DALEVILLE — The sleepless nights aren’t quite as frequent for Amber Fox these days. But they still happen.
Fox, a social worker at Daleville Elementary School, estimates that she meets with as many as a dozen children each day who are dealing with a wide range of academic, emotional and behavioral issues stemming from traumatic situations at home.
It’s a job that, on some days, leaves her feeling spent.
“Social work is very mind consuming. It’s very overwhelming some days,” said Fox, 32, who has been in the profession for nearly five years.
Fox and thousands of others like her are members of a profession where the challenges of attracting qualified workers are mounting for a variety of reasons. A recent study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found a 16% increase in the need for social workers nationwide since 2016.
In Indiana, the situation is more dire, with some experts estimating that at least double the current number of about 8,000 licensed social workers is needed to address existing caseloads.
Before coming to Daleville, Fox spent two years as a victim advocate at the Muncie Police Department and a year at Meridian Health Services.
She says it’s not hard to become emotionally invested in her clients. During her time in Muncie, she worked on molest cases, assaults and other crimes against children. It wasn’t uncommon for her to be called to a crime scene or an interview in the middle of the night.
“I’ve seen a lot of very horrific things,” she said. “Just dealing with that and self-care, I feel like, is a big drawback. I still really am trying to figure that out daily.”
The move to Daleville brought more stability to her schedule, she says, but in many ways, she still takes her work home with her.
“The past couple weeks have been really rough with some kids’ cases here,” Fox said. “At 2 in the morning the principal and I caught ourselves texting back and forth about this case because neither one of us could sleep because it keeps you up at night. You just have to figure out how you can separate that.”
A LACK OF WORKERS
As baby boomers continue to age, as many as 60,000 more social workers will be needed nationally to serve that growing client base, according to some estimates.
“The aging of our population is a significant driver of social work services in health care and services for older adults,” said Greta Yoder Slater, an associate professor of social work at Ball State University.
Publicly funded agencies and nonprofits alike are feeling the pinch. Stephanie Fertucci, director of the Children’s Bureau in Anderson, says she recently filled a position on her staff that had remained open for nearly four months. Normally, it would take only two to three weeks to fill such an opening.
“Part of our problem in child welfare is that the hospitals and schools can pay more,” Fertucci said. “Social workers really haven’t had a great raise in 25 years. While a lot of social workers don’t get into this because of the money, they have student loans, and they have to leave the field. We’re kind of constrained with that salary situation.”
"For the most part, direct service jobs are high stress, with large caseloads and lower pay and benefits, which makes things challenging," said Beryl Cohen, executive director of the Indiana Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
According to the BLS, social workers in all fields last year earned a median annual wage of $49,870, up 6% from 2016. But entry-level workers frequently earn far less. Combined with the stress of working with often toxic family situations in the lives of clients, a career in social work can be a tough sell.
“The work you’re trying to do requires professionals who are trained to do the work,” said Nancy Vaughan, president of the United Way of Madison County. “You’ve got to have the personnel with the skill set to do that. We have a systemic issue in the nonprofit world where it’s starved, and we can’t do the work that needs to be done.”
STEPS TOWARD SOLUTIONS
In Indiana, the General Assembly has considered at least four bills since 2017 aimed at streamlining licensing processes and making it easier for prospective employers to recruit qualified social workers. Two from the recently completed legislative session — Senate Bill 527 and House Bill 1175 — passed both houses unanimously.
Gov. Eric Holcomb signed the House bill, which provides Medicaid reimbursement for social workers in federally qualified health centers and rural health clinics, into law on Monday. The Senate bill would allow anyone under contract with the Department of Child Services who has completed a bachelor's degree in social work from an accredited institution but has not yet passed state licensure requirements to obtain a one-time temporary permit for one year. It is awaiting the governor’s signature.
“We need to increase the number of practicing social workers in our state, whether they’re practicing independently or they’re under contract with a state agency,” said state Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson. “We want to increase the revenue stream that’s available to pay for their services. And we want to increase the availability of new entrants while they’re passing their tests.”
Many lawmakers point to the bipartisan support for both bills in each chamber as evidence that Indiana’s shortage of social workers — which some experts say has been exacerbated by the state’s opioid crisis — is growing more urgent.
“We don’t have enough caseworkers to handle the load,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson. “We need to take a look at what we can do to encourage more social workers to be here in Indiana.”
That encouragement, some say, needs to start earlier and include efforts to dispel certain “myths” that have attached themselves to perceptions of the profession.
“By and large, people go into (social work) because they want to do good and help people,” Fertucci said. “I think speaking to that desire to help and that desire to make your community better is key.”
‘YOU GUYS ARE GOING TO MAKE IT’
Fox agreed, adding that when she entered college at Ball State, social work wasn’t on her radar. But after taking time off school following the birth of her daughter, she considered a career in early childhood education before deciding between her current field and criminal justice.
“Social work just seemed like the better field that fit where my heart was,” she said. “I genuinely love my job. I know that the kids’ actions and the life they’ve been given, it’s not entirely their fault.
"So I have a special bond, I feel like, with all the kids here. I genuinely do love it, and I feel like I would retire from it.”
With the end of the school year rapidly approaching, Fox says she has several success stories to focus on among the dozens of students she works with.
“We have some sixth graders who were very closed off (at the beginning of the school year),” Fox said. “They were just in some bad places. It was like, how are they going to go to middle school? What’s going to happen to them next year? And here we are, 21 days until we get out of school, and I’m like, you guys are going to make it.
“I told my co-worker the other day, I’m going to cry at graduation, I’m going to bawl my eyes out because you guys are OK,” she said. “There are a couple exceptions, but for the most part, they’re prepared to move on. To know that I was able to get them to that place, is very rewarding in itself."
Follow Andy Knight on Twitter @Andrew_J_Knight, or call 765-640-4809.