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March 2011 Caseworker of the Month
New York, New York
Vanessa Palma, an adoption social worker for The Children's Village in New York City is our March Caseworker of the Month. When she was still new on the job, Palma helped a couple adopt a newborn whose drug-addicted mother had lost custody of the little girl before she was born.
It's like the old saying about the baby left swaddled on a doorstep, except in reverse. Instead of an infant, Vanessa Palma had two parents show up at her office looking for a baby.
The couple, Carmen and Carlos Diaz, wanted to adopt a newborn whose mother, overcome by drug addiction, had lost custodial rights for two other children and would never have custody of the baby girl.
When looking to place a newborn whose mother has already been denied custody, social workers will look for a family member, close friend, or somebody who has a relationship with the birth mother. Often times these searches are tough.
"Usually what happens is that we have a problem finding foster parents who have a relationship with the mother,” Palma said. “In this situation, Carmen and Carlos found us. They knocked on my door and said, 'We're here. We're Chailyn's god parents. We're here to take her.'"
Chailyn was born in September, 2007.
Palma, 28, started her job working in adoption just months before that July. Palma had worked at the agency for about a year, but as a bilingual social worker. As a newly minted adoption social worker, Chailyn’s case marked a couple firsts and an example of learning on the job.
Palma had to call New York state’s central registry because the birth mother had an open case.
"It was the first time I did that," Palma said. "And it was the first time foster parents came to my door. I was like, 'Wait, I don't know if we can even do that.'"
For Carmen Diaz, 64, Palma made the process quick and painless as possible while developing affection for Chailyn along the way.
"She has love for her kids," Diaz said. "She made it her business to get these kids adopted or to have a good home. This is the kind of person she is, she helped us and she's still there for us."
It took about three months before Chailyn was placed with the Diaz family, and less than a year for the adoption to be finalized. A quick pace neither the Diaz family nor Palma take credit for, but rather attribute to the diligence and care of the other.
Deciding to adopt
With their children — two boys and two girls — grown and having children of their own, Carmen and Carlos Diaz had begun seriously considering adoption.
"We have enough time to give to another child," Carlos, 48, said of their conversations.
They contacted AdoptUSKids and began the process to foster and adopt. During this time, they got an idea of the child they wanted to adopt, although at that point Chailyn hadn’t even been born.
Carlos knew Chailyn's birth mother, who lived in an apartment building where he worked as a security guard. The two talked and agreed he and his wife would take the child when she was born.
Carlos now admits that at first he wanted a boy so they could play ball together. But that changed when Chailyn joined their family.
"We just fell all over her," Carlos said, laughing. "Now I'm playing with a tea cup."
For children whose parents had their parental rights previously revoked, acquaintances or family friends are fairly common adoptive and foster parents in New York City, Palma said. The city is busy and bustling in ways, but also tightly-knit and community-minded in others. Palma attributes the phenomenon to the city's multiculturalism and compact geography, and believes it’s another way New York is unique.
"It's just how people do things out here," she said. Often, birth mothers without custody of their newborns will mention their sister or a family member. Then, after a few more questions, it comes out the prospective foster or adoptive parent is a friend or an acquaintance.
"I can't tell you how many times," Palma said. "There is a lot of, ‘This is my neighbor, or this is my friend I grew up with.' There is a lot of that."
Adjusting to life after adoption
Because Carlos Diaz was familiar with Chailyn's birth mother's condition, the couple had concerns about how to prepare for Chailyn if she was born with any medical complications, of which there were none.
Now, at age three, Chailyn is busy with dance classes, both tap and ballet. She’s also shown a natural ability in the water.
"She swims like a fish," Carmen Diaz said.
When not busy with dancing and swimming, she’s surrounded by family. Even as the youngest of Carlos and Carmen's children, she’s already an aunt.
"She has a big family, a big, big family, and they’re all over her," Carmen said.
Being a child welfare worker
Palma didn't set out intending to work in adoptions, or even to be a social worker. After growing up in New Jersey, she wanted to see more of the world and learn to live independent of her parents. So, Palma headed to Washington, D.C., where she attended school at American University and earned a bachelor's degree in justice, law, and society and a master's degree in justice and public policy.
She had considered working in university administration, and also had thoughts about working in the juvenile justice field. Palma knew she wanted to work with children and also showed a keen interest in the law.
"When I got back to New York after I graduated, I started applying for jobs and it just sort of happened," Palma said.
Her first job out of college was with The Children's Village as a bilingual social worker, tasked with locating foster homes for children and working with birth families.
Because so many of its cases were ultimately ending in the termination of parental rights, the agency decided to create an adoption division. Palma was offered the job as the agency's first adoption social worker and jumped at the opportunity.
She isn't convinced the job will be a good fit for her as she gets older.
"You're running around too much, it's crazy," she said.
However, Palma has four cases involving 13 children that were assigned when she started and said it’s inconceivable to consider finding a new job or switching fields until those cases are resolved.
Part of it is a territorial instinct of hers, she readily admits. It’s simply part of her personality, but she also feels an obligation to the kids.
"I know so much of their history it doesn't make sense for me to go somewhere," she said.
The nomination letter
We first met Vanessa Palma in October 2007. Our first meeting was awkward because she did not know who we were or why we were requesting to speak with her or where we were from. Upon arriving at the agency we did not have an appointment and we had never spoken with her prior to showing up on this random day in October of 2007. Our reason for showing up at the agency unannounced was because we had received a phone call from Ms. Hooper of Children’s Village asking us if we had all of the proper caring equipment such as a bassinet, playpen, etc. for the baby. After that initial phone call, they never called again, which in turn is why we showed up at the agency.
Vanessa was referred to us by an agent at the Administration for Children’s Services. From the first day we interacted with her she was polite, helpful, and very informative. Although she did not know why we needed to speak with her, who we were, or where we were coming from, she never turned us away and was always willing to assist us.
Vanessa was always up-to-date with Chailyn’s paperwork, promptly informed us of any meeting we had to attend and was always present at our court dates. She attended every home visit she scheduled and was never late. Any issues we encountered, we informed her of and she always managed to handle it and ease our worries.
Vanessa always guided us in the right direction. She never gave us a reason to doubt her judgment. Any paperwork we had to submit she would inform us with sufficient time and guide us in the proper manner to submit all documents for our daughter. She has always been courteous and pleasant with our daughter. Chailyn loves her and has always been excited to see her.
We are extremely grateful to have had Vanessa put in our path. She is the reason we were able to have our beautiful baby girl. Not once did she guide us in the wrong direction and for that we thank her. Vanessa is an excellent example of what an adoption social worker should strive to be — encouraging, positive, well spoken, caring, and most of all, sincere.
Thank you Vanessa Palma for all that you have done for our family, this is an experience we will cherish for a lifetime!
Carmen and Carlos Diaz
Bronx, New York
Media who would like to interview Palma, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 888-200-4005.