“I need to talk to you about your drinking.”
I am often asked what it takes to be a child protection social worker. While there are so many necessary skills, none is more important than the ability to be unflinchingly honest and direct, while at the same time being kind and respectful. As a lifelong Midwesterner, where so many would rather eat hairy soup than find the words to send it back, the challenge in this is great.
“I know you said that you haven’t been drinking today, but you are slurring your words and I can smell liquor.”
What usually follows at this point is shock that these words have been spoken aloud. These straightforward conversations become part of the trauma of working with child protective services because being direct is so uncommon, and therefore painful.
Midwesterners are often afraid of words. We struggle with accepting compliments, expressing an opinion, asking for what we need. Instead we have perfected the art of heavy sighs, eye rolling and stony silence. But non-verbals, which can be quite effective in communicating messages to those who recognize them, aren’t enough when a child’s safety is at risk.
“I’m concerned about the impact your drinking has had on your family. Your kids keep missing school because you are not awake in the morning to help them get on the bus, and they are frequently going to bed hungry because there’s no food in the house. Let’s ask your sister to stay with you for a few weeks while we get you an assessment.”
When a family becomes involved with Child Protective Services, fears abound. Families assume that CPS will put their kids in foster care forever. In actuality, foster care placement is rare, but the possibility of losing their kids looms.
The remedy is supposed to be full disclosure. We are expected to tell families in clear, upfront language what needs to change, and be just as clear and upfront when we tell them what will happen if they don’t make those changes.
I understand that you don’t like this idea. But if we can’t agree on a plan to get you help, I may have to ask the court to have your kids formally placed with your sister.
As difficult as they are, these conversations pave the way for change. Families understand what is expected, and even though they may not agree at first, most family members do what they need to do.
The conversations don’t have to be limited to child protection workers. Anyone who is worried about a child’s safety needs to find the words to talk about the concerns and get help.
My novels, Unprotected and Unattached tell the stories of Minnesota social workers who struggle through these uncomfortable conversations. My books can be found on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and in local book stores.