The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Respect, Listen: A Longtime Child Welfare Worker on What Works
Tayia Day

MyraMae King spent about 40 years working in the child welfare field before she retired in 2012. She came to the Represent office recently to talk about what works and what doesn’t in foster care. She is tiny, with purple hair, and looks younger than she is. She became very animated when she talked about helping children.

MyraMae’s first job in New York City was at Inwood House, which serves pregnant and parenting teens. I asked her what was the most effective pregnancy prevention technique, and she said, “Information given the right way,” meaning a conversation, not a lecture. “Listening is important for everything,” she said.

She later worked for NYC’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) as a caseworker. “I went to every single case conference,” she said, “because I believe that every single kid in foster care deserves to be totally represented.” She says her advocacy and listening often led to small changes that helped a foster youth. “One girl was always late to school, and I asked, ‘Does she have an alarm clock?’ She didn’t, and so I made sure she got one.”

She gave another example, of a girl whose foster mother wouldn’t let her in the house because she had stayed out until 3 a.m. The foster mother said, “Go back to where you were.” MyraMae said indignantly, “How did I find these things out? Did the agency tell me? No, the girl told me that!”

She then told us how that should have been handled, her voice getting louder and faster: “You let her in, you let her go to sleep, and you talk to her the next day. Maybe call a caseworker. Find out why she came in at 3. Why does she stay out late? Try to get to the root of what’s going on. Together the social worker and the group home or foster parent can work it out. Put yourself in the girl’s shoes: How would getting locked out make you feel? Maybe she needs to be moved. The idea is to find a solution.”

Education Helps

MyraMae observed that workers with master’s degrees in social work (MSWs) or other higher degrees tended to push more than those with less education to get foster kids extras that could enhance their lives. They also understood more about what families and children were going through. “When children are first taken out of their home, the first person to be there for them should be an MSW, a trained person. That way there would be fewer removals. Foster care agencies say, ‘We can’t afford an MSW.’ Well then, you’ll spend all this money keeping kids in care longer.”

MyraMae worked for ACS again in 2001 and 2002. She was in charge of seeing how well programs worked and said she measured “quality, not compliance.” When we asked her what the difference is, she said, “Quality isn’t just how many home visits were made, but what happened in that home visit? What went on in the last six months? If something’s wrong, how do we fix it?”

She said she tried to improve care by changing “the C’s.” She said, “The C’s people are used to are criticism, control, correction, and compliance. A quality service for youth emphasizes different C’s: communication, cooperation, collaboration.”

The goals of her recommendations, she said, were to “strengthen services, assure child safety, encourage permanency, and empower children and families to become independent from the system.” People in the agencies could get defensive that ACS was coming to visit, but she tried to reassure them that they all shared the same goal: helping children and families in trouble.

Better Visits

From 2004 to 2006, MyraMae worked at Salvation Army Foster Home and Adoption Services with families whose children had gone into care. Her job title was Visitation Specialist. When I was coming from care back to my mother, we didn’t get visits to prepare us. I asked MyraMae what she thinks makes a good visit.

She said, “Everybody’s able to come, and if they didn’t come, why not? If the children were younger, I’d make sure there were lots of toys.”

MyraMae said if she was attending a parent-child visit, “I tried to stay in the background. But sometimes they needed me to get them talking. I’d prompt a child, ‘Do you want to tell your mom about that thing you did this week?’

“I made sure as many visits as possible were outside the agency—the toy store, McDonald’s, or just walk down the street holding your kid’s hand. Sit in the park. Between visits, I’d prompt people to write and send each other birthday cards.”

Sometimes MyraMae would guide a parent who was being tough on her kids. “I’d say ‘Maybe there’s another way to talk about that subject.’ But sometimes friction in a visit isn’t all bad. At least it’s communication.”

image by YC-Art Dept

Improve Preventive Care

MyraMae believes that courts terminate parental rights too quickly. “If the child is in foster care for a certain amount of time, they start to terminate rights. And they don’t give enough extensions. It can take time to re-establish contact; it can take time for a parent to get better.”

She worked at an agency called New Alternatives for Children from 2007 to 2009, in both foster care and preventive cases. Her title was Quality Assurance Associate, and again she tried to make the system work better for kids. One of her suggestions was to help kids stay in touch with their former foster parents if it was a good family and they’d gotten close. “When kids go home, they may miss that foster family,” she said.

She acknowledged that “some foster parents are just in it for the money, and some are great. I’ve met them and everyone in between.” Because emotions are high and so much is at stake, it’s essential that you respond to each individual and not an idea of what “a foster parent” or “a mother who’s had her children removed” is.

She tried whenever possible to keep or bring families back together. “There should be more respect for birth parents. For the majority of families, the goal should be reunification.”

One flaw she saw a lot was that “birth fathers were routinely ignored, in both preventive and foster care services. They often weren’t invited to case conferences.” She would ask why the agency wasn’t trying harder to get the child’s father involved. “Children all know they had a father,” she pointed out. “Just because he’s not in the picture doesn’t mean the kid doesn’t wonder about him.”

In many of MyraMae’s jobs, she created or looked over case records. To show us what agencies keep track of, she brought us a big purple notebook of the records she kept at New Alternatives. They included education records, medical and mental health records, records of recreational activity, information on other children in the foster home, sexual issues, records of visits and contacts with siblings, and more. When she reviewed a case record, she said, “I’d find people often didn’t put everything in.” The more you know about a child, the better you can help him, she said.

You could tell MyraMae cared by the way she talked so passionately about kids she’d worked with 20 and 30 years earlier. I asked her if she had general advice for everyone in the foster care system. She answered, “Respect people more. Ask better questions.”

A Social Worker’s Rx For Improving Foster Care

Child welfare employees need better training and qualifications, especially those who are there when a child is removed.

Give parents more chances and more time to get their lives together.

Help kids maintain relationships with former foster families and caregivers if they desire.

Try to hold visits outside the agency and make them fun.

Involve birth fathers more. Invite them to case conferences.

Keep detailed case records.

Listen to and respect people.

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