As Carlos Ramos, psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, breezes through the regional office where he is based, his banter with colleagues leaves a warm wake of energy, humor, and generosity. His every interaction speaks of his inspired dedication to his team’s work, and his obvious passion for helping Idahoans.
Carlos has worked for the state for more than 11 years. When we meet him, it has been two weeks since his promotion to the newly developed role of psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, although he prefers to refer to his role as “family engagement specialist.” Prior to this, he was a client services technician for several years. His work involved providing support for supervised visits between children who are in foster care and their families. In his new role, he focuses more on proactive training and relationship building between clients and department staff. Ultimately, his work is always focused on providing support and resources that will lead toward the path of safe reunification for the family.
Carlos glows with natural charm as he introduces us to his colleagues in the office. He poses for a picture with one colleague, Christine Poff, teasing her (or himself): “You should sit down for this photo. You’re too tall!” he says. To another colleague, he checks that they are still planning on having tamales for lunch sometime this week. He checks the staff notes board to see if his former supervisor, Sharon Campbell, is in. He describes her as “magic” and talks about her glowingly and at length throughout our visit. A colleague appears from a visitation room cradling a baby, and Carlos strides over, unable to help himself from joining in. As he leans down toward the baby, his normal smile broadens and beams over his entire face. “You’re one of those cute babies!” he coos.
Today Carlos is supporting his team by covering client service technician duties; he will support a supervised visit between Parent W* and Baby P*. The department staff and foster parents feel Parent W is making progress toward the ideal outcome in every case they work on – safe reunification between the parent and the child who has been separated from the parents. The day’s itinerary is to drive from the regional office and pick up Baby P. After driving back to the office, Parent W will spend time with Baby P as Carlos stands by and helps to guide safe interaction and skill-building.
These visitations between family and children in foster care are separate from the visits with social workers, which can be unavoidably tense. The purpose of the visitations Carlos supervises is to allow the family and children to spend time together in a safe, relaxed environment. In fact, a few years ago, Carlos’s team identified rooms in the building that were unused and in a separate setting from where visits with social workers take place.
Carlos praises the social workers he works with. He explains that in his role, there are unique contributions he can make to help the social workers. The family visits that are supervised by the client services technicians occur more frequently than visits with social workers, so there are more opportunities to build relationships with clients. Clients often feel comfortable confiding in him about struggles they are having. Carlos can take this information and carefully work with it to help provide support to the clients. The relationships with clients built by Carlos and the client services technicians often complement the relationships the social workers build with clients. They all work together toward the ideal outcome in every case: safe reunification for the family.
As Carlos leads us outside to the parking lot where the department vehicles are parked, the sun is strong in the clear blue sky. It is early fall, and the leaves on the trees are just beginning to hint of the changing season. The days are still hot, and as Carlos turns the key in the ignition, he checks with us to see if we would like him to turn on the air conditioner.
We drive around the corner to the building’s storage room entrance where the car seats are kept, and Carlos parks and gets out of the car. He returns to the van carrying a car seat. He positions the car seat, buckles the straps, tightens them, shakes the seat to test it, and has the car seat secured in thirty seconds flat.
As we drive to the day care center, Carlos peppers the conversation about his work with details about his life. He has three children and has hosted an exchange student from China for 3 years. Carlos moved to the United States from Mexico when he was 15. He used to work in the fields, and says he enjoyed it, but his life now is very different. He earned a degree in social work from Boise State University and is considering eventually becoming a licensed social worker. His eyes light up and he admits that despite being from Mexico, he loves wrestling more than soccer. When he’s not working, he de-stresses by coaching his son’s wrestling team.
We pick up Baby P and Carlos opens the van door and secures Baby P, talking soothingly: “We’re friends, right, buddy? Yeah,” he says. “OK buddy, I don’t want you to move anywhere in this seat. You ready to go?” Baby P is calm, and before long is happily sleeping until we arrive back at the office.
We pull up to the building and Parent W is already standing on the sidewalk, waiting. Carlos opens his door and Parent W is too excited for pleasantries – wanting to take the shortest route to Baby P, Parent W breaks into a hopeful smile and asks Carlos, “Which side is [Baby P] on?” But before Carlos can answer, Parent W finds Baby P and doesn’t waste a second of the time they have to spend together. As Parent W unbuckles and picks up Baby P, gentle words flow between them. “Hi baby, hey. I’m here. We’re early today! Wanna go play? I’ve got you. You wanna lay on my shoulder?” The warmth of Parent W’s love is undeniable.
Carlos, Parent W, and Baby P move into the building and into the visitation room. The room is filled with baby toys, a couch, and a table. It also has an observation window. With parents like Parent W, who Carlos has confidence in, Carlos will leave the door open a crack and check in through the window from time to time.
Carlos says that for a long time, the Client Services Technicians were sometimes regarded as “just drivers.” That is simply not true. As Carlos supervises the visits, he is in a position of responsibility for the family member and the child. There are times when this means that he has intervene if there is any danger to the child. He may also have to explain to a parent what is needed to keep the child safe during the visit. There are some visits where Carlos will remain in the room the entire time to ensure a baby is safe, especially if the parent seems distracted. “There are times we have to be crawling on the floor with the mom or dad. We have to teach them how to make a bottle or explain to them why they shouldn’t feed a French fry to a 7-month-old.”
Carlos explains that Parent W has a good approach to parenting. It has been many years since Parent W has had a baby, so needs guidance with the basics. When Parent W can get the skills down for making formula, changing diapers, and identifying needs, such as learning why Baby P is crying, the team is hopeful that reunification will be possible.
Carlos microwaves the prepared meal for Baby P on a paper plate. He brings it into the observation room and suggests that Parent W should help Baby P with the food by cutting it into small pieces. As Parent W and Baby P spend time together bonding, Carlos keeps close to the observation window and spends some time telling us more about his work. Periodically, Baby P toddles out of the room to check out the most fascinating object in the lobby area: the trash can. But Parent W is always hot on Baby P’s heels, and the contents of the trash can remain in their place. They return to the visitation room and continue playing together.
Carlos admits that sometimes the people he works with are angry with the department. He says he can understand why, because when they are involved with Child Protection Services, there are a lot of strong emotions, which they might take out on department staff. But with all the clients he works with, Carlos sees it as his responsibility to try to bond with them and give them the information they need. He sees his job as trying to make them feel as comfortable during the visits as possible.
As we leave, Parent W and Baby P are still in the visitation room. Reassuring noises of a child playing with a toy and a loving parent’s gentle encouragement drift through the doorway. With each successful visit, Carlos grows more hopeful Parent W is moving toward reunification with Baby P.
Earlier, when Carlos accompanied Parent W and Baby P into the visitation room, Parent W paused for a moment in the doorway and quietly said to Carlos, “No matter how bad it gets, it’s always a good day when I get to see my baby.”
*Parent W and Baby P initials do not correlate to their actual names.
By Lori Gilbert
Photos by Niki Forbing-Orr
A Day in the Life is a series of stories highlighting Department of Health and Welfare employees and the work they do every day to help Idahoans live their best lives.