Empowering Social Workers: A Reflective Journey with Dr. Jacqueline Wilson

Amidst the March celebration of the remarkable contributions of social workers, the prevailing theme this year is “Empowering Social Workers!” ASCI engaged in a conversation with Dr. Jacqueline Wilson, a seasoned social worker, and retired CEO of TRAC Services for Families. In this insightful discussion, Dr. Wilson reflects on her extensive career, providing a profound perspective on the transformative influence of social work on the lives of children and families.

Reflecting on her journey, Dr. Wilson stresses that social work is a profession driven by passion. She acknowledges a myriad of experiences, both positive and challenging, contributing to the overall tapestry of her career. While some instances may not have initially seemed favorable, Dr. Wilson underscores that outcomes often reveal the positive impact social workers can have on individuals and families.

Addressing the role of social workers in ensuring the well-being and safety of children within the child welfare system, Dr. Wilson highlights their crucial role as vigilant observers. Social workers serve as the eyes and ears attuned to happenings within families, especially during challenging times like the COVID-19 pandemic when visibility and access to children were limited. She acknowledges the weighty responsibility social workers bear, often unnoticed, in ensuring the constant safety of vulnerable children.

We’re the eyes and the ears of a lot of what’s going on. When we look back at COVID, a lot of our concerns were that no one’s seeing the children. No one’s laying eyes on kids because no one’s outside, in school, or going into buildings. That was a very concerning time period for social workers to be able to make sure that kids are safe all the time. In general, they don’t see social workers as people who really, truly hold life and death in their hands sometimes because of how they see and how they respond.

She told ASCI.

Highlighting the advocacy aspect of their role, Dr. Wilson stresses the need for social workers to be cultural advocates. She addresses the stark reality of the disproportionate representation of Black children within the child welfare system, dispelling misconceptions about racial factors in child abuse. Instead, she urges a nuanced approach, emphasizing the importance of recognizing and addressing systemic issues like poverty.

Dr. Wilson advocates for social workers to embrace a racialized perspective, aiming for a thorough grasp of every child’s circumstances. In discussing child welfare, foster care, and adoption, she underlines the need to go beyond surface issues like substance abuse or physical abuse. Social workers must recognize and address underlying factors such as poverty and its implications on a family’s ability to provide a safe environment.

Addressing the prevention of child abuse, Dr. Wilson advocates for a broader perspective. While acknowledging the presence of drugs or instances of physical abuse, she accentuates the critical role of social workers in recognizing and addressing the root cause – poverty. By understanding the complex web of challenges faced by families, social workers can implement strategies to prevent child abuse effectively.

Dr. Wilson underscores that the assessment process for children in diverse family setups mirrors that of any other individual requiring social services. Whether it’s kinship care, foster care, or mental health services, the approach must remain consistent. Additionally, she introduces a crucial perspective by acknowledging the distinct culture of foster care. In training sessions on cultural diversity, she underscores the importance of recognizing foster care as a unique culture, urging professionals to understand the emotions and experiences of children within this system.

Furthermore, Dr. Wilson advocates for a shift in language and approach during assessments. Instead of asking individuals – including children and parents – what is wrong with them, she suggests a more empathetic inquiry: what happened to you? This subtle alteration opens a non-judgmental space for individuals to share their experiences, facilitating a clearer understanding for social workers and eliminating potential defensiveness.

We can’t keep asking people what’s wrong with them. We already know we have a system that we can always answer some of those questions with. But if we say to people ‘what happened to you’, we get a clearer understanding because they don’t have to be on the defensive. They’re more willing to share what happened to them.

She shared.

Addressing the collaboration between social workers and professionals from other domains, such as educators and healthcare providers, Dr. Wilson stresses the holistic approach necessary for a child’s overall development. In her view, social workers cannot operate in isolation, particularly when dealing with complex family backgrounds. She prompts the consideration of various aspects like education, medical history, and even spiritual or religious influences, advocating for a holistic perspective that encompasses the entire child’s ecosystem.

Collaboration extends beyond individual cases to involve coordination between different child welfare agencies. Dr. Wilson illustrates scenarios where one agency might handle a child while another cares for their siblings, affirming the need for seamless collaboration to ensure a comprehensive understanding of the child’s background.

Drawing a poignant analogy, Dr. Wilson likens the process to solving a puzzle. Children, she asserts, are like puzzles with pieces that may be “jacked up”, ripped, or bent. Social workers, in this analogy, are the puzzle keepers entrusted with ensuring that every piece is acknowledged and preserved. The puzzle represents the child’s identity, complete with all its complexities and imperfections. Dr. Wilson emphasizes the importance of guiding children through their healing process, helping them embrace their unique puzzle, and providing the necessary support to ensure no vital pieces are missing.

The crux of trauma-informed care lies not merely in recognizing that children have been traumatized, but in understanding how to facilitate healing. Dr. Wilson draws attention to the relationship between the size of a child’s brain and the level of trauma experienced, underlining the need to intervene effectively to arrest further damage and commence the healing process. Her passionate commitment is evident as she underscores the imperative to equip children with the tools to release accumulated cortisol, a stress hormone, and foster a path toward mental health.

The conversation takes an unexpected yet powerful turn as Dr. Wilson draws parallels between the physiological response to trauma and societal expressions of unrest, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. The analogy of a rollercoaster ride serves as a vivid representation of cortisol release, reflecting the intricacies of trauma response. Dr. Wilson’s ability to connect complex psychological concepts with tangible examples exemplifies her dedication to demystifying trauma-informed care.

Transitioning to the intersection of trauma and child welfare, Dr. Wilson dismantles the compartmentalization of children in care from their birth families. She stresses the significance of recognizing and addressing the trauma experienced by birth parents, weighing in that adoption, while a moment of joy for one family, can be a source of pain for another. This nuanced perspective prompts a reevaluation of how social workers approach conversations about birth families, advocating for an inclusive narrative that acknowledges the complexities of a child’s past and present.

Dr. Wilson shares poignant anecdotes from her past experiences, illustrating the profound impact of thoughtful foster care placements. The story of a white family seamlessly integrating a Black child into their lives, embracing his cultural identity, and fostering connections with his birth family serves as a testament to the transformative potential of intentional, culturally sensitive foster care.

TRAC is spearheading a crucial initiative for the county, emphasizing the immediate referral of children entering the system to their outpatient clinic. As specialists in foster care and adoption, TRAC recognizes the unique challenges and cultural dynamics inherent in these situations. Dr. Wilson stresses the significance of proactively addressing trauma within families. While parents may achieve various goals like completing drug rehab or securing housing, the healing process must be prioritized. The agency, foster parents, and adoptive parents form a crucial triangle that can lead to successful reunification, ensuring that children return to a healed and supportive environment.

Practical interventions, such as encouraging foster parents to include notes in diaper bags or ensuring children partake in school picture days, contribute to positive transitions. The goal is to foster a relationship that extends beyond the child’s return home, offering ongoing support to birth parents. Dr. Wilson envisions a scenario where foster parents become a continued source of support, creating a network for overwhelmed parents even after the child’s return.

When discussing successful interventions and programs, Dr. Wilson broadens the scope beyond children in the child welfare system, encompassing vulnerable children on the brink of entering the system due to poverty-related challenges. The emphasis is on identifying and leveraging existing programs, such as mentorship initiatives, Big Brother programs, or collaborations with organizations like Gwen’s Girls or the Urban League. The key is to assess the effectiveness of available services, ensuring they meet the diverse needs of families. Dr. Wilson emphasizes the importance of being aware of resources and fostering collaboration across various age groups, from preschool to teenagers on the cusp of aging out of the system.

Drawing from her extensive experience, Dr. Wilson imparts valuable advice to those embarking on a career in social work. She underscores the challenging yet profoundly fulfilling nature of social work, characterizing it as both hard work and heart work. Acknowledging that financial wealth may not be the primary reward, she focuses on the mission-driven aspect of the profession. Aspiring social workers are urged to discover their niche within the expansive field of social work, whether in schools, hospitals, or child welfare. Dr. Wilson stresses the mission-driven essence of social work, likening it to a calling or a form of “heart work.” Recognizing the often-overlooked efforts of social workers during challenging times such as the COVID-19 pandemic, she highlights their frontline role in addressing societal issues. Ultimately, her advice is clear: aspiring social workers should approach their journey with a strong commitment to making a positive impact, embracing both the challenges and the rewards inherent in the profession.

Offering practical self-care advice, Dr. Wilson stresses the significance of rest. Despite the difficulty of “turning it off,” finding ways to unwind and detach from work is vital for maintaining emotional well-being. Whether through enjoying a meal, getting a good night’s sleep, or indulging in light-hearted entertainment, the key is to identify personal strategies that help in decompressing. Dr. Wilson recognizes the diversity of self-care practices, acknowledging that what works for one person may differ for another. Whether it’s a spa day, reading a book, or simply indulging in a favorite activity, the focus is on finding rejuvenating practices that facilitate emotional recovery.

I think probably first and foremost is really being able to rest. Sometimes it’s hard to turn it off, but you have to figure out a way to turn it off otherwise it’s with you all the time. For each person that’s different, but each person has to know what that is for themselves.

She told ASCI.

As Dr. Wilson enters retirement, she hopes to leave behind a legacy defined by genuine care for the people served in the field of social work. Central to this legacy is the concept of being a servant leader, prioritizing the dignity and respect of individuals, especially children. Dr. Wilson aims to instill the importance of recognizing humanness in every person, fostering a culture of empathy and compassion within the social work profession. Her legacy also encompasses ethical practice coupled with a fearless commitment to creating positive change—making “good trouble” when necessary. In these principles, Dr. Wilson envisions a lasting contribution to the field of social work that transcends her years of service.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of A Second Chance, Inc.

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