Interview with Damoun Bozorgzadarbab, ASW on Child Welfare and Clinical Social Work

About Damoun Bozorgzadarbab, ASW: Damoun Bozorgzadarbab is a Clinical Social Worker at the University of California, San Francisco’s (UCSF) forensics intensive case management program, where she supports mentally ill adults on probation. Ms. Bozorgzadarbab also works as a Psychiatric Social Worker and Rehab Therapist for St. Francis Memorial Hospital’s Behavioral Health Unit. Prior to working in psychiatric social work, Ms. Bozorgzadarbab worked as a first responder for LA County Child Protective Services for three years, investigating child abuse and neglect referrals. She then worked as a case manager for homeless and run-away youth at San Francisco’s Larkin Street’s transitional housing program. In her third year at Larkin Street, she started a per-diem job as a psychiatric social worker/rehab therapist for a hospital-based inpatient mental health unit.

Ms. Bozorgzadarbab earned her MSW in 2008 from UCLA, where she concentrated in micro level social work with an emphasis in Child Welfare through Title IV-E, a scholarship that focuses on the laws, policies, and history of Child Welfare in preparation for employment in a California county child welfare agency.

While completing her MSW, Ms. Bozorgzadarbab volunteered at the Suicide Prevention Hotline to get crisis-oriented training, worked as a clinician teaching children with learning disabilities, and organized enriching social skills activities for gifted children. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Child and Adolescent Development from San Francisco State University in 2005. During her undergraduate studies, Ms. Bozorgzadarbab worked as a case manager for Huckleberry Youth Programs, supporting incarcerated youth. Damoun Bozorgzadarbab was compensated to participate in this interview.

[] When working with children and families as a Family Services Social Worker and an Emergency Response Children Social Worker, what types of challenges did your clients face, and how did you counsel and support them?

[Damoun Bozorgzadarbab, ASW] The roles and responsibilities of child welfare social workers is first to keep children safe, then to assure their well-being and do both of those things while making sure they have a chance at permanent families. So while child welfare social workers link parents to all the providers who help address their issues to mitigate safety and risk (therapists, day care providers, substance use treatment programs…) they are also reporting to the courts on the progress of the parents. They also have to talk to parents about possibility of adoption down the road and they have to present to court all their efforts in creating a “permanency plan” for a child within the timelines the law dictates, in the case that parents fail.

Many families coming across the child welfare system feel at the mercy of and frustrated by the power dynamics between the system and parents. Additionally, the system and consequently its representatives, the social workers, are bound by restrictive laws/policies that when not adhered to increase the social worker’s liability, but when adhered to strictly, are insensitive to unique needs of each family’s case. For example, though a social worker never removes a child from a family based solely on homelessness, once a child is removed (usually for a combination of safety factors which may include homelessness), the child cannot be returned to a homeless situation since the system is now responsible for the child and standards of care are higher.

Even as the agency strives to place children in relatives’ homes to fulfill one of its three tenets, permanency (safety and wellbeing are the other two), the agency is nonetheless restricted by other laws/policies. For example, when a child becomes a dependent of the courts, standards of care are higher. After all, why would the state take a child away from their own parents only to place them in homes where there are potential safety factors present? Therefore anyone who wants to be a foster parent has to pass screening and assessments too. For poor communities, this raised bar sometimes makes it difficult for extended family to step up to become foster homes when a child needs placement. Old/run down homes fail to pass physical standards, or old history of criminal involvement may prevent relatives from qualifying as foster caretakers.

In these instances, the child is placed in already licensed foster homes over a relative’s home. Families and children are most traumatized at the time of removal. Though the search for qualified relatives never ceases, these kinds of immediate placements leave families feeling even more powerless and unable to fight against legal mandates social workers have to follow. Not only do they “lose” their child, but they have little say in where their child is sent (in some cases placements could be hours away depending on where a foster home is available).

This gives more of an impression that the agency is insensitive at best, and inherently biased at worst, against communities more likely to face poverty or criminal backgrounds (or with undocumented members in the household who cannot verify a clean criminal record). You can imagine that communities of color would be most impacted by such standards so it’s no wonder that families in communities of color perceive the child welfare system as inherently biased and quick to dismantle families of color.

The above factors and much more complicate the therapeutic alliance, which is absolutely crucial in regaining custody. The system is complex and disempowering as any large system would be, but it also feels punitive towards parents because it is there primarily to provide safety and wellbeing for children, so empowering parents is only the social worker’s goal–it is not a legal goal.

The road to returning children to parents is tougher to traverse when social workers struggle to pull mistrustful parents with little resources through, all while keeping children’s well-being as a higher priority over their parents’ wishes. This means periodically failing to be there for the parents to help protect their children from broken promises and painful disappointments when the parents fail over and over again to take them back in their care. The agency literally starts working on an adoption plan the minute a child becomes a dependent of the courts. This is not to punish the parents, but to make sure children don’t have to suffer unreasonable lengths of time before having a permanent family. Their developmental needs are prioritized over the parents’ needs sometimes. Parents who already have trauma in their history, mental illness and/or substance use and feel disempowered/marginalized, will now have to prove their ability to safely parent to a seemingly impersonal and all-powerful system. The failures of the parents may be clinically understandable given the complex issues they have to face, but in a system where children have to be protected above all, these failures are not easily forgiven. Children could be well on their way to adoption before their parents can successfully remove safety concerns.

[] Could you also elaborate on your role and responsibilities as a Case Manager for Larkin Street Youth Services? Could you explain what Motivational Interviewing, Harm Reduction, and Theory of Change are and how you used these methods to assess and address barriers to independent housing among homeless youth?

[Damoun Bozorgzadarbab, ASW] I gathered biopsychosocial history for applicants of my transitional housing program. This comprehensive assessment provided a window into past and current struggles in obtaining or maintaining independent housing. It also provided a picture of the youth’s perception of their own abilities, their knowledge of resources, life skills, motivation level, and sense of responsibility as well as the role that mental health and substance use might play in homelessness.

Using this assessment and collateral information, I would partner up with the applicant in devising a case plan to advance their goals as well as the goals of the program–for example, building savings and improving and developing internal resources to help obtain and maintain independent housing after 2 years of being in the program.

Motivational Interviewing is a counseling style whereby the counselor uses techniques to promote trust, hopefulness, and motivation to learn. Motivational interviewing can also encourage the use of healthy coping skills or help motivate clients to enter substance use or mental health treatment if necessary by using techniques such as active listening. Motivational interviewing aims to understand and respect where the client is at in relation to treatment goals, and without negating where they are at, work alongside the client to move towards a desire for change through treatment.

As many youth experiment with substances or experience psychiatric symptoms, the scope or consequence of which they have not yet understood, it is the job of the case manager to provide psycho-education, and to use Harm Reduction techniques to engage young clients and reduce resistance to treatment. Harm Reduction focuses on assessing for unsafe behavior (ex. risky sexual behavior, unsafe IV drug-use, etc.) without judgment and to reduce the harm of these behaviors by teaching safe methods. This is in contrast to the abstinence-only treatment models.

Theory of Change posits that change occurs in various stages of readiness for change, that it’s not a linear but dynamic/circular process and most importantly that treatment intervention has to match the client’s readiness for change. If a youth for example is in denial about substance use or its impact on his or her life, a counselor’s persistence in sending him/her to substance use treatment can sabotage the client’s desire to stay engaged. When a client is not ready to enter treatment but is pushed/coerced into treatment, they may consequently fail, and the failure only reinforces their sense of hopelessness, serving to maintain the maladaptive behavior.

[] In addition to the children you rescue, counsel and help place in homes, what other individuals and organizations did you work with on a regular basis during your work in child welfare social work?

[Damoun Bozorgzadarbab, ASW] I worked regularly with mental health and substance abuse treatment providers, community agencies (housing, parenting classes, domestic violence, support groups, immigration counsel, etc.) as well as law enforcement, dependency and juvenile courts, attorneys, judges, probation officers, and hospital staff.

[] Why did you decide to work in child welfare social work, and what were some of your most rewarding experiences during your career?

[Damoun Bozorgzadarbab, ASW] I wanted excellent training, a challenge to put myself to the test and I needed to finance my grad studies. I’d hoped to understand child welfare from the inside and to bring social justice into CPS work.

There are too many examples to list when I felt honored and humbled, be it by my co-workers or my clients. Two that stand out are: when a mother who had originally fought me on the removal of her five children thanked me for “saving” them and told every social worker who came after me about the respect and dignity that I had shown her family. I also felt rewarded when I stood up for cultural differences in an immigrant family and advocated hard for them to receive the agency’s educational resources instead of having to experience the removal of their child from their care. I have met amazing co-workers who year after year stay committed to the safety of children and did not let the disheartening news articles, tragically emotional cases or the pressure by upper management for impossible workloads deter them from this commitment. I could not help but be moved by some of these workers’ unwavering commitment to children and their well-being.

[] On the other hand, what were some of the most challenging aspects of your job? How would you recommend MSW students who wish to work in child welfare social work prepare for these challenges?

[Damoun Bozorgzadarbab, ASW] Sometimes the liability the system bears in the daunting task of determining child safety results in inflexible and fear-based decisions. Faced with the choice of taking risks with families as opposed to removing children until risk factors are addressed, some workers and supervisors make decisions that at times come at the cost of breaking up a family, or even a community (when risk factors are treated like safety factors). Child abuse/neglect is not always as clear as broken bones or cigarette marks. Most often social workers have to make immediate decisions based on limited information because not only can they not see into the future, but also even children who are victims will sometimes cover up the truth. Their family is all they have, whom they know and where they feel a sense of belonging. It’s important to understand and accept uncertainty and to trust that if you’re putting in the best that your training and your hard work offers, you’re making the best decisions that can be made. Plus, attorneys and judges in the court systems have their own ideas/mandates that too often clash with the agency’s recommendations because their training is not in human development, and certainly not child safety. They’re there to uphold rights of parents and children so at times they reverse agency decisions that then hurts children returning to unsafe homes.

The burden of these decisions is heavy and when things go wrong, the burden falls almost entirely on the social worker, not so much on the system or even supervisors. The job is already hard with seemingly impossible deadlines and it’s emotionally taxing. So internal conflicts clashing with the larger system only makes it more taxing. Sure, you want to question your own bias in assessments, but if your bias stems from deeply held values that continue to clash with the system, you’ll burn out fast in this job. Yet it is hard to remain objective when you’re responsible to not just assess for safety, but also to assess and make predictions for a child’s wellbeing knowing full well that the research shows children don’t do so well in foster care. Eventually I decided my skills would be better used in direct counseling without the burden of policing safety.

And it goes without saying, you HAVE TO respect your limitations and engage in self-care. Yoga and meditation help cultivate acceptance and increase emotional capacity so that you can remain attentive and present with clients. I can’t emphasize enough that you need ways to increase your emotional capacity for your own sake, for the sake of your loved ones and even for the sake of your clients. If your emotional and empathic abilities are depleted, unhappiness and isolation is a likely result and eventually making poor decisions at work follows–which in the case of CPS work can be devastatingly costly to a child. Venting and consulting with trusted co-workers/supervisors can ease up the burden, and socializing with people outside social work can give you perspective. Traveling gives me perspective and when I found myself drowned in the world of pain with my clients, looking at pictures of the rest of the world reminded me there is a big world out there and life/the universe is much bigger than I give it credit for.

A child welfare worker has fast deadlines, multitasks endlessly and needs to make swift decisions that may not please families. Therefore, thinking of all disciplines involved as partners on the team can help fill in where the CPS worker realistically cannot extend themselves to cover. An attitude of appreciation for teamwork and respect for other professionals outside child welfare can go a long way. The stressed out nurse at the hospital who’s short with you will also be your savior when the time comes. The police officer you may have just offended is the person you’ll need to rely on another day to safely transport your suicidal minor client. The parent advocate who questions your decisions is a strong source of support to hold your parent together when you don’t have the time to offer empathic listening. And if you have a good supervisor whose assessments you trust, count on them to make decisions with you and back you up if need be. I can give countless examples of why teamwork can save your career, but bottom line is you can’t do good work by yourself so cultivate relationships to help positively impact the outcome for your minor clients and help your own sanity too.

[] For social work students who are interested in working in child welfare, and possibly with Child Protective Services, what advice do you have for them in terms of preparing for this difficult field of work?

[Damoun Bozorgzadarbab, ASW] I think I pretty much covered this question with my previous answers but I will add that if considering child welfare work at any point in their career, the Title IV-E is definitely worth it. It provides extra trainings, child welfare second year internships, and funding for grad studies. And if you sign up for the scholarship but hate CPS work once you’re employed there, the county lets you pay back the scholarship as if it was a loan. So I think it’s a good deal.

Working in suicide counseling gave me a humbling but also comforting reality check–there is no such thing as “saving” another human life. We only can save ourselves and so as a social worker I’m appreciative of the opportunity to impact someone else’s life. When our clients succeed, they should have the credit because we only act as facilitators to success. And when clients fail, if you’ve done good work, you have to respect their journey in life as belonging to them. That’s what “self-determination” means to me. The super heroes are the clients, not me. As one of my Larkin Street young clients beautifully put it: “it’s like I’m Batman and you’re my Robin–my sidekick.”

Thank you Ms. Bozorgzadarbab for your time and insights into clinical social work.

Last updated: April 2020