by Alison Bell
What is it like in the day of a foster care social worker? It’s both harder and more rewarding than you might think.
Patience and wisdom. Check.
Ability to smooth over potential conflicts with skill of a diplomat. Check.
Tolerance for long hours spent in a car. Check.
On-demand problem solver. Check.
Loving heart with capacity for great joy or heartbreak. Check.
If you had to make a short list of qualities needed for a foster care, social worker Laura Cruz meets the requirements. Now in her fifth year working for Hillsides’ affiliate, Bienvenidos, Laura spends long days supporting children and families in foster care.
Laura’s job begins when a child is matched with a resource (foster) family. Bienvenidos has a stable of 96 resource families, with 233 children across Southern California either in or needing placement. Each week, Bienvenidos fields some 145 calls and emails of children needing a home.
Once a child is matched with a resource family, Laura coordinates with the social worker from the Department of Children and Family Services and works to activate the child’s medical benefits. Next she visits the resource family and child, surveying the home, answering any questions, and offering her support. If birth parents are involved, she also meets with them to work out visitations between them resource family and the child.
Laura can carry a caseload of 15 – 17 children. While a child is in placement, she is tasked with making sure they are well-taken care of and getting all the services they need while also supporting both the birth and resource family. A placement can last anywhere from a few days to several years, sometimes ending in adoption. Bienvenidos has an office in Montclair, California and Pasadena, California, but her work can carry her as far away as Victorville, as the families she serves are spread across many miles.
During the first three months of a match, she meets with the child and resource family weekly; after three months if the home is stable, every other week. She oversees all aspects of a child’s life, such as doctor visits, educational needs, birth family visits, and collaborates with county social worker, therapists, and attorneys to meet a child’s needs.
Along the way, she forges relationships with the children and goes the extra mile to ensure they thrive. She takes children to the movies and other outings, and recently took one of her teens to an event where the teen was pampered and provided with a prom dress, shoes and accessories. She even spent a couple of months driving an hour from her home to arrive at a child’s home by 6: 30 a.m. to get him out of bed and ready for school when his resource family was growing frustrated because they could not rouse him and motivate him to attend school. “These are the types of things the majority of the social workers at Bienvenidos do,” said Laura. “We can’t help but get involved and create the best possible outcomes for the children.”
One challenging aspect of her job on occasion is navigating the inherently conflicted relationship between birth and resource parents. Both want the best for their children, but may have different ideas on how to achieve that goal. Another tough scenario is when resource parents who have become attached to a child must relinquish them if the child is reunified with their family of origin. “They know it’s in the best interest of the child, but at the same time, it can be devastating for the resource family,” she said.
The job also comes with built-in heartache. For example, Laura recalls how once Bienvenidos was unable to place seven siblings together in one home since the resource families could only have up to six children in a home, including biological children. Therefore siblings were separated into four homes. As two siblings separated from their brothers and sisters, one little one began to cry and scream because he didn’t want to get into the car that he knew would carry him away from his family. “I lost it that day,” remembered Laura.
On the flip side, whenever she’s tired or feeling burned out, the kids lift her spirits. “They have such good energy,” she said. “When I come into a home some of the little ones run to me, and hug me, and are excited to see me. This compensates for any stress of the job.”
Laura didn’t start out her career in foster care. She worked at a group home shelter for years, then switched to substance abuse education. In 2013, she became interested in foster care when her brother, Edward Cruz became a resource parent with his wife Michelle. (Edward, by the way, and his wife Michelle, adopted a little girl, Leah, a year ago.) Edward’s mother-in-law has worked for Bienvenidos in foster care and adoptions for 29 years, and herself fostered and adopted a child. When Laura started out at Bienvenidos, despite the family connection, she was a novice to the field. “I had to learn quickly, all from scratch,” she said.
Today, despite the challenges and the varied qualities the job entails, Laura is hooked on her profession. “The clients are like extended families to me,” she said. “I can never quit – my families and my children need me.”