DSW Student Will Wong Puts Child Advocacy in the Spotlight with Wednesday's Child
When you work for the nation’s largest child protective services agency that responds to over 14,000 allegations of abuse and neglect monthly; and has over 35,000 children receiving child welfare services, a focus on compliance has the tendency to overtake the practice of advocacy. Out of necessity, workers focus on the “explicit” practice of service delivery where sensitivity, compassion, developing therapeutic relationships and engagement drive the successes of those explicit goals. Other aspects of social work, such as those related to advocacy for broader results than a safe home can take a back seat. Achieving the delicate balancing of compliance and advocacy can be tricky, however the effort can result in notable collateral benefit for an agency and its social workers, beyond meeting the primary permanency needs for a child, while promoting social justice.
Over the last 12 years, I’ve had the privilege of coordinating a media based adoption recruitment program called Wednesday’s Child – a weekly news segment produced in partnership with a local news station. The program focuses on finding adoptive families for overlooked children in foster care who are categorized as the hardest to place (older children, sibling sets or children with specialized developmental and/or medical needs). Its success is driven by activities of advocacy on behalf of establishing permanency for the children. Informed by a strengths perspective, each media segment is tailored specifically to the needs of each child or sibling set. A critical part of this process involves depicting the youth filmed in a therapeutic environment that promotes their strengths.
Depending on the needs of the children, a typical shoot can simply be visiting a soda fountain for a root beer float. For a child interested in federal law enforcement, perhaps a day with the FBI might be in order or a flight on the Good Year Blimp for a kid who wants to be a pilot when he/she grows up. Because each shoot is tailored for the specific needs of a child, it has relevance for them and our efforts send them an important message that they matter.
For a 16 year old Latina in foster care, being in the system had unintended consequences – she missed her Quinceañera, an important cultural rite of passage responsible for identity development that directly correlates with development of a positive self-concept. For her Wednesday’s Child taping, we organized a belated Quinceañera including many of the cultural and spiritual elements associated with this milestone. Beyond the explicit act of deploying an adoption recruitment tool, we helped a teen in foster care reclaim a rite of passage lost because of her status as a foster child. As a result of this Quinceañera media segment, we were afforded an opportunity as an agency to collaborate with local political leaders and the community at large to hold a group Quinceañera for 6 Latinas in foster care, with the promise from community leaders and constituents that this will be an annual event. This event was significant for the girls who were able to recover an important rite of passage and for our greater community where 60% of our cases are children of Latino descent – demonstrating that as social workers, we are concerned with global and specific needs of all in our community. This outcome is particularly significant in the context of a public agency because cultural needs of families aren’t always a priority in favor of “color blindness” as a quick fix response for fairness and equity across all groups. Here is a link to a televised video about the group Quinceañera.
Children come to life on the screen in a way that cannot be communicated through a case file. It is a compelling experience for a prospective adoptive family to see and hear children in their own voice describe their aspirations and hopes for someone to love and love in return; the children become multidimensional humans. Through the power of media, in addition to finding families, we also accomplish the social work mission of social justice by breaking through stereotypes that lead to prejudices that often justify oppression. The high visibility of the Wednesday’s Child news program gives our children a greater voice in presenting themselves and their dreams.
As social workers, we believe in people’s capacity to change. In essence, we believe in the inherent good of people. Our communities want to engage and help, but sometimes they need permission and examples to follow. In addition to hundreds of successful adoptions for this harder to place population, our larger community has stepped forward with offers to sponsor a photo shoot, to provide donations to our foster children and to request opportunities to mentor our children while they wait for a forever family. The Wednesday’s Child program has lead to monetary and in-kind donations that directly benefit our local foster children. It’s also responsible for over 1/3 of the overall recruitment of prospective foster-adoptive parents in our region.
The simple acts of engagement and paying attention to the implicit human needs and strengths of the children in need of forever homes has allowed us to develop partnerships with entities we never expected to support children overlooked by society. In the age of Evidenced Based Practice and data driven decision-making, existential elements important to our clients are at risk for being disregarded. By the time a case gets to me for consideration in the Wednesday’s Child program, it means that most other efforts have not yielded favorable results and in many ways, the media segment is the last resort. Statistics are important, but when I look at numbers reflected in a bar graph or a pie chart, I see kids who have someone hug them when they’re sad, hold their hand when they’re scared, cheer for them at a basketball game, hear carefree laughter and giggles or have someone to walk them down the aisle at their wedding. For these children, self-concept or simply put, self-esteem, is everything. It’s the stuff that gets us through difficult times, the stuff that isn’t always so “explicit”. By paying attention in this way, we, as social workers help children repair damaged self-concepts and restore for them a healthy sense of entitlement that can transcend difficulties through the rest of their lives. With a forever family, they can lean into the belief that they deserve loving and safe families; that they deserve an education and success; and that they deserve to be in healthy relationships. It is these successes that inspire me to take the extra steps to engage with Wednesday’s Child and to offer and facilitate the hope that the process offers our youth in care.
Will Wong is a member of Cohort 1 in the St. Catherine University - University of St. Thomas DSW Program. He works as a child protective services social worker/program coordinator in Los Angeles and is an adjunct faculty member at the California State University, Los Angeles School of Social Work. He co-produces the Emmy Award winning weekly news segment Wednesday’s Child with News Anchor, Christine Devine of KTTV-Los Angeles FOX 11 News. More information check out this link: http://www.myfoxla.com/category/237906/wednesdays-child