Let’s Hear it for the Social Workers!

Written by Susannah Petty, Tennessee Department of Children’s Services

March is Social Worker Appreciation Month, and Susannah Petty with the Department of Children’s Services shares about her experiences and how communities can show support.

I never thought about going into the social work field to be honest. I came from what many would call a “broken home”. My parents divorced when I was 10, which left my mom a single parent with the responsibility of providing for and raising two children alone. My life before my parents’ divorce was not easy. My father was controlling, mentally and emotionally abusive. Over time the abuse turned physical, and I was often the receiver. I also watched my mom go through the same things I was going through with my father. He would not let her work, and we were socially isolated from other kids. I grew up never knowing if the day would be a good one or a bad one with my father. While I know he loved me, in his own way, he had a hard time expressing it and being able to control his feelings, especially his anger.

After my parents divorced, I thought things might get a little better, but they only got worse. My father’s hatred toward my mother for filing for the divorce was taken out on me due to me being so much like my mother. I remember being told I was worthless, that I would never amount to anything, that no one would ever love me, and that I would never be pretty enough for anyone to want me. Those can be some of the most damaging and traumatic words to hear, especially coming from a parent who is supposed to love and protect you. I carried so much trauma around for many years, not knowing how to deal with it or what to do with it. There are many times my life could have taken a wrong turn with one bad decision here or there, but thankfully I had my mother and other loving family members to help me through some of my dark days and be a support system for me.

After high school, I went to college and studied Criminal Justice and Sociology. I have always enjoyed working with children. I wanted to work with at-risk youth who may have gone through similar situations but did not have the support system I had to keep them out of trouble. I applied for a job with the State of Tennessee as a social worker. When I was hired, I walked into the field totally blind, as I didn’t have any previous social work experience. What I found was a world I never knew needed so much care and attention. Some of the most at-risk youth are in the foster care system.

Some of the most rewarding things I have experienced as a social worker include being able to reunite children with their parents and/or family, witnessing parents turn their lives around and change their ways, and seeing broken homes mended. I have seen parents put aside their differences out of love for their children. I’ve watched a child turn his attitude and behaviors around to increase his chances for a brighter future. I’ve witnessed children find their forever homes and families through the selfless and loving act of adoption.

One of my greatest rewards came from a very special young lady I worked with, who for years did nothing but fight against me and the help I offered. We went through a lot together. On the day of her high school graduation, I was the only one there for her ceremony. She told me that day how thankful she was that I never gave up on her and all she put me through. Sometimes children just need to be shown consistent and unwavering love, care, and compassion.

There is no normal day in the life of a social worker. Most people think this job is an 8-4 or 9-5 job, but there are no set hours. A caseworker might pick a child up at 5:00 AM from a foster home because the placement was only temporary (meaning for a night or couple of days). She may have to pick a child up from a foster home to take the child to a medical, dental or therapy appointment, a court hearing, or a supervised visit with a parent or family member. He may have to accompany another worker to a home to remove a child. She may go shopping for a child who comes into custody with no clothes or personal belongings. Caseworkers wear MANY hats. Those hats can regularly range from being the “bad guy” to being a friend, protector, listener, confidant, counselor, and many more.

There is a never-ending amount of paperwork to do to maintain a case file, to prepare for court, to make referrals for services for the family or individual. There are long days and sleepless nights. There are days where caseworkers sit in the office for hours at a time with a child who has returned from runaway, whose placement cannot be secured, or to assist a team member with the same situations. Being a social worker is a team player job day in and day out, but each day your team members can change and include people from all areas of a child’s life.

Caseworkers could certainly benefit from community support. We don’t want to place children in custody or take them away from their families. A caseworker’s number one priority is to ensure the safety of the child. Some of my most heartbreaking moments have been removing a child from a home or a child having to leave a parent from a court hearing or visit. Children naturally want to be with their parents; however, if it’s not in the best interest of the child, steps must be taken to ensure the safety of the child. Caseworkers are assigned the task of making sure children are safe regardless of their own opinions and personal bias. When communities have a clearer understanding of the work caseworkers do each day and see them in a positive light, they feel valued and respected for the hard work they do.

There are many ways community members, businesses, and faith-based communities can help support and care for caseworkers. Here are some ideas:

  • Put together hygiene kits/care packages for children so social workers don’t have purchase those items using their personal funds (e.g. a bar of soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, brush, comb, and deodorant OR socks, a pair of pajamas, and a couple of t-shirts)
  • Provide lunch for caseworkers at the office to show that they are thought of and appreciated
  • Stock the office with K-cups, sodas and snacks
  • If you’re a business owner, offer a discount for social workers during the month of March

Tennessee Kids Belong invites and challenges you to find one way you can show support and appreciation for social workers in your community during the month of March. If you need help getting connected to DCS or a private provider, email us at info@tnkidsbelong.org, and we can help. Let’s overwhelm Tennessee social workers with love and care this month! Many thanks to Susannah for sharing her story, passion and ideas with us!

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