Sometimes doing the work we do at Good Shepherd means walking a tightrope. We must join with the suffering of our clients, but we must also maintain enough separation to keep ourselves together. Too much empathy (i.e., feeling our way into our clients’ experience too deeply) risks becoming overwhelmed, paralyzed, and unable to help. Multiply that by a whole caseload of desperate children and families, and you have a recipe for burnout and ineffectiveness. On the other hand, too much distance means we’re not walking effectively with our clients. We must be able to see the world through their eyes and feel it through their heart, at least to some extent, for us to build trust and truly help. Too much distance may protect us, but it creates a barrier—one that clients can see and feel. And so, it’s a balancing act.
Last Friday, as I was walking through the lobby, I saw a goodbye between a little boy in foster care and his dad. I didn’t know their story, but I imagine it’s like the many painful stories I have heard and witnessed in close to three decades of work with troubled families. What I saw here was a dad kissing his son goodbye and telling him more than once that he loved him, and then I saw the little boy taken by the hand and led away by his case manager—looking back at his dad with his face full of sadness and confusion. Despite years of experience, the look on that little boy’s face hit me like a ton of bricks. There are very few “bad” people in our work. Lots of desperate people though—people doing the absolute best they can under horrific circumstances. This includes a great many folks struggling to be moms and dads while dealing with the legacy of their own traumatic past, as well as obstacles created by poverty, mental illness, substance dependence, violence, discrimination, lack of education, and the like. What I saw in that moment was a dad who loves his son, and a little boy who loves his dad and knows they’re being ripped apart again.
Those are the faces that our Foster Care staff deal with every day. That’s the pain they see and feel. It’s the tightrope they walk in trying to fulfill the mandates of the court, keep kids safe, and work compassionately with sometimes angry, desperate, grieving parents. It is incredibly challenging work—albeit it holy in its own way. As we close out National Foster Care Month, please say a prayer for our Foster Care staff. May they never lose their balance in trying to be Christ for children and families in desperate need.