Celebrating our Social Workers
During National Professional Social Work Month
When Courtney Hinte was a college student interning at Family & Children’s Service (FCS), a co-worker offered her some sage advice: You don’t choose social work. Social work chooses you.
That certainly was the case for Courtney, who at the time was studying early childhood education and planning to become a teacher. Five years later, she is part of FCS’s Adult Protective Services team, investigating suspected cases of abuse, neglect and exploitation among vulnerable adults in Monmouth and Middlesex counties. The same advice could have applied to many of her colleagues at FCS, some of whom started their careers in education, human resources or marketing, but eventually chose social work out of a desire to do more.
Social workers help people overcome some of life’s most difficult challenges: poverty, discrimination, abuse, addiction, physical illness, divorce, loss, unemployment, educational problems, disability, and mental illness. They help prevent crises and counsel individuals, families, and communities to cope more effectively with the stresses of everyday life.
“I was taking care of my mother for a couple years, so I was actually a client of the social service system,” says Michele Mandic, a former real estate agent, now an APS social worker in FCS’s Middlesex office. “I realized I wanted to work in the profession, so I went back to school for my Masters in Social Work.”
Michele’s office mate, Jackie Cautlin was working as a researcher coding facial expressions when she decided to get her MSW. “I wanted to do something that impacted the environment around me and really help people,” Jackie says.
Jackie, Michele, along with Antoinette Ray, Jessica Slattery and Marlena Kolodziej, are FCS social workers responsible for handling all reported APS cases in Middlesex County. That amounts to about 50 cases a month, or an anticipated 600 cases a year. Another team, Kim Kurnik, Justin Da Conceicao, Alma Strack and Courtney, handle a similar caseload in Monmouth County. Working under the direction of APS manager Lisa Barnes, the two teams of social workers meet daily to go over new referrals, discuss ongoing cases and serve as a sounding board for each other.
“We are a team,” Marlena Kolodziejsays. “We all work together to support one another.”
Today, Americans enjoy many privileges because early social workers saw misery and injustice and took action, inspiring others along the way. Many of the benefits we take for granted came about because social workers spoke out against abuse and neglect.
With 40 years experience in social work, Alma says she has seen a dramatic increase in the need for social services among the geriatric population.
“Many of our clients are living longer and even outliving their older children, putting them at greater risk for self neglect,” Alma Strack says. “The current economy also has increased the risk of exploitation of older adults. More people are tempted to take advantage of older people who might have a steadier income.”
As the population ages, so does the need for support services to help seniors continue to live independently at home. Michele O’Shaughnessy and Anne Hartman are FCS social workers who administer grants for the Statewide Respite Care Program, designed to provide assistance to families by giving unpaid caregivers a break from the daily responsibility of caring for an elderly or disabled relative or friend. Michele and Anne interview families that may be eligible for the program and help connect them with the services they need.
“The satisfying part of this job is that we are able to offer them something they need, and rather quickly,” Anne says. “The client sees an immediate reward.”
“On the flip side, the grant funds are limited,” Michele says, adding that the grants currently serve about 300 clients per year. “Unfortunately, not everyone who is eligible receives assistance. It would be nice if we could help everyone who needs it, but we can’t.”
They also say it is sad to know that so many people are in need of social services. “I just wish there was one week, or month, or even a day where we don’t get any referrals,” Justin Da Conceicao says. “But that doesn’t happen too often.”
Social work exposes you to very best and worst in society, according to Lisa Barnes. “It is sad and discouraging to see people, especially family members, abuse and neglect the elderly and the vulnerable,” she says. “But it is also inspiring to see how resilient people can be, despite difficult circumstances.”
Jessica agrees. “Our clients have so much life experience. The world was so different when they were young. Sometimes I just sit there after I have done what I came for and I will just listen. It really makes the job easier to take.”
What is the most frustrating part of their job?
“The paperwork,” says Jackie.
“The lack of time to get everything done,” says Kim Kurnik.
“The inability to stop perpetrators from doing it again,” says Antoinette Ray. “Even when you have definitive proof that there is abuse or exploitation, it is difficult to make a case against an individual. Sometimes, the best you can do is to get your client the services they need to stay safe.”
Another difficulty? Watching a client refuse services you know they need.
“As long as they are competent, we must respect our client’s right to make their own decision,” says Alma, “Even if it’s the wrong decision.”
The U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that social work is one of the fastest growing careers in the United States, particularly for social workers who specialize in the aging populations. What type of qualities do you need to be a social worker? Compassion, hope, and a sense of humor, according to the group.
What advice would they give to others considering entering the field?
“It’s important to find the population you want to help,” Justin advises. “This is a difficult job and you need to be passionate about those you are helping to do it well.”
“Make sure it’s what you want to do,” Antoinette adds. “It’s very satisfying work, but it’s not going to make you rich.”
But sometimes wealth can’t be measured in dollars. Lisa says many of the people she comes in contact with have a common misconception about her job.
“They think its not something desirable. They will ask me, “How can you do this job. Isn’t it depressing?” And it can be sometimes,” Lisa admits, “But what they don’t realize is that it also can be highly-rewarding. We make a real difference in people’s lives, sometimes in very little time and often with very few resources. Not many people can say that.”