Social workers. They come into your home with a white glove and a watchful eye. They check under your bed for dust mites. They go through your medicine cabinet. They call your neighbors to inquire how long you wait to mow your lawn. They take note of every imperfection, just looking for a reason not to approve your family for adoption.
Is that about what you had in mind?
Well meet Kathie Stocker and Kris Bales, two of Holt’s most devoted — and beloved — social workers. Kathie has worked with Holt for 23 years and Kris for 14. Kathie is often the first person families hoping to adopt from Korea will speak to, while Kris advises families interested in the China program. Both and have guided hundreds of families through their adoption process. At Christmas time, their walls are covered in cards from families and photos of children they’ve helped place. Both will be the first to tell you that the job of a social worker is not to be taken lightly — entrusting a family with a child is no small decision. But they will also tell you that the homestudy process is not about judgment. No family is perfect. And neither are they.
Above all, their passion — and their role — is to find the right family for every child.
Today on the Holt blog, learn more about what Kris and Kathie ACTUALLY do as adoption social workers for Holt.
What made you want to work at Holt?
Kris: For me, I was a Holt mom first. I’ve been a family counselor for more than 30 years, but after our second adoption, I stayed home for a couple of years with our girls. So when it was time to go back to work, I thought, ‘this is the kind of work I want to do.’ I started with five hours a week, and as our girls grew, the job grew. I think once you experience adoption for yourself, it’s an amazing and life-changing thing for everyone and so I wanted to help other people do that. It’s also hard to go to China and not think of all the ones who are left behind. And since I can’t adopt them all, this is my way of helping!
Kathie: It’s actually very similar for me. I adopted my daughter, and I started doing volunteer work for a support group that covers the entire state, teaching pre-adopt classes, organizing adoption events, volunteering for Holt auctions and adoption preparation classes and I was their representative at a statewide adoption group. So I got to know the person who was head of the Oregon branch from Holt. One day, after one of the meetings, she asked me if I’d ever consider a job with Holt, and since my degree was in sociology and I had a passion for adoption, I said I would love to. I worked very part time, but I just sort of picked up between the other two social workers and when one of them left, my role increased and then I went full-time somewhere in the mid-90s.
What are some ways that you have been able to connect with families?
Kris: I think the thing that makes Kathie and I a little unique is that we have both adopted. Since we spend so much time on the phone talking to new people, I think it helps that we have been through it ourselves. We’ve made that phone call trying to find somebody who’s going to help us do this kinda’ crazy thing — go halfway around the world to become a parent. So I think that really helps them — when they realize they’re talking to somebody who has been through it — and we’ve both been on the other side of a homestudy.
Kathie: It’s really helpful with my Korea calls — “Oh you’ve adopted from Korea?” That just makes them much more comfortable.
Kris: Or they ask about the trip, and it’s like, ‘yeah, I’ve been there.’ “So should I take my 5 year old?” some of them ask. Well, let me tell you what it’s like there and what you are going to be doing. So I think that’s really helpful. They aren’t talking to somebody who doesn’t have any idea.
Kathie: Yeah, it’s not theoretical for us.
Kris: I remember getting up the nerve to make that first call. Do you Kathie?
Kathie: It was something we’d always spoken about, but planned to do after having more biological children. That didn’t happen, and we both finally decided we were ready to be parents again and I made the call.
Kris: But that first call is really important because it often takes families years to get to that point.
Kathie: It is a big deal! You are making yourself vulnerable for us to approve you and I think that is the scariest part for most families. “Am I good enough? Will you let me do this?”
Do you guys know how many families you have worked with or how many children you have helped place?
Kris: I know that with homestudies I did about 150. And you must have done way more than that, Kathie!
Kathie: Oh yeah, tons. I mean probably hundreds. And what’s scary is that two of my kids have just had children of their own. And I have gone to weddings. And at the camp out…
Kris: Oh yeah, she is a rock star at the Holt Oregon camp out.
What do you think parents expect the homestudy process will be like?
Kathie: Well, I know that I was scared to death! I cleaned forever. I mean, I’m talking every drawer, closet…
Kris: Under the beds, in the oven.
Kathie: They think we are there to judge them, to critique and inspect their house. It’s funny because sometimes the kids are behaving off the wall and their parents will look at them like, “Who the heck are they? These are not our children.”
Kris: I call it the “social worker effect” and I’ll tell the parents that, “I’m sure that your child is nothing like this until I arrived! I brought this with me.”
Kathie: I always tell families that I need to write this report that is 10-12 pages about you that means I need to understand you better than just what you wrote down. I need to be able to establish a relationship with you so that I will be your support all the way through the process. It’s a give-and-take type thing.
Kathie: I always say [to families] we are going to be working as a team … so that I can write this report that accurately reflects who you are. Because that is how you are going to get matched [with a child].
Kris: And this relationship is not just for the homestudy, it continues on after their child comes home. One of the things we’ve learned is that parents were afraid to talk to us about problems, thinking we were judging them or might remove the child from the home. So I always tell them once the child is home, the assessment is over. We already know that you are good parent material. I am here so we can problem-solve this together. We are going to find resources, and whatever you are coming up against, I’m sure that I know somebody who has been through the same kind of thing and I can get you support.
Kathie: I tell families that one of the reasons I want to establish this relationship is that once you get home with this child, you are going to need someone to talk to. So please, I don’t want to read it on Facebook or in a blog or hear in 6 months that you had a rough time. I want you to feel okay to tell me. We all have adjustment issues and it normally is very reassuring to hear that someone else had the same issue and how to deal with it.
What does a normal workday look like for you?
Kathie: When I first started, I worked from home and then had seventeen years in the office. I am now working from home again. Unfortunately I have an over-protective Corgi, so on occasion she will bark at something and I will need to apologize to families. Fortunately most say, “It’s alright! We have a dog that does the same thing!” Lucky for the dog, I usually give her a treat and we have no barking!
Kris: My daughters are in high school and college now, but when I started with Holt, my kids were 3 and 5 and I was working from home, so a lot of it I just did after they went to bed. I would write reports and homestudies in the evening and then get up the next morning and be a mom. I still remember years ago, I was on the phone with someone and her kids were misbehaving — because that’s what happens as soon as they get on the phone. She was so embarrassed, but what she didn’t know was that I was having the same problem at my house! So as she was apologizing I finally said, “Okay let me explain to you where I am right now. I am currently in the laundry room with the door closed, and I think we have maybe 5 minutes before my kids figure out where I am.” (Laughing) So I started calling people later at night after their kids were in bed, because that worked better for them.
You brought some objects to show us that you felt represented your work. Could you share about them and their significance to you?
Kathie: This is from one of my first families that went to Ethiopia. It was a new and exciting program that Kris and I both got to work with, and I will say it was incredible. I loved working with the Ethiopia families because … these families really understood the challenges of adopting a child of a different race. They had done their research, they formed groups and have a huge support system. These families just really impressed me and many of them went back and did some tremendous things for the program. This bowl was from one of those families that I really just came to love.
Kris: Well this one actually came to me on my trip to China last month. It’s a beaded apple, which I’m told is a symbol of peace. It was presented to me by an orphanage director, and it was made by one of the kids at the orphanage. I was so touched by it. I was in one province where there were 72 kids for me to see. I had four days and they were from 12 different orphanages and I couldn’t get to all of them, so instead all of the kids came to me.
Some of the staff traveled with the kids in buses for hours because of the hope that maybe there are families for these children. The orphanage staff cares so deeply for these kids. You can see when tears are flowing and when the director is showing you a child’s photo on his phone because maybe you could help find a family for this one or for that one. That is what I think of when I see this apple, is all their work and their hope that somehow we can help.
If you could say one thing to parents who are going into the adoption process or getting ready for their first homestudy, what would you say?
Kathie: I would say, more than anything, you need to learn that unfortunately, you won’t be able to fix everything that happened to your child. But you have to be supportive, encouraging, willing to grow and to be vulnerable because there are going to be many times that all you can say is, “I’m really sorry, I wish that wasn’t the way it was.” It’s a long road and you need to stick it out and persevere. The rewards are tremendous — best thing I ever did was adopt my daughter!
Kris: I would thank them for caring enough to put themselves out there, and let them know that we are really rooting for them. Our job is to find families for all of these kids, and so we want it to work for them! We’re really looking for ways to help prepare them to be the parents that these kids need.