Everyone knows a social worker. Maybe a friend or relative who works in a hospital, school, correctional facility or county office. Some social workers become family counselors, some throw their energy behind particular causes, and some team up with elected officials to advise policy decisions. The indisputable fact is that few social workers share the same responsibilities, and knowing a social worker is not synonymous with understanding the path they’ve chosen.
Even among the Lilliput Families team, different social workers play different roles. I set out to meet a few of Lilliput’s finest and finally answer the question on every outsider’s mind: What do child welfare social workers actually do?
My journey to enlightenment began with Raquel Gonzalez, a trusted field worker in the Kinship Support Services Program. Raquel holds down the fort at Lilliput’s Placer County office, just off Interstate 80 in the scenic Auburn hills.
I sat down with her on a Thursday morning, shortly before she met with a family to sign adoption paperwork. I thought that if I asked her to describe a typical work day, I could pinpoint the daily duties of kinship social workers. She quickly informed me that with her job, no two days look alike. In hindsight, I probably should’ve seen that coming.
To prove her point, Raquel gave me an example of a recent work day she had experienced. It was a Monday, and she was assisting a family with guardianship paperwork — the most common thing that people are referred to her for. In a perfect world, guardianship papers will get signed by the child’s birth parents, but social workers and families often struggle to track them down for signatures. In this particular case, the family seeking guardianship happened to be in contact with the birth father. She didn’t want to pass up on the opportunity to easily get him to sign, so she drove straight from their meeting to the father’s home without hesitation. With his signature squared away, she then headed to the courthouse and waited for about an hour to file the paperwork. Just like that, her Monday was filled.
Luckily, Raquel is used to the flexible schedule and long waits.
I couldn’t help but wonder how someone whose caseload spans all of Placer County gets everything done if a single phone call or unplanned request can redirect her attention for the day. Over the last nine years that Raquel has worked at Lilliput, she says she’s learned that organization is key. She has a color-coordinated calendar and she avoids procrastinating, that way if something distracts her from office work, she won’t fall far behind.
What kind of work could she fall behind on? Well, I guess the answer depends on the day. While chatting with Raquel, I learned that, on the whole, kinship social workers provide resources and support to family members and close friends of children who need a home — any caregiver who fits the definition of “kin.” On the day-to-day, that could mean assisting with adoption or guardianship paperwork, filing papers in court, attending court hearings, providing children with basic items (like backpacks), conducting home visits, writing notes for her cases, and assisting caregivers in any other way possible.
While most of Raquel’s schedule exists in a state of flux, she can count on a couple of calendar items to stay consistent. She hosts a support group for caregivers on the first Tuesday of every month, and another one every third Thursday. Wednesday afternoons are when the court hears guardianship cases, and she often sets aside chunks of time to accompany families and provide moral support.
I can only imagine that kinship social workers — who spend 40 hours per week helping others — require their own support system, so I asked Raquel how she stays afloat when the job gets difficult. Her answer fell into three categories: friends, family, and passion.
The friends Raquel made when she first joined the Lilliput team continue to be there for her. They’re in different offices and programs now, but they’ve each found ways to remain close — sometimes even hanging out on the weekends. She said that nobody can understand her work challenges quite like her coworkers can. Makes sense!
When each work day ends, Raquel looks to her family to help her recharge. Occasionally, she schedules late appointments to accommodate families’ situations, but for the most part, she works a standard 8 to 5. “It’s really important for me not to take my work home,” she said. In a digital society, disconnecting from work stress can be difficult, but Raquel has found a solution: She eliminates distractions altogether by shutting her phone off when she goes home. Thankfully, she said, her job as a kinship social worker allows for that.
Finally, Raquel finds the energy to succeed at work each day simply because she is right where she wants to be. When I asked her how she feels about her career, she kept the response short and sweet, telling me that she loves — no, loves— her job, especially the fact that she gets to assist new families each day. When she was in college, she switched majors several times before eventually settling on social work, and she chose that route because of its versatility and orientation around service. “I wanted to serve everyone,” she said, and since joining Lilliput, that goal hasn’t changed.
Let’s revisit the question that I set out to find: What do child welfare social workers actually do? By getting to know Raquel, I was able to get a general grasp of what kinship social workers do and what motivates them to make a difference — but we’ve only scratched the surface.
What about other social workers at Lilliput who aren’t part of the Kinship Support Services Program? Who works with non-kin caregivers? How do children in foster care fit into the picture?
Check back later this month as I tackle some of these questions and recap my conversation with a social worker in the “unmatched” adoption program.