It's very difficult to help a person's mental health through therapy when the patient doesn't know where he or she will sleep that night or if there will be any dinner. Social worker Mara Ziegler, 44, learned that fact early in her career as a clinician, or what many of us call a therapist, for children and their families.
It was a very rude and frustrating awakening for her as a graduate student working toward becoming a social worker. The patients with whom she dealt in her first clinical jobs
were often struggling to meet basic needs like food and shelter.
Ms. Ziegler was outraged and was often ranting about the injustice and bureaucracy of the system. She said her family was sick of listening to her moan.
She worked with a group of sexually abused girls, some of whom were abused by a parent. The girls asked for help, but Ms. Ziegler and other social workers were powerless to help them because courts had given the allegedly abusive parents visitation rights.
Then she discovered a place that combined social work with the law, Public Counsel, and she hasn't felt that powerless in 15 years. Rather, when describing her job, Ms. Ziegler often uses the word ''empowering.''
Her parents attended a fundraising dinner with an executive from Public Counsel who told them about a new project to advocate for children by combining the law and social work.
''And my mother called me at midnight and said you've got to call this place. Because she was tired of listening to me on my soapbox. The rest, as they say, is history,'' Ms. Ziegler said. ''I called up the next day and said I have to have an interview and I have to have this job. Fortunately, they let me talk them into it, and I've never looked back.''
That was 15 years ago, and Ms. Ziegler has been working on the Children's Rights Project ever since.
Although Ms. Ziegler no longer practices therapy, she said she uses her clinical skills every day. And now when she is outraged by injustice within the system, she has a greater voice and an army of lawyers behind her.
It was the group counseling with the sexually abused girls that really exposed Ms. Ziegler to injustice within the system.
''I'd had a child and taken some time off, and my job after returning from maternity leave was in a child-guidance clinic where I worked solely in a child-abuse program. And that's when my eyes really started to be open, as I saw how difficult it is for these mothers to even get these kids to the appointment when they're worried about paying their rent and they don't have transportation; they don't have food on the table,'' she said.
''We tell kids in these prevention programs: you know you don't have to allow anybody to do this to you; go tell someone you trust; we'll help you; we'll protect you. And yet here they were in their therapy saying help, and I saw that in the traditional psychotherapist's role I couldn't help,'' she said. ''Working at a place like Public Counsel-I know I'm segueing-I have the best of both worlds. I don't do therapy here, but I certainly use my clinical skills to help people in crisis, to be able to listen, to look at their options. And so I get to still do what they call direct service. I work directly with individuals. But I also get to affect the systems and policy because I participate in a lot of community-wide coalitions and task forces that look at issues affecting children and families.''
The policy side of her work was what had been missing during the early years of her career. Ms. Ziegler calls herself a ''closet macro person'' a social worker industry phrase meaning someone who looks at the big picture of policy as opposed to the ''direct service'' people in the field working one on one with children and their families.
As part of her job, she plans conferences, helps propose legislation, and points out trends within the child-welfare system which could be more harmful than helpful to children. She loves telling teens and troubled children that they have rights; they can't be thrown out of school for being pregnant, for example. Ms. Ziegler is always careful not to dispense legal advice but is allowed to tell people the facts about their rights. And she often refers children and their families to Public Counsel's attorneys for legal advice.
''That's how I've been here 15 years, because it is so empowering to work side by side with lawyers,'' she said.
Public Counsel is organized around projects. While Ms. Ziegler has always focused on children's rights, her work often crosses over with the Homelessness Prevention Project and immigration.
The attorney directly in charge of the Children's Rights Project (Ms. Ziegler's close friend) recently moved to Boston, so other attorneys are helping in that department until they find a replacement.
Ms. Ziegler fields calls and arranges interviews for people who sound like they have a case for pro bono.
''And we'll explain on the phone and when they come in, that we really are here to empower the kids and to advocate for the kids, and so if it sounds on the phone that the child either doesn't understand what is being requested on their behalf or clearly doesn't want it or maybe it's not in their best interest, then maybe we wouldn't proceed,'' she said. ''If the child is young or disabled and it's hard to tell what this parent or caretaker is asking for, would that be best for the child? Then I'm going to contact teachers, other social workers involved with the child.''
Some of the pro bono cases are very clear cut, uncontested guardianship hearings.
''In other cases, maybe that family is about to get evicted, the kid hasn't been to school for months, one of the other kids is pregnant, and then I do really old-fashioned social work,'' she said. ''I help them understand their options, help them access resources, food bank shelters, parenting classes, refer them to other family-law agencies.''
Recently, there have been increasing reports of families living on the streets, so Ms. Ziegler anticipates more crossover work with the Homelessness Prevention Project.
She said every project at Public Counsel works for short-term fixes to help people get their basic needs met and then hopes to examine the big picture and help push for policies to improve the lives of poor children and families.
Ms. Ziegler, who has taught at UCLA and is now teaching a class on working with adolescents at the Master of Social Work Program at USC, said the system has gotten better since she started 20 years ago but that there are still many bureaucratic hurdles to helping children.
Homeless families, for example, often can't get temporary housing unless they prove they are eligible for welfare.
''Then we have families who maybe they're being temporarily housed through welfare in some horribly dangerous, filthy what they call hotel on skid row. And they are not even counted officially as being homeless,'' she said. ''But as far as we're concerned, they're homeless. That's no place for a permanent home for a kid. We've had kids in those places witness murders. So as far as we're concerned, those families in those places are homeless as well, and we're trying to find them safe and permanent, well, safe even transitional, housing that can help them work toward permanency.''
Ms. Ziegler urges everyone interested in legal careers
or careers in social work to come volunteer at Public Counsel to see if they like it. The organization has 3,200 volunteers ranging from high school students to law school graduates.
Ms. Ziegler's very first student 13 years ago was eventually hired by Public Counsel after she graduated from the social work program. That move led her into another career but still at Public Counsel.
''She worked here for a couple of years, and she never had any interest or knowledge about the law. But after working here, she went to law school on a full scholarship and now is working for us as a lawyer,'' she said.