Archive for July, 2011

Last Friday evening, the Department of Children and Families honored Adolescent Social Work visionary Ralph Zona for his 36 years of service to the State of Connecticut and his work with over 600 youth from the city of New Haven. The Department has made many well publicized mistakes over the years, but Ralph’s life of dedication and sacrifice for our teens and their resulting success is an example of the work that is done far more often but rarely appreciated.  Ralph has always been outspoken about the flaws and failures of the bureaucratic system, but never let that system interfere with his tireless advocacy for his kids. For that he deserves to be recognized.

Born and raised in the Greater New Haven area, Ralph began his social work career in 1975 at what was then the Department of Children and Youth Services in New Haven. He was promptly assigned a now unthinkable 122 cases of foster care children over the age of 12 who were placed in foster homes and group homes across the state. Ralph recognized that many of the adolescent youth in foster care were not being adequately prepared for their transition into independent living and in 1978 decided to create the first Life Skills classes for the teens out of the New Haven office. The program evolved into Community Based Life Skills, a statewide service that has become a cornerstone of the DCF Independent Living program and the DCF Adolescent Policy. A policy that Ralph actually had a large hand in creating and that was originally drafted with adolescent youth present. This was to ensure that the real experts, the kids themselves, were involved in the process and able to provide a clue to those of us who only work in the world they live in.

Ralph noted that much of his success can be contributed to thinking outside of the box or at times in his words “outside of the planet.” Ralph’s good friend and Adolescent Services co-conspirator Bill Pinto noted that Ralph was “never afraid to send 7 billion letters to anyone who would open them” to seek support for their unconventional ideas. Among those who did consistently respond to Ralph’s letters over the years to serve the orphans of our society were UConn men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun and NFL Hall-of-Famer Joe Namath. Ralph’s “crazy’ ideas manifested in his long time coordination of the ConnectiKids Golf Tournament which raises money for kids in foster care. He created Big Brother and Big Sister programs which matched young men and women in congregate care settings to mentors from the Yale University football team and Albertus Magnus College. In the early 1980s, Ralph began organizing Holiday parties for foster children and helped arrange Statewide Youth Conferences into the 1990s.

But above all else, Ralph’s legacy will be the Department’s emphasis on post secondary education for our youth. While other adolescent workers were just trying to survive along with their kids, Ralph was a trailblazer that preached the importance of higher education to his teens as a ticket to a better life and the end of generational poverty. Ralph ran statewide college fairs and advocated that his kids dream big and work hard. With Ralph’s help, kids on his case load graduated from Yale, Harvard, the Berkeley School of Music and nearly every public university in the state of Connecticut.

The highlight of Ralph’s retirement celebration was the return of one of his former foster care youth, Crystal Astrachan, who spoke about Ralph’s substantial influence in her life and offered some words of advice to the rest of the social workers in the room. Crystal is herself a 2004 graduate of Yale University and currently a Manager of Business Development at Connecticut-based TicketNetwork, one of the fastest growing companies in the nation. As Crystal began to tell her story and of her appreciation for Ralph, her eyes welled up with tears and she could only continue with a hug of strength and support from a friend and fellow ex-DCF youth who also formerly worked with Ralph and who is now a domestic violence victim advocate.

Crystal collected herself and spoke about how she was hesitant to get to know Ralph after being let down by so many adults in the past, but that she slowly learned to trust him when it became evident that Ralph actually cared about her well-being and that his involvement in her life was more than just a job. Ralph was there to see her graduate from Yale in 2004 and as a token of her appreciation Crystal shared the secrets of Ralph’s incredible success as a social worker, which serve as a lesson for us all.

I’d like to thank Crystal for sharing the text of her speech with me and for her permission to use her words here. Here’s what she believes set Ralph apart:

Ralph was there for us. He was not interested in using us to advance his career or get recognition for his work.  He genuinely cared about our development and success. Our happiness and achievements were his profits.  I’ve learned that this quality in people is rare.

Ralph was happy. Because Ralph was fulfilled in the act of his work, he did not expect to receive any personal benefits from his clients. This was comforting, since I had grown up seeing adults use their children for their own benefits and also had been a victim to this type of treatment myself.

Ralph was professional while still being human. He did not lean on us for emotional support or treat us like his friends or colleagues. He let me see that he was a real person with a life outside of work. He always told me about his wife and children and what they were up to.  His openness made me feel as if he were just a regular person – not just a DCF employee.

Ralph works with integrity. He is honest, reliable, consistent, and never made a promise that he did not keep.  Through Ralph’s actions, I learned that he was someone I could trust.

My dreams were always within reach with Ralph. During high school, I realized that I had an adventurous side and sought opportunities to combine travel with education and service. Ralph never made me feel that I was asking for too much. It would have been really easy to tell me that he could not get me the funding or approval to go to Mexico to study Spanish or to go to Honduras to volunteer. But Ralph knew that my passions for international travel, service, and education were important to me and he supported my goals.

Ralph did not sweat the small stuff. As an adolescent, I did some stupid stuff, but he kept perspective and knew that hiccups here and there are normal parts of development.

Ralph fostered independence. He was able to see that I made good decisions for myself and was there to guide, rather than tell me exactly what I was supposed to do.

Crystal continued by saying, “I believe that every foster care child has the potential to make their life better while in (care). Like all other children, they need support, guidance, and encouragement.  I consulted with my friends who lived with me (in foster care) and others who were in foster care. We are all in our late 20s and early 30s today. We got in touch with our adolescent selves, and, in our teenage voices, we wanted to tell you what we need from our social workers.” She then presented a list of seven needs of youth in foster care which could easily serve as the defacto “Manual for Working with Teens.” Again I express my gratitude to Crystal for sharing, here’s what the former foster youth collectively advised:

1.       Give to us without expecting anything in return, we may be too hurt and angry to express appreciation when you are helping us, but trust that one day we will remember that we had someone who gave to us this way.

2.       Help us feel that your job as a social worker is more than just a job for you.  Call us just to say hello.  Return our calls so that we don’t feel forgotten.  Be happy to see us. Be proud of us.  Make us laugh.   

3.       Never tell us how to feel about our situations today or how we should deal with the pain from our past. Let us be sad sometimes. Understand when we withdraw or act out.

4.       Give us room to mess up and make mistakes, for our mistakes are simply opportunities to learn and grow. Teach us how to forgive by forgiving us.

5.       Don’t make us feel as if we are a burden.  Show us that our presence is a gift.  Teach us that we, like all other children, deserve to be cared about and treated well. Before we (came into foster care), we may have learned through the actions, lack of action, or words of other adults that we are not worthy of attention, love, and caring – and that our needs should never be made a priority. Show us that this is not true through your actions, which will help us to make good decisions about the people we choose to have in our lives.

6.       Challenge us.  Ask us these questions: “What are your dreams? What is your purpose? What are your talents? How can you utilize your talents to help others?” Let us know that you are there to help us reach our goals and we will feel empowered.

 7.       Don’t just help us with our “self-esteem”. Help us with our “other-esteem,” which is how we feel about and relate to others. Help us understand how we are needed in our communities and our worlds to make a difference and how purposeful our gifts can be. This will help us to heal and fulfill our desires for interconnectedness and community that we long for. You, social workers, have this gift. Share it with us.

After Crystal finished her speech, it was now us social workers with the tears welling up in our eyes. I hope her words will be taken to heart and wanted to share them here to inspire all of us in social services, in teaching, in childcare, and those of us who are parents as we try to encourage the kids in our lives to find success, happiness and community.

Ralph addressed us as well after Crystal’s speech and humbly attempted to summarize his career in social work. He noted that in his nearly four decades of experience, it seemed 40 percent of kids in care will not find success in the system not matter how good their social worker is, the trauma they have experienced is simply too great. He also reported that it seems 40 percent of the kids will find success no matter how bad their social workers attempt to screw them up or get in their way, they are just too resilient. Which leaves 20 percent on the fence that we have a chance to make a difference with. Ralph said he believes that if over half of this 20 percent can also find success, then a social worker can be confident they did well and hoped his overall success rate was over 50 percent. If Ralph was in need of any validation of a job well done, he only had to look out on the sea of appreciative faces including family, co-workers and former youth, all of us inspired to follow in his footsteps. Thank you Ralph and best wishes as you begin a new Chapter.

In Progress

Posted: July 29, 2011 in Aging, Poetry

 

There ain’t no denyin’

My ears are gettin’ bigger and my nose is gettin’ larger

While my eyes are glowin’ dimmer my eyebrows are growin’ longer

My legs are movin’ slower and now weary’s become default

The fat that I’m a storin’ is gettin’ harder to burn off

 

Yes, things are a changin’, but not in my favor

Yes, time keeps a movin’ and it ain’t slowin’ down

 

My hair is grayin’ and soon’ll be fallin’ out

Black and white there ain’t no more, the walls ‘ve come tumblin’ down

My former accolades have been consumed and are forgot

Though my constant achin’ bones keep company with a fire

 

No I ain’t a cryin’

‘Cause I’m listenin’ more often with these increasin’ ears o’ mine

My vision’s gettin’ clearer and my patience stretched as well

My hands are ever active bringin’ life from once dead soil, and

The forgiveness I’d been storin’ is gettin’ harder to keep in stock

 

Yes, things are a changin’, I’m thinking for the good

Yes, time keeps a movin’, but life has just begun

 

 

Disclaimer: This account and the views and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author and are not necessarily reflective or representative of any State Employee Union in Connecticut or any other State of Connecticut employee.

All over the country Thursday night people stayed up into the early morning hours to witness the end of Harry Potter film saga. In Connecticut however, more than just the wizard fanatics had their sleep disrupted as thousands of state employees lay awake, wondering if their careers were destined to meet their own killing curse upon arriving to work Friday morning.

Those following the labor situation here in Connecticut may not have much sympathy, as the estimated 6,500 layoffs of state employees follows the rejection of a money-saving labor deal previously negotiated between rookie Governor Dannel P. Malloy and the unions. The tentative agreement that was being counted on to balance the budget called for wage freezes for two years, a raise in the retirement age, and slight changes to the pension and healthcare plans offered to state employees in exchange for no layoffs for four years. The health care changes mainly consisted of mandates for regular health checkups in an effort to offset the future cost of health care by addressing health issues before they metastasize.  Especially in light of the difficulty our neighbors and friends have experienced in the private sector in recent years, the proposed concession package was likened to a sweetheart deal and ought to have been an easy yes vote.

Ah, what ought to have been. Instead, despite some deft negotiating, the unions botched the communication of the proposed agreement to its members. First, it took far too long to respond to false claims about the deal being circulated via state employee email (i.e. taking all State employees of our current health insurance plans and placing us all on the Husky or SustiNet Medicaid plans). Second, the union reps then presented the tentative agreement at the same time they implored all members to vote for it, creating a perception that the union had removed all choice in the matter and that the vote was just a formality. Well, Americans and especially New Englanders don’t like to be told what to do (for proof Wikipedia the American Revolution). Finally, the union’s own bi-laws prevented a popular vote, requiring that 14 of the 15 state employee unions and 80 percent of all voters approve the deal in order to ratify it.

But enough about the union leaders, because as Kristen Chenowith sang so poignantly in Wicked, “I guess we know there’s blame to share.” I understand the “no” votes from those looking to retire soon after a lifetime of service and even some of the sentiments from workers who were around during the last layoffs nearly a decade ago and felt they had already sacrificed repeatedly, including our vote just two years ago to accept furlough days and wage freezes. But on the whole the 40 percent of workers who voted the deal down appear nearsighted and egocentric. Many of the more seasoned workers confidently voted no, believing that their seniority would prevent them from being laid off and that concessions on their part were not worth the positions of their younger co-workers. Of course, my bias is with the younger generation, being in my late twenties with a wife and three children ages three and under to care for.

Unfortunately for all of us, many of these folks who voted no did not consider that even if they were among those fortunate to keep their jobs, that the state’s fragile economy will not likely be able to avoid at least a double-dip recession with the loss of an additional 6,500 incomes and taxpayers. It seems they did not also consider that our already stressful and often unmanageable social services caseloads would be oversaturated due to the absence of our departed co-workers, ultimately disservicing the very folks we aim to help. Sadly, it seems we have forgotten the Biblical message behind Martin Luther King Jr.’s words in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which he wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Friday morning arrived and in a sad but not unexpected manner, the least senior workers in both front line and supervisory positions were the first to be let go, despite their previous votes in favor of the concession package. The death march began after nine and continued until noon, one dedicated worker after another being escorted to their pink slips. Despite reports indicating that the administrators gave the news with as much dignity, respect and professionalism as one could hope for in the face-to-face meetings, images of people sobbing and their distraught expressions are hard to shake. Some of these folks just closed on homes or condos, others are newly married, planning weddings or expecting newborns. Most have poured the remainder of their lives into the clients they serve, staying late into the evenings, skipping lunch breaks and fighting the inefficiency of bureaucracy for more hours than they could count to be paid for.

Around 10:30 am, I was visited by a co-worker and sister in Christ with messages of encouragement and notice of a prayer vigil on my behalf. Shortly thereafter, I received a message from another co-worker and sister in Christ who reported she had woken up in the middle of the night last night with a sudden urge to pray for me and my family. This was echoed by another co-worker, who did not know I was a Christ-follower but also woke up mid-sleep to pray on my behalf. Incredibly touching and encouraging.

To be perfectly honest, I gave up worrying about potentially being laid off mid-June when the union voting date was announced for a day when I was already scheduled to be out of the state working and it was confirmed there would be no absentee voting or alternate voting times. With my small slice of democratic voice denied, I felt God speak peace into my life that the ultimate results were in His hand. I’ve always wanted to try my hand at writing professionally and have been methodically working at a slow pace with Jaime to prepare for bi-vocational church planting. I began thinking maybe a forced layoff would be permission to pursue such paths at a greater clip and that otherwise would be confirmation that perhaps I have more to learn and more to offer as a social worker.

As noon approached, the co-worker who sits closest to me was heart wrenchingly given notice and then news trickled in that workers and friends who were hired the same day I was in May 2007 were also being let go. It seemed my name was next on the list and I prepared to put on a smile, to accept a new direction from God. But ironically, I was called not by an administrator, but by a client in need of their immunization records from a health clinic faxed to their summer employment site by 2:00 pm or face the loss of their own position. So out into field I went to save a job while contemplating losing my own.

This sundial in New Haven's Edgewood Park was once a murder scene, but the daylight transforms a former place of darkness into a children's playground, giving hope to us all in times of adversity

While out in the community, I drove by New Haven’s Edgewood Park, where I had recently taken my three year old daughter Clara on Connecticut Trails Day in early June. Although we saw much of the park on our walking tour that day, I had not had an opportunity to visit the large sundial near the entrance to the park where Stanley Street meets the Boulevard. This particular location has come to mean a great deal to me since I read the remarkable story of Vicky Coward, whose 18 year old son Tyler was shot and murdered right next to this sundial just over four years ago on July 12, 2007. As I passed the park in my car, I pulled over to walk to the location of Tyler’s demise to pray over the spot, and to breathe peace into the lives of his family and the park; perhaps as a means of restoring peace to my own soul. But I was surprised to find that the sundial which had projected visions of darkness in my mind’s eye since reading of Tyler’s death, was now fully alive in the summer sun, a unique sculpture slash water park in which small children clad in bathing suits were frolicking in the streams shooting from the rock. I could not imagine that this space being shared by joyful families was the same location in which Ms. Coward lost her son to an act of senseless street violence. It was altogether stunning and beautiful to realize that a history of darkness tied to a location does not solely determine its prospects for light, and I envisioned the darkness surrounding the office layoffs as being transformed into a bright meeting place of joy in the not-too-distant future.

Upon my return to the office, I discovered Round One of the layoff notices had been completed. The list of pink slips stopped just before my level of seniority, as measured by the arbitrary nature of my being hired in a permanent position versus a durational one from day one. But please do not cease your prayers on our behalf and certainly for those who were not spared anxiety and anguish today. I pray that the union can resolve this issue and that jobs can be salvaged before the deadline in August. I pray that if I am eventually laid off that I will have the courage and humility to pursue the Spirit’s direction in revisioning the definition of vocation. I pray that if I am able to keep my position that God would use me to positively impact the lives of the young men and women I am fortunate to have the opportunity to work with. Regardless of the outcome and the current uncertainty of this chapter of life, I am certain that just like the Harry Potter books, the last line of this series is destined to read “All was well.”