She was giving me the death glare.
I cocked my head downward, pretending to document some new occurrence — the way she unfolded the blanket, perhaps, or her baby’s steady drool on its surface — but there was nothing more to write. Somehow, my exhaustive descriptions of the past hour’s events barely filled a page in my notebook. I flipped quickly to her case file, hoping to pass the time by indulging in what felt like top-secret information — a window into the lives of strangers. Birth Mom (BM), age 19, had postpartum depression, lost custody of her nine-month-old baby after allegations of neglect, and was currently on the waitlist for subsidized housing in the South Bronx. Birth Father (BF), age 20, had a history of gang violence, committed second degree murder, and was currently awaiting trial at Rikers. I, Case Associate (CA), age 21, sat in a toddler-sized chair in the middle of a padded playroom, currently engaged in a staring contest with the mother I was assigned to babysit.
It was a typical day at work. I was stationed at a foster care agency in midtown Manhattan, an organization that serves some of America’s most vulnerable citizens — low-income, minority, parent-less, disabled children — and deals with cases of abuse and neglect that are not only saddening, but unending, in their ties with intergenerational trauma and poverty. Before starting my summer internship, I feared that the work would be too emotionally taxing: that I would internalize the hardships faced by my clients. But partway into the summer, I experienced a different problem. I wasn’t feeling anything.
Given my intimate proximity to my clients, this emotional detachment was unnerving. Every day, I supervised visits between parents and their children — one of several requirements (including substance abuse classes, parenting classes, and permanency hearings) in a multi-month reunification plan. It was simple: if parents wanted their children back, they needed to prove that they could interact with them safely. My job, then, was a cross between babysitter and surveillance camera: I sat in a corner, transcribed every conversation and interaction between parent and child, and sent my notes off to the judge.
It was painfully passive. I could intervene only if the parents were doing something questionable or harmful. Otherwise, I was advised to take up as little space as possible: to be invisible. The problem was, I was the bad guy: a young, white, female social worker who looked exactly like the people who took these children away in the first place. My clients, then, viewed me with suspicion and resentment from the start.
But I wasn’t the only target of stereotyping. While my clients scrutinized me — cross-legged, skirt-wearing, notebook-bearing — I scrutinized them. These were predominantly low-income people of color experiencing homelessness, addiction, and a host of allegations. We were different in almost every way. And despite my conscious understanding of socioeconomic factors and race-based disadvantages, I couldn’t help but to judge these people, to wonder why they didn’t show up for their appointments, to condemn them for abusing their children in the first place. But I kept it all to myself, just as my clients (typically) refrained from verbally harassing me.
In moments of boredom, I would reflect on the irony of the situation. My job revolved around listening; but from my privileged throne, listening actually distanced me from my clients. Sitting in the corner on my toddler-sized chair, I was small in every way — but my silence took up space.
Partway through the summer, I did what I wasn’t supposed to do: I started conversations. These weren’t the formulaic check-ins that were advised during client visits, but instead, real check-ins about life. In many ways, my outreach was selfish — I was seeking stimulation in a job that seemed painfully slow. In other ways, it was the least I could do to help.
I supervised one mother (I’ll call her Valerie) who had a history of trauma — she was sexually abused as a child, ran away from home, and became involved with drugs just before her first pregnancy. I had her file on hand, but hearing her story revealed so much more: that she was pregnant again only to cope with the removal of her first child; that she didn’t trust the foster family that cared for her son; that she knew I was an outsider because I had a “white accent.” I asked clarifying questions, validated her feelings and, when she inquired about my life, I answered honestly. I was careful not to over-share: I knew that disclosing personal information in settings like these could compromise my authority. But I found that becoming more vulnerable with this client allowed her to trust me in ways that silence did not.
I soon got permission to supervise Valerie’s visits outside. Something about the public setting — free from the physical and figurative barriers of “the system” — made her come alive, and I watched her interact with her three-year-old son in ways that she hadn’t before. They spoke more freely, engaged in imaginative play, and involved me in their outdoor rituals. And while I continued to document what happened during those two-hour sessions, the note-taking became less arduous. Sometimes, when Valerie and I conversed on a park bench, I’d forget to write things down.
This emotional involvement earned me the nickname “nice girl” throughout the agency, to the chagrin of my protocol-abiding coworkers. Some teased me about it, but I didn’t care. Ultimately, understanding my clients’ complaints, regrets, and desires allowed me to better advocate for them behind the scenes — to be more than a surveillance camera. Meanwhile, I hoped that my vulnerability made them more inclined to come back to the agency. Much of a social worker’s job is to help people navigate unpleasant systems. If those people feel unsafe, or thwarted, or misunderstood, they’re less likely to seek help in the first place.
Active listening is difficult: it requires patience and an open mind. This is especially true when the listener has all the power — when the instinct is to preach or correct or report. But research shows that an equal sharing of information can reduce prejudice, create allies, and inspire solutions tailored to the populations in need. And for some time, that’s what I thought I had achieved.
The call came in towards the end of the summer. My supervisor summoned me to her office, shut the door, and asked whether I had recently experienced any inappropriate interactions with Valerie’s husband. The man had just been released from jail and sometimes accompanied us on our trips to the park, but because he was not the biological father of Valerie’s son, his attendance was optional. I racked my brain for any problematic interactions with him, but couldn’t think of any.
“That’s interesting,” she said. “Valerie said you couldn’t get your hands off him this morning.”
I had trouble stifling my laugh — the idea was comical in its absurdity. But as my supervisor recounted the allegations against me, my heart sank. Valerie had accused me of making sexual advances on her husband, we later pieced together, as vengeance for seeing me in court the previous week. Sure enough, I had accompanied a full-time social worker to Valerie’s permanency hearing, where she had been given a surprise drug test — one that came back positive. And although the outcome had no bearing on my impression of her — in fact, I was more interested in the outcome of the hearing — this woman couldn’t reconcile how someone with pure intentions like me could still be part of “the system” working against her. Her solution? Make me the enemy once again.
In my conversation with my supervisor, I realized that the honest conversations I had been conducting with my clients — ones that, in my mind, enabled trust and solution-building — also compromised my authority: they signaled to my clients that I was human, with feelings that could be manipulated. Meanwhile, in my increasing attachment to these families, I had set myself up for disappointment. Every time someone didn’t show up to an appointment, for instance, I took it personally, blaming their absence on myself rather than on situational factors. Moreover, the transcriptions that I was sending to the judge had become increasingly novel-like — detailed, and full of heart. And heart didn't belong in this space.
Ultimately, this was a problem larger than Valerie’s accusations. What I gained in compassion, I had lost in competence.
For the rest of the summer, I reverted to typical social work-ism. I was “dominating,” “stern,” and “critical” again — compensating for my emotional degradation with a heightened sense of authority. My notes became shorter, my replies more civil, my listening more passive. Valerie, who missed an increasing number of appointments after her permanency hearing, requested a different social worker to supervise her visits. And while the rest of my caseload was drama-free, part of me always wondered whether I actually let Valerie down; whether the psychological safety brought by our conversations was worth our abrupt, drug test-induced parting.
Part of this, I’ve learned, is simply the nature of clinical work. In dealing with clients’ vast emotional baggage, social workers often need to be guarded — to protect others, and to protect themselves. Once clients view their leaders as friends (and vice versa), there comes the potential for manipulation, misunderstanding, and mistrust.
Given my clients’ unique backgrounds and life experiences — combined with my own position of power — it was difficult, if not impossible, to maintain authentic relationships without jeopardizing my own sense of authority. But I'm glad that I tried. I heard these people's stories, I fielded their questions, and I listened to their gripes. That being said, I won’t pretend to understand their realities.