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May 2011 Caseworker of the Month
Jennifer Cochran, a specialist for the Kentucky Department of Community Based Services Special Needs Adoption Program is our May Caseworker of the Month. Despite an increased workload because of budget cuts reducing the number of employees in her department, Cochran has remained fully committed to challenging caseworkers and parents to take a second look at families and children they might otherwise dismiss.
Overcoming barriers to adoption
As part of a class Cochran co-teaches for prospective foster and adoptive parents, just one of her many duties, she asks each person to write down the worst thing they ever did as a child.
Then, without giving away who admitted to what, the confessions are read aloud. Setting fires, abusing animals, the prospective parents answer fairly honestly.
"They've done some things that are absolute barriers for our kids, just deal-breakers," said Cochran. "It just helps put those things into perspective."
It's a stark lesson on the obstacles facing some children in the foster care system, she said. Those who have been permanently labeled for doing something that is on one hand wrong, if not criminal, but on the other hand isn't uncommon among children who otherwise develop into conscientious, caring adults.
In one case, Cochran helped remove a false animal cruelty accusation from a boy's record; a blemish she thinks has contributed to keeping him from finding a permanent home. Getting the false accusation removed provides an example of why it’s necessary for both caseworkers and prospective parents to take a closer look at children in need and what is accurately recorded into perspective.
Taking a closer look
"How many of us could survive with having everything written down?" she said. While it’s necessary to keep complete records on each child, she said, children in foster care can be punished repeatedly for a mistake made years prior.
"Everything they do has such a weight on it," she said.
It turned out the boy who was innocent of animal cruelty was falsely accused by somebody attempting to cover their own tracks. However, the unfounded accusation endured in the boy's case file, the paperwork each and every prospective parent read when looking for a good fit. It took a group, including Cochran, working together over a period of time to get the false information removed. Now the boy is 16, and Cochran believes the false information daunted potential parents from taking a second look at him, narrowing his chances of eventually finding a permanent home.
"Foster and adoptive parents tend to identify what they will accept," she said. "They rule things out before they rule things in. If a child has the things a family ruled out in their record anywhere, it means they never get a chance to know that child."
Cochran emphasizes her goal isn't to force a fit — acknowledging families do need to think carefully about what they can and cannot accept — but instead to give a child a closer look.
"Just let yourself get to that table," she said.
Filling multiple roles with one purpose in mind
For her willingness to take on extra duties, and her compassionate style of challenging caseworkers and parents to take a second look at a child or a family, Cochran's former supervisor, Mike Grimes, nominated her for the recognition of AdoptUSKids’ caseworker of the month.
"She's probably doing two or three jobs," said Grimes, who is now associate director for the National Resource Center for Recruitment and Retention of Foster and Adoptive Parents at AdoptUSKids. He noted that her strong work ethic and dedication often led her to take on even more tasks.
"She would think of things to do," Grimes said.
Teaching the class for prospective foster and adoptive parents hasn't always been a part of Cochran's job description, but helping people in need has. Even though her life calling didn't specify early on for her to work with children, she always knew growing up she wanted to devote her career to helping those most in need.
Cochran's father, a Church of Christ minister who worked as a social worker in an employment training program, believed helping the most vulnerable was part of his duty as a Christian. It was this devotion he instilled in Cochran.
"It became a family mission to help others," she said. "It was very important to him that we do that."
He told her how important it was to give a voice to those who are often marginalized, and she saw the pleasure he got out of helping people.
"It had a big impact on me to see what it did for him, and how important it was for him," she said.
Cochran has been at her position with the Kentucky Special Needs Adoption Program (SNAP) for five years. She helps find permanent homes for children whose birth parents have had their rights terminated and who have spent extended lengths of time in and out of foster care.
Prior to working for SNAP, Cochran worked in a variety of positions within the field of social work at the state and federal levels. She’s done everything from helping train women for jobs in the construction industry, where they can make a living wage, to working with people with physical disabilities.
Cochran received her bachelor's degree in social work from the University of Kentucky and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Louisville. She now lives in Lexington and has two sons — Nathan, 27, and Jeremy, 25.
Encouraging people to give a second look doesn't only extend to children, Cochran said. It also extends to potential foster and adoptive parents.
In one of Cochran’s cases, a same-sex couple interested in adoption ran into a question about the specific needs of a child they wanted to adopt. It was an opinion that the child needed a mother, something two men were considered incapable of providing.
Cochran questioned what being a "mother" entailed and why that wasn’t something the couple could provide.
"We just don't want to eliminate anyone," she said.
The two men adopted the child, and continued adopting. Cochran said they are exceptional parents.
Often, she said, those who work with children are mostly hesitant about investing energy in uncertain placements that will prove temporary, creating more instability in a child's life.
"In the end, I don't think anyone sits back and says, 'I don't want this child to be adopted,'" she said. "But people have firm beliefs about what will work."
Disagreeing should not be disagreeable, Cochran said, noting that being respectful of other people's points of view is essential. This can be done by keeping in mind that no matter what, those involved only want what is best for the child.
"Start there," she said.