"How Can I Make Myself Part of the Village?"
When Tomi Handy began her career 23 years ago, she probably did not envision singing Beyoncé songs with one of her children in care. "Do the simple things that join you and that family," she stated when asked how she engages with the children and families she serves. "Know your kid, talk to providers, spend hours on the phone. Talk to them, form a relationship," she added.
It is easy to see why Tomi is successful. She refers to her daily work as a "calling" and her life experiences prepared her well for the complexities of being a Department of Children and Families Social Worker.
Tomi is a leader in her own family. While in college, she came home to be at the side of a relative who was dying of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Walking down the hallway after a visit, she saw the name of another relative on a different hospital room door who was inflicted with the same disease. "I never really had a chance to say goodbye," Tomi stated. The two relatives died of AIDS a week apart.
"How do we change this?" she remembers asking herself.
Tomi recites the time her aunt was stabbed by her husband, and she took quick action, moving her cousins aged 14 years and 2 years old into the second floor of her multi-family home. "We gutted the floor for them to have a place to stay. I wanted the home to resemble the home that they left." What followed was Tomi navigating a complex set of family dynamics to ensure the children's needs were met amongst many competing demands.
Working at a dance studio, Tomi heard about DCF's work. Here she met Renee Hoff who was a current DCF employee. It was Renee's outreach which encouraged Tomi to apply. "We need faces like us to make a difference," she recalls Renee telling her. Impressing upon Tomi that the Department needed a more diverse workforce in order to provide effective interventions.
Tomi gives credit to her first Social Work Supervisor, Sally Fleming, who made a significant impact on her - leading by example and taking young staff under her wing. It was Sally who would accompany her workers on home visits, court and was by their side when a child on their caseload required a doctor's visit due to a medical complication. In these circumstances, she was modeling the true essence of being a social worker.
It is these personal and professional experiences that Tomi has brought to the Permanency Unit for the past 20 years.
It is who she is that made her a perfect fit for the most difficult case of her career.
In March of 2018, Tomi was assigned to a little three-year-old girl named Alivia, whose mother and sister were murdered by her mother's boyfriend. Alivia was being cared for by her grandmother, Ms. Corinna Martin, who had already lost a previous daughter to a domestic violence homicide. See Alivia's full story here.
The pressures were felt immediately as the journey towards Alivia's permanency took many difficult roads. Tomi played whatever role she needed - just like she was taught. She took Alivia everywhere and they made quite a team during frequent drives to school, attending meetings and arranging therapeutic supports. The work was emotionally draining to see Alivia's tears, to hear the difficult questions she asked as her understanding of her life circumstances grew, Alivia's trauma responses and the pain Ms. Martin expressed losing two daughters. The "weight" on Tomi's shoulders was "hard."
"How can I make myself part of the village?" she would ask. "Sometimes what you do is not in the job description. You are not asked. You do it to support the family," Tomi stated. "Everyone had to check their grief and loss," stated Tomi. Difficult especially the day Ms. Martin asked her to attend the sentencing hearing for the man who killed her daughter. Tomi sat "shoulder to shoulder" with Ms. Martin in the courtroom. "It was work but it felt personal," Tomi stated.
"Just do it."
"There are days when you are not okay," stated Tomi. During these times is when her "use of self" saw her drawing upon the strengths of her own personal experiences and the reasons why she came to the Department. Her work does not go unnoticed. "With Tomi, it’s always been about the kids and that’s hard to do sometimes…. with all the bureaucracy. I’ve seen her stay long hours after work visiting a kid in the hospital and going out of her way in order for a child to get the perfect gift for their birthday. These are the stories and actions that can never be captured in data and no pivot table or graph can ever calculate or measure her commitment to this work and more importantly…. the children she serves," stated Office Director Dr. Dakibu Muley.
Tomi finds painting, drawing, and decorating therapeutic. In fact, she won an award in a Connecticut museum for "Best glass artist." Tomi made Alivia a stained-glass picture of a unicorn. "I wanted her to remember the good times we had," she stated.
"Tomi has always demonstrated a true commitment to the families that she works with. She prioritizes their needs and has demonstrated a willingness to go well above and beyond to be available to them. As a permanency social worker, she has developed tremendous relationships with her kids and families that have led to many successful permanent outcomes for children," stated Program Supervisor John Rogers.
In her colleagues, Tomi finds strength and likewise, her colleagues find strength in Tomi. "We use each other for supervision," Tomi stated. The unit prides themselves on their outcomes for children and families.
On National Adoption Day, Alivia's formal permanency was established with Ms. Martin. It was widely covered by the Connecticut media.
"Ms. Martin you have made Alivia a better person. Alivia you have made your grandma a better caretaker, but you both have made me a better social worker," Ms. Handy stated during the proceedings.
"All those times of advocacy made it worthwhile," stated Tomi.
What would she tell new workers coming into the Department? "It is going to be a struggle. You will have good days and bad days. It's all worth it," was Tomi's response.
"It's cases like this that give me hope that we do good work, we make things better, we have good outcomes."