Interviewer: What personal experiences would you say most equipped you to be a Social Worker?
Sarah Matteson, LMSW: “At the age of 12, I was removed from my mother’s care and placed in foster care in the State of California. The CPS caseworkers assigned to my case were awful. They were not social workers, I think some of them did not even have degrees in a helping profession. One of them was a retired forest ranger, who had no business working in child welfare. At the age of 12, I decided to become a Social Worker so I could do a better job working with the children who are removed from their homes. I knew that vulnerable children deserve more than retired forest rangers and awful case workers. As I grew older, especially after I became a mom, I realized that it wasn’t just the children who needed a great social worker, it was the families. While working at CPS, I realized how difficult it is to lose such a huge part of yourself (being a parent), while still being forced to make huge changes to your lifestyle. Some of the parents lost their financial security when their children were removed (social security, food stamps, housing assistance, etc.). They are then court ordered services, required to maintain secure housing, and visit their children weekly all while maintain a job. I realized that it was the families that needed the most assistance. If we could stabilize and support the families enough to reunify, we could better serve the children.”
“Being able to look back at my childhood and understand how my own mother was never set up to successfully get her children returned to her care helped me to realize how much we are failing families, which made me work harder with the families I work with.”
Interviewer: What led you to choose your particular job field?
Sarah Matteson, LMSW: “The day after I turned 18, I was dropped off on my college campus and left alone. I had to make special arrangements with my school to be able to move in 3 days early. Thankfully my birthday is in August and freshman could move in a week prior to classes. I’m not sure where I would have spent my summer if my birthday was in June or July.
“I was alone and had no one to call for an emergency, no one to answer questions about life or school, no one to visit during holidays. There was a time between my freshman and sophomore year where I was homeless; couch surfing for a month.”
I made bad academic and financial decisions. I made bad life decisions. It was a hard time. But then I met my husband and his family. I moved to Texas. I started school at TWU and met their incredibly supportive Social Work department and I realized the impact a great social worker could have on a college student. Sometimes foster kids slip through the cracks, they graduate and go on to college without support. But a well-placed support at a university/college could mean the difference between failing and graduating. TWU provided me with that support and I want to be able to provide other students with that same support.”
Interviewer: What issues are most important to you in the population you work with?
Sarah Matteson, LMSW: “Some of the biggest issues I face are related to differing policies depending on how you exited foster care. We need policies that streamline the resources for all students who experienced foster care, not just ones who exited in certain ways. Students should be provided with all resources available to them; ETV, tuition waiver, Medicaid, SIL, etc. Students who experienced foster care, regardless of the outcome, need the support and financial backing. They need more time to complete their education and we need to have policies and practices that allow that. Another issue is leaving care/adoptive homes without a support system. If CPS cannot provide that support system, we need to ensure it is still there. Who else could we look at? Is 16/17 old enough to start reconnecting with birth family to build a support system? Too often I see students reach back out to family members once they start college and it can negatively impact their education. Could we offer that connection earlier, while they are still in a protective environment?”
Interviewer: If there was one thing you could change to better assist the individuals you work with, what would that be?
Sarah Matteson, LMSW: “I would put more money towards prevention and education. If we can get into a home prior to abuse/neglect occurring and provide resources and education, we could eliminate the trauma of removal while strengthening the family. If we can continue to engage with those family’s long term, work with getting the kids into universities or trade programs when they are older, that can lead to generational changes.”
Interviewer: What is your favorite thing about being a Social Worker?
Sarah Matteson, LMSW:
“My favorite thing about being a Social Worker is seeing a person’s life change when they realize they are in charge and they have the resources they need to be successful.”
“When a person is in a place to take responsibility and act, when I am no longer needed as a Social worker, that is my favorite. It is like when a toddler is learning to walk, the adult cannot walk for them, but we can offer toys that help them stand, toys that help them walk, a hand to hold, and finally, a voice to cheer from the sides. Social work is about offering the toys/tools to help a client walk, a hand to hold when they are almost ready for that independent first step, and then a voice cheering from the sidelines when they start toddling independently, and if they stumble, we are there to help them back up. But they are the ones learning to walk. And when they succeed, it is amazing.”
Interviewer: What advice would you give to someone who is pursuing a career as a Social Worker?
Sarah Matteson, LMSW: “Social work is something that is a part of who you are, it is not just a job you do. I don’t stop being a Social Worker because it is 5:00, it is always a part of me. I am a Social Worker because I can’t look at a person addicted to drugs and not see the spiral of despair that led to that addiction. I am a Social Worker because I cannot look at a student failing a class and not see the underlying emotional stress of feeling alone on campus…If you want to be a Social Worker, my advice is to practice a lot of self-reflection. We are all raised with judgements and preconceived notions about others, what are yours? Can you overcome them? Can you name a type of person you could never work with, but still find the good in them to work with them anyways?”