As a senior social work student, much of my time is spent outside the classroom completing hours for my practicum. During my junior year, I worked with Porter County Juvenile Probation, and this year, I’m working with Porter County Department of Child Services (DCS).
At DCS, I work on the assessment side of things, which means that I investigate reports of child abuse and neglect in our county. My Tuesdays and Thursdays start bright and early at 8 a.m. at the Porter County office in downtown Valpo and conclude at 4 p.m. Each day we begin with staffing, also known as “case conferencing,” where we report to the supervisor if our reports have been initiated in a timely or untimely manner and whether we had grounds to see the children without contacting parents or received parental permission. From here, each family case manager has their own schedule for the day which typically consists of visiting children and families at school or home, attending juvenile court, or visiting inmates at the Porter County Sheriff’s Office. Other activities, although less frequent, involve attending forensic interviews at Dunebrook Inc. (a child advocacy organization) or visiting individuals at local hospitals.
Working as a family case manager is not for the faint of heart. You need to be empathetic and caring but also firm and authoritative at times. Much of my job involves showing up to see clients unannounced which can really throw people off guard. Other times though, our meetings are scheduled which eases tensions on both sides. Our ultimate goal at DCS is to ensure the safety of all children we receive reports about. Anyone is welcome to report suspected child abuse and neglect to Indiana’s statewide hotline, and the reports that are screened in by our trained operators come to us after supervisor review in three initiation timeframes: 5 days, 24 hours, and 2 hours. Occasionally, we may even receive a 1-hour report. I’ve always been interested in working with children and families and sought this practicum opportunity out to gain more experience doing so. I knew the job would be hard, but I never imagined some of the things I would see or lessons I would learn.
Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned to date at this job is the difference between poverty and neglect. Despite the fact that Valparaiso is thought of as a relatively well-off community, this is not the reality that many individuals in our county exist in. Families are struggling to pay their utility bills, put food on the table, get to work, or even just make it to the next week. Of course, we want all children in our community to have a safe and happy upbringing, but just because a client may live in different circumstances than you prefer does not constitute abuse or neglect. What’s important is that children have access to all their basic needs: a place to sleep, somewhere to use the restroom and bathe, food to eat, and someone looking out for them. More often than not, our job is to provide community referrals to families to help them get back on their feet, or at least moving in the right direction.
In the almost five months that I’ve worked at DCS, I’ve seen the harder side of life. I’ve seen children die, broken homes riddled by drug use and domestic violence, and the effects of a society that cannot adequately provide mental health care. While this has been hard, I’ve also witnessed the triumph and hardiness of the human spirit. For the most part, this is a thankless job, which is something I’ve had to come to terms with. However, I will never forget the grieving mother, who had recently lost her 9-year-old daughter,pause to say thank you and give me a hug after representing her and walking her through court proceedings. At the end of the day, we’re all human trying to make ends meet, but kindness goes such a long way. On good and bad days alike, I hang onto this fact and remember the sincere thank you’s I’ve received along the way.