The Downtown Eastside (DTES) often conjures images of people who are homeless, addicted and suffering from mental-health challenges.
“It’s easy to go to stereotypes, but there’s much more to the DTES than that,” says Katy Forward, a family services social worker with the Ministry of Children and Family Development. “For close to 10 years, I’ve been working with parents who are raising their children in this neighbourhood and I’m often awed by their strength and resiliency.”
Forward says the best thing about being a social worker is building relationships with the families she works with, but that process takes time.
“Some parents don’t want my help at first. They’re already dealing with challenges. That’s why they have come to my attention,” she says. “The last thing they want is to have to deal with the ministry on top of everything else.”
There are some people who Forward works with over a number of years through face-to-face meetings in her office, at regular home visits, or via community agencies. The challenges families face are often complicated. There are no easy fixes.
“Parents have the best idea of what they need for their families. Once they’re able to trust me enough, they’ll tell me what those needs are,” Forward says.
She and the families usually have the same goal. “As a social worker, I want what’s best for the kids, but so do parents. It’s just that sometimes we’re coming at things from different angles.”
So how does she find a balance?
“It’s really about finding common ground,” she says. “I acknowledge that parenting is a struggle at times. I’m honest with them and I work hard to build trust and to meet them where they are, rather than talking at them and telling them what they need to do.”
Forward says the best outcomes happen when the family is part of the solution. The more they can set their own goals and work towards them, the better.
She remembers a family of six that she worked with years ago. “It was a tough situation,” she says. “The parents really cared for their kids, but they both had mental-health challenges. I worked with the family for about five years, but eventually the courts decided that it would be best for their kids to be adopted.”
She says the decision was gut-wrenching for the parents, yet all of the children were adopted by the same family – a positive outcome.
She says sometimes situations work out for the best and sometimes she wishes things were different. “There are nights when I sit and worry,” she says. “I think about the families and how they’re doing, and I just really hope that they’re OK until I can get back into the office the next day.”
Forward’s training as a social worker, along with the care and and compassion she brings to her work will serve her well in what will soon be a new role for her. “I’m expecting a baby in a few months.”
Social Work Week (March 13-19) is an opportunity to honour outstanding social workers throughout the province, and to thank those who make it their life's work to truly make a difference in many British Columbians’ lives. To read the proclamation, visit: http://goo.gl/C0CRZM