Social work can be so taxing in part because it so often means being on the front lines of overwhelmingly large problems that exist on a society-wide scale: substance abuse , mental illness, unemployment, poverty, and housing discrimination, to name a few.
Judith Schagrin is the assistant director for children’s services for Baltimore County, Maryland. She oversees the county’s foster care and adoptions program, which includes the approval process for foster parents and making sure that children don’t linger in the foster-care system. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Schagrin about how she’s stayed motivated for more than 30 years in the same field, the challenges facing the foster-care system, and what families have stuck with her the most. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Adrienne Green: How did you get started in the social-work profession?
Judith Schagrin: I was 9 years old when I heard about a social worker for the first time. I was always intrigued by social work and about working with people in need. I was very fortunate to grow up in a family where both of my parents were in service professions, so serving others came naturally to me. I am grateful and privileged to have had a wonderful childhood, and I believe every child deserves that. I started out in social work in 1979; I’ve been at the same agency in different capacities for the last 33 years. I ended up in public child welfare, which was not at all what I wanted to do at the time. I thought, “I'll stay here for 2 or 3 years.” I've never left.
Green: How has the state of foster care changed in Baltimore County in the last 30 years?
Schagrin: The greatest changes have been the result of computers. Child welfare has become much more highly regulated. The fix to every problem in child welfare is a new policy, and of course, documentation to go with it. We complained about all the documentation 30 years ago when we kept paper records.
On the positive side, we're now able to gather much more data to better understand our population: who the children are, their ages, the demographics. We're able to identify racial disproportionality. But now, there's also a much heavier emphasis on the documentation—almost as a proxy for doing good work. If you enter your contacts within a certain period of time, you must be doing good work, when realistically, that doesn't measure your engagement skills with families.
Schagrin: We serve children who have been found by the Juvenile Court to be children in need of assistance as a result of maltreatment, or a disability that renders a parent unable or unwilling to provide care for them. In Baltimore County, we serve roughly 800 to 900 children a year: 50/50 boys and girls. Our younger children are proportionate to the Baltimore County racial population, while our older children are more mixed. The younger children tend to come into foster care due to maltreatment—typically neglect that's related to substance abuse or mental illness. The older kids have been subjected to often chronic and complex trauma as young children, and have some really serious behavioral and emotional needs.
There's been a great emphasis on reducing the number of children in foster care. The reality is you can't work to the numbers. For any child who is unsafe, for whom we can't engage family in creating a safety plan, foster care saves their lives. Nobody has been able to say, “This is the right number of children in care.”
Schagrin: We can't live with people. We can't put cameras in their houses. We have a fairly rigorous home study process that includes background checks, several interviews with family members, and references. We work really hard to study a family as thoroughly as we can, and engage them in a conversation about our kids’ needs [in order] to enable them to make a good decision for their families and ensure that we have families who can stick by them.
Green: A common critique about foster care is that despite doing the best that it can, it doesn't always actually provide children with the safer situations. What happens to the kids that slip through the cracks?
Schagrin: I am really grateful that, in my 30 years, we’ve rarely had children who were mistreated at the hands of their foster parents. The more typical concern for us is stability: foster parents being able and willing to meet children's needs and to really care for them unconditionally. Our kids come with trauma backgrounds and often behave accordingly. I unfortunately think of foster-care placement sometimes as arranged marriages. Somewhat like arranged marriages, sometimes they work out and sometimes they're just a bad match.
When a child enters foster care, we make as good a match as we can, but it's often based on not very much information. We also purchase some treatment for foster care from private agencies. In those cases, we may not be totally in control of the family that child is placed with.
Green: What happens if it's a bad match?
Schagrin: We try, whenever possible, to make a plan to keep that child stable as long as that's the right decision for that child. We engage the family, foster and biological, in helping to make a plan at family decision-making meetings. If we're concerned that a placement is shaky, or if we're hearing that a foster parent is going to ask for the child to leave, we'll convene a family meeting that includes the child (if they're old enough), the foster parents, the agency that works with them, and the child's parents.
Green: It seems like you've worked with a lot of families. Is there any family, or a particular child, that really stuck with you?
Schagrin: I've seen some foster parents who I really felt privileged to have met them. I’m just in awe of their love for the children and the quality of their care. Then I've met people who I don't know why they became foster parents. I have been doing this a long time. I’m actually still in touch with some of the—I still call them kids even though they're complete middle-aged grown-ups—kids I worked with all those years ago, I marvel at their resilience and who they've become as adults.
I think biological parents also get a bad rap. They, too, are often victims of maltreatment as children, or poor care giving. I've seen some biological parents do some really awesome work to remedy what brought their child into care.
Schagrin: I think people become foster parents for all different kinds of reasons. I actually was a foster parent earlier in my career. I knew I was becoming a foster parent because, at that point, I was single and childless and I really wanted the opportunity to parent and experience foster care from a completely different point of view.
I think the closer people are to understanding what need fostering meets for them, the better foster parent they are. When foster parents get upset that the kids don't appreciate them, I know we're in trouble. Our foster children shouldn't have to appreciate having a nice Christmas, or the kinds of things everybody else's children take for granted. They shouldn't have to be grateful. They should be able to anticipate a childhood filled with birthday parties, celebrations, nice gifts, and nice clothing, and a decent place to live. Sometimes, when foster parents have unrealistic expectations of kids, it can be very painful. Our kids sometimes aren't easy to live with. There's some saying I saw, that sometimes the kids who need love the most ask for it in the most unlovable ways.
Green: What is the most challenging thing about your job?
Schagrin: Our work is largely governed by laws made at a federal and state level by people who have never done this work. It's become increasingly political. I don't think there's an appreciation for the importance of the workforce. Lawmakers think all they have to do is pass regulations. They can pass a law that says, “All children will stay stable in schools.” Nobody could disagree with that, but they [often] won't make the resources available to ensure that that can happen.
Green: How do you deal with the emotional element of your job?
Schagrin: I think it's always making sure that the children are front and center, and that I don't get unemotional about the struggles the kids have. Some of it is just a God-given ability to suck it up, and have an endless amount of concern and caring for kids. Some of it is just my personality: I’m able to find light in almost anything is really important, and not taking myself too seriously.
Green: Do you ever become frustrated with the foster-care system?
Schagrin: Becoming frustrated with the system and the things I see over, and over again, is probably a daily part of my life. Having had a really wonderful childhood myself, and having a privileged life myself, gives me reserves to call upon. It helps me never to lose sight of people who aren't as lucky. It's a pay-it-forward.
One of the great frustrations is that the foster care system is really poorly understood. You Google “child welfare and foster care,” and there are people that are striking out against it saying: “The government is just coming in and taking children.” They create the misperception that our social workers just go into homes and take children for no reason. People would much rather think that we're just going in and ripping families apart. I can give you some horrible stories: Children, as a result of a parent's mental illness, were barricaded in closets and not cared for; children living in households with hoarders where someone has died; children whose parents are so drug-addicted that the 7-year-old and 6-year-old are left at home to care for a baby.
People think of child welfare mostly in terms of physical abuse, but it's really mostly neglect. There are still the children that are terribly physically abused—arms broken, belt marks, sexual abuse. There's a lot more to all of these stories, but it is the culmination of years of neglect, mental illness, or substance abuse. We don't remove children because their parents are mentally ill or because they are substance abusers; there is no law against bad parenting. We remove them because their care has been seriously compromised, and we're not able to assure their safety.
It's a very complicated system with many checks and balances, including the juvenile court and their growing involvement over the last 30 years. So we aren't alone in making these decisions. We are a largely under-resourced, though very costly, social service. We, as a country, don't always put our money at the front-end in terms of the number of kids that we can prevent from coming into care if we could get a handle on the substance abuse problems.
Green: Do you think the work that you do plays into your identity as a person?
Schagrin: I think, over the years, it's become who I am. I started off on my career telling people that the last thing I would do was work in a public agency, or work in foster care. I've been incredibly grateful to have opportunities to start programs that have made significant differences in children's lives. I also had the wonderful opportunity to start a sibling camp to reunify brothers and sisters who live apart in foster care. For a week every year, I get to spend a week with the kids. When someone asks, “How do you keep going with the bureaucracy and the frustration?” It's spending a week with them every year and reminding myself why I do this work.
It's incredibly corny to say, but there's absolutely nothing like looking into a child's eyes and knowing that you've made a difference. Or hearing from a young person 30 years later, “Are you the Judith Schagrin who saved my life?”. Or, “You're always someone I knew I could trust.”