March is Social Work Month! At The Children’s Village, we wanted to take the opportunity to uplift the work of Daphne Torres-Douglas, LCSW-R, our Vice President for Behavioral Health Services. Daphne has served the organization for 30 years in various roles, bringing her incredible expertise and immense passion for the field.
What is your role with the Children’s Village?
As the Vice President for Behavioral Health Services, I lead the teams that conduct evidence-based, in-home family therapy models, as well as additional programs designed to prevent families from entering the foster care system, and supports to reunify families who are in the system.
What inspired you to get into social work, and how do you define it?
I did not actually plan to study social work at first, but I needed an elective in college and chose to see what social work was about. I was totally inspired by the multiple layers that social work encompasses, and the many different avenues for serving in this helping profession.
I see social work as more than therapy—it is social justice work. It involves advocating, communicating, and networking; in addition to working with clients to assess, diagnose, and link them to resources. It really is about treating the whole person to help them tap into their strengths and passion, and support them in navigating through the various systems that they are embedded in, including systems that may do some harm. More importantly, social work is about listening to the voice of people that seek resources and honoring their humanity, their lived experience, their identification of their goals, and determining how to use the social work platform to fight to get those goals and needs met. Social Work is not about control or making decisions for people.
What are some of the biggest challenges in your line of work?
Many of the challenges we face in this work involve the multiple complex barriers that plague the lives of families that we serve. Families struggle with housing instability, unemployment or job instability, poverty, lack of legitimate access to resources, and a disconnect from legislators. Often these struggles result significant stressors that impact mental health and well-being.
Families we work with often feel powerless, and sometimes don’t see the power they do have. They are navigating through communities and systems that continually reinforce a narrative that poor people, especially black and brown people, are not deserving of better. This narrative makes it challenging to get basic needs met, and it also contributes to this overwhelming need for systems to force programming and potentially introduce more unwanted service provision as a prerequisite to “qualifying” for resources.
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
Hope. Families embody hope, determination, strength, resilience, love. When you see their humanity and you show up to serve them, you see families flourish and create the change they are looking for in their lives. The reward is watching families see their power and using it.
How has your work at the Children’s Village changed over the years, as the organization’s approach has evolved?
When I began 30 years ago, the Children’s Village was a great agency that worked with youth who were removed from their homes, cared for at a residential facility. Staff and clinicians worked hard to address the behaviors that prevented the young people from going back home in an effort to expedite their return to their families and communities.
Today Children’s Village remains a great agency that works with youth to return to their families and communities in a safe way. However, we have evolved greatly to a more trauma informed approach and incorporate interventions on a preventive level. This allows for an entry point to supportive services for families that does not require removing a child from the home. We focus on investing in the family and community network to help young people remain where they are loved, connected, and can be supported.
There are a lot of reports about a lack of social workers in this country, and right here in New York. What is your take on that? Do you think people aren’t getting into the field as much as they used to, or is the need just greater now?
I would say both the need is greater and there are fewer new social workers. Colleges report that enrollment is down for social workers. Meanwhile, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the ever changing social climate, and the impact of poverty, all contribute to the trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that young people experience.
We now understand that ACE’s have a long-term effect on young people, with the potential to result in mental and physical health problems in adulthood. We also know that research tells us that trauma impacts brain architecture of young people as well. Therefore, one can surmise that there is a greater need now for social workers at a time when there are fewer to call on. We can’t ignore the idea that social workers also have suffered from their own traumatic experiences and loss from lived experience including the impact of the pandemic within the last 3 years.
(Editor’s note: for more on the impact of the pandemic on young people’s mental health, and how Children’s Village partners with families to address their needs, watch Daphne’s interview on CBS Sunday Morning last year.)
How do you think social work fits into the overall state of mental health needs in NYC? And even more specifically, with the needs of children across the area?
Social work plays a crucial role in the overall state of mental health needs in NYC, especially given that there is such a growing need for young people to connect to professional help early. Prevention is paramount. It has been my experience that when one seeks out therapy, they have suffered for a long time. Many can date their mental health needs back to adolescents and early adulthood. These years are precious and they serve as crucial time for development, for making mistakes, for socializing with peers and adjusting, for intimacy and separation. There might also be traumatic events that occur—poverty and generational poverty included.
When trauma is unaddressed, coping skills are developed. Some of the coping skills young people develop may not be favorable to those around. When young people are then defined by their behavior, instead of adults understanding their trauma, they often get further pulled into systems—such as the foster care system and juvenile justice systems. That begins the path to further poverty, incarceration, or other negative outcomes.
Social workers can aid in assessing the impact that trauma has on youth and families, and how that trauma shows up in their daily functioning (in both positive and negative ways). Social workers take into account culture and the impact that marginalization has had on families, and can help families navigate systems, whether that’s social services, education, legal, financial, and link families to resources that support them in meeting their goals. Social workers can also advocate for policy change.
In short, social workers focus on the humanity and the “whole” person as part of a community.
What is something that you want people to know about your work with the Children’s Village?
I believe my colleagues are people who serve from their hearts. The connection that we have to families, and the intimate details and vulnerabilities we are entrusted with, is not something that we take lightly. There is a huge responsibility to show up in support of and in partnership with families. We have great staff that commit everyday to care for young people, to connect and provide a safe space for healing, to collaborate with families in their homes, to share alternative ideas and access, to fight for equity and the rights of others; while leaving their own stressors at home. We know that caring for others sometimes more than oneself is not for everyone, but it is what we do.