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December 2010 Caseworker of the Month
Abigail Sylvester, an adoption social worker for the Hawaii Department of Human Services in Honolulu is our December Caseworker of the Month. Her attention to the questions and concerns of a couple in their 50s adopting a toddler through a kinship placement gave them a new lease on life.
With their biological sons Tyler and Hunter grown, out of the house and in college, Linda and Frank Ward thought their years of parenting young children were behind them.
They even bought a condo in Hawaii and moved away from Lubbock, Texas.
"We thought, 'Oh well, our children are away, now it's time to start doing other things," Linda Ward said. She didn't know it would eventually mean raising another youngster. "We did a 360 all of a sudden."
That change came in the form of déjà vu when they were united with their three-year-old son Kaleb through a kinship placement. Starting all over again as parents of a young child, on top of being confronted with a complicated and long legal process, they had questions and concerns. After a series of three social workers they were assigned Abigail Sylvester.
When questions arose, when they needed reassurance, when the road got bumpy, Sylvester was there returning phone calls and encouraging the Wards.
"She just really made us feel at ease. When she said she was going to take care of things, we didn't have to worry. It was really good to have somebody professional and caring at the same time," Ward said.
For Sylvester's part, she takes the compliment in stride.
"I'm honored that they think I went above and beyond, but I was just doing my job," she said. "And they made doing my job a lot of fun."
A desire to help others
For Sylvester, the desire to help others came at a young age growing up in a household that placed an emphasis on social justice and service.
"Volunteering was something we did," Sylvester said. "Standing up for the underdog was part of being in my family."
Sylvester grew up in Springfield, Missouri, and earned degrees in psychology and philosophy at William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri.
It was during college while working with the homeless in Kansas City, and on overseas trips volunteering at orphanages in Haiti and Kenya that Sylvester realized she wanted to spend her career helping children.
"That's where I thought, I want to do something like this, to feel like I'm making a difference and doing some good,” she said.
But after graduation, she had simpler plans—take a year off, travel and maybe finding work as a bartender.
Her mother wouldn't let it go at that though.
“’For the love of God, Abby,’” Sylvester remembers her saying, “’can you at least send one graduate school application somewhere?’”
"I decided to be a little facetious and applied to the University of Hawaii," she said.
Humoring her mother paid off, and Sylvester graduated with a Masters of Social Work from the University of Hawaii in 2006.
It was in graduate school Sylvester developed her passion for working with children in foster care. She went to work for the Department of Human Services’ office of Child Welfare Services the same year she graduated, first conducting child protective service (CPS) investigation on children who were sexually abused and then switching to adoption work. She had enjoyed her work in CPS, but wanted something different that allowed for building one-on-one relationships with children.
Sylvester admits, “Unfortunately some children are in bad situations, and in some situations social workers aren't the most popular people. Working in adoption is the bright side of child welfare”, and “working with people like the Wards and Kaleb make it worthwhile”.
"It does bring out the best in people," Sylvester said.
Becoming parents through a kinship placement
Kaleb, the biological grandson of Linda Ward's sister, was removed from his biological mother's care after an investigation which resulted in a finding of neglect. Kaleb’s grandmother was unable to care for a toddler, and so she approached the Wards.
It's fairly common for children to be adopted by middle-aged relatives, Sylvester said, but admitted it can be a surprise for the family.
"Nobody expects a family member, let's be honest, to lose their kids," she said, and credited the Wards for not only stepping up to care for Kaleb, but ensuring he will know his biological family as well as his heritage.
"They said, 'This is what needs to be done to give him the best life possible,'" Sylvester said.
Right away the Wards bonded with Kaleb.
"We just fell in love with him," Ward said. "Then it was long and stressful process from there on."
From the first meeting with Sylvester, the Wards' minds were put at ease.
"I don't want to say we didn't care for the first three [social workers], but Abby was different. Right away we just knew," Ward said. "She was calm and actually took the time to hear us."
Social workers are known to juggle large caseloads, especially in a time with large state deficits across the country.
"They just have so much to do," Ward said. "She did too, but that never showed."
Doing more with less
The Wards made changes. Linda quit her job as a preschool teacher. They moved from a one-bedroom condo into a larger place.
"It was absolutely the best thing that ever happened," Ward said.
There were bumps during Sylvester's time with the Wards. At one point, Kaleb's biological mother indicated she may attempt to regain custody, but the Wards were reassured by Sylvester.
"From the very beginning, she just said, 'That's not going to happen, we are going to get all this worked out.'"
Despite budget constraints that have state workers in Hawaii doing more with less, Linda Ward said she knew she could count on Sylvester to come through.
"If she said she was going to get back to us, she definitely did it. And personally, who just can't help but love her. She's easy-going, a very hard worker, she makes sure she gets everybody what they need."
The nomination letter
At our age, we never dreamed we’d be starting over as parents of a young child! We had two grown sons and although we missed having kids at home we didn’t think that we’d actually be adopting, but life is full of surprises! After a chain of events we became foster parents to the most adorable toddler in the world! When his birth parents relinquished their parental rights we knew we wanted to adopt. Foster care was challenging. We had four social workers within one year, and one worker’s case load went from thirty to seventy!
Then we were assigned our permanency worker, Abby Sylvester. I knew from the moment we met her that she sincerely cared about our family and was going to try to help make the adoption process go as smoothly as possible. She actually returned every phone call and answered every email we sent her. She even gave us her personal cell phone number in case of an emergency. Although she had many cases to handle, she never seemed stressed. She is compassionate and energetic with a love for the children that she carefully places in their forever homes. She’s proficient with a gracious attitude and we will be forever grateful to her for helping us add to our family. Now we can't imagine life without our little one. Thank you, Abby for making a difference in the lives of so many children looking for a family of their own.
Frank and Linda Ward