WI Voices: A Social Worker
“Megan” is one of the more than 280,000 public workers in WI. She’s a social worker in the division of Child Protective Services. She investigates allegations of neglect and also the physical, sexual, and emotional abuse of children. If needed, she refers families for services. Megan is a witness in the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our society – poverty stricken children. Part of the reason that Megan is good at her job is because she knows what it’s like to be on the other side.
Here’s her story.
I got into social work because I had my own difficulties in life. I think back to being a teen mom myself, on AFDC and putting myself through college. [She now has 13 years of experience and had gained her master’s degree along the way.] And if I didn’t have that help I don’t know that I’d been able to go to school. And now I see these young parents much like myself and they want to improve themselves, too. Back then (late ‘80’s) there was the stereotype of the “Bon Bon” moms…you know that we were all sitting around eating bon bons watching soap operas all day.
So, the stereotype wasn’t true for you then. How about now when the population that you service are called “leeches on the system” or “lazy” ?
I see hard working families, who are working two jobs. I see families with kids working…teenagers, who are contributing to the family’s ability to survive. I see myself working hard and my co-workers… with a few exceptions.
What is your case load right now Megan?
HA! (slapping her knee) That’s a bad question to ask me right now! Our county was hit pretty hard last year – all of us were carrying extremely high case loads. I was over 75 cases for a while, but now I’m down to a reasonable level of about 15. We all sat back and wondered what is going on? Why are case levels so high? But the economy isn’t good overall, and we wondered if it was playing a role in what was happening…people’s ability to cope with day-to-day life. And you know I swore I would never work in child protection (due to the emotional toll), but here I’ve been in child protection now for years.
Can you tell me about some of your most challenging cases?
Well (sighing)…. I think a better question might be “What do the most challenging cases all have in common?” Three things: substance abuse, mental health, and domestic violence. Some cases have all three of these or a really high emphasis in one of these areas. So, when you think of loss of services or loss of funding – that’s an area that requires a lot of financial resources in order to ensure child safety. You have to look at what services to link a parent up to, what’s available in your community, what funding sources are available. And if you can’t access services or put services in a home – then how are you going to keep a child safe?
Walker’s Budget Repair Bill, supported by Senator Harsdorf and others, doles out a lot of cuts to the poorest population. Will this inhibit your ability to keep children safe?
(Nodding) I see a higher stress level and stress management is going to be lower. I see a huge increase in risk to children who are already vulnerable. When you talk aboutWalker- his whole budget is cutting areas that you shouldn’t ever cut. It doesn’t make logical sense to me – it is hitting the wrong population. We are going to see an absolute increase in cases being reported. I anticipate that if his mission is accomplished – we won’t be able to serve the population properly and less-seasoned workers, without background or skill level, will be employed.
So if the “collective bargaining” law passes, you will work without a union. Would you feel susceptible to an unjust firing without a union?
Absolutely. Absolutely. Because what I can tell you is this: the workers who make the most change in a family and have the most connection with that family are going to be the workers that will be the most behind….we have paperwork that the federal and state government expects. So, we will not meet all of those deadlines perfectly every time. The workers that don’t meet with the families as much, don’t make the personal connections, are going to have their paperwork turned in on time and they will look good on paper. But if you were to interview the families – the ones that don’t look good on paper are going to be the ones that the family says helped them the most. I do my own outreach… work with them to establish a relationship.
And that is the part that makes me mad.
And I thank God for having a union, because I would be at risk because the union has worked it’s way through the years to ensure good workers are protected. (Without collective bargaining) they are going to keep the ones that look good on paper… I like to know that I have the protection, so that I can do what I need to do to protect children.
All public workers will see a serious decline in pay as a result Walker’s bill. Do you see social workers leaving their profession as a result?
Well, I don’t know if it is just pay, but the realization that you’ll be absolutely ineffective. Because I mean pay is one thing…I mean I thought about that today when I thought about taking on a second job but I can’t realistically do that right now, because I have a young child. And I need to take care of my own well being to be able to take care of others. People can adjust, but what happens when this comes through and the ramifications hit, and people no longer have access to what I could’ve given them before?
Like inpatient treatment, intensive in-home programs – based upon whether or not we have money in the budget – which puts another person in the home with a family during vulnerable times of the day… or what people have when I meet them – like BadgerCare – and you take that away, too? And you take away my tool belt? What am I going to do? I can talk, but I won’t have anything to work with.
***[Governor Walker recommends cutting funding for the “FoodShare” program for low income legal immigrants. Studies show that food insecurity leads to low birth weight and learning difficulties among children. Right now, Wisconsin law still requires that all children have access to health care – but not dental. As a result, dental problems are one of the leading causes of childhood illness among poor children.]
Gov. Walker and supporters like Sen. Harsdorf will claim that public workers “need to pay your fair share.” But hasn’t your union already given all of the financial concessions?
Right…If they can succeed and the unions crumble – that makes me fearful. When you get down to the real issue – it’s just common people who are trying to make a living, who are working in an environment that provides a service that everyone in society will need at some point or at least benefit from the work that we are doing.
What’s your take on the tax breaks to big corporation while the most vulnerable people among us, that you work with every day, are being asked to sacrifice more?
Don’t know a lot about it other than what my common sense tells me. I think that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And I’ve always had to work hard for everything that I’ve got…and I work with a population that is mostly below the poverty line or at the poverty line, and I rarely ever come across families that are very well-to-do. They come across every once in a while – but they have access to private services mostly.
Walker, Harsdorf, and other supporters claim that public workers and the populations that they serve need to demonstrate a willingness to adapt. Do you see your clients being able to cope with less than they are getting right now?
I don’t think that my clients can (shaking head)…and I’m still doing the same job. How much more can they ask us to do? People don’t get it. My job isn’t 9-5. I could work from 8 – 10 (14 hours/day). I have no idea what I’m going to be walking into. I could walk into a dead child case. I could walk into a situation where kids are testing higher than their parents for meth. A very common situation is finding a small child left alone or receiving inadequate supervision…like finding a small child alone in a dirty house or multiple children left alone without any food or supplies…for days on end. I come home with this on my mind all the time. I live with this stuff all the time. My co-workers live with this. Lots of us are on medication to deal with all of the secondary trauma associated with the job. Many of us have to access our employee counseling program.
If you could say anything to Walker/Harsdorf – what would you say?
Answer the questions that people are asking. Sit down in a room with people that are impacted and listen and go head-to-head with someone… because I don’t think they could honestly believe that what you are doing is really the right thing… if you were visually seeing the good that people do and the stressors that they have and still believe that this is the way that things should be done.
Megan is just one of the hundreds of thousands of public servants in our state. Her personal story well illustrates the deep flaws in the rationale of the Budget Repair Bill and the repercussions which are likely to follow its passage. Governor Walker and Senator Harsdorf, for all of Megan’s hard work on behalf of the children of our state, she deserves to know: “if you take away my tool belt…what am I going to do?”