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July 2011 Caseworker of the Month

Mary McKeeman

Mary McKeeman

Orange County, California 

Mary McKeeman, a foster care social worker for Hope 4 Kids in Orange County, California, was named our July Caseworker of the Month. McKeeman was nominated for matching a loving family with a little boy who’d lost faith in being adopted.

When a child gives up hope of being adopted

When the time came for Hector to rise and shine he balked, and refused to get out of bed.

The 10-year-old was due at an adoption picnic, but after so many disappointments, he didn't see the point.

“Hector was done with matching picnics,” wrote Mary McKeeman, AdoptUSKids’ July Caseworker of the Month. “It seemed that he had given up the hope of being adopted.”

This picnic would have been different, but it was a hard sell for a boy who had heard it all before.

McKeeman, a foster care social worker at Hope 4 Kids, is in the business of digging deep in the files and working with families to make sure that kids like Hector find a permanent home.

“I am a matchmaker,” she said with a laugh. “That's exactly what I am.”

Because of the disappointment and trauma piled upon trauma of a placement that’s ultimately reversed, placing a child with a family that decides it won't work is devastating.

“It really causes a lot of problems with trust and can lead to attachment problems,” McKeeman said. “It can affect them for the rest of their lives.”

When a child is returned, it's difficult for them to not blame themselves and surrender the hope they will eventually have a family of their own.

“They start to give up and really become part of the system,” she said. “That's not where kids should be raised.”

Using home studies to make a match

By reviewing home studies from families, and case files for children, McKeeman helps determine not only the legal guidelines for placing a single child or sibling group with a family, but also interests. She looks for clues to a winning match, such as whether a family and child share a love of the outdoors and camping, or computers. If they are they an active, on-the-go family, or prefer quiet evenings at home also factors into her research. Plus, she learns the desires and expectations of families, who she said often times have a pretty good idea of what qualities they’re looking for in a child.

“All of that is in the home study, it really gives you a flavor of the family,” she said. “The longer you work with a family, the more you get to know them.”

In the case of Hector, the Nichols family knew he would be a fit. But they were cautioned that the process would need to go slowly and deliberately, and that the placement could take a while. The word “adoption” would not even be said out loud in order to ease Hector into the idea, McKeeman said.

The Nichols met Hector at his group home, and during their first meeting, Hector took the opportunity to do some of his own questioning.

He asked about their family, allowances, chores, bedtimes, and what they liked to do for vacations. In return, the Nichols were upfront and told Hector what they expected from their children.

“After speaking with the family for about an hour-and-a-half, came Hector's last question, 'Oh, what will my last name be when you adopt me?'” McKeeman wrote.

Hector was placed with the Nichols family at the start of the year.

It was for McKeeman's dedication that Susan Nichols nominated her for Caseworker of the Month.

“She is not my caseworker now and she continues to he a great support,” Nichols wrote in her nomination letter. “I could not have done this without her.”

When McKeeman learned she’d been nominated for the recognition of Caseworker of the Month, she said she was surprised at first, and then a little embarrassed. The way she sees it, she isn't the one doing the hard work.

“I think the families are really the ones who deserve the recognition, I just go along for the ride,” McKeeman said.

Making a positive difference in many lives

McKeeman lives in Tustin, Calif. With her husband, Jim, and has three biological children, Kelly, 24, Whitney, 22, and Rachel, 10.

It was after returning to college, after her two eldest children were born, that McKeeman decided to begin a career in social work. She’d been training to become a nurse. She also considered becoming a paralegal, but it wasn't until she started listening to a social worker friend talk about her work that McKeeman decided to switch paths.

She received her undergraduate degree in human services from California State University – Fullerton in 1992 and her Master's degree in marriage and family counseling in 1994.

After college, she started her career with the investigative unit of Child Protective Services for the state of California and worked there for seven years. She took some time off after having her youngest child, but returned to work in 2007.

She knows that when she looks back on her life's work — and she plans to keep working until she is absolutely unable to continue — she knows she’ll have made a positive difference in many lives.

“That is truly what I love,” she said.

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