School social workers on front lines for student needs
By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on April 3, 2013 1:46 PM
Denise Meacham, lead social worker for Wayne County Public Schools, is assigned at Spring Creek High School, where she works as liaison between the students, schools and the community. Many of the students she counsels do not have a stable home, and some are homeless.
School social workers are often front-line witnesses to the worst possible situations a child can face.
They have been called a "crisis team" of sorts for the roles they play advocating for students in the public schools.
If there is an emergency -- from an accident that claims the life of a child to a situation that affects that school community -- social workers are among the first deployed to be on-site for crisis intervention.
The very nature of the job typically spills outside the boundaries of the classroom and regular school hours, as the social workers make home visits and develop relationships with students and families and secure resources to support them.
"We do everything that no one else will do," said Etta Craigwell, lead school social worker with Wayne County Public Schools. "But in my perception, we're an integral part of the school.
"Issues with education, we communicate with parents about where their children are academically, build those relationships between the school and home, bridge that communication gap with parents, bring those two together so that the outcome for the students can be successful."
Historically, there have been social workers in the school system for more than 25 years, initially to deal with issues of truancy, assessment of students and to assist displaced and homeless students.
In 2005-06, the General Assembly created a line item in its budget to have a nurse and social worker in the public schools, with 79 such teams established around the state. Subsequent cuts reduced that number.
Today there are 17 social workers in Wayne County's 31 schools. Five of them each serve one school and the rest juggle two schools.
"It would be nice to have one in every school," said Melanie Smith, assigned to Eastern Wayne elementary and middle schools. Before being hired in 2006, she spent eight years with the Department of Social Services in child protective and adult protective services.
Denise Meacham, who shares duties with Ms. Craigwell as lead social worker, is the group's veteran, having joined the school system in 1987. Prior to that, she had worked in child protective services.
"You had to be certified as a school social worker when I came on board," she said. "You have to have a bachelor in social work or master in social work, and a N.C. school social worker license, through N.C. DPI (Department of Public Instruction)."
"As far as background in social services, (child protective) is the best background that could ever prepare you for doing this job because we know the community, we know the resources, we know the agencies," said Donna Best, who worked with the Department of Social Services for a decade and is assigned to Meadow Lane Elementary and Greenwood Middle schools. "For me, my love was teaching but I went into social work, too.
"I can do that I love in the environment I love. That's why I changed over."
While social workers' roles are different from those of classroom teachers, they are nonetheless connected to every aspect of the school, working closely with educators and administrators, in addition to the students themselves.
"Anything -- any barrier that that child has -- we try to connect the family with those services," said Mrs. Meacham.
"The one role that we have that nobody has, is liaison between the home, school and the community," said Mrs. Best.
A big hurdle is building trust, Ms. Craigwell pointed out.
"The perception is that social workers are there to take away," she said. "That's not our role."
"When a lot of people hear social workers, their first thought goes to child protective services," Mrs. Meacham said. "We have to dispel that. That's not what we are. There are social workers in hospitals, social workers in the medical field, businesses."
"We have got over 300 homeless students that 17 people are working with, and you're talking about an array of services for that one group," added Mrs. Best. "You're not just talking about attendance, you're talking about basic needs.
"One of the things I always try to impress upon educators, every child is not on a level playing field and we're the ones who know that."
But they try to work as discreetly as possible, Mrs. Meacham said, pointing out the sensitive nature of such situations and the need to protect that student while attempting to create a safe and conducive school environment for them.
The group networks often and attends monthly trainings. It also has established relationships within the community, from churches that assist with food pantries to agencies like American Red Cross. Transportation is a big obstacle for some families, the women said, as well as access to medical care and the list goes on -- glasses, clothing, basic needs.
But even social workers can't do it all.
"Sometimes there's no help. There isn't anything you can do," said Mrs. Meacham.
"There's not enough hours in the day to do our job," added Mrs. Best. "Sometimes when we're spread from school to school, you feel like you can't get to everyone."
Ms. Craigwell said one thing she would like to see, since they are dealing with a growing numbers of homeless students, is a place that provides resources for families -- even just the essentials, like beds, clothes or chairs.
"I find that to be our biggest barriers, (there) are no resources taking these families from being in poverty to being self-sufficient," she said. "A lot of families are living in hotels."
"I think a lot of us, when we have got parents who are worried about keeping a roof over their head, lights, food on the table, school homework might not be their first problem," Mrs. Meacham said. "You just have so much energy that you can put toward it."
Despite the harsh realities and seemingly insurmountable odds some of the young people face, school social workers said they are surrounded by success stories -- from helping a family have Christmas gifts to seeing a child graduate and go on to reach his goals.
"I think we measure everything that we do as success, because it was something that was brought before us and it was something that we did something about," said Ms. Craigwell. "For us it's successful because we're here in the schools. If we weren't here, who would meet the needs of these students?"
"It's not so much doing for them," added Mrs. Meacham. "It's teaching them how to do it for themselves."