By Emily Dagostino, adapted from the University of Chicago Magazine
Photo by Jason Smith

Once you start working in foster care, it’s really hard to stop. It’s addictive.”
—Davida Williams, AB'82

Editor’s note: The original piece, “Her Children’s Keeper,” follows the experiences of foster parents Emily Dagostino and her husband Sean. Read it in its entirety in the University of Chicago Magazine.

Davida Williams always wanted to work with kids. The youngest of five siblings, she says her father was an abusive alcoholic who, the morning after assaulting his wife and kids, would wake up having completely forgotten everything he’d done the night before.

Because of her childhood trauma, Williams says she promised herself she wouldn’t work with abused and neglected children, thinking it would be too painful. But throughout her time as a graduate student at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, she maintained ties with Hephzibah Children’s Association, the child welfare agency in Oak Park, Ill., working in the center’s day care during the summer and on weekends.

Williams has since devoted her 34-year career in social work to Hephzibah, which provides abused and neglected kids from Illinois safe homes in which to heal. She will retire this fall.

Williams says she’s learned through therapy how to deal with her own childhood trauma. She says the children at Hephzibah—whom she calls “my kids”—don’t yet know how to handle what’s happened to them. “They don’t have the frame of reference of education and nurturing care,” she says, adding that her goal is to open that door for them.

“Once you start working in foster care, it’s really hard to stop. It’s addictive,” she says. “When the kids start to get better, there’s nothing better than that. Right?”

‘Davida changed my life’

Williams has continued to mentor students from SSA. This fall, the school has three second-year students doing internships at Hephzibah.

"I am learning about navigating through the Illinois foster care system, Medicaid, and of course, the many nuances of working in a children's group home," says second-year SSA graduate student Ali Tarter. She says a talk from Williams at an SSA seminar helped draw Tarter to Hephzibah. "Davida's description of challenges different children have faced, and the heartfelt approach taken by Hephzibah staff really seemed to mesh well with my own evolving understanding of trauma-informed clinical practice."

In the course of Williams' career, she’s worked in virtually every branch of Hephzibah. She started out in day care, driving the bus, then working as the building manager. After becoming a social worker, she brought AIDS babies into foster care when no one else would touch them. She helped open and directed Hephzibah’s group homes. She started a program to help group-home kids transition into foster homes—even creating a board game to help ease them through the change.

Brian Fruits, one of the first kids to live in Hephzibah’s diagnostic group home, says “Davida changed my life and saved my life. … She was the first adult I ever trusted.”

Fruits, who is now 33 and recently earned his MFA degree, says when he was a child his parents were divorced, his mother was an alcoholic, and his father was a workaholic who struggled with substance abuse and could be physically and verbally abusive. “Davida always saw the good in both of my parents,” he says. “She knew the demons that they wrestled with.” When he and his sibling moved to Hephzibah, he says his dad was there five days a week to visit. “My dad busted his ass to get us back.”

Williams became friends with Fruits’s father. After Fruits was reunited with his dad, she remained close with the family. “Even when my dad and I weren’t talking she would fight for me to reach back out to him,” Fruits says. “Finally I made that amends with him a few years before he passed.

“She taught me how to love people unconditionally.”

‘We get as we give to these children’

All foster parents work with kids who have been traumatized in one way or another. They are stressed and distrustful of their new environments. Many have trouble sleeping or issues with food. Some are depressed, withdrawn, crying, or wanting to hurt themselves. Others are angry and aggressive, yelling, throwing tantrums, and wanting to hurt others. Some don’t understand appropriate boundaries and act out sexually.

“It’s an exhausting job, but when you can affect one child’s life like our foster parents do, it’s exhilarating,” says Mary Anne Brown, executive director of Hephzibah. “But you need people like Davida behind these programs to not make these people get exhausted and worn out.”

“My love and admiration for foster and adoptive families is profound,” she says. “What am I going to do without them? They blow me away with kindness.” You make connections working in foster care, Williams says. “We get as we give to these children, don’t we?”

Originally published on October 7, 2013.