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June 2012 Caseworker of the Month
Shari Clark, a social service specialist for the Oregon Department of Human Services' Child Welfare Division in Portland, Oregon, is our June Caseworker of the Month. Her professionalism and sensitivity helped a little girl find a loving, forever home with a two-mother family.
Crystal Maya Cathcart, who nominated Clark, 50, for the award, said she couldn’t remember talking much about same-sex families with Clark when adopting her daughter Jada. However, Cathcart prefers the term “two-mom family.”
Building Relationships With Families
The fact that Jada's adoptive family was going to have two moms didn't seem like an important topic of conversation with Clark. Instead, she and Cathcart talked about the fit of the placement and the needs of Jada, who had been having behavioral issues. They talked about the difficulty and frustration of the process. They talked about court dates, and sometimes just talked.
That approach, focusing on what is best for the child rather than her beliefs for or against same-sex couples adopting, made Cathcart feel supported. When Cathcart's girlfriend, Sheena Shook, decided to co-parent, Clark was supportive as well.
“Shari gave me the freedom to raise Jada how I wanted to raise her, regardless of what everybody else thought, and I never knew what she thought, which was nice,” Cathcart said, adding that the family is vegan, meaning they do not consume animal products. “You have therapists, doctors, social workers, all telling you what to do. You feel like you are an employee sometimes.”
It was the way Clark comported herself and her attention to Jada's needs that made her stand out, Cathcart said.
Clark said, “It is really, really important to me to form those relationships with families,” adding that it builds the foundation for integrating children into new environments. “You can't really do that if you don't get to know the family, or you don't know your kids.”
Focusing on What Is Best for Children
As for Clark's opinion on the subject of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender families adopting, it is devoid of politics and focuses on what is best for the children on her caseload.
“My take on it is the kids I work with are the most powerless of any children in our society and least loved,” she said. “They are desperate for connections. If a family presents themselves as willing , able and open to accepting a child I work with, more power to them.”
Most States do not have laws or formal policies prohibiting individuals’ eligibility to adopt or serve as foster parents based on sexual orientation. Instead, child welfare professionals and judges make placement decisions based on the best interest of the individual child.
Clark said she doesn't prepare differently when dealing with lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender families planning to adopt one of the children on her caseload. She does, however, remember conversations with Cathcart about the subject, which focused on how comfortable Cathcart was being out in the community, knowing people might have a prejudice against two moms or two dads raising a child.
Inspiring Through Action
“During that process Crystal really endeared herself to me,” Clark said.
The feeling of endearment is mutual. Inspired by Clark, Cathcart, who now lives in San Francisco, California, with Jada and Shook, went back to school and will earn her Masters of Social Work at the end of the summer.
“Shari inspired me to work hard to ensure that all families, regardless of their differences, receive social work services that fit their needs in a kind, efficient manner,” Cathcart wrote in Clark's nomination letter.
In addition to forming a bond with Cathcart and Shook, Clark also formed a strong connection with Jada who had words for Clark as well.
“I'm very thankful,” Jada said. “It's great. I love having two mamas.”
Coincidentally, another “two-mom family” adopted Jada's two sisters, Cathcart said.
Going From Law to Social Service
Although social work wasn't Clark's original career plan, it is the one that fit best.
Originally from Minnesota, Clark started out as a lawyer. At 25 she was a practicing attorney, dealing with federal law that addresses pension plans. After seven years, she left to raise her two sons John and Scott who are now 18 and 16 years old.
“I didn't necessarily dislike practicing law, it was fine, but I was practicing a type of law that was really isolated,” she said. “When I came back into the workforce I was really looking for something different.”
She started clerking for judges in Multnomah County, Oregon, rotating among courtrooms when she found herself drawn to juvenile court. But she wasn't keen on being a prosecutor, or a public defender.
“I really liked the idea of being part of the solution, and when you practice law your job is to defend your client,” she said, noting that sometimes what a client thinks is best for him or her is not what is best for a child. “It was really important to me that I could be a person who stood up in court and represented how to meet the best interests of a child.”
She has been working at the Oregon Department of Human Services for about seven years.
“I have this idea of justice, and I decided in high school I wanted to go into law,” she said. “But when I graduated from law school I was pretty wet behind the ears; I didn't have a lot of experience in much of anything. I'm glad I went to law school, it's an awesome foundation for the work I do now. I just wish I would have known more about myself. Practicing social work is much more personally satisfying to me than practicing law.”
Inspired by this story?
- Child Welfare Professionals: Take action by using our free tools for working with diverse communities, including resources for recruiting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) families.
- Families: Take action by learning more about how to foster, how to adopt, and reviewing adoption laws and resources for LGBT families.
- Media: Consider sharing this story and other real stories about adoption and foster careby taking advantage of our resources for the media.
Download the June 2012 Caseworker of the Month press release (PDF 54 KB).