Not enough credit is given to baby steps, according to Dinah Martin.
Whether she was teaching independent living skills to high school special needs students, or job skills to welfare recipients, or social skills to the more than a dozen teenage boys she and her husband have foster parented – she clung to each tiny amount of progress.
“You have to be able to appreciate the baby steps that the parents are taking. You always need to be able to see that growth over time the kids have. Even when it’s not always so obvious,” Martin said.
Her ability to encourage the small successes was part of her 25-year career at Washington State’s Department of Social and Health Services. She began as a social worker, where she handled child welfare cases. Children lived in foster or kinship care, and Martin’s goal was to reunite them with their biological parents or free them for legal adoption and permanent placement with new families.
“I think I brought to the situation the ability to see strengths where a lot of people just see weaknesses. When dealing with a parent who is struggling with substance abuse, it can be hard to appreciate that they manage to take three buses to get to their counseling appointments. And you have to be able to see the strength and small success in order to encourage them to continue down a successful path,” she said.
Moving into leadership
She eventually moved into administration, creating programs, writing policies and training new hires in social work.
Since retiring from the state six years ago, Martin teaches courses in human resources and organizational leadership at Brandman University’s Lacey campus, which is launching a Bachelor of Social Work program. Coursework includes human behavior and social environment, social policy, domestic violence, victim advocacy, substance abuse, and how to serve the military, children, older adults and more.
Because her degree isn’t in social work, she’s not able to teach in Brandman’s program. But with more than two decades in the field under her belt, Martin said she knows the new offering at the Lacey campus is sorely needed.
“DSHS is always looking for beginning social workers. And I also know the private agencies DSHS contracts with – that I had lots of interactions with over the years – need people who understand what it means to provide social services to families and clients and how to work with a team across agencies to provide what’s really best for families,” she said.
In her time serving Washington families, Martin estimates she’s helped hundreds of children. Her most memorable case involves 4-year-old twin boys who were given up for adoption by a mother who had a mental illness.
Initially, the twins stayed with the mother’s sister. But the mother insisted they be adopted by strangers instead. Martin found a family and facilitated a long transition process, which included scheduled weekends with the new family to minimize the boys’ trauma. After one of those weekends just a few months in, she received a voicemail. The boys decided they wanted to stay with their new family and both families made arrangements to move the boys to their forever home, much sooner than she expected.
“They (the boys) made the decision. They called me on a Monday and said, ‘I hope it’s OK’ and I said, ‘Well, if everyone is ready, then I guess it’s OK!’,” she recalled. “The most satisfaction comes from seeing change, to know that you were a part of facilitating that in happening. I say facilitating because you didn’t make it happen. As a social worker, you created the space for them to make it happen. They probably couldn’t have done it without you.”