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May 2012 Caseworker of the Month
Oak Ridge, Tennessee
Mike Sanchez, an in-home therapist for Camelot Care Center in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is our May Caseworker of the Month. Sanchez has a highly developed strategy for getting through to the foster children on his caseload, relating to them, and gaining their trust.
“I’m kind of like a chameleon,” he said. “Whatever they are interested in, I can easily become interested in. They end up teaching me more than I teach them.”
Sanchez, 44, meets with 10 or so foster children and their foster families throughout the week, working with them one-on-one. Although he is the adult, the authority figure, he doesn't pretend to know everything.
“I kind of let them lead,” he said. “Instead of being the one with all the answers, so to speak.”
Laid back and curious about people, two character traits that help in his line of work, he starts off meetings with foster children by asking, “What do you want to do today?”
For his even-handed approach to foster families and foster children, his relaxed, accepting attitude, and his dedication to his job, Chante LaDage, licensure and recruitment administrator for Camelot Care Center, nominated Sanchez for the AdoptUSKids Caseworker of the Month award.
“Foster children on his case load see him as their hero and families view him as their savior,” LaDage wrote in her nomination letter.
“He has a really fun side, and the kids respect that,” she said. “He also has a very professional side as well.”
Helping came naturally
Originally from McKinleyville, California, Sanchez earned his undergraduate degree in social work from Humboldt State University. He lived near a Native American reservation, and with his mother, volunteered with the tribe. He learned to value the experiences of others, and took great pleasure in meeting new people, which led him to an interest in social work.
“It's just something that came naturally,” he said.
After graduating, he visited an aunt who had moved to Tennessee and fell in love with the scenery.
“It is awesome out here,” he said. “The Smoky Mountains are always in view.”
He earned his masters in education from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, and has worked for Camelot since January 2008. He said he was surprised when he heard of his nomination.
“I thought that was really cool,” he said.
Relating with people to build trust
Sanchez emphasizes two things, which are tied up in each other: permanency and consistency.
The goal of the agency and Sanchez is to find permanent families for children who have been removed from their homes, whether that is adoption or reunification with their birth parents or another family member.
Second is consistency, which includes demonstrating to his children that he will always be there.
“When kids come to a foster home, there has got to be some serious stuff going on,” Sanchez said.
Although he tries to do his part, he said real credit goes to foster families, noting that it’s rare that they give up on a child.
“Kids are kind of surprised by that. If they scratch up somebody's car, call you every name in the book, and even to the point of getting physical, we might put more supervision in the home, but they don't get rejected, as in, 'You're out of here,'” he said.
Kids have returned the affection by giving him gifts adorned with peace signs. The Mazda that he used to cart children to and from appointments with their foster and birth families had peace signs embroidered on the seats.
“It started out as a joke kind of thing,” he said.
Over the years, kids have given him peace sign license plates, necklaces, Kleenex, and cell phone holders.
“Peace signs everywhere,” he said. “I started saving them, and of course my office filled up with peace signs.”
Building trust in foster youth through consistency
“Some of them are pretty tough, and some can be violent,” he said. “But the foster parents we have are so awesome, they don't give up. After the kids have thrown their tantrums and realize we aren't going anywhere, they kind of start to wind down after that.”
The key to establishing that trust is relating to others, he said. Sanchez does so by honestly attempting to understand what a foster child is going through.
“I'm always interested in what they have to say,” he said. “It's not like I came from a broken family. I think it's just listening and being there and making myself available to them consistently over time.”
He meets with his foster children a few times a week, and for the first month focuses on getting to know them.
“I just try being open-minded and to listen to everything they have to say without cutting them off,” he said.
Often allowing the kids to make the decisions has led to a few surprises. One child had an interest in snakes.
“I'll tell you what, I never thought I would be touching a snake,” he said.
Another child had in interest in premonitions, or telling the future. The child found a group dedicated to the subject and asked if Sanchez would take him. Sanchez got clearance, and the two showed up at the meeting, which turned out to be a meeting of people who practice Wicca, a modern pagan religion.
“That was interesting,” Sanchez deadpanned. “We didn't stay long.”
The boy's interests led him elsewhere, and Sanchez happily accommodated him.
“We're way past the Wicca stuff now,” he said with a laugh.
One of the ways Sanchez shows he cares about the children on his caseload, LaDage said, is the amount of his own time and money he spends.
“It's Friday night, 8 p.m., he probably shouldn't be working, but there he is, taking a kid to their birth family because the birth family didn't have money for gas,” she said.
“It kind of sneaks up on you,” he said. In one instance, he took it upon himself to start getting his kids involved in sports.
“I did get kids involved in soccer, not realizing that foster parents are pretty busy,” he said.
In order to make sure the kids made it on time to practice and to games, he took to shuttling them.
“It's totally enjoyable,” he said. “And it's free, I'm not spending any money.”
Inspired by this story?
- Child Welfare Professionals: Take action by using our free resources for professionals to help with your recruitment and retention efforts of foster and adoptive families.
- Families: Take action by learning more about how to foster and meeting the children in foster care.
- Media: Consider sharing this story and other real stories about adoption and foster care by taking advantage of our resources for the media.
Download the May 2012 Caseworker of the Month press release (PDF 54 KB).