For Janine Fortney, the most rewarding aspect of social work becomes apparent when she sees children successfully growing and developing following a case or circumstance.
“Despite what has happened, they can live healthy lives,” she said.
Fortney, who serves as program director at the Children’s Center of Susquehanna and Wyoming Counties, has been practicing social work for 22 years.
“Everything that I’ve done has been working with children and families in some capacity or another,” she said.
A Marywood University alumna, Fortney worked in the St. Michael’s School for Boys and later as a program supervisor in a trauma therapy outpatient clinic.
She originally had plans to major in music, but took a sociology/anthropology-related elective and became fascinated with the subject matter and wanted to pursue it more. Throughout this journey, she ended up in a school in south Texas, where she signed up for a social work class.
“The teacher was just fascinating to me and she really brought to life what social work means. I feel like it’s not just a position, it’s who I am as an individual too,” said Fortney, who later returned to Pennsylvania to finish her education.
She had an opportunity in her former job to work with the Children’s Advocacy Center of Northeastern Pennsylvania in Scranton, where she was able to see how it functions.
“I was very impressed with it and wanted to be more involved,” she said. “When I had heard they would be opening a center to serve Susquehanna and Wyoming Counties, I was very excited about that and thought I needed to take that chance.”
Discussion about starting a CAC in these counties started eight to 10 years ago, Fortney said, as stakeholders from organizations in the community had been discussing the need for it. At this time, families in need of CAC services had to travel to neighboring counties.
Fortney was hired in 2015 and said it’s been “a wonderful ride” ever since. She started the office by herself and learned everything that comes with operating a CAC.
“There’s another world around being involved in a Child Advocacy Center, and policies that are in place that kind of guide what we need to be able to do and what we need to be able to offer the children and the families we serve,” she said.
One case that comes to mind when she considers social work’s impact on children lasted over two years.
The child was seen initially at six years old, then twice more over the next two years. The case went to trial, and the perpetrator was found guilty on all counts of child sexual abuse.
“The interview piece where I saw the child on those three occasions over a two-year period, I could see the development in her just in that little bit,” Fortney said. “But then also to see at trial how that worked for her and how healthy she was in a pre-adoptive home with the ability to really just live her life as a child. That’s always worth it.”
Like any field, social work comes with its own challenges, and in Fortney’s experience, the most significant is dealing with the adults in children’s lives.
“Maybe something has happened to them and they’re feeling guilt or shame of their own and they don’t want to address this. Maybe they don’t believe their child,” Fortney explained. “There are a lot of circumstances where an adult doesn’t do everything that they can because they don’t want to get involved or they don’t want to make a mess of things.”
Hearing about cases of abuse and other unfortunate circumstances can also take a toll on social workers, and she said humor is a huge part of being able to deal with this.
Without making light of these circumstances, social workers like Fortney try to find brighter sides of these situations, such as knowing children have other family members or caregivers to take care of them.
It also helps to get together with other social workers to talk, as they understand each other’s line of work and share similar frustrations.
“Personally, it’s just appreciating my own family, and music is a big thing for me,” she said.
This month, Fortney’s office has been promoting Child Abuse Prevention Awareness Month by planting pinwheels, the month’s symbol, around the area.
Another popular symbol of child abuse this month is a blue ribbon, which one grandmother began in 1989 after losing her grandchild to child abuse.
The CAC has also been sharing information such as statistics and signs of child abuse.
One of the most obvious signs of abuse is bruising, said Fortney, who noted that bruises on the ears, neck, face and fleshy parts of the arms are unusual and causes for concern. It’s also important to recognize changes in mood or demeanor.
Fortney said it’s normal for young children to be exploratory when it comes to different body parts, but if behavior seems more sexualized, it should be noted as a red flag.
To report a case of child abuse, call the ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313, where an operator will ask multiple questions about the allegation.
“Even if you don’t have all of it, maybe you only know a child’s first name and the street they live on, you still need to make that call,” Fortney said. “It is up to the Children and Youth offices and the state police or the local jurisdictions to investigate, but if you suspect it, don’t be afraid to call.”