Stefanie Conk has clear goals for her day and her life. Each morning she wakes up and gets her kindergartner and third-grader on the school bus. Then she drives twenty minutes to a nearby DCS office in Ripley County. During the drive she might return calls or just think about what she needs to accomplish that day. With the heart of a mother and professionalism of a DCS Family Case Manager, she recognizes many days she will accomplish none of those goals.
Conk’s mere 40-50 minute drive back and forth to the office each day is the only time she gets to herself. It’s clear, however, as you speak with her she recognizes the value and safety of the kids and families she’s working with is immeasurably important.
“I went to school for art therapy,” recalls Conk. After stints in a women’s and children’s unit at Indianapolis’ former Wishard Health Services (now Eskenazi Health) and working with foster youth aging out of state care, a friend put her on to an opening as a caseworker in Decatur County. “And that’s when I started.”
Now in her thirteenth year with the Indiana Department of Child Services, Conk works in Ripley County as a Family Case Manager. For a year Conk was in a supervisory role in Decatur and Ripley counties, but that wasn’t for her. “I wanted to be out of the office and be a first responder,” she says.
Most days that means reporting and referral work in the morning and a daily team meeting at 11 am to discuss safety issues. Then, out from under the fluorescent lights of the office, afternoons and evenings are spent responding to cases.
It’s the afternoon and evening hours when kids are home from school and parents are home from work that make the day. “I end every day out in the community, where I want to be,” she says. “I like that aspect — never knowing what’s next. It’s both the worst and best part of this job. I can have an idea in my head of what I’m going to do and be able to accomplish none of it,” she says.
But interviewing families, working with law enforcement, and keeping kids safe can spin the day out of control. A single mother of two, Conk recognizes the value of her own family in supporting her kids. “I could not do this job without my mom and dad,” she says. Her work often keeps her out to 6 pm or later, long beyond when after-school programs are equipped to keep kids. And being on-call puts another level of strain into play, so much so that most people might be surprised to learn Conk and her two daughters sleep at their grandparent’s house when she’s on-call.
“I keep my phone on twenty-four-seven because I handle fatalities in Ripley County.” In those instances, law enforcement may need to call upon DCS at any hour of the night. “I essentially have to be able to leave at any time,” she says. That puts a burden on what to do with young children.
“When I’m on call , we just stay at my parents’ house because I refuse to wake my kids up in the night and scare them if I get a call. They don’t know where I’m going or when I’m going to be back,” she says, adding, “It can be traumatic for kids.” This way she can go to work for someone else’s kids and her daughters can sleep through the night.
In addition to relying on her parents to look after her kids, she relies on partners like the Children’s Advocacy Center of Southeastern Indiana for support during cases. “They’ve been phenomenal. I love how it’s setup and walking in and feeling like it’s inviting. It’s very safe and they are focused on staying true to the work.”
Having access to CACSEI also lends to the professional and personal relationships she has with the staff. Like police officers who struggle to find people who deeply understand the work they do, caseworkers and child protection professionals also struggle to commiserate with like-minded people.
In thirteen years Conk has worked with cases involving child deaths both wrongful and accidental, homicides, and a slew of children who were severely neglected . “This job has forever changed my life,” she says.
Part of why criminal cases, which Conk notes seem to be increasingly more common, is the power of justice and the effect it can have on survivors. “You can forever change a victim’s life here,” she says. “To see them have closure and witness a perpetrator’s actions have consequences is a powerful thing. Even knowing they can’t do it again to someone else is humbling,” she adds.
It’s cases like these coupled with motherhood that have both kept Conk on track and off. Recognizing each day may present unusual challenges and even risks to her own safety might adjust her day’s to-do list. It might mean nights over at grandma and grandpa’s. And long-term, “I’d like to get my master’s degree,” she says. “I know I can do that. But I didn’t feel like now was the time with my kids being the ages they are. I didn’t want to be traveling for school,” she says. Now with online learning more of an option than a decade ago, she’s waiting for her kids to “reach a reasonable age to entertain themselves and not want to hang out with me as much. That’s when I’ll start,” she says with a chuckle.
Thinking about what she might study, “I’d like to pursue social work in a hospital setting again, like at Riley Children’s or Cincinnati Children’s hospitals.” “But I’ve pushed this goal back for my kids. For as long as I have them at this age, I want to enjoy it.”
Recognizing other children of a similar tender age also deserve to be with loving parents, Conk is likely to take any changes to her schedule today and tomorrow with the same stride. For her, it’s worth it.