Jessica Lawrence

Title: Foster Care Social Worker
Department: Catawba County Social Services
Started with County: 2018

Share a little about what you do as a foster care worker.
My main objective is to reunify children with their parents. In the event that reunification isn’t in the best interest of the child, we find children permanency. I assess family needs, provide referrals, ongoing evaluations, transport parents and children to appointments and services if needed, whether it's substance abuse, mental health, housing… Whatever the need is that brought that child into our care, we attempt to address that need, and continue to be a support for that family while their child(ren) is/are experiencing foster care.

Before you started working for the county, what did you do?
Before I came to Catawba County, I was a phlebotomist in Charlotte at a plasma center. Prior to that, I worked at a dialysis clinic.

What prompted you to kind to get into this line of work?
I've always done social work, but not knowingly. My grandparents were always asking, "Are there any services for this?" or "Can people get help for this?" My grandma, she's always out in the community and I was the tag along. So helping has always been a part of my life.

I wasn't really happy in healthcare. My cousin told me, "You should go get your degree and become a social worker." I went to school for social work and got my BSW at Appalachian. The more classes I took, the more I realized that this is where I wanted to be. 

What made you decide to work for Catawba County?
I was born and raised in this county. I went to South Carolina for college initially, and when I would come back, I’d tell my mom, “A lot of my old friends, they're not doing well. They're using substances. They have mental health issues, homeless, and they're not the same people I went to high school with."

A lot of people shy away from wanting to come back to the county they live in because they may run into friends or someone they know. It was the opposite for me. I wasn’t afraid to come back home to work.

The resources are here. People just don't know about them. That was the biggest key for me: looking back, reflecting, and seeing a lot of people in my community needing resources and not having access to them simply because they didn't know.

You’re working with people during one of the more difficult times of their lives. How do you cope?
It can definitely be a lot at times. However, I think it's all about balance. I do take time off to relax, unwind, and step away from that role. When I first started it was hard, because I was constantly consumed by, "Did I give that parent that phone number to call the therapist?" Or, "Did I do this? Did I do that?"  It can be overwhelming. You constantly worry about the kids; that’s just something I'm going to do (worry about my babies). But again, I think it is all about balance.  

What is the “why” that drives you to do this work?
It's hard at the beginning of cases that I receive because it's new. Kids are removed, parents don't know how to react, the children don't know how to react, so that's all new. It can be a lot. I try to explain that my main goal is to reunify, to get you back to where your children are in your home and DSS is no longer involved. That's my why, because every child deserves their parents. They deserve to be attached with blood relatives and familiar faces. They deserve normalcy. I want to make sure families can remain together.

What do you enjoy most about what you do?
I love reunification. Seeing children back in their home with their parents. The department has started having reunification celebrations at the courthouse. I had one recently and it was beautiful. I absolutely loved it.

And of course, I love the kids. I love interacting with kids. My home visits with the kids are the best. I know they look at my paperwork here and think, "You only have to see the kid technically once a month, but you were there two or three times this month." The biggest part is interacting with the kids, showing them that I care. To them, I’m a stranger coming into their life, taking them to therapy, looking through their room, asking questions, and that can be terrifying. I try to build rapport with the kids. After a few months, that’s when the fun kicks in. They’re like, "Miss Jessie, can we go get ice cream?" I'm like, "Of course." My favorite time is when I'm with the kids. I love it.

What are the things you appreciate most about working for Catawba County?
The culture of the county. And of course, everyone likes to be somewhere where they have great benefits. The benefits are excellent and I love the culture.

I did a training one time with [County Manager] Mick Berry, and he was just so down to earth. Although I rarely see him, it was warming to see how down to earth he was. Everyone is always friendly, even up to our director. If her door’s open, I can say, "Hey, can I share something with you?" The other week I went and shared something with her. We had a deep conversation, and she said, "Thank you for sharing." That meant a lot to me. Everyone in the county that I've encountered, they've been warming. They've been genuine. They've been helpful. They’re like family here, and that’s what I appreciate most about the county.

Do you feel like you're part of a team here?
Yes. This is definitely a team, because social work can be unpredictable at times. You never know when a kid's going to run away. You never know if something comes up in your personal life and it's the last day of the month and you need to go see a kid. And that's when the teamwork steps in. I cannot remember one time that I've needed someone to cover a visit or cover something for me and they were like, "No, I can't." They're always willing to step in to help. And I love that. I definitely appreciate that from the entire foster care team.

What does leadership look like for you in this role?
Offering my perspective to colleagues, and educating them on things they may not know. Whether it’s policy related, understanding cultural differences, I’m here to help. I don’t need a leadership title for that. I pretty much stay behind the scenes trying to figure out ways to continue to build an environment that everyone feels comfortable in.

If someone asked you if they should consider working here, what would you tell them?
Absolutely. If you want to be able to be yourself, you want to be heard, you want to be in a comfortable environment, you want to feel appreciated, absolutely. Catawba County is great. They've been great to me.

The [department] director once said that you want to treat your clients as if it were you on the opposite side of the desk. I needed assistance about 10 years ago; I had a young son. When I applied for this job, I reflected on how I was treated when I was on the opposite side of the desk. If I would've been treated poorly or if I felt like I’d been mistreated as a person who needed help, I probably would've never applied. That speaks volumes, because that's the culture here. So I would tell anyone, yes, Catawba County would be a great place to work. I actually worked in another county for a little bit of time before coming to Catawba County. I heard so many great things about that county until I got there. That’s what made me decide to apply here. Best decision I ever made.

Is there anything else you want to add about what you do or what you enjoy about working here?
They allow me to be me. I have this wild personality, and I had this thing called the 90 Day Rule. For the first 90 days in a job, I wouldn’t really crack a smile. I won’t crack jokes. Because typically, you get 90 days of probation on a new job. Here, it was nine months. I told my supervisor, "Man, that was the hardest nine months ever. But since we are here, this is the real me."

I'm allowed to be me. I love an environment where you can laugh and yet remain professional. Just to be able to let your hair down a little bit. I love that about this county. I look at things through a different lens at times, and my leadership team allows me to express my thoughts without apprehension.

Interviewed February 4, 2022