Victoria Brewster, MSW

Victoria Brewster, MSW

Social Justice Solutions | Staff Writer
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Book Review/Interview with Jill A. Sanders, MSW: For the Love of Carrie

SJS was asked to review a social work book written by Jill A. Sanders, MSW, For the Love of Carrie. We have been fortunate to be asked to review books for a few different social workers, and it is a role I personally enjoy fulfilling. I love to read and I have read books that I would not have come across otherwise. This is a book definitely worth reading, particularly if one is a social work student or professional thinking of entering the field of child welfare.

What struck me most about this book was its rawness, the intertwining stories between the character of Carrie, her personal life and her professional life from chapter to chapter. This is a character with heart, that chose the social work profession as her ‘calling.’ When she first started out, she was shocked and dismayed by the level of poverty, “She realized she genuinely didn’t understand the reality of surviving poverty. They didn’t teach us this in school.” This is a comment that many social workers would still make today.

A few quotes that stood out for me: “I wake each morning knowing I will never be able to predict what gifts each day will bring me. It makes life more interesting. The experience (near drowning) did strengthen my belief, my hope and I don’t think you can be an effective social worker without hope.” And “…never a dull moment. Each day brings new surprises and situations. If you tried to make them up you couldn’t. Real life is far more creative than what we can imagine.”

The book was hard to read at times, the description of abuse that the children lived with. As a parent you wonder how can someone treat their own child that way, and as a social worker your first instinct is to rescue the child(ren).

Kudos to Jill A. Sanders for writing this book. Below is an interview I conducted with her.

Talk about your own educational experience:
I was privileged to attend Ohio State University (OSU) for both my BSSW (1971) and MSW (1979) degrees. At the time I was an undergraduate student, OSU was one of the few colleges that offered a degree in social work. My field placement was with The Ohio State Institute for the Mentally Retarded. It was the state institution that warehoused the developmentally delayed. The conditions were deplorable, and many residents placed there were higher functioning, but defined as ‘throw away persons.’  Others clearly needed a structured setting to oversee their daily needs. It was difficult to attend to the realities of that situation. This institution has since been torn dow,  as the state has opted to decentralize and serve these residents within their own communities.

The Master’s degree program during the time I attended required a two year full time commitment. They did not have options for part-time students, or flexibility to accommodate those students who could not attend full-time, as they do now. I was fortunate to receive a state stipend that paid my tuition and a small monthly allowance, which barely covered my rent.

My first year’s field placement was with the Ohio State Youth Commission, now called the Department of Youth Services. I was placed in the state facility that housed juvenile delinquents who were diagnosed with severe mental health problems. Here, I was awakened to the realities of institutional living once again, finding it less than optimal for the well being of their residents. The focus of the institution was on housing these children, with few resources available for rehabilitative efforts.

My second year of graduate school, I was placed at Upham Hall, the name of the psychiatric facility located at The Ohio State University Hospitals. I worked within a unit that housed adults and older teens with psychiatric issues. The primary focus of treatment was drug therapy. What little talk therapy occurred was produced by the social work and psychology students. I learned the practice of hypnotism during this placement as one physician relied on this practice.

During both my undergraduate and graduate work, the college offered the same schedule of courses each quarter: policy, human functioning, practice, ethnic studies and research in addition to the field placement.

Talk about your own work experience:
In June of 1972, I began my first social work experience in Lorain, Ohio as a child welfare worker. I had no idea what job experiences I would encounter when I took the position. I remember my job interview took place in the lobby of a hotel in Columbus, Ohio as the executive director was there for a business meeting. What little I learned about child welfare occurred during this interview.

My first day on the job, I was given over twenty cases and told to meet the families and see what I think. There was no in-house training or staff development available at that time. It truly was a sink or swim opportunity, and history suggests I swam well. Sixteen months later, I transferred my skills to Columbus, Ohio where I worked until I retired 32 years later. During my career I was a child welfare caseworker for twelve years, working directly with families in their homes. I was promoted to supervisor and filled that position for 8 years, and then was fortunate to be promoted again to a director’s position, one of many among this giant of an agency. Throughout this time I spent seventeen years in intake and investigations, and fifteen years in on-going services, transferring between the two several times.

I “retired” and became a trainer for the Institute of Human Services, where I continue to work part-time. This agency is a private agency that has received a yearly state contract to train child welfare worker in their profession. It is through this entity that Continuing Education Credits are acquired. I currently train courses in Child Welfare history, culture and recognition of abuse and neglect, engagement strategies with clients, assessment skills of family functioning, investigative skills, the trauma of separation and placement, and how to reduce stress in your personal and professional life.

What led you to write a book?
After I “retired” my husband and I moved from the busyness of an urban/suburban setting to the woods. I am literally surrounded in my home by the forest with no ability to see any neighbors. It is a most peaceful, serene, and tranquil setting. I was used to working ten hour days, and this new setting left me completely unscheduled except for the few days a month I would travel to train. With so much down time, I had to do something or go crazy. I wasn’t built to just sit still, although I am better practiced at that art now.

Eventually I discovered a group of women who met weekly for lunch and was invited to join them. What a breath of fresh air that was for me, having dedicated the first few years in the forest with my husband as my constant and only close by companion (We really do live remotely from other people).  One of these women informed me of a writing group that met monthly. I was curious and dared to attend one of their meetings not knowing what to expect. I knew no one in attendance. I was told the wrong starting time and entered their meeting an hour after it started. Talk about drawing unwanted attention to yourself! I had no idea if I had the skills to write at this level, and was quite nervous. They welcomed me into their group and asked me many questions for which I had no answers. What genre do you write in? What are your writing goals? What have you written? Why did you want to join us? I wasn’t sure I did want to join them at that moment. They all seemed so far advanced from me. I knew I had decent writing skills, at least on the job. So I started to write with their support and encouragement.

I always did enjoy writing, even if it was for professional purposes only. I wrote what I knew about leading to my first book, “Love Yourself More: Stress Less.” It is a non-fiction book that delves into the realm of reducing stress in the body, mind and spirit. I felt compelled to write that book, and midway through began to think about more fun creative writing. That is when I began to write fiction.

Are some of the examples of Carrie’s work experience from your own work experience?
There was no way I could have written about Carrie without drawing from my personal work experiences. While I was actively working in the field it occurred to me, as it did to many in the profession, I had never read a book which accurately described the experience of being a child welfare social worker up close and personal. There were many books available about the tragedies and experiences of child victims; but none that addressed the impact of the profession on its workers. I wanted to write that book. I wanted to give voice to the hundreds of social workers out there by presenting what their day to day experiences were like. Even family members could not fully understand the impact of the profession.  Movies always portrayed child welfare social workers as cold hearted, old biddies which were far from the truth. I wanted an accurate representation of the dedication and caring that these professionals delivered every day.

What advice can you offer to a social worker who is thinking of writing a book?
Write that book. Let your stories be heard. Do not shy away from the truth as you have experienced it. Be prepared for the process to tug at your heart and challenge your truths. Writing is and always has been a great release for stored emotions. It is a journey within. Just remember that you must maintain your professional oath to confidentiality.

What advice can you offer current social work students about working in the field?
Be prepared to meet challenges that you could never imagine. Be prepared to shift your perspective about what life is about. Be prepared to lose all shock value. Child welfare gets down to the nitty-gritty of life survival, and it is not always pretty. Soft hearts are needed to be well armored to survive. Teflon skin is needed. Much will be thrown your way, and you need to find a way to not let all of the misery penetrate you. First and foremost, take care of yourself both physically and emotionally. It takes a strong heart to walk this path. It is not for everyone.

What changes do you think are needed for the social work profession overall, or as a whole?
We need to become better self advocates, which may be contrary to our need to serve others rather than ourselves. We are often a misunderstood profession that begs for us to “set the record straight”. We are often compared to other female oriented professions such as teachers, and nurses; rather than life saving professions such as doctors, police and firemen. Our pay is never in accordance with the educational, time, and work requirements as well as work outcomes (Perhaps that can be said of many professions, but it rings loud and clear with social work). We cannot rely on outsiders to rally around our profession.

By Victoria Brewster, MSW
Staff Writer


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