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April 2013 Caseworker of the Month

Wendy LaBate

Wendy LaBate

Terra Haute, Indiana 

Danielle Riddell and her husband Jay sat in a waiting room in late 2010 at the local Indiana Department of Child Services office in Terra Haute wondering what would happen next.

Two girls had been placed with them that February, whom they hoped to adopt, but six months later the children had been removed from their home and sent back to live with their birth family.

The Riddells were waiting to meet their new caseworker, who was back to work from maternity leave, even though they decided to bow out of the fostering any more children. Despite knowing adoption was not a sure thing, the couple had grown close to the girls, and their removal scrambled the Riddells' hopes.

They didn't know what to expect from their new caseworker. Then, in through the front door, a young woman in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt walked over and sat down next to them. Almost immediately, the couple was put at ease.

“She had us cracking up and laughing,” Riddell said of Wendy LaBate, 29, a family case manager for the Indiana Department of Child Services. “Her sense of humor blows my mind. She always has a smile on her face.”

LaBate was able to convince them to continue bringing foster children into their home.

The Importance of Post-Placement Support

Less than a month after meeting LaBate, the Riddells received an early morning call. Reunification with the girls’ birth family had floundered and they were heading back to foster care.

The girls, Jasmine, now 9, and Heaven, now 6, were placed back with the Riddells. Their adoption was finalized May 18, 2012.

LaBate proved invaluable in placing the girls back with the Riddells, Danielle Riddell said, but it was the work LaBate did following the girls' return that helped ensure the placement was a success.

“She is still a part of our lives,” Riddell said.

The Riddells nominated LaBate for AdoptUSKids’ Caseworker of the Month award specifically because of the post-placement attention she provided to their oldest daughter Jasmine. By developing trust and a rapport with Jasmine, LaBate helped her work through some anger issues. Jasmine is now taking positive steps toward dealing with issues of acting out toward her parents, sister, and classmates.

“Wendy went as far as going and checking on her at school, walking to the bus stop after school just to chat with her. She went to therapy appointments with us, she came over and spent the afternoon with her, and was even willing to come over after-hours if we needed,” Riddell wrote in her nomination letter. “She has dropped everything she was doing at the spur of the moment to come and sit down with her just to talk. Our oldest has a hard time trusting anyone, especially DCS workers. But there is something about Wendy that she loves and trusts. She can talk with her about anything and everything, whenever.”

Riddell said her husband Jay was also taken with LaBate.

“He also felt like he could be real around her, that she would never look down on him,” Riddell said. “He could say what he had to say.”

LaBate said she was flattered when she learned of the nomination, saying that the recognition was appreciated.

“I was pretty excited, honestly,” she said.

Although the road to a placement can be long and difficult, the intensive work of establishing permanency starts once a child is placed with their families. It is here that children are able to begin healing from the trauma and turmoil that had marked their lives. It is also when parents are challenged to understand what is required of them.

Post-placement services, whether connecting families with therapy resources or playground visits from a caseworker, are vital to the success of a placement, LaBate said.

“It can make the difference,” she said. “I've seen pre-adoptive placements that don't really get much focus and don't get many services, and a lot of them fail. The kids still have a lot of issues, and sometimes those issues aren't dealt with before the parental rights are terminated.”

Inspiration and Influence

The Riddells’ journey into foster care and ultimately adoption started when the couple realized they would not be able to have biological children. One day at the library they saw a flier for AdoptUSKids and called the toll-free number – 888-200-4005.

“That's actually what got us into it,” Riddell said.

One way Riddell sees the positive effect of LaBate’s followups is Jasmine’'s interest in age-appropriate subject matter.

Jasmine's birth mother, Riddell said, would talk to her about inappropriate topics. The influence LaBate had on the girl was apparent.

“Wendy would pop in for a visit and say, 'Let's talk about Crayons,' or they would go to the pet shop,” Riddell said.

“She gets to relive her childhood,” Riddell added.

Now a third-grader reading above her grade level, Jasmine has shown a strong interest in writing, and just for fun, wrote a three-page paper on the differences between breeds of Corgi dogs.

“Just because she wanted to, not because she had to,” Riddell said. “It's so much better than what she was talking about before.”

LaBate prepared to major in accounting during her first year at Indiana State University. However, as part of a freshman writing class, an assignment to conduct an interview and write a paper changed the course of her life. She picked a longtime neighbor of her family's who worked as a hospital social worker.

The assignment was worth just 20 points, and the interviews of most of her fellow students lasted 30 minutes. LaBate's lasted four-and-a-half hours.

“It was just very, very interesting to me, and made me think that I should be a part of it,” she said. “I guess numbers just weren't as intriguing.”

She received a bachelor's of social work and started working as a case manager for a mental health agency. About five years ago she landed a job with the Indiana Department Child Services and has been working both with adoptions and reunifications.

“There are ups and downs on both ends,” she said. “It's definitely rewarding to see kids go with an adoptive family that will be their forever family, and also to have kids reunified; as long as the child is going somewhere that will be a permanent and loving home.”

Inspired by this story?

Download the April 2013 Caseworker of the Month press release (PDF - 52KB).

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