“Megan”, a social worker in Child Protective Services, first told her story in May when the debate of Gov. Walker’s Budget Repair Bill was still underway. Now that the bill has passed, Megan has agreed to offer an inside view of the recent changes to her workplace. She also provides intimate details about how the BRB has affected her personal life and the lives of the families that she serves.
Here’s her continuing story.
Any new developments at your place of work since the Budget Repair Bill has passed?
(nodding) For the first time, we just had a “Quality Service Review” from the state, and they randomly select cases. And the case of mine that they chose I felt relatively confident about and I was (thinking), go ahead and look at that one…I’m feeling good about it. And I got high scores in the areas of engagement and really, you know, assessing what the true concerns of the family were. But I had gotten some…you know, step-down scores in my documentation. And I’m thinking, I did do that but I just didn’t have time to document it! And then I fear that was one of the cases that I did top notch work. (sighing) And now my caseloads are increasing and we are going to lose resources… and the belt has already been tightened, and we are going to have even less to offer clients.
I walked away beating myself up, feeling like, how am I going to show that I really am doing good work? I’m hearing that what is going to matter, and what the state is going to want to see, is what you are going to put out in documentation. And I question the impact overall on the families that we serve.
*** [The Wisconsin Council on Children & Families asserts that the proposed changes to BadgerCare may have a more severe effect on children then their parents. For instance, under the current system a parent may lose healthcare for up to 6 months if a monthly BadgerCare premium is missed. The new proposal allows for the state to withhold healthcare from their children as well; and, for up to one year.]
And that is kind of brewing with these other things like loss of bargaining rights. And now they are starting these focus groups at work to address how things will look.
Are these “Focus Groups” a new development since the BRB was passed?
(nodding) And I have to give credit that the county did open it up to all employees to participate in whatever group they had an interest in. But for me there was a time issue, and I had to trust that there would be people there that would represent the voice of the workers. However, some of the feedback that came back was moving away from the ability to post into new positions. And basing performance and pay by how well you do on paper. Some pretty vocal people are proposing that (our work) should be based on (paperwork).
(Megan expressed frustration at the appearance of favoritism when noting that certain people were hand selected to participate in certain groups. She questions the motivation for the formulation of the Focus Groups, and also the selection process to fill those groups.)
So my question is: “Who is going to determine the standards that we are measured by?” Is it all going to be based on documentation? Because I still believe strongly that, you know, true social work is the work that you do with the families, the relationship that you build with them.
Would you provide an example of “true social work” that the state’s documentation wouldn’t necessarily measure?
I guess an example would be I have a case where a parent works the night shift. So, her solution was to have roommates move into the home. They get free room and board, but they provide the childcare. However, generally people who need free room and board come with the baggage (sideways smile, raise eyebrows)….you know, whether it is AODA (drug/alcohol) issues, criminal issues, um, so there’s some concern.
Yet I see as the strength of this parent is keeping her job. She’s worked there for several years, so that is a long work history. She’s making good wages, considering what is available. Yet, she’s got many kids. And her way of problem solving daycare, since they don’t qualify for daycare assistance because she makes too much – is to have someone watch their kids. But then the questionable reports start coming in from mandated reporters at the school because of what they are hearing about the home. So, it is kind of a cycle.
That kind of case I see value in bringing in family and friends to put our heads together and come up with a solution. But facilitating a meeting takes time, accommodation of everyone’s work schedule, you know – it goes beyond an 8-5 job. (But the state is mandating a strict time table.) So, you can see the difference in workers in a case like this. The ones that are behind in their assessments are analytical, they are true assessments, you really understand the families and their true dynamics. The ones that are done quickly every time leave you going, “yeah, I don’t really understand all the problems that this family has, but apparently they are fine.”
So, that is the difference that I struggle with ….which one is more effective? And I guess my outcome would be – which one are we going to see come back through the door? And if you do it right the first time, you know, you may never see this family come back into the human services door again.
So would you problem solve this differently now with the increased emphasis by the state on quickness and documentation rather than effective practice?
Wehhhhl ?! (laughing and shrugging) that’s the challenge that I have. Those are the kind of cases that take time, and you need to slow down the process…not try to come up with the solution in isolation.
I would probably still take the same approach, but I think the pressure and feeling that I’m having is: what is going to happen to me? Because I’m not going to be able to keep up. I’m not going to get my paperwork in on time perfectly. And I’m nervous about my own family, my own ability to keep my job, keep my own insurance, to have some sustainability. But I realize that if I’m going to really make a change …or…try to support this family, I can’t approach it punitively. I have to look at partnering and finding a solution that realistically is going to work.
That is what is making me feel burnt out and feeling like I don’t know if I want to do this job anymore. Because I just feel like that workplace environment and that culture that is happening right now…And I think that’s changing how people interact, and I’ve noticed that my workplace culture is shifting. I’m feeling somewhat isolated from my co-workers and somewhat more from my supervisor. It brought certain pressures back on my supervisor, that the money and dollars and everything we do is going to be based on documented outcome versus practiced approach. Now, I think my supervisor sees that we are up against quite an imbalance, and probably acting for self protection. And now we don’t have a union rep that we can go to if we have an issue. So, where do you draw your support from?
What kind of things are going on with your local union?
Um, I probably can’t answer that because I know that the union has contacted me and I haven’t had a chance to have that dialogue, yet. I didn’t feel like our union was very strong in the first place, but I value the need for unions. And there was a reason we had them. Would I voluntarily pay to be part of this union that I don’t necessarily respect, when I don’t think they are a very strong union or very cohesive union? (raises eyebrows, splays hands)
But like I said, I want to continue to have that dialogue with them (the union). I want to know – what are you going to continue to do? What role will you have? If you were to ask if I support unions – yes, I believe that they need to exist. So, if it were strong, yeah, then I don’t think I would hesitate.
The first time we talked you predicted that when the BRB bill enacted a reduction in your check that you would be forced to take on a second job. Have you had to take that route?
I have. The question that everybody asks me is “How are you going to balance that with family and your current job?” Because my current job goes beyond an 8-5, you know. There are nights that I work until 11:00 at night. But I felt the need to take another job because I’m already feeling the impact.
(Megan’s partner is also a public worker. Together, they have 3 children and are grappling with a $560/month loss in their household.)
Even with a second job, we are looking at it like, “Wow… how are we going to make it work?” It’s increased stress and increased, um, lack of quality time to address how we are going to work through that stress. I feel like I have more pressure on my shoulders, because I am the one who’s out working two jobs, um, but I don’t want to discredit him. He’s got more pressures and picked up more responsibilities to meet the kids’ needs, you know. He’s doing more of the pick up and drop offs for daycare, more of the single-parenting I’d say, because I am the one working two jobs. So, that’s adding to stress…I feel (laughing and shrugging) guilt on my part because I’m feeling like I’m missing out…and that hurts. And I’m feeling, you know, tired (looking down and shaking head). I’m missing my family, but I’m trying to work with families that are also having problems and trying to be attentive, available, present, and I’m struggling with that (shrugs and hugs body).
So, what solutions do you see? How do you see getting out of this situation for your family and the families that you work with?
(long pause, staring at the floor) We need to undo what Walker did. If those cuts go through – what are they (her clients) going to do? I truly don’t know. What is driving this philosophy? Are you trying to punish these families? How are we going to break the cycle if we are punitive toward the people who are trying to work their way up and we keep them down? Parents are working multiple jobs, and children are left with their needs unmet. I mean, what are we producing? So the children are left suffering. That’s the vicious cycle that I see. I think we need to keep finding an avenue to figure out how we can advocate, not just settling because we feel powerless.
About half-way through this second interview with Megan, I noticed that I was speaking to a different woman. Six months ago, she was a passionate advocate for the families with whom she partners. Now, Megan’s concerns for her own family have taken priority. Her careful, thoughtful approach to her profession is now overshadowed by her anxious needs closer to home. If you were frustrated by the scattered nature of this verbatim interview – you’ve journeyed a few moments in her life. Speaking with Megan reminded me of a pilot’s advice over the intercom of a commercial flight, “Please secure your own face mask before helping others.” In Megan, we took someone who cares about others – but now, emotionally, she can’t afford to. How do we measure that?