Making Change: Life Stories

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In New York City, when a parent is accused of neglecting or abusing her kids, a bewildering array of social service organizations, government agencies and authorities immediately swoop in. After a 60-day, quasi-criminal investigation, an investigator either takes the child away or, in less severe cases, refers the family to a preventive services caseworker, whose job is to prevent further neglect by identifying and addressing its possible causes.

Sometimes, the caseworkers who work with such families can’t even get past the door. “Parents have their guard up, and they’re going to have trust issues or feel violated in some way,” says Hank Orenstein, director of the Child Welfare Project at the Office of the Public Advocate for the City of New York.

Small wonder, then, that parents don’t often see a difference between a caseworker and a child welfare investigator. “They think we’re the evil ones, that we’re there to take their kids away,” says Tamara Wright, a preventive services caseworker at Graham Windham, a social services agency with centers in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan.

At first, Wright handled these visits the traditional way. She would go see families at their homes, determine their needs through a series of questions, and then come up with a service plan. “I met with families, and we talked about a service plan,” she explains. “I don’t want to say it was cold, but it was definitely to the point.”

But over the last few months, Wright has changed her routine. Service plans are out. Reading stories is in.

Take David, a 10-year-old whom Wright works with. David was defecating on himself in school, and had been doing so since he was 6 years old. Kids were picking on him because he always smelled bad. The school called the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), which then turned the case over to Graham Windham.

At first, David’s mother was wary, believing Wright was merely trying to determine if she was a bad parent and take her child away. But about six months after Wright started working with David, she read him a book called Litterbugs Come in Every Size. David was lying on his bed–he felt more comfortable that way–and Wright started to read him the story, which talks about two different kinds of animals: those who are well-behaved and those who are not well-behaved. While Wright was reading, David’s mother came over and lay down on the bed next to him, listening to the story. Wright finished the book, and afterwards, David’s mother gave him a kiss.

The book gave everyone a chance to talk. By asking David’s mother to read, Wright discovered that she had problems reading and hadn’t read to him since he was an infant. Later, David’s mother compared David to the litterbugs–the badly behaved animals in the book. David defended himself, saying that sometimes he was bad, but sometimes he was good. That was just the beginning of the discussion.

“It gave the mother an opportunity to talk about therapy, and accept that her son can go to therapy, and it’s not anything scary,” Wright says. “She felt safer, and she felt comfortable reading and not thinking about bills. It took her away for a minute.”

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“Engaging books” started out as a simple way for caseworkers to promote reading. The initial books came from the basement of David Megley, who manages preventive services at Graham Windham. Almost immediately, Megley and his caseworkers realized that besides promoting literacy, books could revolutionize the way they did casework.

Usually, caseworkers begin a visit by telling a family the allegation against them, and then continue with the “risk assessment” that ACS began. The line of questioning can range from an impersonal, census-like approach (“How many children do you have? How long have you lived here?” and so on) to the very personal (“I know you must be sad about a caseworker coming in to look at your home. How does that make you feel?”), depending on the caseworker and the situation. “We would continue the path, and see the family as riddled with risk,” says Megley. “That is obviously not a condition that invites partnership.”

Which is where Engaging Books comes in. By breaking the ice, the books make it easier to perform two of a preventive services caseworker’s most important tasks: gathering information and evaluating the family’s risk level. Both are crucial to helping the family or referring the family to other sources of help, such as literacy programs or addiction recovery programs. “The worker is trying to create a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere, and is trying to draw [a parent] out,” explains Edith Holzer, director of public affairs for the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies. “Very often it takes a long time for parents to reveal what problems there might be. It takes a while to make the connections between [the parent’s] problem and the neglect.”

Books can also help caseworkers communicate with kids. Diogenes Diaz, another Graham Windham caseworker, works with two young girls, one of whom witnessed her father trying to strangle her mother. (Their mother managed to escape and call 911 when the younger sister, who is five, bit her father’s hand.) After reading them a book called Merry Magic Go Round, Diaz asked the two girls what part of the book they would like to be in, and why. (Each girl chose a page with ponies.) Turning to a page with a picture of a house, Diaz asked the girls if they liked the house, and how they felt about their own house. Eventually, this led to a more general discussion of domestic violence–and how everyone deserves respect, even dragons, like the one in another book they read.

At eight years old, the older sister can read on her own. But she says she likes reading with Diaz. “He makes me not be lonely reading,” she explains shyly.

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Orenstein believes programs like Engaging Books could be part of a new approach called “dual track,” in which ACS investigators would hand lower-risk cases over to preventive services workers, sometimes immediately, sparing the family the trauma of an unnecessary investigation or getting them the help they need while the investigation proceeds. In a pilot project in Queens, ACS investigators are bringing preventive services workers with them, so they can offer preventive services right away.

But while Megley believes Engaging Books can help caseworkers do their job better, he looks even further. Books, he believes, have the power to renew and restore the parents’ humanity, and even make them partners in preventing future neglect.

Earl Shorris agrees. In 1995, Shorris founded the Clemente Course in the Humanities, which uses the Great Books to teach logic, poetry, art and moral philosophy to poor people. In teaching immigrants, ex-convicts, single mothers, recovering addicts, homeless people and a person dying of AIDS, Shorris found that books and stories lead people to do what he calls “reflective thinking,” gaining an understanding of themselves while connecting to feelings and emotions in the tales.

“There are mystery, intrigue, life lessons in story,” agrees Megley. “When I take parents on parent development weekends, I pull out The Ugly Duckling–the older version. I see sitting in front of me parents who’ve had a tough time listening to that story–who can connect to the injury, the pain, the new life, finding a new family. I can see it in their eyes.”

To be effective, says Shorris, the caseworker has to lead clients in a discussion of the story or book “in something close to, if not equal to, the Socratic method.” That, in turn, can lead to further discussions, and further reflective thinking. “The caseworker is looking for understanding from the clients,” Shorris explains, “and not inculcating them with their own ideas about the situation. Sophocles believed that knowledge would come from the people, and he was simply the midwife.”

Ultimately, Megley wants to get the parents to read to the children, and then to turn around and engage other people around them. To encourage that process, he tells his caseworkers to give the books to the families.

“Soon enough, we can say to Mrs. Smith, ‘Do you have any books? We have the Jones family and she has a three-year-old, and your son is six,'” he says. Then, he believes, Mrs. Smith “becomes a giver, a provider, a helper herself.”

Steven Gnagni is managing editor of the Highbridge Horizon, a community newspaper in the Southwest Bronx.