JACKSON SQ.—A 15-year-old boy walks from El Salvador to the US, illiterate and alone. A student sees a killing from her school bus. Another witnesses a fatal shooting in the doorway of her apartment building. A young boy is burned over most of his body in a fire.
These are just some of the cases social workers struggle with at Family Service of Greater Boston at 31 Heath St. Although the outcomes of these traumas vary from inspiring to heartbreaking, one constant connects them all–the lack of enough resources.
Acknowledging this need, the Boston Scientific Foundation recently gave a one-year, $20,000 grant to Family Service, founded in 1835 to help at-risk families and individuals to specifically deal with traumatized young people.
“We were attracted to their proposal because it focused on a population with unmet needs,” said Jacquie Boas, administrator of the foundation. “Their Center for Counseling and Trauma Services is an innovative program that helps break the cycle of violence… and catches kids that fall between cracks.”
The foundation’s parent, Boston Scientific, specializes in manufacturing innovative medical devices. Started in 2002, the foundation has donated more than $3.3 million this year to 300 charities promoting health and educational opportunities for those in need.
“The grant is a big support for us to continue our work,” said Randal Rucker, chief executive officer of Family Service, which operates with a $6.2 million budget funded by the Department of Social Services, grants and fund-raisers.
During an interview last week with Rucker and staff at the clinic, he said the need for trauma services for youths is high.
“The majority of kids we see have an average of two traumatic experiences, and they are just the tip of the iceberg. Most kids go untreated,” he said.
Causes include physical and sexual abuse; witnessing or experiencing violence; constant fear; accidents; and family deaths.
Rucker said, “These kids have a lot of issues around safety. And all the recent foreclosures, along with a weak economy, just add a broader exposure of kids to traumatic events.
“I truly believe our clients have the ability to transform themselves if given a chance,” Rucker added.
Family Service social worker Claudia Morad said she’s “seen how resilient kids are. And as a clinician, I’ve been struck by the difference one person can make in children’s lives.
“There’s 12-year-old a boy I started seeing when he was 10. He was doing illegal stuff and not in school,” she said. “He was abused by his father and had a mother fighting cancer. Now he’s involved in a local youth organization, developing skills, has an older boy who is a mentor, rides his bike to his appointments here and is really flourishing.”
She also recalled the story of another client, an illiterate 15-year-old boy with 18 siblings, who walked to the US border from El Salvador.
“All he wanted to do was get a job and sent money back home to his mom. But he was caught by immigration officials and put into a detention camp,” said Morad. “He came to Boston to live with a family, but ended up just baby-sitting for them and not going to school. His skills were at about a second-grade level, and he didn’t talk very much because he couldn’t speak English.
“Finally he was removed from that house and placed in a good foster home in JP. Now he’s 18, doing amazingly well. He speaks English, has a green card and volunteers in a mentoring program to help other kids.”
But not all cases reach those kind of resolutions. Morad talked about a young student at the Hennigan Elementary School where she works off-site for Family Service.
“I worked with her for a few years after her brother’s suicide. She was pretty sad and depressed. Now at 14 she’s come back after another tragic loss.”
Morad also runs a parent group where clients are encouraged to examine their own childhoods and develop skills to take care of themselves so that they can be better parents.
Other services include a youth leadership program in partnership with the Hyde Square Task Force, Sociedad Latina, Tree of Life and local schools; working with fathers, whom Rucker called an overlooked at-risk group; and a program for mothers ages 13 to 19 whom Alderman contended would be on the streets without aid.
Underfunding of urban family services is not new, Rucker maintained, although it’s gotten worse recently, he said. “From the Reagan years forth there’s been a policy of ‘starving the beast,’ the beast being poor people on welfare entitlements. For 25 years we’ve seen an erosion of financial support, forcing social service agencies to try to cobble together a collage of different funding sources.”
Meanwhile, he pointed out, it takes lower-income families “more to just maintain [an economic] baseline…that often requires both parents to work” and be away from home during the day.
“This is the worst situation I’ve seen in the 35 years I’ve been in this field,” said social worker Glenda Aldermen, supervisor of trauma services at the clinic. She cited the “growing gap between rich and poor” as a major influence in the lack of resources, saying that “people who have never seen war or violence disconnect…and don’t speak about the poor. They want them to just be invisible.
“There are ways to heal ourselves if we have support, but that support is dwindling, especially with mental health services. It’s getting critical—a real sea change. For the first time we have a waiting list and must triage people with the most critical needs,” she said.
Asked how they cope with the emotional stress and demands of their jobs, Rucker admitted, “Sometimes, we have to take a deep breath.”
“It’s a real team atmosphere here. We know we have to talk to each other and be supportive,” said Alderman.
Morad, a veteran social worker for 18 years, cited the “great supervision” as she winked at Alderman, her supervisor, and the two women broke into a laugh.
“But you also have to have love and have passion for the job to do it well,” Morad said, adding, “What I’ve learned from my clients and the people I work with has been unbelievable.”