On Tuesday afternoon I received a voicemail from a Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare case worker inquiring about one of my clients. She asked me to call her back and left me her number.
I have called her at least ten times in the past 48 hours but her phone rings endlessly and then hangs up before going to a voicemail system. I’m just lost as to why she even bothered to ask me to call her back if it is impossible to actually get her on the phone. If I had a current intern I would tell her to call that number until someone picked up.
I could write a treatise on the things that are fundamentally flawed with PA’s DPW.
/This has been a work inspired rant/
"No one approached us about this," said Mr. McMahon, whose agency makes regular rounds to check on the homeless. Staffers noticed about two weeks ago that the compartments had been cleared of personal belongings, except for a painting left on the wall of one.
"All they’re doing is pushing people from one place on the street to another," he said. "There’s nothing proactive here to use this time, money or effort to help these people."
Dirt pile signals eviction for 16 homeless by Jon Schmitz, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
That’s my boss!
For the last 3.5 years that I have supervised our street outreach individuals have lived in these compartments (colloquially known as the apartments) - some have left them a mess, a few have cleaned them up in a way I thought was impossible but many have called them home.
As Pittsburgh continues to grow and succeed there comes the inevitable strains on the least influential and powerful and I’ve seen that happen repeatedly in the last few years - downtown, on the South Side, in East Liberty. I don’t begrudge whoever is finally filling in the apartments, its their property — its just amazing to know how much money is being spent on the project—$300,000—and what else that could pay for in terms of addressing the homelessness issue on the North Side.
Another complaint about the PA welfare department.
My client got a letter in the mail stating that she needed to call his/her caseworker. It listed first initial, last name of this case worker and his phone number. So I called that number.
Which was actually the number for the main office. After I navigated the menu and spoke to someone and let her know I was trying to reach X. XXXXX she said “this is his number ###-####” and then hung up.
1. You couldn’t transfer me?
2. Why wasn’t his actual number listed on the letter?
"This has been another episode of the Incompetency of Social Services starring Breanna the Social Worker"
Recently I had to take a trip to a Department of Public Welfare Office.
Before I went, I spent an absurdly long time on the phone trying to figure out which office I needed to go to. Different offices serve different zip codes and despite the technological advances everywhere, that information is not online. So first I called the DPW helpline. A message told me that there was a high call volume and to try back later. So helpful, that helpline.
I then dialed another number I found and after being on hold for a significant period of time, I spoke to a lovely woman who was able to direct me to the correct office and provided me with some more information.
The next day I picked up my client and we traveled to our destination.
I’ve been to many a welfare office before but always manage to forgot the particular horrors. It’s loud, its impersonal, it feels institutional, it smells bad, there are no windows, NO ONE is happy, NO ONE is helpful.
Have you read Harry Potter? Being in the welfare office, I imagine its how prisoners in Azkaban felt as the dementors circled around them.
So we arrived & I grabbed a paper application and started working on it with my client and cursed myself for not having just done it online. I had hoped we would be able to see someone at the actual office but instead were told that someone would call him/her within the next five days once the application was complete.
Once we finished, I brought the application back to the “greeter” and asked about the documents I had brought with us - “we can make copies of those here” she told me and I went back to get them.
There was a line when I returned. Not a big deal but it gave me a lot of time to stand there and stare around the office, soaking up all of its department of public welfare glory.
Framed pictures of our smiling governor and some other schlubs hung on the wall behind the glass where workers stood barking out people’s names. The security guard (a gal) who repeatedly rolled her eyes as people came in. I kept wondering what they needed security guards for and if they did, how any of the ones I saw were actually meant to protect any of us. The woman who spent a good ten minutes talking to someone behind me only to reappear and say “I was in front of you” before reasserting her position in front of me. The grandmother who yelled at her granddaughter because she needed to use the bathroom “You just went not that long ago.” I wanted to tell that little girl I have to pee all the time, too.
No happiness. Just fear, anxiety and frustration.
When I was finally at the front of the line and could see the greeter again, I said “here are the documents for her application” and she said back to me “the copier is over there….” and pointed. WELL, CHRIST. WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME THAT THE FIRST TIME. So I went over to make my own copies. Cleared out a paperjam from the person before me, got my own things together and then went back into the line.
And then a guy cut the line. Which is its own horror, not the least because NO ONE SAID ANYTHING. Not even me. Not even the security guard. Thanks, useless security guard. And he proceeded to address his problem. It took five minutes and when he was done, he still had his problem and no determinable solution.
Before that, I also had the pleasure of overhearing an excellent conversation about one young woman, who had moved, and requested her case be transferred from one office to the one we were currently in. She had requested it 11 days previously and YET. It hadn’t been approved so there wasn’t anything the office we were in could do for her or talk to her about, aside from how her case transferal hadn’t been approved.
See the welfare office? This is it in a nutshell.
Then I got back up to the greeter and gave her the papers and she said “so and so will be called within the next five days” and then finally we could high-tail it out of there. I think our visit was about 45 minutes. It felt like a lifetime.
After that, my client and I went to McDonald’s. Anywhere is better than the welfare office.
On Friday, my agency held its annual staff appreciation dinner at the Priory. It was a fun time with coworkers and I also took home an award for living one of our core values - respect. It was great to be honored and also to win. I’m going to hang my award up in my office today.
So, it’s now Monday and I’m sitting at my desk listening to my coworkers go about their daily business and feeling grateful for this job. As a social worker it is all but assumed you will be underpaid* and that much is true for me, here. I started this job the day after I graduated from Pitt. I had interned with this agency my second year of the MSW program after taking a class on Mental Health & Public Policy with our CEO as the instructor.
That was three years ago. I occasionally think about my earning potential and whether I should think about leaving this agency. But then I have days like today, or Friday, when I realize how grateful I am to work at an agency that does good work, has a good reputation and seriously values the people who work for it. I’d rather be underpaid and be valued than work somewhere I was miserable. Being a social worker isn’t particularly easy—no job is, really, but sometimes working with folks who are in an exceedingly vulnerable state or who aren’t really fully stable themselves can be daunting.
Today my boss is sitting at our front desk because we temporarily do not have any receptionists. He’s helping folks fill out applications and giving them information. Another co-worker, a former intern hired to assist in a special program, is interviewing a gentleman for our programs and I can tell that she is listening and she cares. Maybe that sounds silly but its a quality frequently absent in social services. I’m drinking my coffee at 11am because I only got to work an hour ago, another perk of this job.
But now… I need to get to this job I take so much pride in.
*My student loan payments are tied to my income and I don’t really need to worry about those breaking the bank, thankfully.
There was a day during my final semester in graduate school where this question was asked twice, in two different classes.
Both times it was a part of a joke but the context and result were incredibly different. I like to tell this story because I think it illustrates just how vastly different two people with MSWs can be.
The first time I heard the joke I was in a class whose name and instructor I can’t remember — it was pretty unremarkable. Neither can I remember how we got onto this topic but a classmate of mine was talking her field placement/internship, something all MSWs must have, and how they have a saying where she works: “How do you know if your client is lying? …..Their mouth is moving”
Cue really inappropriate laughter and unnecessary stories “supporting” this joke/saying. Our instructor even laughed and then just moved on. I was a
little bit a lot horrified.
I know that not all clients are honest. There are a lot of nuanced reasons for this, some innocuous, some serious, some that need some major following up. There was probably even an interesting conversation worth having about what is wrong, on a macro level, that would contribute to clients’ lying. But no such thing happened. The idea that there was an entire agency or department that went around casually throwing out a saying that legitimized staff, who were in a helping position, to disbelieve their clients above all else, was really messed up. It’s like the exact opposite of everything social work is. Including our super defined Code of Ethics.
So, fast forward to my next class - our professor was telling us a story about an interaction with a colleague. The colleague had asked her what classes she was teaching that semester and she responded with Drug & Alcohol Intervention (the class I was in) and her colleague then responded with a joke. “How do you know if an addict is lying? …. Their mouth is moving.”
In this case though, my professor had such an extraordinarily different reaction to it than my first class. Instead of laughing about it, she went on to explain the thousands of different ways that it was inappropriate to say or even believe such a thing. We’re in the business of helping others - its not always going to be easy and clients are going to make things easy for us. But to have start at the gate believing your client is a liar or will be a liar is a complete disservice to all involved.
Even now, I am still amazed at the stark difference in that day. Chatting with another tumblr-er about issues at work reminded me of that Thursday and all that it has come to mean in the three years since I graduated. Having an MSW doesn’t make someone a good social worker, that much should be clear. I know lots of people who have no degree, or an unrelated degree who make such better “social workers” than anyone with an MSW.
I can’t account for the motivations of everyone getting their MSW but there are some people for whom it should never have been an option. Like, its an embarrassing that we have the same professional title. (part of the reason I find this comic funny) I’m referring to anyone who maybe has said things like “I don’t want my clients to smell,” “I wouldn’t feel comfortable serving a gay client” or, I don’t know, “I think my client lies to me everytime s/he opens her mouth.”
Unless the NASW starts figuring out a way to test people’s characters (not going to happen and probably a bad idea), there isn’t going to be a good way to root out the folks who are just crappy at being good human beings and good social workers. But, I think that making ourselves the best social workers we can be: continuing our education not because we need CEUs but because we actually want to be better and know more, advocating for our clients and ourselves when necessary and providing services without judgment or prejudice is a good place to start.