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Put Your Heart In It
Social worker Sarah Baker weighs the benefits of emotional involvement in her clients' stories.

By Sarah Baker

A couple of months ago, a tearful social worker showed me a letter that her eight-year-old client had written. She had helped him to write it as a way for him to talk about his recent loss. His foster parents had made the decision to have him removed from their home. He had experienced years of neglect and abuse and his behaviors were becoming more aggressive. In dark pencil lead he had drawn a sad face with tear drops under each eye. Below it read, "Please let me come home. I'll be good, I promise."

I've been a social worker for almost 20 years, working at an agency that serves children and families. Most of the children are involved in the child welfare system and many are in foster care. The stories of these children's lives are heartbreaking. I remember in graduate school being told that I needed to remain objective for the sake of my clients and to protect myself.

When I first started working in the field, I vacillated between feeling completely overwhelmed and numb. I tried to suppress my feelings, fearing that I would become paralyzed. It was my mother who encouraged me to talk about my feelings. At the time I was working in an inner-city school. Many of the school staff disapproved of therapy, believing that we were indulging "bad" kids. I would sit in my car, on my phone, crying to my mother.

My mother told me it was ok to cry. As a young nurse on a burn unit in a children's hospital in Canada, my mother saw children alone and afraid. She would cry on her way home from the hospital but it made her work harder for her patients.

The little boy who lost his foster home is doing better, adjusting to his new foster home. In the weeks after being placed, he met with his social worker every week. I could see how exhausted she was after her visits with him. She grieved with this little boy, something he might not have been able to do alone.

Being objective and emotionally distant is a way to survive the work of child welfare but our clients are best served when we put our objectivity aside and allow ourselves to feel.

With a Perspective, I'm Sarah Baker.

Sarah Baker is a licensed clinical social worker in San Francisco. She lives in Mill Valley.

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