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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What a Caseworker Saw
Represent staff

Helen Marek spent almost 25 years working in the foster care system in Virginia, as a foster care social worker, a prevention worker, and then, an investigator. She talked to Represent about what it was like to work on foster care’s front lines, and make the tough decisions about putting kids in care.

How would you investigate a report of abuse or neglect?
If the child is potentially in danger, the requirement is that you see the child immediately. You learn how to interview children under these circumstances. I used to do a lot of drawing with kids, and just gradually talk about it. Then I’d talk to the child’s teacher, to the neighbors if I could, to relatives—everyone I could find who had actually seen the home environment. And I usually ended up with a sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the family. And they could have terrible weaknesses but they could have some good strengths, too. So it was hard figuring out the best thing to do. And often the best thing to do was just to open a case and follow it for a while and try to provide some education and services.

How do you determine when to remove a child?
I don’t think anybody is enthusiastic about taking kids into foster care. It was good for some kids, and not good for most of them, I thought. It’s a question of really deciding whether the child is in imminent danger.

I was reluctant to remove because there is no substitute for at least one good biological parent. You put all this time and energy and effort in and you do the best you can, but it’s not the same as having one parent who can do even a minimally good job.

How much say do kids have over getting removed? Does that vary by age?
You can only remove when there’s an immediate threat to life or health. So at that point, children don’t really get a say so. We’re not removing the child from the parent’s custody until things are really bad. Usually it was a very difficult decision to make. I might have moved too slowly on a lot of cases.

image by YC-Art Dept

There are a lot of efforts to keep kids together with supportive relatives. And children will be asked if there’s anyone they would like to stay with. There were so many efforts to return children to their parents and to ask the foster parents if they could handle contact with the biological parents. That was something that developed over my career—the effort to have foster parents who could even teach the parents how to deal with certain situations. But I also saw a lot of parents who just were unable or unwilling to change.

You started your career in Prince William County, then moved to Albemarle County, which is much wealthier. How were the foster care systems different?
Prince William County had one of the largest populations of foster children in the state of Virginia, and in my opinion, they didn’t have enough funds to provide appropriate care for all of them. In Albemarle County I had a reasonable caseload: Instead of up to 35 new cases a month, I had between six and 15. So you could really know what was going on, and they actually had services available to help people.

I loved it. I didn’t realize how frustrated I’d been before until I got the opportunity to work in a place which was quite wealthy, and able and willing to spend the money on children.

Why doesn’t foster care work better?
It’s so variable from one jurisdiction to another. But even the best of these systems can’t make up for a good parent. People want to say, “The system failed this child,” and that’s probably true. But the truth is you’ve got to have a reasonable parent. I don’t mean a perfect parent or even a very good parent. Someone who loves the children and can put the child’s interests ahead of themselves some of the time. Someone with some capacity to keep a roof and some food and some clothes, and not be dangerously abusive.

A lot of these parents do love their children—and when they lose their children, they’re motivated to change. There were parents who made radical changes, sure. And then there were some parents who were simply not capable.

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