By Emily Witt
Catherine was one of the first staff members I met at CASA, just one day after starting remotely amid the early days of the pandemic. Working at CASA had long been a dream of mine but starting that journey through a screen was never what I’d envisioned. I worried that I’d miss those crucial first connections with coworkers that happen in breakrooms, hallways, and the occasional swivel of one’s chair to ask a quick question of someone at a nearby desk.
Meeting Catherine through a screen and working with her a year later can easily be described with one word: Ease. Her thoughtful approach and clear concern with making me feel welcome, empowered, and supported at CASA set me on the right path, just as social workers do for their clients and those they serve each day.
March is National Social Work Month, and aptly so, this year’s theme is Social Workers Are Essential.
For the people she and other social workers serve who are experiencing immense trauma, this feeling of ease, of being seen by someone in a way that creates a path to healing, can be essential to the future of their lives.
The ease Catherine brings to our workplace is essential, but it extends past the comfort she’s able to make coworkers feel during meetings. For the people she and other social workers serve who are experiencing immense trauma, this feeling of ease, of being seen by someone in a way that creates a path to healing, can be essential to the future of their lives.
Catherine has held many positions in the social work field before becoming our Senior Director of Community Engagement, and today, we’re sitting down with her to hear what led her to CASA and why she thinks social workers are essential to the work we do within the child welfare system.
What drew you to a career in social work?
I have an undergraduate degree in psychology, and after graduating, I knew I wanted to go to grad school and work in a helping profession. I hadn’t decided exactly what I wanted to go for yet, so I started looking for work and trying to figure out what I felt drawn to. Every job I wanted required or preferred an MSW (Master’s in Social Work). I was drawn to work that created positive change in people’s lives and that created meaningful social change. My first job was in the developmental disability field for one year, and then I did my MSW while I was living in New York. Now I’m approaching my fifteen-year anniversary as a social worker!
What are some different positions you’ve held in the field? Did you always know you wanted to work with children in some capacity?
My first job as a practicing, licensed social worker was at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office in the Victims Services Unit. It was a whole unit of about 20-25 social workers and counselors who supported and advocated for crime victims. We mostly worked with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, and for most of that time, I managed a couple of programs that were aimed at providing service and training in the field on the issue of domestic abuse and sexual assault perpetrated against people with disabilities. I worked with a lot of people in the disability field. I was training law enforcement, working with attorneys on how to work with people who have disabilities, I worked on awareness in the disability community, and I worked with people who both had disabilities and those who support people who do on how to recognize and report abuse.
"I worked on awareness in the disability community, and I worked with people who both had disabilities and those who support people who do on how to recognize and report abuse."
I was there for a year as an intern, then five and half years working there. In 2011, I felt like it was time to move on. It could be frustrating at times working for a District Attorney’s office. As a social worker, my own professional mission was to empower survivors, while the District Attorney’s primary mission is to prosecute offenders. I felt passionate about the work but was ready to join the non-profit sector.
Then I went to work with a disability agency that I had worked with a lot through different collaboration programs at the DA’s Office. I worked for YAI for about two and a half years, and I supervised a couple of programs including a crisis intervention program and parent training, giving support to parents who have children or adult children with developmental disabilities. One of the coolest things I did was coordinating this small program, we had one staff member, and I still think it’s amazing I got to do this: It was called the sexuality training program, and it was a whole program designed to do tailored in-home training for people with disabilities on topics related to sexuality and healthy relationships, all of that. It really was a passion of mine because I had come from working with people with disabilities who had experienced abuse, and so much of that came from a lack of education around so many things, even things like puberty. I felt like it was cool to be on the prevention side because for so long, society has not considered the fact that people with disabilities need healthy relationships and companionship like everyone else.
What inspired you to start working with children?
I’ve always said something I love about social work is that it’s such a versatile occupation, but I also always said at the beginning of my career that the one thing I don’t want to do is work in child welfare. When I worked at the DA’s office, I had coworkers who specialized in working with child victims, but I was intimidated by this. It was very challenging for me as a new social worker.
"I’ve always said something I love about social work is that it’s such a versatile occupation."
When I moved to Austin in 2014 and I was looking for the next step in my career. So, I talked with people all over town, and one woman I met was a retired social worker who was also a CASA volunteer. She said that if I enjoyed advocacy work, I should look into CASA. There was a CASA program in New York, but I hadn’t interacted with them much since I didn’t work with kids at that time. I started looking into it and realized what a great organization CASA is. I especially liked the volunteer model, I thought that it was really cool to have an opportunity to mobilize the community and get more people involved in solving a problem. So here I am!
Why do you think social workers are essential to our work at CASA?
I did a little homework in preparation for this that I’d like to share!
The National Association of Social Workers has a Code of Ethics that all members are expected to follow, so I went back and revisited them, and I was thinking about how similar the meanings of those principles are to CASA’s operating principles. The ethical principles from the NASW code of ethics are service, social justice, dignity and worth of a person, the importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence.
So, the service component refers to the core of social work being “giving to people in need and addressing social problems.” In that, I hear action from CASA’s principles, I hear hope. The social justice principle is about challenging social injustice and in that, I hear CASA’s principles of inclusion, power, and hope. Dignity and worth of a person are certainly related to inclusion, and I also think our generosity principle. To me, that means that as a social worker, whichever person presents in front of you, you value their worth as a person regardless of why they’re there, what is in their past, or what is happening in their life currently. For example, there are social workers who work with people that have perpetrated serious crimes, but they still have dignity and worth as a person and are treated with empathy. And I see that in our work, too.
"We offer solutions, empathy, and empowerment to all."
We work with parents who have made mistakes, but we do not judge them. We offer solutions, empathy, and empowerment to all. And then, we have importance of human relationships, which is connected to the family engagement work that I feel so passionate about. We at CASA value the connections that kids have with people that matter to them and people that love them. We have a goal of not just legal permanency, but real true relational permanency. We have our own integrity principle at CASA which means that we always strive to do the honest, right thing. Then the NASW principle of competence: It means that because the social work field is so broad, I could work with all different populations of people or with all different types of social issues that are quite different, and while I’m qualified by credential to go do that work, I have an obligation as a social worker to educate myself and not be doing work that I don’t have a strong base of knowledge and skills to do. To me, that principle aligns with our excellence principle. We’re not just getting the job done and calling it a day. We get the job done and then say, “how can I do that better next time? How can we make sure that we’ve equipped ourselves and our volunteers with the knowledge and skills to do our best and keep growing?” We’re taking action to do the best job we can do for kids and families.
During National Social Work Month and beyond, we at CASA have so much gratitude for the essential services social work professionals like Catherine provide for the people in our communities who need them.
Right now, it’s essential for the children we serve that we continue to recruit and train more dedicated advocates who will take action for them. We hope you’ll consider starting your own volunteer journey with CASA today, or, if you know someone that would make a great advocate, you can refer them to CASA!