There is a reason for the Web site called www.friedsocialworker.com — it's a never-ending list of people needing help. And those who help are the likes of Robyn Lee, 25...
There is a reason for the Web site called www.friedsocialworker.com — it’s a never-ending list of people needing help.
And those who help are the likes of Robyn Lee, 25, who earns about $13 an hour as a child-development specialist for Deaconess Children’s Services in Everett; and Bopha Chan, 29, who earns about $16 an hour as a youth counselor for the Asian Counseling & Referral Service in Seattle.
Both the Asian Counseling agency, which serves 18,000 people a year, and Deaconess, which serves 3,000, are among a dozen groups receiving support from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy.
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Lee and Chan are the face of these agencies, the ones who look after and out for children and the children’s parents.
They can’t help but take their work home with them — sometimes they can’t put aside their thoughts of the kids. They use humor to deal with the pressure. They are remarkably optimistic, but then they have to be.
Charlie Langdon, head of Deaconess, a nonprofit dealing with the aftermath of child abuse and neglect, sighs when talking about holding on to Lee, who’s been at her job for two years and in another two years hopes to be in graduate school in education.
Langdon knows the salaries are relatively low for such a difficult job and understands the burnout factor. Even for social workers with the state’s Child Protective Services (CPS), who start at a higher pay scale, the average length of employment is only 3.8 years.
“All we can give our clients is our staff. We have nothing else,” he said. “The loss of someone like Robyn is not just a loss to the agency, but her departure would be a loss to every client she has served, is serving and can serve. They’re a lifeline to these people.”
After Lee pays her share of rent for the apartment she shares with her sister, she has $100 to spend for the first two weeks of the month. “I was warned by all my friends,” Lee said about her vocation.
Thoughts of quitting cross her mind. Then Lee remembers a couple of rambunctious boys, full of life. “I couldn’t leave them high and dry,” she said.
At Asian Counseling, Chan, whose family came here in 1979 as Cambodian refugees, is going into her fifth year working with kids in one of the agency’s 11 programs. Because she’s fluent in Cambodian, the youths can relate to her and she to them.
Chan remembered one case, in which CPS was contacted by an elementary school because a students had marks, as if she’d been hit with a paddle or board. It turned out the girl’s mother, a Cambodian refugee, had to discipline her for scribbling on some important documents.
“You could see the intent was not to kill or abuse the child,” Chan said. “You have to understand that culturally, the mother does most of the rearing and does the discipline. I worked with the mom and dad. We set up a plan with CPS to reunite the family.”
By then, the family’s four children had been placed in foster homes. Their mother had been traumatized from working in labor camps and seeing family members killed in the 1970s by the Pol Pot regime.
It took a year of therapy for the family to reunite.
“We got through a lot of emotional stuff,” Chan said, explaining how hard it was for the mother to hear that her 8-year-old was afraid of her.
In her first years as a youth counselor, Chan recalls, sometimes “I’d drive home crying. I’d think, ‘You have to have a boundary and try to keep things separate from your personal life.’ ”
But it is hard to keep things separate, especially when dealing with a suicidal kid.
“Sometimes, you happen to be at your desk, ready to go home, and they call you. They don’t start out saying, ‘I want to kill myself.’ It’s more like, ‘I’m really sad.’ ”
For example, a boy may say something like, “I just don’t think I want to live,” and Chan has to judge just how serious such talk is. She’ll get the boy to agree that he won’t harm himself and then will promise to see him the next day.
To deal with such stress, Chan watches TV, works out in a gym and plays on a volleyball team. Next summer she expects to have earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Washington but isn’t quite sure about her future plans.
Lee is one of three staffers who run a parenting program in which women and their children attend 15-week, once-a-week, court-ordered parenting programs.
On a recent morning, Lee quickly calculated how many parents she has worked with in two years. “Oh! One-hundred-sixty!” she exclaimed.
This day’s session begins with Circle Time, in which the moms, cradling their children, sing “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” “Great Big Spider” and other nursery songs. Every week it’s the same songs, in the same order, and Lee, leading with unbridled enthusiasm, has the parents clap along or help the children shake tubes with papier-mâché streamers. It’s a simple concept, but children like a routine. Lee noted, “A lot of parents don’t know that.”
One of the moms is 33 and has a 4-month-old daughter. She has had seven children with six men, she said, adding that after her last pregnancy she had a tubal ligation to prevent future pregnancies.
“My other six children were taken away from me because of past drug abuse,” she said. “But I’ve been four years clean. Something had to change, or I was going to end up dead or in prison for life.”
Another mom is 20, with a 1-year-old daughter. She explains that the child’s father is in jail, and she tells a complicated story about authorities becoming involved in their lives because of alleged domestic violence that “didn’t happen.”
Another woman, 30, whose daughter is 10 months old, talks about “too many allegations” that also got authorities involved. She said the classes have helped.
Lee and the other staff members assess the women and how they deal with their children. There is praise. Enthusiasm. Clear messages. Lee thinks the moms are progressing well. At the end of the session, the women and children receive a big bag of donated Christmas gifts — car seats, clothing and toys.
Lee assessed her year: All in all, it was a good 2004.
“I had one mom who had her children removed. One of her boyfriends was baby-sitting her children and put his cigarette out on one of the kids. The boyfriend is now out of the picture. She’s a great mom. Within three months, the children were back in her house,” she said.
“I feel good when a parent succeeds. When I think I’m burned out, I think about the clients I helped. And I know I did.”
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org