When Kriste Smith jumped into working with a child welfare agency in Chicago in the ‘90s, she did so because of her desire to serve others. Eventually, she joined the Department of Child Services (DCS), where she has worked for nearly 14 years.
“I just always had a passion for wanting to help people,” Kriste says. “These kids need someone. They are so vulnerable; they really need someone to advocate for them.”
Over the years, Kriste has worked in permanency and family case management for DCS, helping keep kids safe as their parents work to regain custody. She loves supporting parents as they work hard to establish safety and security for their kids. “There’s no place like home,” Kriste says, “if it’s safe for them to be there.”
These days, Kriste is a division manager over foster care and kinship for part of the state of Indiana, while she’s also division manager over much of Indiana’s child placement line. Her goal remains the same: get vulnerable kids into safe homes. Finding stable, supportive housing for kids in care is challenging, especially for older youth or those with special needs. Locating safe spaces for these kids – in care through no fault of their own – requires long hours and hard work.
But when asked whether she ever loses hope, Kriste answers quickly. “Absolutely not,” she says. “These are kids. They can’t do this for themselves…we as the adults can’t give up on them. The goal is just never to give up.”
While her attitude is positive and uplifting, Kriste admits that encouragement on the job goes a long way for social workers, who work long hours in an emotionally heavy role. That encouragement, she says, can come from unlikely places.
“I had to remove three small children,” Kriste remembers, recalling a particularly hard case in her past. “It broke my heart.” Kriste says the children’s mom was very angry, but eventually understood that she had to work on creating a safe, stable home for her family to thrive.
Months later the family reconvened in court, with the kids’ grandfather attending, too. Mom had spent time focusing on her sobriety and healthy relationships, and the judge ruled that it was time for her children to return home. Kriste was proud of how hard the kids’ mom had worked, but she was stunned by what came next.
“After the judge agreed to reunification,” Kriste says, “the grandfather stood up and said, ‘You know, many times we don’t say thank you–but I really want to say thank you to Miss Smith, because she saved my grandchildrens’ life.’” Kriste shares that at that moment, the kids’ mom turned around and said, “She saved me, too.”
Encouragement can come from outside of the foster care system, too, Kriste says. She suggests notes of encouragement for foster care workers as a great way to boost moods on a dark day.
“A lot of the time,” she says, “you are beat up, you are exhausted. It does help [social workers] to know that someone out there is thinking about them, that someone cares.”
People can also support a social worker’s physical well-being, as well as their emotional and mental health. Kriste has seen gifts of gum, coffee, and smoothies all provide physical care for her team. “You do work long hours,” she says. “If you’re rushing to a court hearing and you didn’t have time to eat, that [food] means a lot.”
Kriste shared about a time that she found a note with a pack of gum on her desk. “I’ll never forget it – when I opened it up, I found a personal handwritten note of encouragement from Hands of Hope. Even just something that little – I was so happy.”
Supporting kids in care by encouraging their social workers really can be as simple as sharing a sweet note, an encouraging voicemail, or a small bouquet of flowers. Social Work Month is a great time to appreciate workers like Kriste, but our hope is that we appreciate and honor these real-life heroes every single month of the year.
Written By: Sarah Norris
If you, a few friends, or your church would like to support local child welfare workers, check out our website for opportunities in your area!