EMILY WHEELER: I think when the children tell you of their abuse, it's a lot different to read it on paper than to have a child sitting in front of you. And that might not be necessarily the best thing, because we should look at all of the cases the same. But I do think there is a different weight that it holds.
LAUREN DUNN, REPORTER: Emily Wheeler is a parent support and intake supervisor with Saint Francis Ministries, a foster care organization in Wichita, Kan. Some states, like Kansas, delegate certain foster care responsibilities to nonprofits like Saint Francis.
Wheeler’s group works with children on the first day they are taken into care. They transport the children from police protective custody to their foster home. Nearly every day, Wheeler sits in when a staff member tells children they aren’t going home with their parents.
WHEELER: With the children, they are unaware most times until we explain to them where they’re going. When we first tell them that they’re coming into custody, we just kind of let them know that the end goal is to get them back home and that it is our hope that one day they can get there. And we’re going to work on steps to get there and we emphasize to the child that they didn’t do anything wrong, and that we are a safe place.
Wheeler supervises about 10 employees. Half work with children on their first day entering state care. The other half of her employees support biological parents during the first 90 days after their children are removed from their care.
WHEELER: Ninety days is when you see the parents really get a lot of their court orders done. If they plan to do them, then that is when they can use that support to get them in the right direction. Oftentimes, when a child comes into state custody, the judge will order them to do maybe like parenting classes or a substance abuse evaluation, something like that, maybe domestic violence. So all of those orders, we help them find the resources and everything they need to get signed up to take those classes.
Wheeler’s team works with children—and parents—who have experienced trauma. They see families at their lowest points. It’s not surprising that burnout is common in the social work field. Wheeler’s seen it firsthand. Experienced it, even.
For her, it happened early in her social work experience. In her first job out of college, she worked with children in police protective custody.
WHEELER: I remember feeling a heavy weight with every child that tells you every horrific story of abuse and feeling so much emotion, that it's like you try not to carry that away. And so then sometimes you can do the exact opposite, where then you don't feel anything at all, because you're trying so hard not to feel. And then you're once again in an unhealthy situation.
She wanted to be a part of the next step for children when they leave police protective services. That brought her to Saint Francis.
WHEELER: For me personally, the whole reason I guess behind it for me is to just give these families love.
Wheeler says she feels called to work with families in crisis. But is that enough to sustain someone through a career in such a difficult field? Social workers see the effects of trauma with every family they try to help. How do they cope? How do they prepare themselves for these heavy situations? And what role can the church play in all of this?
From WORLD Radio and the creative team that brings you The World and Everything in It, this is Effective Compassion.
I’m Lauren Dunn.
UNDERWRITING SPOT: Effective Compassion is made possible by listeners like you. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization working to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a North Korean brother or sister. More at worldhelp.net/podcast.
Across the country, a patchwork of local, county, and state agencies work together to help families and children in crisis. And like Wheeler, the people who work in those agencies all felt some sort of call to help.
Chandler Evans is a family services specialist in Loudoun County, Virginia. He has 25 years of experience in the field.
EVANS: We are the agency that becomes a springboard and a foundational support for the family to kind of rewrite their story. And so generally, the life of a case is about 12 to 15 months.
During that 12 to 15 months, Evans and his coworkers conduct home visits and check in with service providers and employers. They follow up to make sure families keep moving toward their goal.
EVANS: Making sure that we, you know, maintain the safety of the children, you know, throughout the process while ensuring they, those youth and children have that connection and bond being fostered throughout that, that time with their biological, biological family and the family that they were removed from.
It’s a big role, covering a lot of different needs. Evans says it’s impossible for him to meet all the needs of the kids and families on his caseload.
EVANS: If I could be so bold, there's, there's not enough me’s out there. And when I say me’s—and I know that's not proper grammar, but it is—there's not enough hours in a day. It's very stressful. It's very time consuming.
The Child Welfare League of America recommends social workers manage about 12-15 cases at one time. The Council on Accreditation says no more than 18 cases on one worker’s caseload. But often, high numbers of children in care mean social workers are juggling many more than that.
Last year, Tennessee officials said dozens of social workers in the state had over 50 cases, even though state law technically caps their caseload at 20. In one Virginia county, a social services official told reporters in October that two out of five foster care social worker positions remained unfilled, and two thirds of those working lacked experience.
Evans says little things like friends dropping off lunch or calling to check in on him go a long way. He’s also encouraged when he knows he can count on a church to help meet a family’s needs—whether that be words of encouragement for a biological parent getting their life back on track or providing childcare for foster parents to take a break for an evening. But he says the greatest help goes deeper than that.
EVANS: I don't get through this without prayer. I don't get through this without, allowing the Holy Spirit to lead and guide me,
Nearly four years ago, Evans met Jaoni Wood, the Loudoun County director for Project Belong Virginia. She helped connect him with prayer partners.
EVANS: I can't share intimate details with my prayer partners about what's going on, but I could let them know, Hey, I got a situation is pretty challenging, you know, I just need you to be prayer and prayer for, you know, the situation and and let's move on but what essentially like I have prayer partners and that has sustained me throughout this work.
Evans meets with several prayer partners—some he met through Wood, and others he’s known for years. None of his prayer partners have a background in social work. One’s a pediatrician. Another, a financial advisor.
EVANS: Sometimes you don't want them to understand. You just want them to be able to, you know, seek to seek the hand of the Lord and ask Him to continue to cover us and guide us and allow the Holy Spirit to, you know, be our guide throughout those moments of trial and test.
Evans says that while some of his coworkers in child welfare are also Christians, many aren’t. But as they see churches and faith-based groups ready to step in where needed, they’re becoming more open to working alongside believers.
It’s not just the social workers who benefit from these partnerships. This cooperation helps children in foster care—and their families—too.
Project Belong’s Jaoni Wood co-leads the family advocacy ministry at Purcellville Baptist Church. And as a former foster parent, she’s seen firsthand how turnover in the field affects children in foster care.
WOOD: The first long-term foster care placements that we had, they were in foster care for four years total before we adopted them. And during the first 18 months of them being with us before the case transitioned to going to adoption, we had six different caseworkers in 18 months.
That turnover created even more headaches in a system already fraught with unknowns. Wood says each transition was like starting over. Caseworkers had to get caught up on the case. They often had to find information missing from the children’s files. Wood says some of the caseworkers were fantastic. Others, not so much. But she knew the job could wear down even the best caseworkers. Those caseworkers often worked after hours, sacrificing time with their own families.
WOOD: It really hit me whenever she was spending time after hours in the evening, to take our kids to the family visits and the parenting classes that the birth parents were required to, to participate in, and our kids had to the kids had to be part of that. And that those were evenings. So you know, she had her own children at home. But she was reworking her schedule personally and professionally to be able to spend an evening a week taking the kids to go visit their family and make sure that she was actually getting eyes on the way the case was going, and how the birth parents were functioning with the parenting class and things.
Project Belong Virginia works to provide a bridge between local needs in the foster care field and local churches that can help meet those needs. The group coordinates churches’ efforts to put on events like a social worker appreciation coffee open house or delivering breakfast to caseworkers. Sometimes they connect a church with a local social worker, like Chandler Evans, who can speak during a church service about their work.
WOOD: After that service, we actually had several families who were open to fostering, after hearing him. And it really broke down some, I guess, mental stereotypes that people had in the congregation, just as far as, you know, you get the stories in the media are always about the failures of the Department of Family Services or bad things that happened. And in this case, the the congregation was able to see, a caseworker who was in the job for the kids and his heart was to have a good relationship with parents, not to go in and take kids from families, not to just treat kids like a piece of paper, you know, bouncing from home to home. But it inspired people to be open to working with caseworkers.
Coffee and texts are good, but many social workers want deeper soul care. Sometimes Project Belong and local churches pool resources to help fund social workers’ trips to the Christian Alliance for Orphans Summit. Wood says that caseworkers who attend are excited to fellowship with other Christians active in the same work. Last year, they helped send a social worker who works with youth who are aging out of foster care.
WOOD: At the conference, she was just in tears, I think it was the first main session. And she said, I had no idea there were so many Christians working in this space, I've always felt so alone. And this, like I'm already blown away, because I'm in a room with 1,000 other people who are doing the same work, and I had no idea.
Wood says Loudoun County plans to implement CarePortal this summer. You heard about CarePortal in Episode 6. Social workers can use the technology to ask church members and other local residents to meet families’ practical needs, like bunk beds or toddler shoes. But even before CarePortal officially launches, Project Belong and other groups are already working to meet the needs they know about.
WOOD: It took about a year and a half to two years of me, in my county, making offers, asking questions. What can we do to help you? You know, we have a church who's interested in doing a backpack, you know, a school supplies drive, is that something that you can use?
State agencies are often skeptical about how much volunteer groups are going to stick around. Too often, groups offer to put on an event, take some feel-good photos and then disappear. But the groups that stay with it, build credibility and trust.
WOOD: After about that year and a half mark of consistently being there and accepting, you know, meeting the needs that, that we were able to, and also not pushing our own agendas, then then the county started coming to us with, Hey, we have a family who's taking in three siblings tonight, and they need to set a bunk beds like, you know, pronto. And once that line was crossed, then it was like the floodgates opened. Like we were getting requests to help find families for certain specific situations, we were getting requests for help, you know, to go and actually help them have churches come in and help throw the foster care Appreciation Month event and the Christmas party event.
In November 2021, Chandler Evans participated in a church service at Purcellville Baptist. Senior pastor Cory Welch says having Evans speak during the service helped church members become more familiar with needs in the foster care field.
WELCH: I think you have to get proximate to really understand the need. You can study need by looking at Wikipedia, and Googling data and all of those kinds of things. But it's nothing more than an analysis. It's not personal, it's not real, until somebody is sitting in front of you and you can tangibly hear their story. This is a brother in Christ that is doing, you know, the Lord's work and we want to come alongside of that. And so, I think hearing the stories of real life, real people right in front of you, you got to get proximate to really understand. You can't stay at a distance.
Since social workers support families in crisis, the families they work with often have practical needs. It’s a social worker’s job to help connect them to local resources for those needs. But that takes time, leaving many families waiting for help—and social workers anxious to help them. In nearby Fairfax, Va., another church helps bridge that gap between long-term help and immediate need. Valerie Nolan is the director of outreach at Fairfax Church.
NOLAN: We have a grocery bag, like I said, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We have a perishable bag that has nutritious, you know, whole foods and perishable foods, milk, eggs, bread, vegetables, fruits, those types of things. Then we have a hygiene bag, we have a household bag, we have a kitchen bag with basic essentials, flour, oil, water, salt, pepper, all that kind of stuff. And then we have a cleaning bag.
Social workers and other social service professionals can place orders for prepackaged bags to give to families or individuals in need. Volunteers package the bags in time for the social worker to pick them up. While technically this helps local families in need, it helps the social worker, too, taking some worries off their plate.
NOLAN: We let the social worker know that their order is ready and they come pick it up. And they can put in an order anywhere up to 24 hours in advance. They'll select that time and date and then we'll bring it out to them. We're kind of like a little mini Amazon except we don't deliver we just bring it out to the to the worker when they come to the church.
The church also helps in other ways. In April, the church hosted 75 social workers for the local social worker appreciation brunch. Fairfax Church didn’t plan the event, but they provided the space, volunteers, decorations, and small gifts for social workers.
NOLAN: We have overwhelmingly heard very encouraging feedback of people saying, I just can't believe a church is doing this and you know, like this. It's so rare to them. That that's not who they would think to call, which is sad, I think on so many levels that the government isn't necessarily thinking that the church is going to be their first phone call when when they're in a crisis situation. We want to be the first phone call for some of these social workers needs partners that we work with that they know that they can call us, they're like it, you know, if they're running into an issue or problem. It's like, okay, Fairfax church, we're going to call them like, we want us to be the first person that they think of.
The church also hosts a care group for social workers, led by someone in their field. The group meets monthly for dinner.
NOLAN: So many of the folks that we have come into relationship with through this care group, or just through being in in working together in the resource center. We've been able to, you know, provide counseling services to them as well and provide some supports that they may not be receiving elsewhere. So it's really opened up some great relational connectedness. And we've even seen people start coming to the church from it and inviting their friends to come to the church. And so the fruit of it has been really neat to see.
Churches and ministries like these are finding practical and spiritual ways to support social workers already in the field. But some Christian colleges are trying to get out ahead of the challenges by preparing future social workers before they enter the field.
Tara Boer is an associate professor of social work at Dordt University, a Christian school in Sioux Center, Iowa. She says many students are drawn to the work because they want to make a difference. But often they don’t realize how hard the field can be.
BOER: The stories that we hear are very layered and complex. And I think if you're not involved directly in those relationships, and in the details of those difficult stories, I think, from afar, it's very easy to place judgments on how to categorize people, how a certain person should be best served through a b and c method. And what we find is that it's really messy.
Boer studied social work in college—earning a PhD in the field. She’s worked with families at-risk of having their children removed from their care.
Now she works to bridge the gap between theoretical learning and hard realities.
BOER: I think a lot of people assume that, yeah, that there's a really clear answer in all situations, but as you stay in the field a long time, we recognize certainly that there are biblical truths and guidance to a lot of the moral dilemmas that we face. But sometimes we also have to, you know, be able to communicate love and belonging to people that have no one, no one else to do that for them. And so I think Christian social workers really struggle with that. If I'm showing a person love and belonging, and unconditional acceptance, does that mean that I'm condoning their behavior or that I morally agree with what they might be doing?
Boer says it’s important for students to learn about things like trauma-informed practices. But practical strategies aren’t the only way they prepare students for the social work field. They go deeper than that.
BOER: God isn't just tacked on to the end of class through a random prayer here and there or devotional. You know, at the beginning of the semester, we talk intimately about God's good design through creation, as well as the impact of the fall, and how we are to be stewards.
That focus on God’s design is important to Madison Kleveland. The 23-year-old graduated from Dordt’s social work program in spring 2022. In a sense, social work is in her blood. Her mom also worked in the field.
KLEVELAND: She would work with families who were at risk of their children being removed. I remember her telling me those heartbreaking stories of the kids being like, have you found my forever home? Am I gonna have my forever home?
After graduation, Kleveland got a job at a youth services organization about three-and-a-half hours away in Ames, Iowa. Kleveland works with children and youth with behavioral and mental health needs. About a third of those she works with have been in foster care – or still are.
Kleveland says learning about social work in a Christian environment prepared her to face messy situations.
KLEVELAND: We didn't sugarcoat anything, we went into hard, controversial topics, we because that's what we're gonna face the world. We didn't stay in a bubble. But it was really refreshing to also talk with professors and peers who have the same values and same, just driving beliefs. So we could talk through those things and be like, we're gonna face this, okay, as a Christian, how, how do we want to go about that? How are we going to, you know, keep our morals but also do what is best for the client, because we're gonna have situations that we might not agree with as a Christian, but we we want to love like Christ loves.
That’s a tricky spot. Christian students in any field will face situations they don’t agree with. But in social work, it could be even more common, as students prepare to help people who are often struggling because of bad decisions. The students aren’t the only ones sometimes facing a conundrum. Their schools do, too.
In April 2021, the Council on Social Work Education updated accreditation guidelines for schools with social work programs. The new criteria included training about popular buzzwords like “intersectionality” and “sexual orientation” and “gender identity and expression.”
That lines up with a trend playing out in many career fields. The problem? The Council on Social Work Education is the only accreditor for U.S. colleges offering social work programs. That means Christian schools that hold to a Biblical position on marriage and sexuality can’t switch to another accreditor. There isn’t one.
Here’s Tara Boer again.
BOER: During those times, it seems like we do hold our breath just a little bit, worried that some of the more secular belief systems around sexuality, and yeah, just just different topics that might not be easy to teach about in terms of endorsement.
Cairn University, just outside Philadelphia, started as a Bible college in 1913. Leaders added a social work program in the 1960s. But times have definitely changed.
WILLIAMS: The social work profession clearly is dealing with issues of, of, not just of, of poverty and human need. But there, there are all kinds of other social and political things attached to it. And I think rightly so to be concerned about issues of justice and racism, racism, and those sorts of things…
Todd J. Williams is president of Cairn University. He is concerned with where things are headed. He refers here to the Council on Social Work Education by the acronym C-S-W-E.
WILLIAMS: It was very clear to us in reading, the CSWE’s language that their approach, specifically to issues of gender and sexuality, that they were on a trajectory to attach the the need to be inclusive, the degree of application of intersectionality, and other things that they were actually pushing on those matters related to human sexuality, and expected us now not to sort of be implicitly in our curriculum, teaching students about those things, but explicitly and holding us accountable for the delivery of an education, that when teaching about diversity, equity inclusion was going to attach that to gender and sex.
Changing standards were not Cairn University’s only concern. Fewer students were enrolling in the social work program. But the school still had to maintain staffing ratios mandated by accreditation, making the program especially expensive.
In 2021, the private Christian school announced it would end its social work program. The school worked with the Council on Social Work Education on an exit plan. Students already in Cairn’s social work program can finish out their fully accredited degree at Cairn. But no more social work students are coming to the school.
WILLIAMS: If we're going to hold to being Christian colleges and universities, our commitment to biblical truth, biblical authority, the sufficiency of Scripture, the created order, those things matter. And our students and families need to be able to count on us to hold that line while also finding ways to send our graduates into every sector of society. But we shouldn't be making curricular decisions that are prescribed by outside agencies in a way that would cause our students to falter in applying a thoroughly integrated biblical worldview.
Williams says the school still wants to prepare students to work with people facing many kinds of needs. Just not through the Council on Social Work Education.
He urges other school leaders to be clear on this issue, although he understands not all Christian schools will follow Cairn’s course. If they do, Christians entering social work will have fewer opportunities to learn how to integrate their faith into their vocational calling—at least in a classroom setting.
But Christian students who have a Biblical foundation for their work in this field can lean on that conviction on the toughest days.
WHEELER: I couldn't imagine doing this without knowing the love of Jesus, because I couldn't imagine taking that weight on myself.
Emily Wheeler at Saint Francis Ministries in Wichita says she plans to persevere despite the challenges.
WHEELER: But I feel like, because I know Jesus, I'm able to kind of turn that over into His hands at the end of the day and know that there's only so much I can do for the families that I work with.
Wheeler prioritizes checking in with the employees she supervises, and she encourages them to make time for self-care and take vacations. She urges them to leave work at work—as much as they can.
WHEELER: I definitely encourage my workers that when they are not on call to turn off their phones and to put them in the bottom of their bag and to not, no matter how difficult it is because you know you have these kids and parents calling you at all hours of the night, um but to definitely put up boundaries, and to not generally be on your phone in the evenings, because I think that it can overtake your entire life.
That’s not always possible. As we finish talking, she checks her phone. She’s really checking on one of the children who came through her care today. Even though it’s after work hours, her day isn’t over yet.
It’s a daily struggle to find harmony between work and personal life, between doing what she can and leaving the rest in God’s hands. But Wheeler says the struggle is worth it. She knows her work makes a difference.
WHEELER: Being able to see the joy and relief of families reunited. So when grandma or grandpa, or aunt and uncle, get that child that's been in police protective custody, for whatever, 72 hours or so and they're just hoping with everything that they get to come to their house and like, just getting to see that interaction kind of makes it all worth it.
Next week, we’ll travel to Mississippi where one organization is fighting to keep serving kids in crisis, especially those who don’t fit well into the traditional foster care model.
MILNER: Those needs are too big for any one church, any one person, any one county. We get that, but they're not too big for us. That's what we do. So just love them enough to see if you can develop a relationship where you can introduce us.
Effective Compassion is produced by the creative team at WORLD Radio. I’m Lauren Dunn. Leigh Jones is our producer, and Paul Butler is our executive producer. Technical assistance provided by Rich Rozel and Creative Genius Productions.
UNDERWRITER SPOT: Effective Compassion is made possible by listeners like you. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization serving the physical and spiritual needs of people in impoverished communities around the world. Help for today, hope for tomorrow. Right now, World Help has a window of opportunity to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a Christian living in this hostile country. More at worldhelp.net/podcast.
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