Sarah Dobs sees families at a very distressing time in their lives. Negativity and grief are in abundance. Parents and children are confused and emotionally distraught.
That’s why she focuses on being empathetic and observing quietly as much as possible.
Her job and that of two other Family Services assessors is to reach out to parents after a judge has determined their children need to be temporarily placed out of the home after a report has been made of abuse or neglect. Sarah is responsible for completing the first two initial visits that are required, to gather more information about the parent-child interaction.
“These parents see us after hearing the worst news ever,” she said.
Sarah tries to be present at the initial court date so she can introduce herself personally to the parents. If that’s not possible, she will do whatever it takes to contact the families and get them to come to the SaintA Family Center for the visits, which generally take two hours each.
The Family Services Department at SaintA took over primary responsibility for the family interactions for SaintA child welfare families in 2012, and last year SaintA created the Family Center for such visits. Rooms are colorful and include furniture, toys and books, so they look as much like a home as possible.
Sarah mostly observes the parent-child interaction and doesn’t say much. She steps in only if safety becomes an issue. She assesses a parent’s ability as an individual parent and as part of a family.
“If a kid comes to me, I don’t ignore him, but I say, ‘Go show Mommy.’”
She looks for things such as, if more than one child is in the room, can a parent engage with all of them? For example, if a mother is playing with a baby, can she pay attention to the older siblings as well? If an older child is acting out, jumping on a couch or running down the hall, is the mother able to divide her attention? If the mother attempts to correct the child, what is the child’s response?
Sarah said she observes who “runs” the visit, the parent or the child. One time, a child smeared a cookie into a parent’s face in an assessment visit.
“It wasn’t a safety concern, but the question was, how would the parent react in such a situation.”
She watches for bonding: does a child want to be snuggled or is he or she showing fear, avoiding the parent? Are parents able to have a conversation with older children? Does the parent expect too much of a young child?
“I’ve had parents try to have a discussion on rules with a 2-year-old. The child doesn’t understand that.”
She also looks to see if a parent grasps the developmental needs of the child. For instance, will a father try to get a 9-month-old to walk?
If another adult such as a grandparent is to be in the picture, Sarah assesses their capabilities to be a supervising adult for a possible Family Center visit plan. For instance, if a dad says “No, you can’t do that” to his son, how will the grandparent respond? If a baby puts something into her mouth, is grandma paying attention?
After all her observing, Sarah writes a detailed assessment for the ongoing case manager, who will work with the family for as long as it takes to do what is required to achieve reunification or some other form of permanency.
“When you first get a case, you have to read all of the information, and sometimes you see a lot of negative information. All of that goes into the evidence.”
But as an assessor, Sarah ties to keep an open mind regarding the parents’ character.
“Going in with an unbiased view is probably the hardest part of the job.”
Every person has strengths, Sarah maintains, and she tries to build on those strengths to help them reach the goals the court sets for them.
“These parents may have done some pretty horrible things to their children, but nobody knows these children better.”
After the first visit, the children – who Sarah picks up and brings to the Family Center — get very excited to see their parents again. At the end of each of the two visits, leaving is hard.
“We never force a child into the car, but they will cry during the trip. I’ll say, “That’s OK, I know you miss your mom. But she’s going to do all she can to get you back and you will see her again at the next visit.’”
Sarah’s car is always equipped with animal crackers and coloring books, and she plays soothing music in transit with the kids. If the child is really distraught, she will re-direct the conversation and ask something such as, “What was the best part of the visit?”
“Sometimes they’ll talk on their own and I just follow their lead. You just want to be there to help them process their emotions however you can.”
Sarah said her work can be emotionally draining.
“But I love this job. I know that in an extremely traumatic and vulnerable time in their lives, I’m going to be an empathetic, respectful person who can help them move through.
“I hope to touch these families’ lives for the better. I want these parents to come out of these experiences stronger than they were coming in.”