In honor of March being National Professional Social Worker Month, we wanted to highlight some of the amazing people who help make Home Start’s mission of strengthening families possible.
Phyllis Carlson has been working with Home Start as a Family Visitation Coach for almost two years, reunifying parents who have lost custody of their children. Visit Coaches help rebuild families through this new, innovative program, so that children are safer in the future.
We asked Phyllis to tell us more about this important role, how she got here, and how she is making an impact on families and communities in San Diego.
“National Professional Social Work Month celebrates the many roles social workers play as policy makers, educators, facilitators, case managers, advocates, therapists, advisers and promoters of social justice. “– Phyllis Carlson, L.C.S.W.
What initially brought you to Home Start?
I retired from Child Welfare Services in March of 2018 as a Protective Services Social Worker. A few years before retiring, I heard about the Family Visitation Coach Program through a training I was invited to attend. The training was provided by Marty Beyer, who developed the program. This innovative training really piqued my interest because it provided a powerfully new idea and approach to supporting families who are in the family reunification process. I had been interested in becoming a Family Visit Coach since 2015. Turns out, while approaching my retirement date, I was contacted by Home Start’s Intake Coordinator, Luz Alarcon, who expressed that there was an opening for a Family Visit Coach in East Region and I immediately decided to apply.
Tell us more about your background and your work with CWS.
In 1985, I graduated with a psychology degree from SDSU. Then I went immediately into the Masters of Social Work program and graduated in 1987. Later that year, I was ecstatic about being hired by Child Protective Services as it was known in those days (Currently Child Welfare Services or CWS) as a way of serving children and families in our local San Diego community. In 1992, I earned the title of Licensed Clinical Social Worker, which I have held for 28 years.
During my almost 20 years of employment with Child Welfare Services, I was able to participate in many programs including Emergency Response Services, Court Intervention, Voluntary Services, Continuing Services, as a Children’s Worker in Adoptions and as an Adoptions Applicant Social Worker. Additionally, I worked in the Independent Living Skills Program, as the Volunteer Coordinator, Mentor Coordinator, CPS Holiday Share Bear Coordinator, as the Liaison to a public-private partnership recruiting businesses to help CWS youth find job opportunities, and in many other Special Projects along the way. I have also had the pleasure of supervising CWS interns over the years.
That’s so impressive! And can you help us better understand your role with Home Start?
As a Family Visitation Coach for Home Start, I work with families who are active to the CWS system. Their children are dependents of the Juvenile Court and they are no longer in their parent’s care. Our goal is to help parents reunify with their children by providing coaching before, during and after visits are over. This role provides an opportunity to build a uniquely supportive and trusting relationship with each family. This relationship later allows the Coach to provide insights related to child safety issues and make suggestions regarding the needs of their children and how to meet those needs. Visit Coaching is strength-based and we are trauma-informed and the relationship between the Visit Coach and the parent is key to their success in the program.
How do you see your work making an impact on the San Diego community?
The impact comes from helping one family at a time as they begin to understand and take responsibility for what led them here.
Through a Family Visit Coach, parents learn to re-build their relationships with their children by becoming aware of the impact trauma has had on them and learning to focus on their children’s needs in different ways. We get to role model how to trust and take risks and make yourself vulnerable and hold yourself accountable. They can learn how to cope with difficult situations through patience, understanding and regulating their own emotions, which then serves as a role model in helping their children cope with their own emotions.
The impact comes as parents learn how to become safe parents. Many parents learn what attachment looks like for the first time as they engage in their services and heal from their own unmet needs. Then they can help their children heal. Parents develop a vision for their families for the future. They learn and experience that their family is resilient and that they can grow and thrive! We see parents breaking family cycles and generational cycles of abuse.
That must be challenging, but also very fulfilling. What is your favorite part of your job?
My favorite thing is that I understand and am continually reminded that Social Workers are Change Agents and have the capacity to start where the client is and help them move in a direction that benefits the whole family now and for the future.
Is there one specific experience you can share?
I’ve been working with a mother who had been highly addicted to methamphetamine since childhood. Her oldest child was placed with family in another state and she was really hoping for reunification with this son. In the beginning, she showed up to a visit while high and although the visit had to be canceled, the Coach was able to role model empathy for her son who was experiencing trauma while the mother was barely aware. The Coach was able to reframe why her services were so important.
As our Visit Coaching relationship continued to develop, the Coach was able to help her see her resistance to doing her required services and she finally agreed to enroll one step at a time. In time, the mother began to see that each service could help her gain insight and to heal from different perspectives.
With another family, as trust developed between a father and his Visit Coach, the father was finally able to share that he was having memory loss problems. He expressed that his personal shame kept him from taking action, but the support of our relationship made the difference. The Family Visitation Coach was able to motivate him to seek an advocate who could help him get the services he needed to have this accessed.
Wow, there are so many different sides to what you do. What would you tell others about the work you do that they might not know?
Family Visit Coaches work together with CWS social workers in helping families reunify with each other. Coaches meet with parents and children in natural settings like parks or libraries. When they need help figuring out how to take their children safely on a bus, we work together on this goal. And if needing to visit Walmart, they can learn how to go past the toy aisle without having to spend money they don’t have. As a social worker and service provider, Coaches do our part to make homes safer for the child’s return by helping parents develop and practice new parenting skills and tools. Visit Coaching is powerful and effective and change comes through the meaningful relationship that is developed.
Thank you so much for taking the time to tell us more about your role at Home Start and helping us recognize the crucial difference you and social workers around the world make every day. Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share?
“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes it is the voice at the end of the day that says I will try again tomorrow.”