An archdiocesan social worker has been helping clients to parent through the pandemic – and to inspire their children to build a more peaceful society.

“Addressing basic needs is always the first thing,” said Christine Torrisi, a parent educator for archdiocesan Catholic Social Services (CSS). “Are your kids fed, clothed and diapered?”

Social workers such as Torrisi are key to CSS’s family service centers, which provide a broad range of support to clients throughout the five-county archdiocesan area. Based at CSS’s Northeast Philadelphia site, Torrisi focuses in particular on training expectant mothers in pre- and post-natal care – a sometimes challenging topic to present in person, let alone online.

After COVID-19 restrictions were implemented, Torrisi admitted she found herself “frustrated at first.”

“How do you do social work from home?” she said.

Torrisi quickly moved her classes to the Zoom platform, a transition that proved “incredibly easy,” she said, even when it came to teaching her infant bathtub safety class.

From her living room in South Philadelphia, Torrisi cradles a bassinette and infant doll before her computer screen, showing participants how to bathe a baby, check for correct water temperatures and monitor skin issues.

Archdiocesan social worker and parent educator Christine Torrisi said that her diverse group of clients have the same goals of providing “safety, comfort and love” for their children. (Photo courtesy of Christine Torrisi)

“We always name the doll in each class,” she laughed.

A few clients have delivered babies amid the pandemic, she said, and in one case, Torrisi had to guide a mother as doctors induced labor at the hospital.

“Her husband couldn’t be there due to COVID precautions, and because he had to take care of their other children,” said Torrisi. “I talked to her about what we’d discussed in class, since she’d missed it while on the way to the hospital.”

“It felt good to be there for her in a moment of loneliness,” Torrisi said. “She was always used to being around family, and now in one of the most important moments of her life, they couldn’t be there.”

During the pandemic, Torrisi has also directed clients to resources for rental assistance and tenant rights.

“A lot of families are being threatened with eviction, which is the worst thing you could do to someone with young kids in a pandemic,” she said.

With COVID-related business closures and layoffs, requests for diapers and food assistance have soared in recent weeks at CSS locations, and Torrisi works to ensure families have access to both.

Keeping parents calm and centered, especially amid a pandemic and recent civil unrest, has been essential, she said. In one 13-session course, Torrisi works to develop clients’ skills in “peaceful, loving parenting,” offering strategies to “deal with difficult behaviors in a constructive way,” she said.

That training is particularly important for women and children who have experienced abuse, she said.

In addition to her work at CSS’s Northeast Philadelphia site, Torrisi instructs residents at an archdiocesan transitional housing program for women and children who have suffered domestic violence.  Located within the five-county Philadelphia area, the ministry provides 18 furnished apartments to single parents and their children, helping them to rebuild their lives.

“You are a child’s first connection to the world, and to humanity,” said Torrisi. “The first few years are the foundation for who they are as a person.”

Torrisi said she impresses upon clients that “parenting is a full-time job” in which “you’re a teacher, a nurse, a cook, a doctor – all in one.”

As the U.S. actively confronts the issue of racism following the May 25 Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, Torrisi said that healthy parenting will pave the way for lasting change.

“The only way we can create a future generation of people who are kinder, more loving and more just is by raising those people now,” she said.

With class participants from diverse backgrounds, Torrisi said that she’s struck by “how similar their family goals are: providing love, comfort and safety for their children.”

While well aware that “in this kind of work, you don’t always see immediate results,” Torrisi is hopeful for a successful future harvest.

“After years of working here, I’ll see growth in people to greater and greater degrees,” she said. “It will be nice to see all this effort come to fruition.”