May 31, 2006 -- Sky Tanghe, a high-energy 33-year-old, has a job that provides her low pay, long hours and many frustrations.
Yet she calls it "the most-rewarding job you could ever have."
Tanghe has been a social worker for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services in Louisville, Ky., for 10 years. Her job is protecting some of Louisville's most-fragile residents -- she calls them her "kiddos" -- among the 120,000 children under the age of 12 who have entered the foster-care system.
"To have a parent who's been addicted to drugs or alcohol for years and has had their children removed, and has seen the impact that that has had on their child and then to watch them slowly attain their sobriety and reunify with their children and to look at their children in a way that they never had before, you can't express that in words how exciting that is," she said.
Tanghe is assigned a case after abuse or neglect is reported. She's responsible for monitoring the family, offering services to family members and motivating them to change.
Like a fairy godmother, she has the ability and responsibility to give families state-funded medical and dental care, behavioral health care for the children, group counseling sessions for the family, and even bus tokens to help them get to appointments.
Tanghe currently has 19 open cases. The national average is 30, with some of the most overwhelmed counties in the nation running as much as three times that.
Have to Be a Little Bipolar
To be a social worker, you have to be able to manage your time and emotions well, Tanghe says.
"I feel like I have to be a little bipolar to succeed at this job," Tanghe said. "There is so much going on and emotions can change in a minute, so it's necessary to be able to compartmentalize, keep my composure, and sometimes go from bad guy to good guy in a matter of moments."
The social worker is the eyes and ears of the court, the protector of the children, and the motivator for change with the accused.
On any given day, Tanghe could be in court, carrying children to the courthouse play area before recommending to a judge court that those same children should be temporarily removed from their mother's care.
She then will take the mother aside to console her while at the same time pushing her to deal with the problems that brought the family to court in the first place.
At first, clients are often hostile and fearful of the social worker assigned to their case. Tanghe says she tries to win them over by pointing out the positives.
"If you are open and accepting of the services that we have to provide and are willing to do something that you've never done before, the experience that you have is priceless," she said. "Clients that hated me at first often invite me to their sobriety anniversaries. That's an unbelievable feeling"
Tanghe's office is located in a community space where a partnership of agencies have come together to offer help with food, health, housing and schooling. Tanghe, along with counselors, therapists and the extended family, work together to draw up a case plan.
Facilitators and the social worker invite family members to attend frank discussions about what needs to be done to reunite children and parents. For extra motivation, Tanghe has begun inviting successful clients to attend these meetings.
This type of meeting, called Family Group Decision Making, is being used in at least 33 states as a possible solution to reunifying families quicker.
If Tanghe gets a "115," it means a call has been made to the child-abuse hot line and she needs to make a home visit immediately.
Depending on what she sees, she may recommend a "TPR" -- termination of parental rights. Those three letters could mean the legal end to a parent's relationship with his or her child.
Termination, however, is a last resort but becoming more common. With the implementation of the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act, children are no longer allowed to linger in foster care.
Every three months, open cases are reviewed by the state, and if sufficient improvement is not being made, the social worker and state attorney can make a request to the court to move towards termination -- a painful legal battle that takes a minimum of nine months.
"I believe that children have the right to an education, to medical needs, mental-health needs and permanency," Tanghe said.
"And if that can't happen in the home with their natural parents for one reason or another, if a parent is not providing those needs, then the children need to be removed."
Tanghe is quick to dismiss the stereotype of a heartless bureaucrat snatching away children, or worse, incompetents who let children languish in abusive situations until they end up as headlines.
"We [social workers] are a caring group that often gets the blame no matter which way we respond to a situation," Tanghe said. "If we remove we acted too quickly, and if we don't remove and something bad happens, we did not pay enough attention."
"I hear crazy rumors out there like we get bonuses for removing kids. Removing kids is the saddest part of the job. We are underpaid and overworked, but we do what is best for the children under our watch."
Louisville's Children Protective Services is in the middle of the pack in terms of the numbers of cases of neglect and abuse it must handle, but it is often cited as one of the better-run departments in the country.
Marsha Roberts-Blethen is in charge of the 65 social workers in Louisville, and she says the vast majority of social workers enter the profession for the right reasons.
"The challenge is keeping the motivation in the face of hostile environments over long periods of time," she said.
Roberts-Blethen calls Tanghe an "exceptional" social worker, but there are days when the stress grinds her down as well.
Tanghe has a tendency to honk her horn in frustration and yell at other drivers as she drives between her many appointments, and there have been many times she has ended a circular argument with a client by closing her color-coded day planner with a heavy sigh.
At the end of the day, though, she knows the "kiddos" she's looking out for make the frustrations worthwhile.
"I wouldn't be in this job if I felt that these kids were destined for disaster," Tanghe said. "I know that I am providing the services that I need to, and if they are not safe I'm going to do something about it quickly. "
To help her deal with work frustrations, Tanghe spends a lot of time talking through her cases with her supervisors.
Her daily phone calls with her mother help keep her grounded, and she often unwinds with a guilty pleasure like the TV show "Laguna Beach," which chronicles the lives of filthy-rich teens whose biggest problems are their love lives and not having the hottest car in school.
"I often wonder why I haven't gotten burned out. I get yelled at, cursed at, kicked by kids, told I'm a horrible person all while trying to help people," Tanghe said. "In the end, I couldn't imagine doing anything different."