Caseworker Conversation: Rishell Hessing
Rishell Hessing from Adams County Human Services has spent her entire career in social work, helping parents get back on their feet and now helping to find families for children and teens waiting to be adopted and supporting families post-adoption. We asked her to tell us about her career path and the adoption matching process.
How did you get started working in child welfare?
In college, I was studying law and I did an internship at a domestic violence shelter. My office was in the “shelter,” so I got to hear stories of women who were in the midst of domestic violence relationships and I wanted to help them. I’ve heard so many adults say “I still don’t know what I want to do.” I’m lucky that I found something I care about and I’ve been able to make it my career.
While I was still in college, I worked at a halfway house for women and their children including a section for teen moms. The program had a substance abuse focus. I taught parenting classes and started a program to expose the women to different experiences and cultural activities like ballet, plays, sporting events or the symphony. It was uncanny how many women hadn’t done those activities but even more so that many of these women had not ever done simple things like decorating Easter eggs or making a full meal. Later, while working at Lutheran Family Services in Illinois, I helped single parents find resources to improve their situations. For us at the time, in a small community, housing was the biggest issue for people. Through that job and that organization, I moved on to adoption and I’ve been working in adoption ever since.
I just love adoption. It’s become a niche and specialty for me. Through my adoption work, but also my previous work with parents, I have learned just how complex parents’ lives are. Parenting is difficult, and nothing is as simple as it seems when you’re working with families in child welfare. It’s not just the parents’ mental health or substance abuse, it’s also environmental factors – how they were raised, what they learned about being good parents. You think you would know what kind of parent becomes involved with us, but you never know. I have met and seen so many people who are skilled and talented, and yet they are involved with child welfare.
How do you get to know the kids?
I read the files and I talk with them. I read about their experiences, their history and why they became involved with child welfare and I read reports on how the case has continued. I also like to talk with their foster parents, because they know the most about the kids. Even if foster parents aren’t an adoptive resource, they care about the child and are afraid about them leaving. They want to know who we’re looking for, and they want to make sure the child is safe even after they leave their home.
I also talk with the kids. It is important to be honest with kids about adoption and to hear what they want in a family. I let them know I’m looking for just the right family for them - someone who can love them and take care of them.
Part of your job involves finding families for children and teens who are waiting. Tell us about that?
It’s an art and not a science. For me, it’s really important to talk to people. I’m also reading home studies and looking for things such as how they have managed stressful situations and what healthy coping skills they have, which can be a predictor of how someone will navigate stressful things in the future. I also look for signs of commitment and information about friendships and relationships with their own family.
We need parents who are willing to expand their sense of family. They’ll need to seek help beyond their immediate family and there’s potential to meet a child’s family as well. A sense of humor and creativity – those are good qualities for parents of children with difficult backgrounds.
So you’ve read home studies and you’ve selected a number of potential families. What happens next in the matching process?
Matching families and kids is a group process. It’s not just one individual reading home studies and making decisions. The child’s team meets and comes to a consensus. This group could include me, the ongoing caseworker, the Guardian ad Litem (GAL), a supervisor for the case, a therapist or a CASA. We start by talking about the child, their strengths and their challenges, and what they will need long term. That helps everyone to be child-focused through the meeting. And then, we talk through possible families. Everyone has a voice and we make the decision together, but we also tend to agree on what family is the best match.
After that, someone from the team who knows the child better, like a caseworker or the GAL, will talk with the family. We keep having conversations and we keep sharing information to make sure it’s a good fit. After our final meeting where we disclose all of the information we have about a child, we ask families to wait 48 hours before they make a commitment to adopt. Adoption is a life-changing and lifelong commitment, so it’s important that families consider all the information they have as well as their experiences with the child.
How do you work with families once an adoption has finalized?
For us, ensuring families are successful is about providing post-permanency support. That means help finding a support group, parenting training or assistance finding a therapist. In the past five years, the child welfare field has done a good job, collectively, talking about trauma. We didn’t do that before so we had parents who need a lot of education about trauma and need to learn to think through a trauma-focused lens.
I’m working with families who finalized years ago. Reaching out and checking in with families that have adopted an Adams County kid, reminding them that adoption is a lifelong journey and that we are here to help.
Working in child welfare can be challenging. What has contributed to your longevity in this field?
I am optimistic and hopeful to a fault. I believe people have the capacity to change, and I have a strong sense of unconditional love. My career, and my longevity in this field, has been proving to myself that change and unconditional love are possible.
In this field, you have enough positive experiences, they balance the negative experiences. Seeing older kids get adopted is really touching, too. You need your family no matter how old you are. That doesn’t change.
Rishell works for Adams County Department of Human Services. Adoption policy and practice is different in every Colorado County. Contact your local Department of Human/Social Services to learn more about adoption in your community.