Mary is a MSW social worker in her late forties who has specialized in foster care and early childhood development programs for a number of years. She works for a highly respected private agency which placed 4 year old “Albert” in one of the agency’s homes. Two other children from the agency, each with different workers, were also placed in the same home. The children, as well as the foster mother herself, received separate biweekly visits from the three social workers. All of the professionals believed that the foster mother was doing an adequate job. In a shocking and tragic incident, however, the foster mother, who had an undisclosed mental health condition, decompensated and beat young Clayton to death. As the primary social worker assigned to this case, Mary describes in the paraphrased interview which follows both the incredible pain of this event for her as well as her own process of professional and personal healing over the months following this horrible foster care tragedy.
I got a call very late on a Saturday night from my agency administrator saying that she had just heard on the radio that one of our foster parents was reporting a missing foster child. It was my case! It was impossible to sleep for several nights, as I was so frightened for the sake of the child. A few nights later, the police called me, also quite late, and said they believed that they had cracked the case, and they wanted me to come to the police station right away. My administrator picked me up at my apartment and took me to the station. I thought I was probably going to identify the child’s body. However, at the police station I learned from one of the other young children, who had been brought there from the foster home, that the foster mother had actually beaten “Albert” a few days ago. I was numb as I didn’t believe that this foster mother was capable of such a deed. At this time I learned that she had been arrested. And then I was told that the child was dead, and his body had been found …
I felt exhausted and numb at the police station, as we were questioned over and over. I was supposed to be taking care of the other two foster children, who were there. Then “Albert’s” natural mother arrived at the police station. She had disappointed the children constantly by not coming for visits, even when she had led them to believe she would be there. Now she arrived as the “grieving mother” and demanded to take her other son with her, who was eight years old and had also been in the foster home. However, the child protective worker, who also was there, did not want her to have contact with this son. The mother was hysterical and the situation was horrible. At the station there was no place to care for the other 2 children; one of them wet himself and was very embarrassed. We had no toys for them; we tried to help them sleep on the couch of a small waiting room. We were kept there for 4 hours, until 3:00 a.m. It was a terrible strain, and at some point I simply had nothing else to give these children emotionally. Fortunately, my administrator was a big help that night in assisting me with them. Finally the CPS worker was able to take the 2 children to a shelter, and we were able to leave.
I came into work the next few days and focused on going through the older sibling’s chart. I was trying to help the CPS worker develop her legal case for not returning the eight year old to the mother, as she was demanding. My colleagues were very supportive during this time. Half of them are clinical therapists, and they seemed to know just how to respond to someone in shock as I was. Basically, they understood the grief I was going through and put up with my “craziness”. If I needed to take a walk, one of them would be available and go with me. I had permission to cry and scream about what had happened, and I did. They were very nonjudgmental and focused on me in a way that was not usual. One person came up to my desk and gave me a shoulder massage.
I told my boss that I felt I needed to take three days of vacation and just get away. My clinical supervisor said that I needed however to brief her about my other cases before I left. It was difficult to get along with this supervisor who could be very abrupt and erratic at times. I explained to my administrator that I did not feel I had the strength to discuss any of the other cases at that time, and she helped by getting this difficult supervisor out of my hair.
The state’s child death review team came in to interview me on about the third day. They went through the record with a fine tooth comb. They reassured me that they did not feel that anything which had happened was my fault. They felt that there were no yellow flags or indicators that I should have picked up on or noticed. Even though I was not blaming myself, the interview with the state was positive, supportive and substantive. It was actually very satisfying for me. They had a few questions about the foster mother’s inquiries about her check, wondering if the foster mother was demonstrating that she was in this job for the money; however, my administrator fielded these questions for me.
A few months later my administrator told me she had received the state’s report and had written a letter in response. She asked if I’d like to go over it with her. I declined to do so because, by that time, it was resolved. I knew for myself that I had done the best I could. I had done my own emotional introspection. I had been validated, and I did not want to revisit the experience and dredge it up again. She accepted that.
During the first few weeks after the incident, I continued to feel the supportiveness of the staff. The other 2 workers who had been visiting the same home had all had the same positive impressions of the foster mother that I had had. It was a fortunate and unusual circumstance there had been three of us visiting in the home.
Even though I was shocked and deeply affected, I felt it was lucky that I was the worker rather than a young inexperienced one. I had visited in hundreds of homes. I knew what to look for, e.g. whether a child might cringe when picked up by the foster parent. None of these signs of a problem had been present. Therefore, I did not question my judgment. If such a tragedy had occurred to a person in their first job, that person could have been shattered. I wasn’t like that.
I took off several days of work plus a weekend. I told my son I might seem a little crazy. The shock felt like the death of a spouse; my judgment was shot. I felt distracted and was disassociating from things around me. I called my husband from whom I had been separated for about a year, and he agreed to meet me at a hotel. We had a room overlooking a courtyard with a pool. I didn’t want to go out and be with the people, but rather to open the curtain and to just sit behind the glass and look out.
I then went to visit my mother and aunt at a beautiful retreat center near my mother’s home. The three of us shared a room together. I was on edge and short-tempered with my mother, but both she and my aunt kept looking out for me. I was still not sleeping, and they gave me permission to get up at any hour of the night and play solitaire, even though it might wake them up. They knew that I was going through this upheaval.
After this retreat, I went back to the job and tried to get back into the routines. I did have a weekly session with a therapist for four weeks. Basically, I was allowing myself to do what I needed to do; meaning, I was not trying to “hold myself together”. I let myself go with my impulses. For example, I went to a baseball game and yelled and screamed. I went to a Chinese restaurant and ordered a nice meal but realized I didn’t actually feel like eating it. So I had the waiter box it up for me. The staff at work continued to be sensitive to my ques. They were available to be supportive without pressing themselves on me.
I guess my advice to other social workers is that they not be surprised by the grief they would feel if a child dies on their caseload. One may disassociate from one’s surroundings. For instance, you may, as I did, be driving along in your car heading for one place, take a wrong turn, and end up somewhere else. It is important to have an acceptable place to express the grief. It would have been a lot harder if my colleagues had not been so tolerant and sensitive to my reactions. I feel fortunate to have been with these thoughtful and clinically trained people.