Kim Daulton, Children’s Law Center’s (CLC) director of social work, draws a straight line on a piece of paper. Under it, she draws one with squiggles, backtracking and detours. Daulton’s doodle is quick, but it effectively illustrates the nature of social work, because, as she describes, “social work is not a ‘straight shot.’”
“For social workers, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey,” Daulton said. “We know we have to meet each child where he or she is, which doesn’t fit into a timeline. That’s why we’re not in a hurry to reach a certain conclusion. Instead, we’re looking at the big picture—what are all the factors in a child’s life? What are the relationships in their life? The social environment? The supports they have or need? What’s REALLY going on?’’
Her team has been asking these questions since 2010, when CLC hired our first two social workers as part of our social work pilot program. Now, the team has grown to six social workers who partner with attorneys and investigators on cases every day.
Each CLC social worker is assigned a group of attorneys. They check in with case-handling attorneys after they begin each new case, participate in “advice meetings,” and on particularly complex cases, begin long-term collaborations with lawyers on behalf of their child clients.
Why Social Work?
Social workers’ daily to-do lists include everything from in-depth research into best practices for mental health issues, to exploring the influence of culture on parenting, assessing caregiver/child relationships and advocating in court about clinical issues that impact a child’s best interests.
While our tenacious attorneys are hard at work using the law to advocate for children, our social workers are trained to hone in on relationships as the vehicles of change. By partnering, our social workers, attorneys and investigators create a multi-disciplinary approach to representing and serving our clients.
The Big Picture of Advocacy
In one example of this collaborative approach, our child client, Robert, experienced multiple traumas.
His attorney took legal steps to keep Robert safe, and during that process turned to their CLC social worker, who has the training to look at Robert’s case and the bigger picture with a clinical lens, empowering them to identify the right path for Robert’s care.
This approach included learning about Robert’s early developmental years, his family system, his strengths, his history of trauma, loss and more to understand how these factors impact the way Robert’s brain works and his behavior.
Together, the attorney and social worker realized that while Robert needs therapy, not just any therapist can appropriately help him given his complex needs.
The social worker knew from years of experience that many therapists follow a model meant to treat children with only one trauma—and they also knew that wasn’t the case with Robert. He needed to work with the right therapist who could help him with the multi-layered challenges that come from chronic exposure to abuse.
Once the social worker had a good picture of Robert’s relationships and history, the CLC team could advocate to find the best mental health treatment solution for him.
“What’s so important is that we do not think about children in a vacuum,” Daulton shares. “What’s most powerful is when we can incorporate family, foster and/or birth, into treatment, because they can often assist with making the most meaningful changes. Relationships are the vehicles of change, and these families spend more time with the child than a therapist does with one hour a week.”
Today, Robert sees a therapist who specializes in complex, long-term trauma—one who can incorporate Robert’s birth family into the treatment. Understanding Robert’s “system” and finding the right solution for him took a lot of hard work and creative solution-finding from Robert’s CLC team.
Seeing Below the Surface
“I often compare our work to turning over a rock,” Daulton said. “It’s easy to see what’s on the surface level, but we want to find the underlying issues. Social workers are trained to think in systems—we analyze every aspect of a child’s relationships and history as part of our advocacy.”
Just as Daulton drew on her notebook, working with a child from the beginning of their case to the end isn’t ever a “straight shot”—but figuring out the right approach and implementing effective solutions for our clients is incredibly rewarding.
“I love my job because I work side by side with some of the most tenacious and intelligent attorneys, social workers and investigators who remind me of the good in the world,” Daulton says. “But even more so, I love my job because I am allowed the opportunity to serve our clients, who are courageous, resilient and resourceful. It is an honor to see them be successful and thrive.”