1. Ed Kennedy
    Ed Kennedy January 24, 2016 at 12:52 pm | | Reply

    Thank you . Erica.
    I am a GAL (guardian ad Litem) who works with these case workers all the time. If there is a more hard working group, I don’t know it would be. Most of their critics do not understand the population with whom they work, They are poor, likely to have substance abuse problems, and in general do not match up well with most of your friends. What is needed is understanding of their position.
    If you do nor like the system, stop complaining and DO something. There are needs for GALs, foster parents etc. Get involved, Do something positive. Complaining is easy, volunteering is not. Dtep-up.

  2. Lynn M
    Lynn M January 25, 2016 at 10:09 am | | Reply

    Great, important work Erica. Very hard to listen to, but a necessary exposure of what the case workers are dealing with. Thanks for your piece, and thanks to the case workers who do the work every day, and esp those who were willing to speak to you. They are inspiring.

  3. Tony Brower
    Tony Brower January 25, 2016 at 1:33 pm | | Reply

    Very strong show, Erica. I live in rural upstate New York where I’d bet that the situation is very similar.

  4. Cindy C
    Cindy C January 25, 2016 at 9:56 pm | | Reply

    Thank you for sharing this with everyone. No one knows what they do each day and how much they do to make a difference in a childs life.

  5. Elizabeth W
    Elizabeth W January 26, 2016 at 10:22 am | | Reply

    Thank you so much! As a foster/adoptive parent I appreciate the hard and difficult work these Caseworkers are doing. They truly care for these families and children. We need to focus on changing the laws in Vermont, not demonize these hard-working caseworkers.

  6. Phyllis
    Phyllis January 26, 2016 at 11:25 am | | Reply

    Great show. Only one surprise for me: the situations under which these case workers do their jobs if much worse than I imagined. There is no way on earth that I could possibly begin to do their jobs. It seems to me the issues are to great as to boggle the mind and everything I thin of that might help alleviate the many problems boils down to one thing: MONEY. Is it naive of me to think that the safety of these children should be the number one priority of the State of Vermont? What could possibly be more important?

  7. Eugene A
    Eugene A January 26, 2016 at 1:59 pm | | Reply

    I have listened to this twice and am part way through the third but pausing to collect myself to share my feelings.
    Like most vermonters I had no idea what the DCF really did beyond knowing in some gut level way that it was difficult , critically important and likely uncomfortable to be in the limelight especially since Lara Sobel died.
    Almost from the start of the show I was brought to tears by the pain and suffering of the clients who face poverty, helplessness and hopelessness and the amazing efforts of the case workers as they try to help.
    They like none of the rest of us, understand that many of these clients were dealt an unplayable hand at birth, many experienced simple bad luck with heath problems, educational trouble and some are reaping the hard consequences of a handful of bad choices.
    None chose the situation that has overtaken their lives. The stories these case workers tell fill me with admiration for them and for the beleagured DCF as they struggle against almost impossible odds to bring clarity and help to our less fortunate neighbors. Erica and the case workers have pulled back the curtain on the sad, grim reality that we may be losing the battle. I look forward to hearing a possible follow up show as she suggests where the client population might offer insights into how the DCF can improve its efforts.

  8. June
    June January 26, 2016 at 2:05 pm | | Reply

    Thank you so much for this episode. It gave me a thoughtful, and intimate view into both what DCF workers are up against, and the deeper social issues at the heart of the need for their work in the first place. This is such an important story, and I so glad that Rumble Strip took it on. This is such good work!

  9. *****
    ***** January 26, 2016 at 2:28 pm | | Reply

    Having worked in multiple Head Start classrooms here in Vermont, I’ve worked with many children whose families are involved with DCF. I’ve taught children involved with DCF and still with their biological families, just as I have children placed with foster families and working toward reunification. I’ve even worked with children who were taken from their families and placed with foster families over the course of the year, and as the one woman said, there is SUCH a difference. They thrive. They are able to do things they couldn’t before. But you know what? They still miss their families. Now, I am one to side with taking children away, getting them somewhere safe as fast as possible, and I have a righteous anger, even loathing, toward parents that abuse or neglect their children, even in small ways. It probably isn’t right, I should probably try to see their side-but I can’t. Even so, my heart is broken when a three-year-old girl (who is flourishing, healthy, as opposed to the gaunt and listless way she used to come in,) looks up at me and asks why she has to go to her ‘new house’ and can mommy pick her up instead today? She doesn’t understand. She can’t. She loves her mother still. There is no doubt in my mind that no matter what, there is heartbreak for all involved, especially the children.

    Thank you to all the social workers that are still working for the children of Vermont-I wish I were strong enough to do what you do. I couldn’t even stay with Head Start, it was making me too sad-and the things that I saw, the bruises, the aftermath, were not even close to what people like these women see every day. To what they are responsible to prevent, even when they can’t. I am planning on becoming a foster parent when I’m financially stable, always have. It’s the only way I can help, for now-but I think that if everyone just did what they could, it would go a long way to righting this great wrong against our children.

  10. Ruth Kassel
    Ruth Kassel January 26, 2016 at 4:16 pm | | Reply

    As a late-in-life attorney (female) I went into family law because that was an area in real life that I was most familiar with. I became a Law Guardian for children in Family Court in New York State. This was a new court at the time; we dealt primarily with custody issues. Children were often brought into court by a DSS (NYState Dept. of Social Services) caseworker who needed to intervene in terrible family situations.
    I interviewed children directly, and also talked with case workers who were on the scene. I needed to rely heavily on what those caseworkers told me. I always found them sensitive to the situations, insightful, and willing to go into unpleasant and dangerous places, because that was what was necessary to protect the children. God bless them!

    Erica, you did a beautiful job of bringing out their stories. They are saints, and worthy of recognition. Thanks for doing this piece!

  11. Nancy Miller
    Nancy Miller January 26, 2016 at 7:10 pm | | Reply

    Thank you.

  12. Kathy Mai
    Kathy Mai January 26, 2016 at 9:59 pm | | Reply

    I am grateful to Erica and the social workers interviewed in this piece. Thank you for shedding some light on a profession and agency often maligned, disparaged, and misunderstood. I was a social worker for DCF for three years, I resigned in 2014. It was the MOST difficult job I’ve ever had. I don’t think people grasp the responsibility DCF social workers are charged with and the social disparities families face. The problems don’t lie just with individuals and families but with communities and greater society. We need to address issues on all levels.

    I also worry about my former colleagues, especially those in the Barre office.

  13. Christopher
    Christopher January 27, 2016 at 7:56 am | | Reply

    Thank you for presenting this show. I would like to let you know that this problem isn’t just yours. We here in New Zealand have a huge problem with child abuse and neglect. It would seem that underfunding is prevalent here as well as there. Pennywise is such a narrow view. Surely money spend now on bringing an end to childhood suffering would give us well balanced adults who will not end up costing the state more in keeping them in prison or treating their children for similar problems.
    I look forward to hearing continuations of this as you post them.
    Keep up the good work your show is most informative.

  14. Brittany
    Brittany January 27, 2016 at 7:57 am | | Reply

    I used to be a parent who would yell and be rude to the social worker who was put into my life. I was in denial, frustrated and angry with dcf. My life was in turmoil and my kids were taking the brunt of it. I have two children, who at this time were 5 and 6 months old. We had just lost our apartment and were living in a hotel. Surrounded by drugs and drama. Neither of those things helped mine or my boyfriend’s sobriety. I felt hopeless and helpless. To top it off I had to report to someone I felt was judging me all the time. It was uncomfortable and invasive. I also had a really hard time understanding dcf’s involvement. Not because I am incompetent, but more so because I felt persecuted as a parent. I grew up in the system and resented it. I have since come to love and continue to talk to my Dcf worker even though our case has been closed. She pushed me to do better and be better even when I was so rotten to her. My story would make for a really long email, I don’t share it much but felt compelled to after I heard how much heartbreak the social workers who spoke had been through. My life is in an incredibly different place now. I believe there is hope for everyone and hopefully my story can help someone who has no hope.

  15. Ellen
    Ellen January 27, 2016 at 2:55 pm | | Reply

    Thank you for this show and thanks to the social workers who spoke. We have such a broken and underfunded system

  16. Libby
    Libby January 29, 2016 at 5:16 pm | | Reply

    Some of us GALs are now working to better educate our juvie judges, so that they may make better informed decisions from the bench – rather than potentially send a child back into an abusive family situation. This happens when a judge does not understand the implications for abuse, developmental trauma, drugs, neglect, etc on a child. The juvie court should be centered on the rights and best interest of the child, not the parent.

  17. Kelly
    Kelly January 29, 2016 at 8:24 pm | | Reply

    Beautiful and painful segment. And it completely jibes with my experience with DCF workers. They have been deeply caring and understanding of the families we were working with. It is very difficult work. And the case loads are unmanageable. Thank you for this story.

  18. Tina
    Tina January 30, 2016 at 9:27 am | | Reply

    Thank you Erica for sharing our stories and our lives. And thank you to my colleagues for your honesty and vulnerability.

  19. Jan van Eck
    Jan van Eck February 1, 2016 at 9:30 am | | Reply

    In a nutshell: “We’re not here to criticize you because you don’t have enough money to pay for your heat.”

    So the reality is that the root cause of a ton of the problems that load up these caseworkers is the abject poverty of the families. And yup, dire poverty leads to mental illness, and dysfunctional behavior including taking drugs.

    So, how does society deal with this? Well, in a nutshell, society – through its State Government – simply hires more older white women to be caseworkers. Take a good look at the “mourner” photo in the article. See anybody below 30? OK, below 40? Below 50? Men? Now, what does this tell you?

    It would seem logical that, if the root cause is abject poverty, and the AHR is the largest consumer of budget dollars in the tax stream, then the solution is to attack poverty head-on. And you do that by creating new industrial jobs. To be specific, new industrial jobs in high-value product manufacture, specifically light manufacture. You do not need a high school diploma to do most light manufacturing; yes, the engineers are needed for product design and to sort out industrial machinery, but the actual work on the factory floor can be done by just about anybody after some hands-on training. I once took a fellow with no education who could only find harvest work picking apples, and turned him into a machine tool-setter, at a serious industrial journeyman wage. It is entirely doable.

    Now, does society really want to do this? Nope. Society, specifically the State Government bureaucrats, and (some) Town Managers in Vermont (and the rest of the country) have no real interest in any of this. So far, the ONLY place in the entire USA that I have located that has a serious commitment to tackling poverty by creating new manufacturing jobs is the City of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And their efforts got sabotaged by a recalcitrant Gov. Walker and his right-wing stupidities.

    I can create easily 25,000 serious well-paid industrial jobs in Vermont just about overnight, with a starting wage of $24/hr gross – if, and only if, the government authorities are prepared to get on board. The costs of doing that are quite minor – ranging from a net cost of $1,200/job down to zero. I started my first factory at age 23 with only a thousand dollars in capital and four years later had two plants employing 44 families and exporting to three continents (and making a pile of money). Don’t tell me it cannot be done. I’ve done it.

    So the real question is: why do Vermonters not attack poverty in their midst? I identify a number of reasons, including a large dollop of very stentorian residual Protestant fundamentalism – you are poor because of your personal failures – but the thematic element is that there are those in power who benefit from the status quo. That specifically includes a ton of Vermont’s favorite people, the Lefties. Political control is a toxin.

    Until you politically decide that you are going to attack poverty, and make it possible for everybody to have a job, you are going nowhere. And you will end up with wrecked families, old women working for DCF interposing themselves into those wrecked families (with zero long-term effect), and a huge tax cost for everybody. Try to let that sink in, folks.

    Jan van Eck
    DJ Engineering

  20. Gin F.
    Gin F. February 9, 2016 at 3:08 pm | | Reply

    Wonderful. Heartbreaking. Terrifying. Thank you so much for sharing these stories.

    There are a hundred different ways that this system doesn’t work well. There are probably a thousand solutions to some of the problems. But they all require a seismic shift in the way we view poverty, addiction, class, and justice.

    Thank you, women of DCF for your compassion, tenacity, and bravery.

  21. Annie
    Annie February 24, 2016 at 11:08 am | | Reply

    Thank you for this window into the darker side of poverty in Vermont. The insight, compassion, commitment, non-judgment, and eloquence of the DCF workers and the challenges they and their clients face need to be appreciated by the whole state….how I can I help get the word out? I have worked, through home health, with familiesThis is a remarkable show, Erica. Thank you again and thank you to all the DCF workers.

  22. Sarah
    Sarah March 11, 2016 at 1:16 pm | | Reply

    Thank you for this show. I’m a foster parent and, although I have some criticisms of the system, I’m so amazed and impressed by my foster son’s social worker and the other social workers I’ve met. These are people who have accepted the responsibility of doing one of the most gut-wrenching and difficult jobs out there and their reward, besides abysmal pay, is that they get to be everyone’s punching bag every time something goes wrong. As some other commenters have said, the health and safety of Vermont kids is the responsibility of every Vermont adult. But it’s not just a question of poverty per se (though it is that, too); it’s also about the profound wealth inequality that’s flourishing in this state (and nationwide, too, of course). I live in WRJ and I love our community, but I feel such a sense of cognitive dissonance every time I drive ten minutes north to Norwich and every time I think about the kids graduating from school there versus the kids graduating from school here and how different their futures might look and feel like. We can’t repair our communities and our families without somehow narrowing the opportunity discrepancy; honestly, I think that starts in the schools and equalizing educational opportunities so that it’s not just a feast of opportunities for wealthy kids and famine for the poor kids, but that’s a whole other conversation….Except that it’s not because it’s all related.

  23. Carrie
    Carrie March 13, 2016 at 8:46 pm | | Reply

    Thank you so much for your recent episode on DCF. While I’m from almost as far away in the continental US as you can get from Vermont (Washington State), this episode proved so enlightening. I’m a school social worker here, and even though I went through my Master’s in Social Work program with individuals who trained with DCFS (what we call it here) and CPS, I still don’t have much of an understanding of the system. I myself get frustrated with CPS when I feel as though they aren’t doing as much as they should for students of mine, just as was reported in your story. This gave me more insight and perhaps will lead to me having more productive relationships with the local DCFS workers here (yay!). Social work in general has a high burn out rate, but I think child protective work has some of the very highest. Thank you for sharing the stories of these social workers – they hardly ever get press that isn’t negative. I love your podcast with your knack for storytelling and such original topics!

    Thanks, Carrie Hubert, School Social Worker in three small, rural school districts in Eastern Washington

  24. Vicky
    Vicky April 28, 2016 at 11:19 am | | Reply

    A colleague recently shared your show from several months ago in which you interviewed several DCF staff. I was so moved listening to this conversation that I wanted to reach out to you and thank you. As a former director of a public child welfare system in DE, I have never seen the challenges, heart aches, and humanity of child protection so honestly and respectfully presented. You captured many of the conversations that happen millions of times each day across this country, but usually only behind the closed doors of supervisors or with loved ones at home. I have been so humbled to see people dedicate their lives to this very hard, but incredibly rewarding work.The challenges are many to be sure. Finding that line between our country’s values of family autonomy in child rearing and when intervention for protection is truly necessary is so much harder than most appreciate. Thank you for helping others get a glimpse of what it means to do this important work.

    Keep up the good work. If this country had more media coverage like this, there would be more light to guide us.

  25. Paul Falcone
    Paul Falcone July 7, 2016 at 7:34 pm | | Reply

    Some years ago I worked for VT Weatherization, fixing or improving houses and rental units. These were all low income, shabby dwellings. One place had three little kids, a screaming mom and a smacking hand. The kids were on their own to find food of any sort. The diapers fell off one of the toddlers and there revealed cheese still wrapped in plastic in the diaper because the kid did not know to take the plastic wrap off. None of the kids talked but made baby sounds we could not understand. The mother smacked the kids and said “You knew that was coming,didn’t you?” So later I talked to the two I worked with and they agreed, ” things were not right.” I suggested we call Social Services and they wanted nothing to do with that, so I had to do it on my own in secret, so the boss would not know, as he was very much against getting involved. I hope it was a help but have no idea if it was the right thing to do, though now I feel I would still do the same.

  26. Adam
    Adam October 18, 2016 at 2:12 pm | | Reply

    August 31, 2016
    Dear ______________,

    I recently listened to an episode of Erica Heilman’s outstanding podcast, “Rumble Strip Vermont”. As you can probably guess, the episode in question was “Inside DCF”. As I listened to the episode, and your stories, I found myself deeply, deeply moved, and contacted Erica to ask if she would be willing to forward this letter to you, to thank you and provide a few words of encouragement and gratitude.

    So here I am, sitting alone at my desk at home, late on a Friday night with my wife and kids in bed, trying to figure out what to write to someone I have never met and whose name I don’t even know. I’ve tried writing this letter a couple of different ways, and I keep struggling with this key issue: why, when I am trying to write a letter to you to thank you for your work, do I keep wanting to write about me? Doesn’t that turn what is meant to be a recognition of your work and effort into a symbol of selfishness? Maybe. Maybe this letter shouldn’t be a letter, maybe it should just be one paragraph, saying “Thank you. Keep up the good work. You’re making a difference and although you must often feel overwhelmed, alone and underappreciated, please know that there are people out there who believe in you and your work and we owe you a debt of profound gratitude for doing the work that most of us can’t even bear to acknowledge is necessary.”

    But another part of me feels like just saying “thank you” isn’t enough. I want to explain why and how much I thank you, and why I was so moved by listening to your stories. If you are busy or tired or have kids you need to put to bed or just want to escape from work by drinking a beer on the sofa while watching TV and the thought of reading a long letter from a stranger makes your stomach queasy, then feel free to toss the rest of this overly long and self-indulgent letter. Please know that I’m not offended and my gratitude to you is no less. On the other hand, I feel like one of the amazing things about podcasts, and Erica’s “Rumble Strip Vermont” in particular, is that they connect people who live hundreds or thousands of miles apart in very different circumstances, and give them the opportunity to learn a little bit about each other. So here is a little bit about my life that led me to cry while listening to the podcast and to try to reach out to you…

    I’ve had three experiences in my life doing true public interest work. In each case, I was immature at the time and my involvement was fleeting. First, in high school I worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Second, after college I briefly taught fifth grade in a public school in East New York (part of Brooklyn), the 2nd poorest district in New York City. Third, during law school I advocated for services for very young children with developmental delays. Each experience made a strong impression on me.

    At the NAACP LDF, I assisted attorneys with various research tasks or helped review correspondence from inmates on death row (or their relatives). It was also an opportunity for me to learn about the history of the death penalty in the United States and my first real exposure to serious crime and poverty. Whatever your political views on the death penalty overall, it is impossible as a high school student to read stories of horrendous crimes, and of people in dire circumstances with a long history of abuse, neglect and deprivation, and not be moved by it. I was also deeply impressed by the lawyers who worked at the NAACP LDF. These were lawyers who had attended Harvard and Yale law school, who could have earned many times what they earned at the NAACP LDF by choosing to work for a prestigious law firm, but instead chose to work in a tiny, grungy, poorly lit office in New York without any support staff. Though they occasionally (but very rarely!) complained about the poor pay and conditions, it wasn’t the fact that they had foregone financial rewards that impressed me. Instead, it was the mere fact that they could continue to do that work for decades on end. Just reading about cases frequently brought me to tears, both in the office and hours later, when I was safely in my parents’ comfortable apartment in Manhattan. Moreover, the job required incredibly long hours with dim prospects for success. Many cases did not succeed. It is one thing to work long hours for low pay, as long as you get the emotional satisfaction of achieving a positive outcome for your client. It is a very different thing to do the same thing, then lose and have your client be executed. How do you live with that responsibility without going mad? How can you have a happy and fulfilling family life? How can you enjoy yourself in your “free” time? The lawyers at the NAACP LDF didn’t adapt by hardening themselves and seeking distance from their clients. Instead, they were deeply emotionally involved and committed to their clients, for whom they had been advocating for years in some cases. To this day, I don’t understand how they did it. At the end of the year, when my internship ended and I left for college, I was grateful to be relieved of the emotional stress.

    Years later, after college and after teaching at a couple of universities in Germany, an odd set of circumstances led me to teach 5th grade in a Brooklyn public school. I took over a class that didn’t have a permanent teacher before I arrived. The class had had a series of temporary teachers until then. I walked into a classroom of 33 fifth graders, each with their own personality and set of unique challenges they faced. If you had told me it was possible to have a collection of students with heartbreaking stories as diverse as those of my students, I wouldn’t have believed it. Even Hollywood movies don’t try to cram as much tragedy as I saw into a single classroom. Here is a sampling of the students I taught almost 20 years ago:

    • A boy who had bounced around from foster family to foster family, but who seemed to have landed with a caring foster mother together with his older brother, whom he adored. His brother was arrested for allegedly stabbing someone in a fight, and the boy in my class was both distraught at the loss of his brother, and obviously neglected as his foster mother was wholly preoccupied with trying to defend the boy’s brother and get him out of jail.
    • A boy from Burlington, Vermont, whose father was never around and whose mother was addicted to heroin and unable to care for him. His elderly grandmother rode a bus from New York City, took him, and was caring for him (in hindsight, I have concerns about her authority to do what she did, but he was clearly better off for it). Her intentions were undoubtedly good and she did her best to care for him and make him feel loved despite her own limited resources, but it was clearly awkward for him to be separated from his mother and his hometown, living with an elderly relative who didn’t always understand him.
    • A girl whose father had died of AIDS, whose mother was about to die of AIDS, and whose older sister had twice tried to commit suicide. When I met her, she was volatile and violent. Her moods and emotions were impossible to predict and she would erupt at the slightest provocation. Months later, she proved to be an incredibly sweet girl who was desperately seeking attention, affection and stability.
    • A boy who suffered from crippling asthma (as you are probably aware, asthma is an enormous problem among poor, inner-city children, due to high levels of contamination from cockroach and rodent feces, air pollution and secondary smoke) that kept him out of school an average of 2-3 days each and every week. When he returned to class, he had trouble following the lesson (since he had missed the groundwork leading up to the lesson), got bored and acted up, leading to disciplinary problems. This was exacerbated when he was held back a year. A boy who was already taller than other children in his grade, he became a giant when held back. Whenever there was an altercation, he stood out and received a disproportionate share of the blame. Moreover, his mother reported to me that, due to his size, gangs were already actively trying to recruit him (he was only 11 years old at the time).
    • Three boys who were recent immigrants from Bangladesh, spoke little English and were physically small relative to their peers. In a classroom where fights initially broke out every 5 minutes, these kids bore the brunt of it. They were at the bottom of the social ladder and easy pickings for everyone else. I literally feared for their safety.
    • An intelligent, diligent, hard-working girl who always followed the rules and tried her best, but who was obviously being held back by her peers and the circumstances in the classroom.
    • A big, strong boy who never looked at me, never did any homework, never answered a question, never completed a reading assignment or followed directions, and who was wholly unresponsive to all efforts to reach out to him, but who aced every test or assessment he was given with a perfect score. His parents were recently divorced, he missed his father and resented his mother, a petite woman. She told me he fell into rages at home, she couldn’t control him, and actually feared him. He desperately wanted to return to his father.
    • A 10 year old homeless girl. She and her mother had moved from the area into a homeless shelter that was an hour away by subway. Because she wanted to stay in the school for the remainder of the year, she traveled an hour each way every day by herself. I was 6 feet, 2 inches and weighed about 230 pounds and I was often scared to ride the subway alone.

    I could go on and on. Every student had a story that made me want to weep.

    Apart from the personal challenges the students faced, there were the physical limitations of the school itself. My 33 students were crammed into a classroom designed for 24 students. The heat in winter was inadequate and would be shut off on weekends, so it wasn’t until Tuesdays that the classroom was warm enough for students to take their jackets off. Mondays were a horror: my students would leave their puffy winter jackets on all day, frost forming on their breath when they exhaled. In an overcrowded classroom, any movement would result in one student’s jacket brushing against another student, which immediately led to a fistfight. I would spend all day hurdling desks and trying to break up fights. Teaching was almost impossible. If anything, it was worse in the summer: no fan, no air-conditioning and no windows that could be opened when summer temperatures hit 96 degrees with high humidity. I bought a fan and brought it into the classroom, but the fights over who could sit closest to the fan were so bad that I hid the fan in the closet, told the students it was broken, and never used it again.

    The school was so overcrowded, they brought in modified shipping containers to use as temporary classrooms and put them the only place they could: on the playground. This, of course, meant there was less room to play, so only half the students could go out at recess each day after lunch. The other half would spend their lunch break building up resentment that would explode as soon as they returned to the classroom.

    My classroom had a small library of books that the students were supposed to borrow and read. It was obviously a random collection of books that was thrown together to give the appearance of well-stocked shelves, without any effort to ensure the books were grade-appropriate. In a 5th grade classroom where hardly anyone was reading at grade level, we had an 800 page history of Rome and a 500+ page biography of Nixon.

    What about the teachers and administrators? They must have been awful, too, right? All just lazily punching the clock until they could put in for early retirement, right? Nope, just the opposite. These were all people who held masters’ degrees and who could have earned tens of thousands of dollars more teaching a few miles away on Long Island in comparatively affluent communities. Yet they chose to stay at this budget-strapped public school in East New York teaching over-crowded classes with students who had every emotional problem under the sun. Why? Because they genuinely loved teaching, loved the students, and felt they were making a difference. Again, I couldn’t imagine how they made a career out of it. Even putting the poor pay aside, I found the job emotionally and physically draining. I was so exhausted there were days where I could barely make it home and was tempted to just sleep in my classroom after preparing for the next day. Emotionally it was no better. After the last bell rang, I would head straight to the office of the student counselor. After a long day of dealing with the emotional problems of at-risk students, she then had to deal with me walking into her office bawling, an act I would often repeat at night in my bedroom when the day’s events and my students’ stories would catch up to me. My only therapy was lingering in the doorways of teachers who taught extracurricular classes after school. There the children were transformed. Relieved of the stresses of regular class, they would draw or sing or play and finally looked like children again, not balls of fear, anger, frustration, stress and sadness.

    Through it all, I had to listen to the endless rhetoric of politicians and the public blaming teachers and schools for failing to solve society’s ills. As one teacher put it: “They are in our classrooms for about 6 hours a day. The other 18 hours a day we have no control over.” You can’t expect schools to solve poverty, drugs, health problems, marital problems, abuse, homelessness and racial tensions. As school budgets keep getting cut because nobody wants to pay property taxes, we expect more and more of our schools and teachers, while consistently portraying them as the bad guys. I left and wound up going to law school, but teaching was the hardest job I’ve ever had, and I have tremendous respect for the teachers who have devoted their lives to helping these kids and passed on easier and more lucrative opportunities elsewhere.

    While in law school I did some volunteer work for an organization that would advocate for public services (mostly various forms of therapy) for children with developmental delays. All of the children came from extremely poor households, and most were the children of parents who were mentally ill, themselves had mental development issues or abused drugs. In many cases, it was apparent that the parents were barely able to take care of themselves, let alone provide a stimulating environment for their children. And I was shocked at the delays some of the children exhibited even at an extremely young age. Verbal skills, fine motor skills, gross motor skills…these kids were so young and already so far behind. I couldn’t tell whether their delays were due to undiagnosed physical problems inherited from their parents, prenatal drug exposure or due to the negative effects of neglect and their environment. But I was frustrated at how difficult it was to provide help, and at the level of help we could facilitate, even if we were successful. It was difficult to reach parents, difficult to arrange meetings (which were often missed after I had spent a lot of time traveling – unsurprising given that some parents had trouble telling what day and time it was, let alone making and keeping plans to meet on a specific day and time in the future), difficult to reach aid organizations and city officials, and difficult to procure services even where it was clear the children needed them. I didn’t blame anyone, because I generally think everyone was doing what they could. Many of the parents were handicapped to a degree that they had difficulty understanding what we were trying to achieve, and it would have been unrealistic to expect them to attend appointments on time or suddenly start reading fairy tales to their children every night. And the aid organizations and city officials clearly had too much work, not enough time and an almost non-existent budget that was obviously incapable of meeting even a fraction of the demand for these services. A part of me started to despair and wonder: is it worth it? What’s the point? Even if we received approval for a child to receive services, I had trouble believing that the parents would be able to ensure that the children actually received the services regularly, and I had trouble believing that an hour a week was ever going to be sufficient to overcome the massive delays and environmental hurdles these children faced. Even with years of therapy, I’m inclined to believe that many of my child clients would never be able to obtain a job or really care for themselves.

    So what’s the point of these stories? Why do I bother telling you this? It’s because – even if only briefly, even if only indirectly and even if only on a smaller scale – I at least understand some of the issues that you face and overcome to keep doing your job. The low pay, the long hours, the physical exhaustion (especially if you also have a family), the toll on your emotional well-being and personal relationships, the public criticism from those who speak without any true knowledge or sense of compassion and decency, and the occasional bouts of despair and doubt. Seeing children and families in distress is one of the hardest things I have ever done, and for the most part I wasn’t even directly exposed to it. I’m sure you have seen things 100 times worse than I ever experienced or could imagine. Moreover, you are able to do it for far longer than I ever could. My experiences above never lasted more than a year. I couldn’t bear facing these issues for any longer and honestly don’t understand how you are able to do it – you must have deep emotional reserves, a profoundly strong sense of self and a drive to serve and help others that I can only imagine. You do what I could not, and you give of yourself in thankless anonymity. Serving and protecting children and families…it is hard for me to imagine anything more important, or more noble. The successes are incredibly uplifting, but failures can be crushing, with a sense of guilt that is hard to shake or reason away. So after all of that, I come back to the short statement I provided at the beginning, but which I hope rings truer and more sincere in context:

    “Thank you. Keep up the good work. You’re making a difference and although you must often feel overwhelmed, alone and underappreciated, please know that there are people out there who believe in you and your work and we owe you a debt of profound gratitude for doing the work that most of us can’t even bear to acknowledge is necessary.”

    Wishing you all the best from the very bottom of my heart,


  27. Ed
    Ed October 18, 2016 at 3:26 pm | | Reply

    I work with DCF caseworkers all the time. I recently saw three of them leave because of the pressures of the job. There may be a group that is more underappreciated than this, but I can’t imagine who they are.

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