I always tell people the easiest way to understand school social work is to think of us as the bridge between the school and the community. People automatically think about social work in school as attendance. Yes, we monitor attendance, but in a broader sense we help kids find the resources to get to school. If they can’t make it, we find out why so we can help.
People hear “Social Worker” and automatically think Department of Family and Children Services. That’s a common misperception. We have very different jobs in the school system. The DFCS works with families like kids in foster care to provide financial assistance and services to keep families together. People hear school social worker and think of the foster care side where workers come in and take students from their families. That is not what we do. We work in the school system to provide services for those children in need.
The Mckinney Vento Act was created for students who meet the definition of homelessness. It’s not just living in your car. It could be living in a shelter, doubling up in someone else’s house. Abandoned youth. Parents in jail. Living under the bridge. If you meet the criteria, the law says that it is our job to make sure every child has access to education. Even though basic needs aren’t met, we want to ensure education transportation. We make sure the enrollment process for school is simple. We offer tutoring, because transient families may fall behind. We make sure students are fed when they get to school. We make it easy to have access to education. We’re the advocates making sure that these things happen. That’s the main goal with our roles as liaisons. We educate families and students because people don’t know how they can benefit.
We get calls everyday. Some of them are recurring. Everyday, someone is at least reaching out to us whether it’s teachers, counselors, or administration, asking for support for a family.
Our school systems are trained to refer them to us. We try to educate people as much as we can at the beginning of the year. Sometimes, by accident, we work with a family and discover they meet the criteria for Mckinney Vento.
There are times when families have an outstanding lunch bill where their income changed because there was a shift in family balance. They had no idea we are able to help them get free lunch for the student so they don’t have outstanding debt. People don’t think to tell us because they fear people are going to judge them. People judge themselves, and some people believe their private life is their private life and they don’t want to bring that into the school. But when we do find out we put them with the right persons because we can help them.
We get a lot of the referrals. Tardiness is one of the largest indicators. Administrators and people who register the kids notice they are tardy often and refer them to us. Other times students just say that they are homeless. Some teachers have students complain of being hungry, or say they don’t have water , not knowing these elementary students are actually confessing to being homeless. . When we follow up, we learn the circumstances with the situation.
Because the act covers so many families, people don’t know they qualify for services. They don’t know the services are there to ask for.
We’re here to help students be able to achieve success in education and help them deal with any barriers that come up. We investigate and find out what’s going on so we can help them. We go meet with the student and family, then identify resources in the community. We’re always calling different agencies. We open up the list and hope that someone answers to see if there’s any availability. We just want kids be successful in school and get an education.
There are so many hats that we wear. It’s always a good feeling to be able to help people. When we actually can problem solve for them, it feels good to help someone who’s in distress and help that feeling go away. They walk away less stressed and are able to manage and cope. I really enjoy being able to relate to people and build relationships. We have a big case load with Gainesville being a hub for the homeless population. It’s great to be able to work with families and kind of follow them and be an advocate and see their walls come down. In the same breath, one of the things we dislike is when people come to us and we don’t have the resources. Sometimes we don’t have the answers. We’re stuck. We love it when we can help them, but when we can’t we feel for them. They don’t’ know where to go and it’s difficult.
I don’t think I realized what a lot of families go through as a child. I guess I wasn’t in tune to if there were kids in my classroom who were homeless. I didn’t know who those kids were. I didn’t have any personal experience with homeless growing up and I don’t think I know someone who did. I had no clue if there was a social worker. School counselors were something who came in later. In middle school, there were guidance counselors who were academic-based. I probably had friends, I probably knew people. Now that I’m doing this job, I think that there probably were. I just wasn’t in tune to it.
I grew up in Rhode Island in an urban city and in New York before then. I knew homeless because I saw it riding the subway. I knew there were people living in the streets. I didn’t know homelessness the way I know it now. There are people who aren’t living in the streets who are sleeping on someone’s couch. I didn’t know it in a different form. I just knew the person on the corner asking for change.
In that sense, people look over it in Gainesville and Hall County. The numbers are so large, and some aren’t on necessarily living on the streets, so we don’t see them. They are living with another family or living in different circumstances. People automatically think it’s not an issue but it’s a huge issue. There’s so much need that there aren’t always resources to help.
To be a good social worker, we have to have good boundaries. Last school year, I had a case that brought up different emotions in me. It took an emotional toll on me because I felt like the parent wasn’t caring about the student as much as I was. I was like “Well, if that was my kid”. I felt really bad for the child. When I talk to some parents I feel like it’s common sense and that people should take our advice.
To be a good social worker we must be able to communicate with families that we are there to help them, but we won’t always be there to help them. We learn to be up front with families about how long we will be working with them. At the end of the day, as social workers, we want people to become self sufficient. Sometimes people get frustrated, but it’s all about being self sufficient. They say “well you’re the social worker, why don’t you do it?” If I do this for them, they will always need my help. We are trying to help them be able to move on from this place they are now. They think we are the miracle worker. Like we have a magic wand. I’ve got my own problems.
To be a good social worker, we have to have a good sense of…well, not reality. Know the difference between poverty and real neglect. It’s hard to identify. We see a lot of things. Some people think things are neglect, but there are just poor people in the world. We have to understand that’s the way some people live. It’s not that we don’t care. It’s a dynamic in our society. There’s a big gap between those who are very well off and those who don’t have a lot.
This job takes patience. It’s a work in progress. We’ve got to celebrate the small things. These problems aren’t things we can fix overnight, because some of them didn’t get to where they are overnight. We are the bridge between the school and the community. We are the voice that stands up for the kids, and help them be all they can be.
Told By: Nicole Vernon
This story originally appeared in Facing Homelessness in Hall County, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia.