Recognize efforts of social workers this month

By JENNIFER MUIR BEUTHIN, Contributing Columnist

Men, women and children end up living on the streets for many reasons. Good-paying jobs can be hard to come by in expensive Orange County. A disability or mental illness blocks opportunities. Drug and alcohol addiction captures lives.

In Orange County, vast communities have somehow ended up on the streets, living along the Santa Ana Riverbed, in motels or in shelters. And advocates, residents and elected officials are all grappling with how to help. It’s why the county opened the Courtyard Transitional Center in Santa Ana and this week approved a construction contract for a new shelter in Anaheim. It’s why the ACLU intervened when officials forced encampments along the riverbed to move.

Millions of dollars and communities of people who care deeply about homelessness haven’t yet figured out how to end homelessness here. There is no silver bullet.

But there is one segment of the social safety net that every day of the year helps minimize incidents of homelessness in Orange County and its impacts on the broader community. These are the county social workers who do so much to tackle the underlying issues that lead to homelessness, whose work often helps people avoid ending up on the streets. March is Social Worker Appreciation month — a time to recognize their efforts.

County social workers help relieve overburdened foster care systems and keep families together when they experience tough times. They intervene when children are in danger of neglect or abuse. Social workers locate foster families, provide access to mental health care, protect elders and disabled residents from exploitation, and help children and families cope with unemployment, death, divorce and other life changing events. These and other similar services are the only thing that stands between many of our community’s children and families and a life without a place to call home.

Social workers provide all of these vital services, yet suffer under staggering caseloads which often make managing those cases extremely difficult if not impossible.

A regular caseload for an experienced social worker should be fewer than 15 cases, but Orange County social workers estimate that actual caseloads are in the 24-30 range. That requires regularly working after hours and on weekends — without compensation — to provide the urgently needed services required by vulnerable children and adults.

Any delays in referring children and adults to needed services like drug testing, counseling or parenting classes mean that families are kept apart longer, children are exposed to unnecessary danger, and the resulting trauma becomes much more difficult to overcome.

The high rate of burnout and employee turnover is an unsurprising result social workers point to when asked about the impacts of high case loads. Although it takes about a year-and-a-half to train a new social worker, they are often assigned overwhelming caseloads of 20 or more within a short time after being hired.

Social workers perform emotionally draining and physically taxing work. It is critical yet often thankless work.

Social Worker Appreciation month is an appropriate time for us to collectively do our part to invest in the services they provide the same way they’re investing in our communities each day. Providing social workers with the resources they need to do this meaningful work in Orange County is one significant and cost-effective way to address the underlying causes of homelessness and reduce the number of people living on the streets over time. It’s a way to ensure our community’s children are protected and have a safe place to live with loving role models. It’s how people who are struggling can get the help they need to heal and receive the care they need. And it’s the right thing to do.

Jennifer Muir Beuthin is general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.

Publication Date: March 17, 2017