Finding the right fit

Forming strong relationships with families is a key to this caseworker's success.

January 15, 2014

Caseworker Jessica Decker
“I know why I’m here, because everything has led me to this job."

When Jessica Decker found out she had been nominated as an Outstanding Caseworker for AdoptUSKids it only reinforced the commitment she already had.

“It meant that I was providing what families needed,” Decker said. “It’s a real honor."

Like many caseworkers handling adoptions, Decker is disarmingly modest about what she does and the impact she has had on children in foster care and the families she works with.

That modesty goes right out the window, however when Jessica is brought up to Teresa Spragg.

“She is the sweetest person ever,” Spragg says, her enthusiasm practically bursting through every word. “She changed all of our lives.”

Jessica works for a Springfield Partners, LLC, in Missouri, a private social work agency. Because she works for a private company she is able to keep her case file relatively low, working with about 15 families or less. The low volume enables her to be incredibly involved in every aspect of her job.

“It allows me to form a relationship,” she said.

Decker is coming up on the decade mark for being in social work. It is a huge milestone to her considering she started out at Drury University in Springfield with a double degree in sociology and criminal justice.

"Everything just worked out,” she said of her decision to pursue social work.

Decker started out with a state agency where the case load was high, she said. She can recall those early successes easily, especially a young preteen who was “acting out significantly and we got him some treatment that was successful.” 

One of her biggest joys is in helping entire families when they are in need. “It’s things like getting the electric bills paid,” she said. Her ultimate goal is often to keep children with their parents and permanency. In many cases, however, adoption is the best-case scenario, which is what the Spraggs are eagerly hoping for.

Teresa had been contemplating adoption for some time. She and her husband Mike have four birth children who were rapidly approaching adulthood and they were looking forward to the “empty nest.” But something compelled Teresa to open herself to more. It took some time, she said, before she mustered the courage to bring it up to Mike. The wonderful surprise came when he said he had been thinking of exactly the same thing.

They both had a heart for teenagers and wanted to look in that direction. After they became eligible to adopt children, however, roadblocks popped up in their home state of South Carolina. 

“We were just not very successful,” Spragg said. From that frustration Terri found, where she and her husband were “drawn to two teenage girls in Missouri.”

Knowing that interstate adoption presents challenges, Terri took a leap and made an inquiry, hoping that something would work.

It did, in less than sixty minutes.

“Within an hour I received a phone call from Jessica Decker, talking to me about the girls and getting our information. She stayed in touch constantly with us, our caseworker, the foster parents and the girls.” Two weeks after that, Teresa said, they were Skyping the girls and getting to know them better.

The sisters, 15 and 13, were from Decker’s home state of Missouri. In working with the girls Decker knew right away it would have to be a perfect fit for them and a prospective family.

“It’s all about finding the right fit for the teen,” she said. “They need to be understood and it’s about letting them make their own decisions.” The key difference in working with teens in foster care as opposed to younger children is involvement, she said. “It’s so important that they get to make those decisions. Many of them know exactly what they want.”

And what they want may not be to leave foster care as is the case with the oldest girl, who made the decision to return to her foster family in Missouri. 

It was a tough blow for the Spraggs who were elated to care for both sisters, but they too realized the importance of letting teenagers have the ultimate say in what kind of lives they want to lead. There were concerns with grades and adjustments, Teresa said. “We’ve learned a lot situation by situation.”

Teresa and her husband are hoping the adoption of the 13-year-old will go through by this summer. In the meantime they are all enjoying the simple pleasures of life—pleasures all too often taken for granted by most.

“She likes having her own room. She likes to not have to put her initials on her own clothes.”

Teresa doesn’t hesitate when asked about the challenges faced in the adoption process, both legally and emotionally. There have been stresses for everyone involved, but she is quick to point out that working with Decker has made everything much smoother.

“Jessica’s always on top of it,” she said. “Every time there was a speed bump she would level it out. She would always answer the phone no matter what time. She’s reliable and she cares. She cares, and if you love your job that is what you do.”

Working with children in foster care and with families is not a by-the-book job. At one point the 13-year-old had to be hospitalized in South Carolina, which presented a challenge because of her legal status in Missouri. “Sometimes the kids need things that aren’t covered by Medicaid.” Decker said and she worked with everyone to make sure Courtney received the care she needed to get back home.

Decker says she has the best job in the world because she knows it is the best job for her.

“People always ask ‘what is the meaning of life’ and I don’t have to ask that of myself.” she said. “I know why I’m here, because everything has led me to this job. I don’t have to wonder about that at all.” 


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