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A heart for kids: Native Spanish speaker joins ranks of staff child protection worker

Dulce Adame Murillo (left) stands Thursday with Krysta Anderson, social services supervisor at Nobles County Community Services. (Tim Middagh/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON --  It takes a special type of person to be a social worker in the Nobles County Family Services child protection unit. Empathy, compassion, patience, discipline, a non-judgmental attitude and stamina are all required.

That’s because it’s never too early in the morning or too late at night to help a vulnerable child.

“We take turns, but someone is always on call,” said Krysta Anderson,  the Family and Children’s Social Services supervisor.

“That means nights, weekends and holidays, around the clock.”

With child protection reports averaging nearly one per day (the department fielded 362 child protection reports in the county during 2015 and to date in 2016 has handled 329 reports), Anderson and her staff are engaged in a job that never ends and is sometimes thankless -- but can be rewarding nevertheless.

Each of the dedicated family/children’s social services staff in Nobles County plays an important role, with employees designated to child protection (four), child welfare (one), children’s mental health (four) and case aide (one).

Several of the unit’s employees speak some Spanish, but when Dulce Adame Murillo joined the office as a child protection worker on Aug. 1, she became the first native Spanish-speaker employed in that capacity.

“I was so excited to have Dulce join our team because we work with a really diverse population,” said Anderson. “Being non-judgmental is a hugely important quality in our work, and while we all possess that, having someone from the same culture to serve a client takes it to another degree and enables  communication.”

New employee, new citizen

Dulce Adame Murillo grew up in Michoacan, Mexico. She earned a college degree from Universidad del Valle de Atemajac, with a major in psychology and a minor in criminal justice.

“I went to school to be a psychologist, but the financial situation in Mexico is not favorable for professionals; I wasn’t making enough money to live a good life,” explained Murillo, a lively and intelligent 31-year-old.  

“Some of my family were living in Worthington and they were really happy living and working here, so I moved to Worthington six years ago.”

Although Murillo was a proficient English speaker, professional success didn’t occur immediately.

“My first job was at Burger King,” she laughed. “I worked there for one year, and then also at Unity House as a mental health practitioner, so for my first year I had two full-time jobs.”

Murillo continued working at Unity House for over four years  before she took a position with the Workforce Center’s Private Industry Council.

“They were advertising for social workers here,” Murillo said, gesturing around her new office, “and I knew I had the background for it, but I was afraid to apply because I hadn’t attended college in the United States.”

However, Murillo finally followed through and was hired for a position that, despite its obvious stresses, is  a dream job for her.

“Compared to Burger King, this is heaven,” smiled Murillo, noting that she appreciated the support and encouragement of Chad Nixon, her former Burger King boss.

“I told him [Chad] back then I was going to be a social worker, and when I saw him recently at another local restaurant, I handed him my new card and he cheered,” she happily reported. “It was a good moment.”

Also applauding are Anderson and Anderson’s supervisor, Stacie Golombiecki. Anderson says that besides Murillo being an especially effective communicator with Spanish-speaking clients, she is also an excellent resource for her co-workers.

“It’s hard to imagine a more effective intervention than having your social worker completely understand your culture and speak your language,” said Golombiecki, Human Services Director for Nobles County.  “There’s less room for error in understanding each other, and it aids in building relationships and serving families.

“Bringing Dulce on board is a very good development, and we’re really excited to have her.”

Another celebratory moment occurred when Murillo officially gained her U.S. citizenship on Oct. 3.

“They decorated my cubicle with a flag and balloons,” said Murillo of her co-workers. “The team here is amazing, and everyone helps each other; it’s a very supportive and friendly environment, and that’s important because our jobs are stressful, but we know someone will help us get through it.”

Sharing the stress

While both Murillo and Anderson agree their jobs are difficult, they and their immediate colleagues realize it’s nothing compared to what some of their clients -- especially the children -- are experiencing.

“Kids are helpless, mostly, and we are sometimes the last resource for them,” said Murillo. “We see some really sad situations, but knowing how much we are helping them fix or improve their lives makes it really worth it.”

For instance, having to remove a child or several siblings from a home is never an easy task, nor is having to cut strands of hair from tiny tots to conduct hair follicle testing to verify or rule out in-home exposure to methamphetamine.

“We work with families, not just kids, to be sure they are making efforts to bring everyone back together,” said Murillo. “We have to coordinate everything, along with the foster parents who may be caring for the kids — we end up working with a lot of people.”

Anderson concurred.

“It’s like being a jack of all trades, knowing a little bit about everything,” said Anderson. “We don’t provide therapy and parenting classes, but we direct parents to those resources and advise them on what would be most appropriate and beneficial in their particular case.

“We also might help with transportation and monitor how the services are working out, and if something isn’t working, we help find a different service.

“There’s no caseload limit because we can’t turn people away,” Anderson continued. “When it comes to child neglect, child abuse or children’s mental health, we have to help.”

Added Murillo, “It’s about being sure a kid is happy and safe.”

The tragic 2013 death of 4-year-old Eric Dean in Pope County prompted several changes in Minnesota’s child protection practices. Golombiecki says that, statewide, county agencies like hers are about a third of the way through fulfilling the 93 recommendations a governor-appointed human services task force later outlined.

“Those changes have a lot to do with the increased number of child protection reports we’ve been seeing and the cases we’re able to open,” said Golombiecki.

“And we received additional funding in 2015 that allowed us to add another child protection worker and a case aide within the child protection unit.”

In all, the Nobles County Human Services and Public Health Departments have 58 employees.

“We really strive to empower parents and to connect them with the services that can help them be independent and avoid intervention,” said Golombiecki. “We try to keep families together as much as we can.”

Promoting family unity

Indeed, Anderson says that while every client situation is unique, their goal is to keep children with their families if at all possible rather than having to permanently place them elsewhere.

“Sometimes a placement outside the home is warranted for the safety of the children, but we have to make reasonable efforts to reunify families -- and under strict timelines,” noted Anderson.

“If a child is removed from his or her home, we can’t let that drag on, so we’re constantly working to get the child back in the home as soon as it’s safely possible.”

Currently, the Nobles County child protection unit has 11 children awaiting adoption.

“It’s unfortunate those 11 children couldn’t be reunited with their families, but sometimes it happens,” said Anderson. “Numerous studies have shown that children who can stay with their own families fare better, that they’re less likely to become teen parents or be incarcerated and are more likely to graduate from high school.”

That’s why it’s critical for staff to withhold judgment and display empathy. Having a native speaker like Murillo involved is valuable for Spanish-speaking clients.

“Even though I am now a citizen and could speak English when I came here,  I know what it is to be an immigrant, how their culture functions and why they are having these [negative] situations develop,” said Murillo.

“It makes it easier for me to explain why we are intervening, that we are not there to fight them but to help them have a better life and create a safe environment for their kids.”

Anderson, who has two young sons of her own, finds the work situations she encounters can hit close to home.

“I worked here before my children were born, too, so I know the difference,” she said. “The sad things were sad before, but after you become a mother yourself, it’s on a whole other level.

“Being able to step into a client’s shoes and think, ‘If I were them, what would I be thinking at this point in time,’ is necessary.”

Murillo agreed.

“I cannot be judgmental,  and I have to remember there’s a background story about why they’re in crisis,” Murillo said.

“I try to do my best, but I think a person has to have a heart for this type of work.”

Striving for balance, success

For people whose jobs focus on aiding families who are in crisis, stress management is a must.

“Social workers are known for developing ‘compassion fatigue’ and experiencing secondary traumatic stress,” said Anderson. “The work can have a high burnout rate, but luckily we haven’t had a high turnover rate here lately.

“It requires us to maintain good self care and senses of humor.”

Murillo, who has two dogs and a boyfriend but no children of her own, finds that sticking to a strict routine keeps her energized.

“I get up at 4:30 a.m. and go to the gym, and I run around the lake every day,” she revealed. “I also am in bed by 10 p.m. every night, and I love to cook -- I cook everything, and once a week I cook for a ‘girls’ night out’ with several friends.”

For Anderson, tackling home improvement projects with music blasting does the trick.

“And a lot of our staff members have invested in aromatherapy,” Anderson related. “We teach our clients, too, that it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money or be a big production to decompress -- just taking a bubble bath at the end of the day can give you something to look forward to.”

Golombiecki credits her employees, at all levels, for their dedication and persistence in stressful positions.

“I’m really proud of the work our child protection unit and children’s services people are doing -- really, all of our staff are doing fantastic jobs,” said Golombiecki. “Kids are so vulnerable, and sometimes the parents are, too.

“We’re providing critical services.”

Added Murillo, “We’re not doing this with any expectation of praise or thanks, but when someone expresses gratitude, it feels really good. Our job is to help.”

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