say in her life. My first professional therapeutic relationship taught me so much about myself, my professional self and the reality of the field of social work. The lesson that I learned is that no matter how much you care, how hard you fight, how much you give; some situations just don’t turn out the way you wished they would for the individuals or families that you work with. Does this mean you failed? Absolutely not. Does it mean our job is unimportant? Absolutely not. It simply means that we owe it to all of our professional relationships to give our best to the relationship and to hold on to the hope and idea that maybe, just maybe somewhere down the road the therapeutic relationship can prove to be helpful in the lives of the people we serve…it may not be when “we” want, but possibly at a later time. I guess the bigger lesson learned as well, is that sometimes it’s ok to break the rules!