As someone who lived in foster care from age 12 to 18, Jessica Chandler recalls “suffering from the hurt that that identity as a foster/probation youth caused me.”
But rather than allow that negative experience to govern the rest of her life, she was determined to become a social worker to ignite change for others—which would also mean challenging herself. “I wanted to reform the child welfare system and improve outcomes for the children and families we serve,” Jessica says. “For me, that meant going into the thing I feared most, to learn what the challenges were and the opportunities for improvement and growth.”
TITLE IV-E PREPARES HER WELL
To prepare for that profession, Jessica enrolled in the MSW program at Cal State Northridge, where she also earned a B.A. in psychology, and received a Title IV-E stipend. “The Title IV- E Stipend Program allowed me the opportunity to be immersed in all things child welfare and to specialize my training to working with this population while still in grad school,” she says. “It made a huge difference to being as prepared as possible for the huge, complex system I was going to go work for and be a part of.”
Besides that, she says, “I also made life-long friends with the other CalSWEC recipients from my cohort, who to this day encourage, challenge, and celebrate me, as we all now are working in the system to make a difference.”
As it turned out, her graduate school internship was with Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), her current employer. Asked if that experience encouraged her to seek employment there after graduation, Jessica says, “Honestly, my graduate school internship made me want to not work for DCFS and just run for the hills. My supervisor was terrible and biased against me as a former foster youth.” Looking back, she says, “In the past, many people working there were stuck in their toxic ways of working with families. I felt angry and frustrated a lot.
“I wanted to see more of what I was learning in school being practiced,” she says. So, Jessica persevered. “I kept my challenges to the minimum and decided once I was in, I would get to work!”
Today, the situation has markedly improved. “Now, with the implementation of the Core Practice Model, and firm leadership, I have seen many changes in LA County DCFS that make me proud to work here.”
HER WORK AT DCFS HAS GIVEN HER PURPOSE
For the past five years, Jessica has been a Children’s Social Worker at DCFS. Working in the nation’s largest county child welfare system has been an eye-opening experience for her, she admits. “There is so much diversity and so much to learn. Working at DCFS has made me a better mother, sister, neighbor, and member of our society,” she says.
“As a professional helper, I am drawn to those in need in all aspects of my life. It’s been very healing and given me much purpose to be able to use what I’ve learned, while surviving some very ugly circumstances, to create beauty and inspire hope and healing in others.
“In a huge, diverse system full of people from all walks of life, races, and beliefs, it’s always a challenge trying to meet people where they’re at and hold and honor their truth while simultaneously imposing our county’s beliefs and values in regards to child safety,” Jessica says.
As a Children’s Social Worker, Jessica’s responsibilities are diverse and demanding. They include conducting interviews individually and with families to assess for risk and safety concerns while investigating child abuse/neglect as well as finding suitable placement homes for children and youth who have been abused/neglected. She also participates in a variety of meetings focused on Team Decision Making, Resource Management Process, Multi-Disciplinary Case Planning Committees, Child and Family Team, and Pregnant and Parenting Teens.
INVOLVED ADVOCATE NATIONALY AND LOCALLY
In addition to her work at DCFS, Jessica has been and continues to be an advocate on the national stage for children and families involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. “When I was 18, I joined a youth council with a non-profit law firm called the Alliance for Children’s Rights. They were pushing legislation to extend foster care services until age 21 and ensure services for pregnant and parenting youth and give us a voice. That was something I never had,” she explains.
“They trained us how to speak to legislators and people in power, and it felt good to be a part of the change I wanted to see. Since then, many doors have opened for me. I’ve stayed inspired by the work and committed to ensure the next generation hurts less than I did while in care.”
This May, Jessica was among those who shared their stories with the world in the HBO documentary “FOSTER,” which looked at all sides of the often-misunderstood world of foster care through compelling stories from LA DCFS, offering a realistic but hopeful perspective. “Having such a large platform has provided me with many opportunities to further my advocacy efforts and reach hundreds of people who don't know anything about the foster care system,” she says.
Most rewarding, she says, has been “hearing from folks around the world that my story inspired them to change their lives or get involved in working to improve the child welfare system. It makes my life feel complete and like everything that happened in my childhood was for a purpose. I don’t feel so unlucky any more. I feel special to be able to contribute to our world from the bottom of my heart.”
Jessica is also active locally, serving on the LA County Board of Supervisors Education Coordinating Council and the board of The Nehemiah Project Los Angeles, which focuses on helping transitioning foster youth. “These boards keep me informed on the needs of the child welfare population on a macro level and allow me to extend my reach and help more people using my voice,” says Jessica. “I make time for my community; the well-being of the next generation is all of our personal responsibility.”
PROUD MOTHER WITH A CAREER OFF TO A GREAT START!’
Reflecting on her journey thus far, Jessica says, “I am very humbled and proud of the opportunities and achievements I have had in my life. I think my career is off to a great start!”
Career aside, Jessica says, “I am most proud of my intelligent, handsome, funny, and compassionate sons Noah and Jonah, who inspire the level of care and compassion that I try to pour into my work each day. They fuel my ambitions and keep me humbled as they present me with new challenges and victories each day. They represent the cycle of violence, poverty, substance abuse, and pain that I was able to end in my life.”
Jessica also expresses her appreciation for the Title IV-E program. “Thanks to the CalSWEC program for seeing my perceived disadvantages when I applied to the program as strengths. It’s the first place that acknowledged my experiences as a former foster/probation youth as invaluable.”