Fostering Hope

George Fox grad plans to return to the system that raised her – this time to help others

By Kimberly Felton

If she was alarmed, Tabitha Jenner (G10) did not show it. She was at court with Nicole Morton, the caseworker supervising her internship at the Department of Human Services (DHS), and Jenner had a child – the youngest of three siblings – by her side. Morton had the two older siblings preparing to testify at a hearing.

No one expected the mother, whom the children had not seen in months, to show up. Their older brother, who was under a restraining order, also made a surprise appearance. Kids ran different directions; some toward their mother, others away from her.

“It freaked everyone out, including the attorneys,” Morton said. Before the situation could spiral completely out of control, Morton told Jenner to get the kids out of the courtroom.

Easier said than done, but Jenner calmed the three siblings and convinced them to go with her to another part of the building. “It was all unexpected, and that happens all the time on this job,” Morton said.

Jenner may have the inside edge on handling the unexpected. A new graduate who majored in social work at George Fox, Jenner is a foster child herself. Having experienced a government system trying to right the wrongs of parents, she remembers all too well the trauma of being torn from her mother and the ache to care for younger siblings placed in other homes.
“I had this idea of case workers that they didn’t follow through – weren’t reliable,” Jenner said. “I never thought this was somewhere I’d end up.”

But then, Jenner never intended to enter social work at all. She began studying psychology, but after speaking to a sociology class about her experience as a foster child, Jenner had coffee with a professor who pointed Jenner to the school’s social work department. Staff there explained that the degree prepares students for careers in everything from adoptions to school interventions specialists, mental health to hospice, drug and alcohol treatment to social justice and policy change.

“As soon as switched, I knew this was where I was supposed to be,” Jenner said. “Way more hands-on and interacting with people, which is more my personality.”

The university’s accredited social work program began in 1976. Jenner is one of 140 graduates since 1998. Approximately 60 percent of them now serve in social work, and some have served overseas in Guatemala, Ethiopia, Ecuador, Germany, India and Thailand.

During her senior year placement with DHS child welfare, Jenner discovered the complexities and limitations caseworkers face – as well as their love for the kids they try to help. She also found she had something unique to offer.

“In social work, when we can show understanding . . . we have a unique opportunity to come alongside in their particular struggle,” Debra Penkin, an adjunct professor at George Fox, said. “Tabitha’s experience enables her to do that intuitively and with the skills she developed as a social worker.”

One day Jenner sat at the courthouse with a teenage client who talked about being the oldest, that it is hard because you want to be there for your siblings and set a good example. No one really understands. 

“I’m the oldest,” Jenner told her. “I grew up in foster care.” The conversation turned as the teen realized someone “gets it.”

“They were interested in how I got to the point I was at, going to college,” Jenner said. “I shared a little but not too much. I want to keep it about them – how to stay strong and keep pushing forward. And you have to allow people to help you do that.”

“Sometimes there’s not anything you can say,” she admits. “The one thing I said repeatedly is that you have to find a hope within yourself.

“There are moments, days, or months where you feel alone and confused, but ultimately remember the choice is yours. That does not mean it will always be easy, but that is why we work at things in life and all of it makes us stronger in the end.”