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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #93, 6/10/2007

A Caseworker's Nightmare

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

A child welfare worker once told me about a recurring nightmare she had. She was walking on a downtown city street when she was approached by a panhandler, an obviously homeless and unkempt alcoholic. Instead of asking for money, however, the homeless guy said, "Don't you remember me? I'm so-and-so. Look what you did to me."

That's when the worker realizes this was one of the kids on her caseload years before. She had made mistakes and failed to protect him, and this broken adult before her was the result.

That sums up the whole game, doesn't it? If a caseworker isn't having these nightmares, she probably should be. We should all be haunted by the future effects our mistakes, both actual and potential.

But assuming that you are having these nightmares, how do you deal with the pressure? How do you know who to help, and just as importantly, how do you know when to stop?

Some caseworkers and supervisors have become so involved in their jobs that they have adopted foster children of their own. They work with troubled children during the day, then they go home to them at night. When another unwanted child is in desperate need, they seem to be able to find space for them in their home. The nightmare has an enormous power: "If I don't do something for this child," they say, "then no one else will, and he's going to end up broken and discarded like the man in my dreams."

However, these caseworkers and supervisors aren't always the most competent ones. In a world of infinite need, there has to be a limit to ones generosity, or the integrity and creativity of the donor will eventually break down.

It is like the people who take in stray cats. Nobody wants to see a kitten suffer, but how many can you save? One cat alone may dramatically change your lifestyle, because now you've got to feed it and care for it for many years (to the detriment of, say, caring for needy children). One more cat may not seem much more of a burden, but if you keep adding felines, then pretty soon they take over your home, break your budget and compromise your ability to even take care of yourself. In the end, you may not be doing the cat world any favors.

Knowing when to stop is an inherent problem in all forms of generosity and voluntarism. It is one of the reasons why some people don't give anything to anyone at all: Once you start caring about a needy person or cause, it tends to take you over, because the needs will always outstrip your resources. If you don't know your limits, then either you burn out or you end up being sidetracked in overextended mediocrity.

In child welfare, there are some workers who don't care at all and who just see children as paperwork, but there are also others who care too much, who don't know when to say no and whose overall quality of work degenerates as a result.

This is a fundamental self-regulation issue. It is good to feel a duty to others, but you also have to protect your own core abilities. You have to balance the two. If your acquired obligations exceed your resources or intrude into your own self-maintenance, then eventually you're not going to be helping anybody.

To stay sane and healthy, you have to actively define and defend your personal boundaries. Within a boundary, you are going to help; outside it, you are not going to. If there is a solution to the problem that doesn't require your resources, you ought to use it whenever possible, even if it is an imperfect solution. When there is no outside solution and the needs exceed your resources, then sacrifices will have to be made.

Of all the hungry people in the world, you may feed some, but you will have to let all the others starve. It may seem cruel to refuse to help, but these decisions have to be made.

There are all sorts of natural boundaries. Geography is one. If we are living in Las Vegas, we are not going to too concerned about abused children in Cleveland, because they are out of our scope. Likewise, each child welfare worker will be assigned to some cases and not to others. They don't have to worry much about cases they aren't assigned to.

Under the constant pressure of infinite need, you should be looking for natural boundaries whenever you can, and when they don't exist, you have to create them. If a hundred hungry people are knocking on your door, but you have food for only ten, then you have to come up with some creative and elegant way to decide who those ten should be. I can't tell you now what the solution should be; you have to decide it yourself at the time.

The biggest breakdown in boundaries tends to happen when the need is right in front of us and we have the immediate ability to help. When a stray puppy is looking up at us with those precious puppy eyes, it is really hard to reject him. "He seems like no problem at all," we say.

On-the-spot generosity is easy: Like when a beggar asks you for a quarter and you give it to him. It is harder to process the long-term implications of any generous act. That cute puppy, for example, may grow up to be a giant bruiser of a dog who controls your life, trashes your home and drains your resources for years.

Saying no to a puppy or a foster child takes fortitude. To manage such dilemmas, you have to have a pretty sophisticated internal philosophy, not just the shallow, feel-good sentiments of popular culture. Caseworkers or foster parents tend to burn out when they lack this sophistication. They get all hung up on the welfare of one child while failing to grasp the Big Picture of all the others who need them. Pursuing the Big Picture requires detached and strategic decision-making. It is a bit more like mathematics and engineering than the fuzzy feeling of getting a new puppy.

The best caseworkers understand their limitations. They understand that in addition to helping children now, they also have to maintain their long-term ability to help children in the future, which means protecting their own stability and talents and not overcommitting themselves.

The nightmare of meeting that homeless alcoholic is bound to happen no matter what you do. There are always going to be times when you could have helped but chose not to due to resource limitations.

You only need to know that you did the best you could within the limited resources you had and that you didn't waste any of them.


Reader Comments

“Sorry, but your piece reminds me of the mythical screed against Cadillac-driving "Welfare Queens." I know state caseworkers, and none display the poor judgment you describe. They're able to help as much as they can within the system they have. Given the state-by-state limitations of social services, it takes mental and emotional toughness and compassion, because the system is like a ship without enough lifeboats. They know they�ll never be able to help every child that needs it. Kids aren�t puppies.” —WenG 5/2/08 (rating=1)

“Thank you for this. Hubby & I just got certified as foster parents & I appreciate the reminder to keep some perspective.” —MamaBear 3/7/09 (rating=4)

Ratings so far: 5 3 3 4 5 1 4 3 (Average=3.5)

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