“I grew up with a mild obsession about families—nuclear families, extended families, blended families, adoptive families,” says Yoonie Pomper, “which, I think, was fueled by my own upbringing, as well as learning about foster children in my elementary school classes and what that meant.”
She ultimately found the perfect fit for that “obsession,” in a career focused on families. Yoonie has been a Senior Social Worker handling emergency response/dependency investigations with Santa Cruz County Human Services Department—Family and Children’s Services since 2012.
“Many families I work with are simply in need of some help and support, and it is rewarding to be able to provide that. I get to meet interesting people and observe positive changes that happen in families,” she says.
HER OWN UNIQUE FAMILY
As youngsters, Yoonie and her sister were abandoned by their Korean parents because of political and social hardships in their country at the time. They experienced several placements by ages of 3 and 4 before being adopted. “My adoptive parents are white; my Dad is Jewish, and my Mom was raised Catholic,” she says. “We celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah growing up, and I knew from an early age how unique my family was. My sister and I both were impacted differently from these early childhood experiences, which fueled my curiosity about attachment, psychology, and family dynamics,” she says.
Intrigued about the “why” in life, “specifically why people do what they do,” Yoonie eventually earned a BS in psychology at California Polytechnic University. She then worked for two years in group-home settings with foster youth, probation youth, and youth experiencing significant mental health issues. Many of the youth had been placed for at least a year, had very little contact with their social workers/probation officers, and, she observes, “did not have meaningful connections to stable and positive adults in their lives.”
PURSUING HER INTEREST IN CHILD WELFARE THROUGH TITLE IV-E
Yoonie learned about the Title IV-E Stipend Program from her mother, an analyst for Santa Cruz County Family and Children’s Services. She was motivated to get her MSW and work specifically in child welfare, “so that I could be in a position to work with families and advocate for foster youth,” she says.
A Title IV-E stipend recipient at San Jose State University, Yoonie received special training in child welfare and obtained a second-year internship in Emergency Response. “I was able to focus solely on my education and internship, which allowed me to immerse myself in the experience of learning,” she recalls. “It was also great to be taught by current employees of public child welfare agencies, as well as be part of a cohort of students pursuing the same career path.”
CONTINUING TO SUPPORT IV-E IN MANY WAYS
Today, Yoonie continues to be involved in various aspects of the stipend program “because I believe that it serves an important role in preparing MSW students for employment in public child welfare agencies and encourages students—who otherwise may not choose this field—to consider it as an employment path. I think the social work profession provides numerous career options for new MSWs, which is why it is important to highlight the importance and need for child welfare social workers, beginning in the school setting.”
Besides this, says Yoonie, “I also strongly believe in the importance of providing ongoing support and mentoring to new social workers, especially in a high-stress field of practice such as child welfare, so that public agencies can retain social workers and provide communities with skilled, knowledgeable, and compassionate staff.”
PREPARING FUTURE SOCIAL WORKERS
As a field instructor at San Jose State, Yoonie emphasizes the importance of people skills. “I reiterate the importance, over any other task, of learning how to effectively work with people. “Given that child welfare social workers interface with people from all walks of life who are often dealing with compounded social/emotional/psychological/physical/economic issues, I sincerely believe that the most important task is learning how to build rapport, communicate effectively, obtain necessary information from involuntary clients, and find a balance of being supportive and assertive.
“I think the most challenging thing for interns is learning how to talk to children and parents about serious issues while maintaining a positive working relationship with families that reflects core social work values,” she says.
Additionally, Yoonie says, she ensures that new interns have “a foundational understanding of the basic processes and terms used in child welfare so that each experience can be integrated into what they already know.”
With so much to know and learn, Yoonie advises, “The most important thing is to know where to reference information as needed and to consult with a supervisor when in doubt. This is to prevent social workers from being overwhelmed and burning out too quickly.”
Yoonie is also a member of the panel that interviews Title IV-E stipend applicants, evaluates candidates, and makes recommendations. Additionally, as a stipend program advisory board member, she makes recommendations for improving the academic and internship programs for current and future students.
REWARDING AND CHALLENGING WORK
Of her current position, Yoonie says, “My favorite part is the pace and the many different families I get to meet within my role. Every day is different and brings new challenges and rewards so I am constantly evolving and learning as a professional.”
Along with the rewards, Yoonie observes, are such challenges as not having available resources to sufficiently address the needs of some families, feeling as though there is not enough time to invest in each struggling family, having to make hard decisions about removal of children, working with hostile parents and family members, and keeping up with all requirements of documentation.
Yoonie adds, “My job does not allow for spending significant time with children and parents. My job is to assess safety and risk and provide case management services as appropriate. I often have short and one-time visits with children and parents and rely on information from direct-service providers to aid in my assessment of families.
“I miss working with youth in a direct-service role,” she says, as she did when she was a residential youth counselor. “It afforded me the opportunity to build genuine connections with the youth I worked with and be in a support role as they experienced ups and downs of their daily lives.”
Unlike that position, she says, “I feel that my [current] role allows me to have an impact on children’s lives in a different way by advocating for what is in the child’s best interest,” she says.
GIVING HOPE, PROVIDING EDUCATION IN HER COMMUNITY
“I love being able to work in the community I grew up in and being in a position that allows for positive impact on families,” says Yoonie. “So many parents I come into contact with are doing everything they can to give their children a good life despite the obstacles that they face, often through no fault of their own, and they simply need kindness, understanding, help, and direction.
“My job allows me to give people hope and acknowledgement while providing education and resources to allow families to maintain independence in the community. Although removing children is always a difficult decision and process, I believe that continuing to treat parents with respect and humility can often be a catalyst for real change and that the relationship between social worker and parent/family can be a powerful mechanism in helping families address their challenges and grow,” she says.
“My motivation to continue as a child welfare social worker comes from the desire to make a difference, no matter how small, in the lives of the families I work with, even if it simply means treating people with dignity and respect in the darkest times of their lives. I love to learn about new people and love that every work day is different than the day before,” says Yoonie.