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Reflections From a Social Worker Trying to Adopt Children
By Laurie Freidman, MSW, MGA, LSW

Eighteen months ago, my husband and I officially began our journey to adopt children from the child welfare system. Despite more than 12 years of social work experience,
I was completely unprepared for the feelings that being a client evoked: the intimidation I felt by the complexity of the child welfare system, my weariness of who was trustworthy among our workers, and how often it felt as if we were nothing more than pawns that would (hopefully) culminate in a “match” with children in care.

As I reviewed the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics, I found myself reflecting on its meaning in a different light. I was reminded of how each action and inaction and each spoken and unspoken word impacts a client’s willingness and desire to continue with services, how complex many of our systems are, and how difficult it is to ask for help.

According to the NASW Preamble, the core values serve as the “foundation of social work’s unique purpose and perspective.” There are six core values that all social workers should strive to adhere to and from the values follow ethical principles that guide our daily work. Please note that all the Values and Ethical Principles that follow are taken directly from the NASW Code of Ethics that was approved in 1996 and revised in 2008.

Value: Service
Ethical Principle: Social workers’ primary goal is to help people in need and to address social problems.

Social workers are in the trenches daily, providing much-needed services to others and implementing many governmental regulations. In particular, the code speaks to social workers “elevating service to others above self-interest.”

We were so appreciative that the adoption agency we chose held trainings at multiple times in multiple locations to offer us choices and minimize the disruption to our work schedule. In particular, there was one training that was difficult for us to attend, and the trainer worked the next class around our schedule. This seemingly insignificant action meant the world to us and truly made us feel respected and valued as we had been flexing our schedule to attend weekly two-hour parenting classes, meeting biweekly with our social worker, and satisfying all the required clearances and background checks.

On the contrary, one of our social workers often mentioned her own day care situation as a barrier to her ability to meet with us at certain times. Though I completely understand that we all have personal lives outside of work, this bothered me. Wasn’t it her job to meet with us? What did I care about her personal situation? I would have preferred simply being told specific times didn’t work for her without knowing her personal constraints.

As we worked with this social worker more closely and became involved in the process of matching with a specific sibling group, she went above and beyond. She explained she had to miss an important meeting because a close family member was in the hospital. Nonetheless, she called us when she could and listened to what we had to say. By this time, I knew she truly cared about us and was doing her best to help.

Value: Social justice
Ethical Principle: Social workers challenge social injustice.

Social justice recognizes that multiple inequities exist in society. Our experience led me to believe it is extremely difficult for a married, middle class family where both parents work full time to foster/adopt a child from our welfare system.

I found that multiple barriers existed throughout the process, such as requirements to travel to the office during the workday to read the psychiatric report of any child we were potentially interested in. Since we were adopting from the child welfare system, we would technically be foster parents first. As a foster parent, we were required to transport the child to all visits with his/her biological family in addition to counseling appointments, doctor appointments, school, etc.   We also had to interview with county caseworkers about potential matches during the day, sometimes an hour away from our home. There were several instances when we were called about a potential match only to be informed we would have to take the child into our home within a week. Matching events were often held an hour away in the early evening during the week. My husband and I both had very flexible jobs and understanding bosses, but this was an additional stressor.

While we were prepared to make some changes in our lives to allow for children, we did not want to reduce our work hours until we had the child in our home. But it seemed that until we did that, we could not meet all the requirements to be a foster parent. After six months of parenting classes, why hadn’t anyone informed us of this? At first I thought maybe we had missed something, but in talking to fellow potential adoptive families, I realized they were facing similar frustrations. There were some workers we encountered who understood this dilemma and worked late or drove to our house for interviews to allow us the flexibility we needed.

Value: Dignity and worth of the person
Ethical Principle: Social workers respect the inherent dignity and worth of the person.

After having worked with some of our most vulnerable children in homeless shelters and residential facilities, I firmly believed that many of these children needed a home with a family who would love them unconditionally and provide support and structure.

The Code of Ethics states that social workers “seek to enhance clients’ capacity and opportunity to change and to address their own needs.” I initiated the adoption process with a phone call to our county child protective agency. I was sent a packet that included more than 20 agencies that licensed foster and adoptive families. I called several agencies with the following results: Many of my messages were left unreturned, phone numbers were incorrect, and receptionists were impolite and did not know to whom to direct my questions. I didn’t understand why I had to struggle to get information about a service they were supposed to provide.

This made me more aware of my own work. How many times have I failed to return a  client’s call or just said I didn’t know the answer or couldn’t assist them instead of trying to help find them the correct resource? How many times are clients greeted with an answering service instead of an empathetic human being? Until I did it myself, I never realized how intimidating it can be to make that initial phone call to ask someone for help and invite them into your life; it is even more difficult to have to repeat this multiple times.

Value: Importance of human relationships
Ethical Principle: Social workers recognize the central importance of human relationships.

Though I had provided in-home services for several years, I had failed to appreciate the courage it takes to invite someone into your home who is judging you and your lifestyle to make a recommendation about your qualifications as a parent.

We appreciated when the workers thanked us for allowing them to visit our home, even though we all knew this was a requisite part of the process. It meant a lot when, in the midst of a complicated and stressful potential match, our worker simply apologized that it was not working out as we had hoped. We all knew it was not her fault and there was not much she could do, but what we needed was to have another human being join with us in our disbelief, frustration, and helplessness.

Conversely, I felt like nothing more than a pawn when a county worker literally shuffled us out of an interview when our allotted time (of which we were not previously aware) was up. We had driven one hour after being told there were three potential matches and informed upon our arrival they had already matched one of the babies the week before and the remaining two children required us to have them move in within a week. The county worker was not interested in forming a relationship with us to talk about these kids or possible future matches; as soon as she found out we could not take the current children, we were essentially dismissed.

Value: Integrity
Ethical Principle: Social workers behave in a trustworthy manner.

The core values are intertwined, the lines of one often blurred by those of another. If we believe in the dignity and worth of each person and the importance of human relationships, then we are called to act with integrity. If we do not act in an honest, responsible manner, how can we treat others respectfully and build healthy, working relationships?

Integrity can be boiled down to doing what you said you were going to do when you said you were going to do it. I recognize there are inherent barriers in the social worker-client relationship, barriers that are necessary to protect the worker and the client. We are not friends; this is not a social encounter. So how do we build trust? “Little” things quickly add up.

We trusted the workers who showed up when and where they said they would; we appreciated when we received timely responses to our voice mails and e-mails and when our workers were available at off hours to accommodate our schedules; we appreciated that if someone didn’t know an answer, they told us where we could find it or when they would get back to us with an answer (and they did!). Communication is paramount; it took us months to understand each person’s role in the process (and there were many!). We lost a lot of trust in the system when we were told the licensing process would take six to eight months and it took us 11 months to be licensed despite turning paperwork in within 48 hours when requested, never canceling an appointment, and attending all trainings.

Value: Competence
Ethical Principle: Social workers practice within their areas of competence and develop and enhance their professional expertise.

When events did not unfold as we had been told and expected, we began to question the competence of the system and the social workers we encountered.

There was a strong division between the foster care and adoption departments. Given that this was the same agency and we technically had to foster before we could adopt, many of our questions couldn’t be answered by the adoption worker with whom we worked primarily. Yet, we couldn’t be assigned a foster care worker until children were in our care.

It was also frustrating to be asked the same questions repeatedly by multiple persons. We repeatedly explained why we wanted to adopt, our views on discipline, the support we had from family and friends, etc. I wish they would have just read our file and asked whether anything had changed. This is something I have tried to be aware of, as clients we work with are often asked to repeat their stories on multiple occasions.

I have grown tremendously as a social worker because of our experience. Being on the “other side” of interactions has allowed me the opportunity to truly put myself in the client’s shoes. I can better appreciate the importance of each of our profession’s values and how this makes us unique as social workers. As I continue my professional practice with clients, I will remember how I felt when a social worker did or did not treat me respectfully, advocate for my needs, act with competence, and seek to know who I was as an individual. I will remember how it felt to trust (or not trust) my social worker and believe she was working for social justice on my behalf. I will also remember that to err is human, and it is never too late to apologize if I make a mistake and seek to rectify it. 

— Laurie Freidman, MSW, MGA, LSW, is an adjunct professor at Temple University and an outpatient therapist at Presbyterian Children's Village.