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02/28/2022 Celebrating National Social Work Month

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Happy Social Work Month! It’s time to celebrate this profession, which is dedicated to improving the well-being of individuals—especially the most vulnerable members of our society—by helping them cope with issues in their daily lives and solve personal problems. 

While that may sound simple, in practice it requires tremendous skill and knowledge of human development and behavior and of our social, economic, and cultural institutions. It also requires an understanding of how all of these factors interact.   

With more than 700,000 social workers in the U.S., the profession comprises the country’s largest group of mental health services providers. 

From its earliest days in the early 20th century, the social work profession has been at the forefront of child welfare. For instance, the establishment of the federal Children’s Bureau in 1912 was spearheaded by social workers Lillian Wald and Florence Kelley in an effort to curb high maternal and infant mortality rates, child labor, and the orphaning of children, and to establish a comprehensive birth registration system. 

Five of the Children’s Bureau’s first directors were social workers, as were many staff members, according to this article in the American Journal of Public Health. The very first, Julia Lathrop, led an ambitious research project into the causes of infant and maternal mortality that encapsulates social work’s broad scope in working to alleviate societal ills. According to the article: 

Lathrop was outspoken in her belief that infant mortality was not merely, or even primarily, a medical issue, but one that was socially constructed and influenced by preventable social, economic, and family conditions. Using an epidemiologically sophisticated investigation, which included house-to-house field research and prospective surveys in eight cities and rural areas, bureau workers gathered data. The bureau released a series of reports enumerating the magnitude of infant and maternal morbidity in the United States; simultaneously, it commenced multilevel prevention efforts, reaching deeply into households and communities to raise awareness, promote sanitation, and educate about health. Simultaneously, the bureau engaged in vigorous legislative advocacy aimed at garnering federal, state, and local funds for improvement of social conditions. 

In 2020, the National Association of Social Workers issued a statement acknowledging that the “child welfare system has often more rigorously regulated and castigated Black, Brown, and Indigenous families” and calling on the professional to take responsibility for the role that social workers played in “perpetuating these harmful social systems.” 

HopeWell explicitly identifies racism as a driver of inequities in the child welfare system, and we’ve made it our mission to break down unjust barriers due to racism, ableism, homophobia, gender-based discrimination, and other prejudices. 

In our work, social workers play a pivotal role in the comprehensive services we provide to children and adolescents living in foster care and families in crisis. Our social workers apply a child-centered, family-focused, trauma-informed approach to working with children and families by providing therapeutic interventions, advocacy, counseling, guidance, and community connections. And they deliver these services through a racial equity lens. 

Some of our social workers carry caseloads of children and others carry caseloads of foster families based on the needs of the program. They work with children, foster families, birth families, and kinship caregivers. Social workers are responsible for ensuring child safety and well-being, as well as quality foster care in accordance with out-of-home placement practices, and state regulations in Massachusetts and Connecticut.   

Among other key duties, HopeWell social workers conduct clinical assessments and evaluations of children’s and foster parents’ progress and needs, develop treatment plans for each child in conjunction with the treatment team, visit weekly with children and monthly with foster parents or as needed based on policy or treatment needs; work with state agencies to provide support and consultation to the biological families of children in our care to enhance the child’s relationship with their family members; and recruit, screen, study, approve and monitor foster homes to ensure safe quality care and compliance with foster care policies. 

Given the important role social workers play across a range of institutions such as hospitals, prisons, schools, and the military, along with their outsize role in providing mental health services, it is concerning that social workers and other mental health care providers, along with human services workers more generally, are in short supply right now, which is making it difficult for people in need to access services. 

The Boston Globe recently reported that clinicians at community mental health clinics across the state are leaving their jobs more quickly than they can be replaced, thereby “worsening access just as the stresses of the pandemic have intensified the need among their mainly lower-income patients.” The story cited a survey of 37 clinics by the Association for Behavioral Healthcare showing a collective waiting list of 14,000 people. The primary reason for the exodus of community mental health care providers was the low pay, according to the Globe. 

Connecticut is experiencing a similar human services workforce shortage with the same effect on patients’ ability to access care. State Rep. Cathy Abercrombie, co-chair of the legislature’s Human Services Committee, suggested giving federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to nonprofits to hire and retain staff. 

Last December, the Massachusetts Legislature allocated ARPA funds to help address the human services workforce shortage—$16.5 million for a student loan repayment program and $13.5 million for a grant program for human services organizations to recruit and retain workers. 

While ARPA funds will no doubt help alleviate the current crisis, we’re more encouraged by Gov. Baker’s efforts to create a more sustainable behavioral health care system. As the Globe reported, MassHealth recently approved a 10 percent pay increase for clinicians, many of whom serve patients in community health centers. The Baker administration has also launched Roadmap for Behavioral Health Reform, a systemic reform effort to increase access to services. 

That’s a hopeful note on which to kick off this Social Work Month!

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