A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.
Angela Jones has had a door or two slammed in her face but she tries not to take it personally. Like social workers across the country, Jones knows rejection and resentment are occupational hazards.
“Sometimes the family just thinks we’re nosey,” she said. Indeed, as a worker in Child Protective Care on St. Thomas, Jones may ask a lot of questions and gather a lot of information, but that’s so she can assist the family to cope with crises. “It’s a process. We work with you; we try to help you,” Jones said.
Often her investigation widens and may even change focus after it begins. Take the case of a child doing poorly in school because of a lack of rudimentary medical treatment. In tracking down the reason for the seeming neglect, Jones discovered a single mother overwhelmed in her efforts to raise several young children.
Especially difficult for the woman in the case were her two older boys who had begun hanging out late and drawing the attention of the police. They weren’t even teenagers yet; they were in middle school.
“These streets will just suck in kids that quick,” Jones said.
Jones said she managed to place the boys with other family members, one with his father and one with a grandmother. “It took a lot of strain off” the mother, she said. Now Jones is working with the woman to find employment, so the case continues to expand.
Cases often grow and seldom go away. Jones said she’s been working with the Department of Human Services for about a year and a half. “Since I’ve started, I haven’t yet closed a case.”
Jones was one of several Human Services workers who spoke with the Source recently to highlight March as national Social Workers Month. The theme this year is “All People Matter.”
Among the others sharing their insights were Coralie Graham Schmidt, Child Protective Care on St. Croix; Diane Brown and Yahsina Shadeed, Foster Care workers on St. Croix and St. Thomas, respectively; and Lisandra Latorre, director of Aging and Adult Services for both districts.
Schmidt said, “It’s hard sometimes. It’s a struggle to get them to understand you are there to help” – not to take their kids from them.
Although in serious cases where a child’s safety is in danger, the department may seek legal custody, the preferred approach is to keep a child in his home and work with the family on any problems. That includes monitoring the child’s progress in school, counseling the family and assisting with any immediate problems, such as health care or employment.
Unfortunately, Schmidt said, workers can only counsel parents on the importance of education for their children; they can’t compel them to make it a priority.
Several social workers cited a correlation between education and good parenting. Brown said often when abuse or neglect of a child is an issue, the adult involved has not finished high school.
Brown said she also sees a lot of substance abuse and mental health issues. She and Schmidt said the community suffers from a lack of mental health services.
At the other end of the life spectrum, Human Services provides the safety net for disabled adults and for the elderly. Latorre, who directs Aging and Adult Services territorywide, said the division currently has about 200 cases and a staff of just five full time social workers – two on St. Thomas and two on St. Croix – two aides, one on each island, and a district manager on St. Croix.
In addition to her management duties, Latorre, who lives on St. Thomas, also handles a caseload “because of costs and staff shortages.”
Latorre observed, “Everyone wants to protect children.” But adults with mental illness also need protection. And so do elderly people who, for whatever reason, have no loved ones to care for them in their declining years or, in the worst-case scenario, become victims of exploitation and fraud, abuse and neglect.
In the latter case, Human Services typically finds that “it’s family members and people who are close to them” who are the ones harming the elderly, Latorre said. “And the community doesn’t want to believe that,” she added.
The division places some clients in nursing and residential facilities and monitors others at home.
Nationally, the trend is towards “aging in place,” Latorre said. Maintaining a person in his or her own home may require retrofitting the property with things like shower grab bars, providing in-home nursing care and even paying for a live-in companion, most of which is beyond current government resources.
Still there is an effort to keep people out of institutional settings if possible. The division does not officially place clients in private homes, but it does try to find family members who can care for them.
In some cases, the courts are involved, especially if there is a dispute over the person’s assets or if abuse is suspected. In such cases, Human Services makes regular reports to the court. It also has a fiduciary responsibility and may be intimately involved in such details as banking and grocery shopping for the client.
Elderly clients tend to have medical problems, of course, with high blood pressure and diabetes particularly prevalent in the Virgin Islands. So it’s helpful if their social workers have a working knowledge of such common conditions and of the pharmaceuticals used to treat them, Latorre said.
As a social worker, “you are responsible for someone else’s life,” she said.
That can be intimidating, but all the social workers interviewed indicated they feel up to the challenge.
“As social workers, we use each other as sounding boards,” Schmidt said. It helps to learn from other people’s experience and it also helps to keep things in perspective.
Brown said, “You have to know when to take your time out, to take a break.”
Schmidt advised, “Take the jacket off. Leave it at the office.”
After more than 19 years at Human Services, Schmidt said her biggest disappointment comes “when I’m not able to reach the client … when there’s no breakthrough … no matter what assistance you offer, they’re just not receptive.”
Conversely, the joy of the job comes from “knowing that I’ve helped someone. … I enjoy being that voice for them, to get services for them.”
Working with children, success is measured in the number of young people who finish school and are able to look forward to a better life. “Especially those who can see ‘There’s hope for me,’” Schmidt said.