Last week, social workers in Frankfurt, Kentucky went before the state House-Senate Health and Welfare Committee and pled for aid. Working conditions are becoming untenable, they said, with too many cases and too few workers.
Worse, most continue to fear for their safety after a social service aide named Boni Frederick was killed on the job about 10 years ago. Without necessary reforms and additional resources, social services in Kentucky might come to an end.
Unfortunately, this event is not unique to a single state. Across the country, social service institutions are crumbling due to a lack of support. Social work is essential for the proper functioning of our society, yet more and more evidence of abuse and neglect of these important institutions emerges every day.
The Crisis in Social Work
More than a decade ago, Kentucky’s social services department wasn’t much different from how it functions today. Social workers were overburdened with cases, under-supervised, and under-funded, and the social workers who visited the Health and Welfare Committee blamed these continuing problems on Frederick’s death.
According to Kentucky law, social workers are not supposed to have more than 17 cases at any time, and the department is to notify lawmakers if individual caseloads breach 25 for more than three consecutive months. Unfortunately, there is evidence that previous social services commissioners falsified reports as a recent visit to the offices found workers with upwards of 50 cases – and one child protection worker with more than 80.
The problems in Kentucky are reflective of the issues with departments of social services in several states. Two years ago, South Carolina discovered that its Department of Social Services has a profound inability to adequately care for underserved populations, but the state has yet to enact any reforms. In Illinois, a budget standoff earlier this year caused the state’s Department of Social Services to cut more than 84 percent of programs, leaving several communities, including the mentally ill, the disabled, and the elderly, without support. Most states know that it is untenable to continue treating their social workers so poorly, but few are willing to act.
America Needs Social Services
In Kentucky alone, there are more than 8,000 children in foster care, and throughout the nation, that number expands to more than 415,000. Across the United States, nearly 15 percent of Americans live below the poverty line, roughly 19 percent have physical disabilities, and 20 percent are affected by mental illness. All of these groups should have access to the support and services they need to have an adequate quality of life, which means America needs social workers.
Unfortunately, the stress of the job tends to take a toll on social workers, many of whom remain in social services positions for fewer than eight years – compare that to doctors, who endure an average of 25 years before changing careers or retiring. Worse, the need for social services is only increasing; the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the field to grow about 12 percent in the coming decade, which means the nation will need more trained workers than ever before.
Having social workers with advanced degrees would be even more advantageous to various communities, including schools and hospitals – if the states can push through reforms to support their social services departments.
How America Can Help
The Kentucky social workers who spoke out about their deplorable working conditions did so despite supreme fear; one told the cabinet “I’m terrified right now. Most of us have been conditioned for retaliation.” Millions of social workers fail to inform their lawmakers of the insufficient support to social services because they are berated, fired, or otherwise harassed when they do.
In fact, the media as a whole tends to blame workers themselves for social services failures. In 2015, the Economist wrote about how Illinois social services were failing state children, laying the fault with workers at state wards rather than with the system that couldn’t provide those workers with adequate resources to manage so many cases. At the very least, Americans can begin recognizing that generally social workers do not intentionally treat underserved populations poorly; rather, they are forced to because they lack the necessary tools.
Additionally, Americans should begin petitioning their representatives in government for more aid to social services departments. It doesn’t take much effort to inform lawmakers of important issues; government websites streamline the process for federal and state officials. By working together to support social workers, we can ensure that they will support us when we need them.