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Standing up for teens

Caseworker Tracey Bullock
“In this job, you don’t know what you are going to wake up to when your feet hit the floor in the morning.”

Most of our Outstanding Caseworker submissions come from families. But  we recently received this passionate and detailed submission from a “colleague, former supervisor, and fan” of North Carolina caseworker Tracey Bullock. She wrote:

“Tracey is an outstanding caseworker and a true pillar of advocacy and inspiration to those around her and in our community. She only works with teens and exemplifies what a caseworker should be by being honest and providing accurate information to them regarding their foster care journey…

“Tracey advocates relentlessly for resources and services for her teens and ensures they have opportunities and experiences that will help them in a successful transition from foster care. She doesn’t hesitate to be there for them on special occasions—school plays, sports events, proms, and graduations—to make sure they have at least one person in the audience to support them.”

We asked Tracey to talk a bit about her approach to working with teens, how she achieves work-life balance, and her advice to other caseworkers.

How would you describe your role?

I work with teens who are preparing to age out of foster care. My role is to give them the tools that they need to be successful—and hope they choose to use them.

I have worked in several areas of child welfare over the last 20 years, and I think this is where I will stay. There is never a dull moment. I always tell people that in this job, you don’t know what you are going to wake up to when your feet hit the floor in the morning.

What keeps you going?

Every time I am having a bad day with one kid, another kid calls me, sometimes out of the blue, with news that lets me know I made a difference in his life. Or if I can’t help one kid on my caseload, I am able to help another. It may sound strange, but it normally happens that way.

When people think of teens aging out of care, they think of the poor outcomes. But there are happy stories of young people who go on and succeed—whatever that looks like for them. For some it means going to college. For others it might mean joining the military. Or it might be just having stable housing and a job that pays their bills.

What would surprise people about your work?

The interactions and relationships I have with the kids are really important. That is what people see. But it is the behind-the-scenes work we do that makes their success possible. That is where the hard work is.

For example, right now I am working with a girl who is struggling in college because she suffers from depression. She’s missing classes and not getting all of her work in on time. I’m spending time talking to her professors, to her counselors, so that everyone understands where she is coming from and the support she needs to succeed. And I’m doing little things to help make her feel better—like taking her to get her hair done.

It sounds like you are playing the role that a parent might play.

That could be. The sad truth is that most of the kids I work with don’t have anybody to stand up for them. It is so easy for them to fail. But it is within our power to help them succeed. Or try to at least.

How do you avoid having your job take over your life?

It took me a couple of years, but now I really don’t take my job home with me. Everyone knows that I am there for my kids, but I set boundaries with them. I make it clear that my job starts at 8 a.m. and ends at a certain time every day. I tell them: “Only call me before 8 a.m. if it is an emergency.” And I make sure they understand what constitutes an emergency!

Still, there must be a lot of stress. How do you cope?

Stress can upset your life in so many ways—especially your physical health. One of my coping mechanisms is listening to comedy. It is so important to laugh! I also try to avoid reading books that are really dramatic. And of course working out is always helpful.

What do you see as the keys to success when working with teens?

  • Being there. If I say I am going to be there at 5 p.m., I am there at 5 p.m. I never make a promise I cannot keep. Of course it’s important no matter who you are working with, but it is especially important with these teens, who have been through so much trauma.
  • Understanding their perspective. Whether they say it or not, many of these kids may think the system is out to get them. We took them away from their parents. Of course they don’t trust us.
  • Helping them understand needs vs. wants. We have a lot of conversations about this! The kids we work with want all of the things they never had—the fancy phone, the popular sneakers, eating out rather than cooking in—when what they need is to save money so they can live in a regular place.

Any final thoughts?

Realizing that I am not a savior and cannot save them all has allowed me to keep doing this work.