Only one Mother Tongue Project student is publishing a personal synthesis essay this crazy year. I usually introduce several during the annual MTP Student Reading & Celebration, where young, articulate Capital High School moms, who work hard to create and refine personal research essays, stand before friends, families, teachers and mentors to deliver their words and ideas.

With COVID-19, such a gathering couldn't happen last spring. Moreover, most students were not able to create a work like this, trying as they were to keep up with classes and motivation while also juggling babies and toddlers—all at home.

Everyone's timelines changed.

My lesson is that the identification of one young parent should never be preceded by the adverb "only."

The voice of one young mother who can communicate clearly and confidently is a strong, important voice. Her voice inspires reflection and response, reconsidering stereotypes and opinions, the continued pursuit of goals and a reminder to not give up, to pay it forward.

One is a powerful number. The ripple effect of one voice is exponentially powerful. Honoring and sharing the voice of a young mom in Santa Fe is perhaps the best thing I can do right now.

I had the good fortune to work with this writer-mama for three years. Her facility with language grew enormously over that time. Her engagement with her daughter and family has been a solid constant. Her inimitable sense of self and sense of humor I miss on the daily.

It was Angie Bolaños, not RuPaul, Sophie Turner or Alex Morgan, who taught me what "and that's the T/tea" meant: the truth, the gossip, the word on the street and of the day. She shared with me the proper order in which to watch the Marvel movies. She demonstrated the value of close friendships and being straight-up with everyone. Like all of my students, she inspired in me great love and great frustration, laughter, worry, dismay, pride and delight.

She and her boyfriend graduated from Capital High School this summer, ensuring that their daughter has two loving, hardworking, dedicated parents who hold high-school degrees. And, as you'll read, she's actively pursuing goals beyond that. Angie is in the middle of her first semester at Santa Fe Community College. She's been a public speaker and is now a twice-published writer.

There is no "only" about any of this.

It can be easy to feel demoralized in the world right now. But then, I am checked by my privilege to know Angie, to be following her and other young parents as they raise their voices, weigh in on issues that affect their kids and families, read with their children, pursue their educations and create full lives.

I am reminded of the power of a voice like Angie's in our community—one smart, thoughtful voice with the power to inspire her daughter and countless others.

Listening to and lifting up this one voice—plus another one, and another—is how we diversify dominant narratives.

The truth is, one strong voice begets other strong voices. And that's the T.

—Lauren Whitehurst

Social Working It

How social workers help create stability, even in the unstable world of COVID-19

by Angelikue Bolaños

Every time I go to the mall with my baby, I notice so many many little kids—middle-school age—hanging around outside the food court with e-cigarettes. It makes me feel disgusted, like I want to say, "You haven't even hit puberty yet and you're already high!"

As a young parent, I don't want my child feeling like she has to make unhealthy choices in order to feel loved and accepted. I don't want any kid growing up like that. I see these kids and I feel like they've been neglected or are living in unstable homes. This is important to me because I want to help children and families as a career; and right now, families are struggling with tension, everyone being at home together longer, and health and economic concerns.

I am interested in how social workers are dealing with COVID19-related factors for kids in unstable situations who may be even more vulnerable now. Many communities are worried about cases of abuse and neglect increasing as families have less access to the resources they need to live healthy lives. During COVID-19 restrictions, social workers have to build and maintain relationships through calls and video apps instead of in-person home visits. The change in format is challenging for social workers and families, on top of all of the other challenges related to the pandemic.

An important part of social work with children is understanding that they are part of larger systems, such as their families, schools and communities, and that addressing a child's needs often requires addressing some of the larger systems issues, too. This is important because negative childhood influences and traumas have connections with risky behaviors, especially for kids who have few stable, positive systems supporting them.

The United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) defines adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) as "traumatic events occurring before age 18" that "include all types of abuse and neglect as well as parental mental illness, substance use, divorce, incarceration, and domestic violence."

I wonder how much ACEs play a role in the lives of those kids at the mall. Maybe they come from homes that are dealing with a lot of drinking, smoking, violence or absent parents. HHS reports, "When children do experience trauma, understanding the impact of ACEs can lead to more trauma-informed interventions that help to mitigate negative outcomes."

This is where social workers come in: They can address the ACEs of children before the unhealthy reactive behaviors really escalate.

Social workers are part of a network of adults who interact with children and often are first to notice signs of dysfunction, abuse and neglect. As John Kelly and Kim Hansel write in an article about welfare systems responding to coronavirus for The Imprint, social workers should "have a plan to ensure that there are 'eyes on' children." In other words, there should be people in children's lives who are invested in physically checking on them to prevent violence, abuse and neglect.

With COVID-19, it is harder for families to attend appointments, classes, counseling sessions and court-ordered services. When kids are unable to physically attend school, extra-curricular activities, after-school programs, church gatherings and visits with friends and family, they don't have many choices besides staying in one place, whether it's safe or not. This means that there are fewer adults looking out for their well-being. Making sure that social workers have full contact with at-risk kids and families is key to keeping them safe.

One aspect of well-being that social workers focus on is helping children deal with their emotional states and responses. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), "Social workers are skilled in addressing the mental health-related dimensions of health crises. They help clients find constructive ways to manage their anxiety, especially if these worries are adversely impacting work performance, relationships, and daily routines. In addition, social workers help parents and guardians communicate with their children about COVID-19 and its impacts."

Emotions play a big part in every child's life, and their mental health is as important as any other health issue. With COVID-19, it's just a little harder to find some peace of mind when the world is in panic.

For a stressed-out parent, it might look like feeling more overwhelmed, depressed, anxious, impatient, frustrated and angry. A child's emotional response to COVID-19 might include feeling scared, lonely and confused—feelings a child might direct through actions and behaviors that stress the parent even more. Social workers can help children deal with big feelings that they may not have words for and help them learn how to express their emotions in positive ways.

They also help parents understand and learn to support their kids' emotions. Social work advisor Lydia Bennett explains this to SafeLives, a domestic-abuse organization in the United Kingdom: "Often, a social worker works with parents to encourage them to see the world how their children do. This approach can help motivate the parents to change the situation the family is in."

Parenting is hard enough without a global pandemic! Now, with COVID-19, it is even more challenging for parents to keep their cool and have patience for their children. "Even parents who have great child-management skills and great bonds with their kids are going to be tested," says child psychologist Yo Jackson. "There's a perfect storm happening in millions of homes for kids to be at greater risk for these negative interactions."

The uncertainties of life with COVID-19, plus the fact that we probably will be dealing with it for many more months, increase family stresses. Since kids are more vulnerable in unstable families, social workers are worried about rising abuse cases. More stressors plus fewer outlets and physical resources equal more tension in the home, which equals a higher likelihood of domestic violence and child abuse.

Social workers have to do everything they can to connect with families in order to observe children's home systems and help make them more stable. When home visits aren't possible, they must get better at communicating virtually. Even in 2016, Social Work Today writer Susan A. Knight quoted Angela Rau, a parenting educator with the organization Parents as Teachers, as saying that the "increased use of technology for service delivery in future is inevitable. 'It's going to happen, so we need to learn the best strategies to use when delivering services over an online platform.'" Now, social workers give clients more resources they can access online or by phone.

Santa Fe-based Las Cumbres Community Services social worker Ana Morelos says this is a lot of what she is doing right now, whether it's connecting a pregnant woman with online or tele-health prenatal support or new parents with web-based resources about newborn health and milestones. Morelos and teams like hers are getting more support with helping families remotely. In March, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) "issued guidance expanding the use of how telehealth during the COVID-19 public health emergency." NASW outlines how this includes tele-therapy and how it affects social workers.

Local social worker Elizabeth Alarid, who works with young families in Santa Fe and Santa Fe Public Schools through a statewide program called Graduation, Reality And Dual-Role Skills (NM GRADS), describes how everything going online during COVID-19 was frustrating at first. "I wasn't able to reach many of the students over the phone and I began to feel like all the projects I'd been working on with clients were beginning to unravel," she said. "Plus, the heart of good social work practice is human connection, and I felt that was difficult to cultivate over the phone."

As time went on, however, Alarid adapted with what she calls "outside-of-the-home visits" instead of traditional home visits: "I sit down with students anywhere so long as it is in a safe, socially distanced manner—parks, front porches, parking lots. Meeting face-to-face is way more productive and positive. It truly doesn't matter if I'm sitting at a desk in an office or sitting cross-legged in a patch of dirt outside of someone's home: An open-minded social worker and an engaged client can achieve wonderful things together. I've begun to really appreciate how flexible and resilient social work is."

Pandemic or not, too many children and families live with domestic violence. A lot of kids neglected in family systems cope in unhealthy ways, and it is so sad to see. As a parent, I do not want to have to worry about kids going into the world and using harmful actions to try to numb pain they're experiencing at home. The next generation is our future, and I believe that we should help younger kids go on paths to brighter lives. However, not all families have the tools to do this.
One of the foundations of a healthy childhood is security, and this were social workers begin their work, with building trust with families and children.

Understanding how a family system works helps the social worker know what resources would be most effective in building stability. To me, providing emotional security for my family is easier because I feel secure in my family. Understanding this—and how important it is for kids—has made me think this is something that I can bring to a future career helping others. After researching social work, I am now more determined to become one to make a difference in the world.

Angelikue Bolaños graduated from Capital High School in July 2020 and now attends Santa Fe Community College, beginning her journey to study social work. A Mother Tongue Project and NM GRADS student, Angie's interest in learning and helping others parallels her commitment to actively parenting her bright, chatty, funny, loving daughter.