Paige Martin didn’t know much about the work being done in the Department of Social Services when she was a college student at Truman State University more than 30 years ago.
Neither did she, as a psychology major, have a specific career in mind for herself at the time.
“I wanted to work with kids,” recalled Martin, seated at her desk inside the Children’s Division (formerly known as DFS or Division of Family Services).
Martin retired last month as manager for the 20th circuit, which includes Franklin, Gasconade and Osage counties, but not before mentoring and training the next wave of social workers to help children and families across the area.
Angie Morris, who worked directly with Martin for 12 years at the Children’s Division and more recently as one of the volunteer coordinators at Franklin County CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), said while Martin was exceptional in her role as manager, “her greatest strength has been helping cultivate new social workers.
“When I think of great social work in our community, I know that Paige has had an influence,” Morris told the crowd gathered at CASA’s Justice Is Served Breakfast, where Martin was presented with the Mary Ellen Award for outstanding family support team member.
“Many of the workers she has supervised have gone on to create successful agencies in our community,” said Morris.
That list includes Amanda Jones, director of Grace’s Place Crisis Nursery; Glenda Volmert, director of Franklin County CASA; and two others now at the CASA office; as well as Stephanie Pate and two others working at Lutheran Family and Children’s Services office in Union.
“On stressful days or during stressful meetings, I have caught myself thinking, ‘What would Paige do?’ ” said Pate. “I try to emulate her in my work daily.”
Chistina Baer, who joined the Children’s Division three years ago, said Martin helped her gain confidence in herself and in the work she is doing.
“Paige has a good way of helping caseworkers see their cases in a different light,” said Baer.
All of those reasons and more are why the people Martin has worked with over the last 32 years have come to call her their “Work Mom.”
“Thank you for taking us under your wing and teaching us to fly. To this day, what she taught me helps me in my job now,” said Morris, who describes Martin as “the face of social work in Franklin County.”
Martin smiles quietly at all the flattery. That’s just her nature and a big part of her success, said Morris.
“You should see her calm down a parent,” Morris said. “It is artwork . . . she can just calm them down and get them to look at things from a different perspective . . . She has a calming nature.”
Co-Workers Are Key
After graduating from Truman with a bachelor’s in psychology, Martin, who grew up in St. Clair, took a job working at a bank for minimum wage. About six months later she was able to get a job at then-DFS in the income maintenance department, working on food stamps and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
She immediately felt at home in the office and loved the environment.
A year later, in 1988, Martin was able to move over to being a caseworker for children and families in the foster care program. She loved that even more, because it allowed her to maximize her skills as a people person.
“I remember the people were fun to work with,” said Martin. “The other staff members, they were very supportive.”
That was important, she realized early on, because it was the staff who helped each other through those days on the frontlines.
She still has a very vivid memory of the first really tough case she worked. It came just a couple of months into her role as a caseworker.
“There had been a hotline on a new case that I had,” said Martin, noting she happened to be in Columbia at the time for training, but that didn’t matter.
“The investigator said, ‘You’re going to have to come take custody of this kid. I had no idea what that was. I remember going with a sheriff’s deputy to get this child. He was maybe 3 or 4 with lots of bruises. That really sticks with you.”
Martin, who was 23 or 24 years old at the time and newly married, said she cried all the way back to Columbia.
“I picked him up, placed him with his grandma, and it was good, but it was so sad too,” she said. “I just really had never seen that before.”
Returning to the training class actually helped her cope with and process the gamut of emotions she was feeling.
“I think we process that kind of experience with our co-workers,” said Martin. “That’s why they are such an important part of our work. Because you can’t go home and talk about it, and they wouldn’t fully understand anyway.”
When Martin was promoted to supervisor in 1992, that allowed her to gain a little distance from those experiences, which protected her from getting burned out. In this role she was better able to help the caseworkers with “secondhand trauma” or “compassion fatigue,” as it used to be called.
“I did still have contact with families through meetings, but not as much in their homes, unless someone needed me to go with them, but I felt like just being able to process things with my workers when they would come in that I was still helping,” said Martin.
“Just always being available to listen is important,” she said. “A lot of parents aren’t always the nicest to us. They’ll say some mean things, and that upsets folks, but I try to remind them . . . don’t take what they’re saying to heart.”
When Martin became a supervisor at Children’s Division, she went from being on call 24/7 for foster families to being on call 24/7 for the caseworkers. If they needed her, they could call anytime.
“As social workers, we see a lot of bad, we see a lot of ugly,” said Morris. “Paige helped us make sense of it all and always encouraged us to do our best and was there to help support us when we needed her most.”
‘It’s Always on Your Mind’
Working at Children’s Division is a difficult job and one that is hard to leave behind at the end of a workday.
“It’s always on your mind. As a front-line worker, you’re on call all the time,” said Martin, noting caseworkers need to give their personal phone numbers to foster parents and kids so they can contact them as needed. “They have to be able to get ahold of you 24/7 . . . the child has to be able to get ahold of you.”
Even if no one is calling directly, the work still often weighs on their minds, which is why Martin emphasizes the need to learn how to compartmentalize it so they can be present in their own lives with their own families and not end up feeling burned out.
“You have to realize that you can provide all kinds of services and be sincere with people, offer them whatever you have, but if they don’t want to do it, you can’t control that,” said Martin. “I’ve learned that.”
That was a key lesson that Martin taught her caseworkers.
“One of Paige’s strengths is that she always helped us prioritize,” Morris said. “She helped us to know where we needed to put our time and efforts. She taught us to always be family-friendly and how important family is to the children we serve. She made sure we worked hard to help the world see our foster children simply as children, and that they deserved more than anyone a chance at a normal childhood.”
‘Children’s Division the Strongest It’s Been in Years’
Marjorie Budnik, who has worked alongside Martin for 14 years at Children’s Division, will succeed her as circuit manager. Those are big shoes to fill, she admits, but she feels up the challenge.
“She has been an amazing mentor, and she’s so genuine, caring for not only the children and families that we serve but also our work family,” said Budnik. “She really cares about the workers and the supervisors who look to her for guidance. She has a lot of patience and a warm heart.”
Morris agrees and said although she is sad to see Martin retire, she feels with the people who have been mentored and trained by Martin still working across the area, “Children’s Division is the strongest it has been in years.
“I just feel like with her touch, the social work field has grown so much in Franklin County,” Morris remarked.
“With the Franklin County Community Resource Board that has been a huge assistance to our county . . . the growth of a lot of agencies, and the workers from here have gone into those fields.”
That is a natural progression, said Martin. Working at Children’s Division is a great first step because it is the front-line.
“You see the kids in the home . . . you are right in the middle of it,” she said. “You’re at the heart of it in this job.”
Martin said seeing her “kids” leave Children’s Division to start new agencies and services helping families in need has been a great source of pride.
In retirement, Martin expects eventually to find some kind of volunteer opportunity that will keep her involved in the field.