Playtime to Hire First Social Worker

Posted by on Jul 3, 2017 in Blog, Featured Stories |

By Jamila Larson, Executive Director

  • A tired-looking mother arrives at D.C. General with a tiny infant and a wiggly toddler squished into the same car seat, plus two nonverbal children, aged 3 and 4, on the autism spectrum, neither of whom are receiving any services. The oldest cries most of the time, his senses overwhelmed by the chaos of the shelter.
  • A 13-year-old boy is suspended for a week from school after punching an upperclassman who stole the brand new backpack full of school supplies that Playtime gave him. He is sentenced to a week in their family’s cramped room at D.C. General, where his mom is already feeling overwhelmed caring for him and his three siblings. Now she has another reason to feel discouraged about her son and her family’s situation.
  • A single mother returns from the hospital having just given birth via cesarean-section, under strict doctor’s orders to stay in bed to heal. But she can’t put her life on pause. Her other children need to be taken to and from the bathroom down the hall, to meals in the cafeteria, and to school every day.  

Sadly, there’s little family support available in most family shelter settings to help address these kinds of special needs. In most cases, children and parents are expected to manage family crises on their own; caseworkers typically focus primarily on housing. We know that children and families in shelters need more than housing, and that child development milestones won’t wait for us to solve the affordable housing crisis.

That’s why, for the past eight years, we’ve partnered with Catholic and Howard universities to bring Master of Social Work interns into D.C. General to provide resources, referrals and connections families need to thrive. That means children with special needs are referred to the services they are legally entitled to. Youth who are suspended or expelled or otherwise pushed out of school can receive the educational advocacy they need to get back in the classroom. And a mother recovering from child birth can get the help she needs. In the example above – with the help of our interns – the single mom received a stroller-car seat combo so she no longer had to lug the car seat around the shelter and had something sturdy to hold onto when transporting her older children. Our social work interns are amazing, but as students, they are only with us part-time and for part of the year, and can’t help everybody in our programs that could benefit from social work services and supports.

Thanks to seed funding from the Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP Greater DC Community Foundation as well as The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, we are moving ahead with plans to hire our first-ever Social Worker. We are continuing to raise funds to support this position beyond the first year. This new role will provide needs assessments, resources, referrals and other critical services designed to strengthen the parent-child relationship and connect families to the programs they need to better meet their children’s needs. Having a full-time social worker will mean more collaboration with partner agencies, more support to interns and staff, more children enrolled in early childhood programs, more parents learning skills to support their children, and more children getting their needs met in school and in the community. While one position may seem like a drop in the bucket in a sea of need, we expect to leverage this investment so that it might serve as a pilot that the entire homeless services system could adopt.

In the case of the 4-year-old with autism suffering every day, thanks to quick action by our interns and staff, we helped him apply to a renowned school for children with disabilities. We got the application in the day before the deadline and recently found out he’s been accepted and will begin this fall. It’s just one little victory that could literally change the trajectory of his and his family’s lives.

We are grateful for the opportunity to help hundreds more children and families who need social work services and support — right where they live!

For details about the social worker position, visit our job posting on

Jamila ran Playtime as a volunteer since it was founded in 2003 and assumed the role as first full-time Executive Director in 2009. In 2012, she was named a Washingtonian of the Year by Washingtonian magazine for her leadership of Playtime.