The Social Networker

Rogue Social Worker Scams $160,000

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on September 21, 2017 · 0 comments

Social workers have a great deal of power. They constantly battle public misperceptions about what they do, in part for this reason. The overwhelming majority of social workers are good people devoted to their jobs. But this fact, and the fact that the public tends to paint all social workers with the same broad brush in those rare cases in which misconduct occurs, make it that much more important that we highlight those rare abuses that do occur.

This was the case recently in the matter of Anthony Handal and Sandra Mora. David Harris, reporting for the Orlando Sentinel, writes that the 58-year-old social worker and his fiancée, a case manager, were arrested after authorities say they scammed Medicaid out of nearly $160,000. The pair allegedly colluded to bill Medicate between September 2015 and March for services they never provided, according to investigators from the Florida Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit.

“Investigators say Handal and Mora worked for MTS Health Services… Handal was a licensed clinical social worker and Mora was a case manager, documents state. ‘In most cases, Mora initiated contact with these children and families in need of services and collected their Medicaid information,’ investigators wrote in an arrest affidavit. ‘After gathering the required data, Handal and Mora would create false documentation to support the fraudulent billing later submitted to MTS and then the Medicaid Program.’”

Taken together, the two billed Medicate for almost 900 hours of services versus 100 hours of actual pediatric therapy for one client. They asked the child’s mother to “go along with” the false billing and were recorded doing so. At the time of the report, the two were in jail awaiting trial.

Our first reaction might be to wonder if there should have been a greater controlling authority over the billing. If two people can collude in this manner because they are personally involved, are greater checks and balances required for the billing system? What we should keep in mind, however, is that the system worked: These two were caught. Any collusion to commit Medicaid fraud requires the cooperation of multiple individuals. Normally, all that stops frauds like this from being caught is a single phone call or a single billing audit.

Given how many thousands on thousands of hours of bills are made by social workers throughout the country, the fact that a case like this exists is not a surprise. What we should take from it, however, is that fraud of this type is rare enough that it makes national news when it occurs. That speaks volumes about the nature of social work’s dedicated professionals… and the standards  to which our industry holds its personnel.

Have you seen opportunities for greater checks and balances in your work? Do you feel these are warranted or unnecessary? Please share your thoughts with us here.

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Addicted Parents and Child Welfare

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on September 18, 2017 · 0 comments

One of the most serious issues where the mounting opioid addiction crisis in the United States is concerned is the increased stress it puts on child welfare services. Social workers must already contend with problems of addiction in helping clients suffering from this problem. But those same clients often, because of their drug dependencies, cannot properly care for children, who then end up requiring social services. The “safety net” of support is thus stretched farther and farther to a breaking point that is compounded by a chronic shortage of social workers. Pressures within the field also lead to staff “churn” that deepens the problem and turns the whole affair into a vicious cycle.

It’s a problem everywhere and media are citing specific examples on an alarmingly regular basis. Chris Mueller and Keegan Kyle, writing in the Post-Crescent, report, “The number of children separated from their parents by county authorities has climbed across Wisconsin to its highest level in nearly a decade. A USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin investigation found drug abuse is clearly driving the uptick — leaving more families in turmoil, straining public resources and creating a shortage of foster parents.”

Referring specifically to Wisconsin (with figures that could easily come from anywhere in the country), Mueller and Kyle write, “Social workers are now commonly finding children who were left to fend for themselves, often in filthy homes with drugs and needles scattered around within reach. Some kids have watched a parent overdose. …The issue has gained the attention of state lawmakers, who have been considering a more than $6 million increase in child welfare services as well as pay raises for foster parents.”

The article goes on to say that cases involving drug-addicted parents “create significant problems for social workers because they often take longer to resolve as parents struggle through recovery and work toward providing stability… The risk of relapse is real for parents struggling with addiction, so much so that social workers plan specifically where children should be dropped off if a parent is about to fall back into drug abuse.”

Without doubt, this problem cannot be dealt with unless greater resources and human capital are brought to bear on it. What are your experiences with drug addicted clients and their children? Are you getting the support you require? Are your clients? This is a very serious issue with no easy answers yet in reach. Please share your experiences with us.

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Social Workers Are More In Demand than Ever

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on September 15, 2017 · 0 comments

Is your office or department short-staffed? Do you struggle to apply to all your cases the amount of attention they deserve? Do you wish you had more help or simply shorter hours and less pressure? You’re not alone. Social workers are more in demand than ever — a shortage of critical personnel that will only get worse before it gets better.

The Batesville Herald-Tribune reports that part of the problem is increased demand for social workers in the face of the growing and nationwide opioid epidemic. “The rising demand for social workers,” the paper reports, “led to a remarkable record last May, when 100 percent of undergraduate students who responded to a survey asking about their plans after graduation said they either had a job or were furthering their education… Not only did those seeking employment have jobs, but a number of them had multiple job offers from which to choose.”

The piece goes on to explain that addiction to opioids is just one facet of a problem involving addicts who cannot properly take care of their children. That has ramifications for the child welfare system and flows through to other aspects of the social work process.

“Beyond the opioid epidemic,” the piece concludes, “there’s always been a demand for people who want to help others, and as populations grow, change and age, more of them are needed.”

Shortages of social workers are something we’ve all been contending with for some time now. And while it’s refreshing to hear of graduating classes of newly credentialed social workers have no trouble finding work, the jobs into which they then go are fraught with stress. The pressure on a social worker who has adequate resources and leadership support is significant in and of itself. Now stretch resources thin and add in leadership that may not always understand what individual social workers want and need. The problems of social work are confounded and the stress on social work personnel can become, at times, untenable.

Related to these issues is the issue of staff “churn” among social workers — something we’ve covered previously in this blog. The shortage creates so much pressure that people often do not stay in these jobs… creating a greater shortage that creates so much pressure that people choose to leave. It is, as you can see, a vicious cycle.

What are your experiences with that vicious cycle? How do you cope with the stress and pressure of social work? Do you feel you are receiving adequate support from your organization’s leadership? Please let us know here.

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Should Employers Be Able To Screen Out Applicants with Criminal Records?

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on September 13, 2017 · 0 comments

It is said that the most reliable indicator of future performance is past performance. Where people with criminal records are concerned, most people take for granted the idea that someone with a criminal record is less trustworthy than someone without. Yet on the other side of that issue is the idea that every human being makes mistakes — and that a second chance, a chance to redeem yourself, might be all that is separating you from a life of poor choices and life as a productive citizen. Certainly, social work is dedicated to the proposition that all citizens can lead better, healthier, happier, more productive lives if they receive the support they need. That makes the recent discussion over criminal record screening all the more relevant.

Social Work Helper’s Katherine O’Brien writes, “Many employers outright avoid hiring job applicants with criminal records as a matter of general business policy. Thus, questions on employment applications regarding the applicant’s arrest history have, for the large part, become a screening mechanism through which those with job applicants with criminal records are denied further consideration in the hiring process, regardless of the applicant’s job skills or qualifications.”

O’Brien goes on to explain that in 2004, a civil rights organization, “All of Us or None,” initiated a campaign to prevent employers from asking about past criminal records. This was done in an attempt to break that cycle of unemployment, which arguably makes those with criminal records more likely to reoffend when they cannot find honest work. The concept is called “Ban the Box,” or BTB, referring to the criminal background check-box on applications. “Under BTB policies,” O’Brien writes, “inquiries relating to criminal convictions on employment applications are deferred until a later stage in the hiring and/or interview process as are background checks. …The theory behind these laws is that those applicants who do have a criminal conviction on their record will be given the opportunity to demonstrate their qualifications and skills before the potential employer learns of their criminal history, thereby improving their chances of employment.”

Of even greater interest is the concept of “statistical discrimination.” This could very well be, O’Brien points out, an unintended consequence of BTB legislation. An employer who is told he or she may not ask about criminal background may simply avoid hiring people from those demographics more closely associated with crime in popular culture. The obvious result would be workplaces in which those of certain races or other demographic backgrounds simply won’t be hired… and will never know why they did not get the job.

The debate strikes to the core of what social workers do, in that our work directly affects those who need help in order to become happier, healthier, more productive citizens. What do you think about BTB legislation? Should employers be free to ask about criminal records? Even if they are free to do so, should they choose to? Please let us know where you stand on this issue.

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Violence Against Social Workers Continues To Be A Problem

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on September 8, 2017 · 0 comments

Social work can be an extremely rewarding profession. Unfortunately, it is sometimes also a dangerous one. There have been several high-profile incidents of violence against social workers, typically from individuals who blame social workers for family issues with which those social workers were trying to help. Despite the extensive attention these past incidents have received, violence and violent threats against social workers continue to be significant problems within the profession.

Boston.com reported in early July that a Vermont woman has pleaded guilty to murdering a social worker and three relatives. Jody Herring believed all of these people played a role in her loss of custody of her 9-year-old daughter. The guilty plea was part of a deal with the prosecution, as Herring was originally charged with three counts of aggravated murder.

“The plea deal calls for a sentence of 20 years to life on the second-degree murder convictions, to be served concurrently,” according to ABC News. “No sentencing has been set for the first-degree murder conviction. She could be sentenced to life without parole [in the death of the social worker]… John Treadwell, an assistant attorney general, said the certainty of guilt in the plea agreement is of substantial value to the state, the victims and the community at large.

On August 7, 2015, Herring (who is 42) shot social worker Lara Sobel as Sobel left work. Herring also shot her cousins Regina and Rhonda Herring and her aunt Juli Falzarano at their home in Berlin, Vermont. “Police said [Herring] believed her relatives had reported her to the Department for Children and Families.” Herring used a hunting rifle to gun down Sobel outside the state Department for Children and Families office. Sobel had worked as a social worker for almost a decade and a half. Bystanders who witnessed the shooting tackled Herring and held her for police, after which the bodies of Herring’s relatives were found in Berlin.

Whether Herring was mental competent to stand trial was raised as an issue. The defense contended she suffered from “significant mental health disease.” Sane or not, however, Herring perfectly exemplifies the worst stereotypes of social workers and the job they perform. She was an unfit mother who lost custody of her child, blamed “the system” and the social worker involved, and turned to violence to vent her frustration at what had occurred. This, sadly, has happened all too often.

The problem is a combination of factors, not the least of which is the public’s inaccurate picture of what social workers actually do. Violence like this underscores the need for social workers, as a profession, to actively fight for better public relations. It means we must constantly set a good example against a very high standard of public conduct, and it also means we need the support of leadership as we further that goal.

What are your thoughts on the public image of social workers? Have you experience threats of violence? Did you feel your management/leadership provided adequate support? Please share your thoughts and experiences with us.

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The Value Added of Social Workers

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on September 7, 2017 · 0 comments

Social workers are all about value added. The profession, as a whole, has been instrumental in improving the lives of our citizens for as long as social work has existed. On occasion, however, we are reminded of just how much value social workers add — particularly when social workers are applied to new situations and in innovative ways. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, a law firm is using social workers to help smooth what might otherwise be more contentious legal issues.

Shandra Martinez, reporting for M Live, explains that Plachta, Murphy & Associates is a full-service law firm in Grand Rapids. “In recent years, it made sense to add social workers [to the firm] who could coordinate care and provide counsel and advocacy services beyond legal advice,” she writes. “The firm’s two licensed, masters-degreed social workers [have] taken on the role known in the legal profession as professional medical advocates… [to] help clients to understand their rights and navigate complex healthcare options, providers, insurance companies and paperwork. Professional medical advocacy is a profession in its infancy, but it’s growing fast thanks to aging Baby Boomers and a confusing U.S. healthcare system in flux.”

Martinez explains that these advocates may do everything from sitting by a hospital bedside to interpreting medical information or reviewing medical bills for errors. They also provide mediation in family squabbles and other issues where the presence of a social worker can make a positive difference.

This is, in all honesty, a welcome application of social work to real-life problems. It makes sense to reduce conflict and work to find common ground, even in serious legal disputes. This can make the whole process go more smoothly. Our legal system may be adversarial in nature, but at its core it is simply a means of finding a way to accommodate all involved parties. The presence of a social worker can help do that while increasing satisfaction on all sides. It’s a very worthwhile avenue for the profession to explore.

This does, however, raise the issue — yet again — of both the chronic shortage of social workers and the immense staff churn social workers experience. If we are to meet the increased demand for social workers in ever more areas of daily life, we must find ways to retain staff while adding new social workers to our ranks. This begs the question: Have YOU considered leaving the field? If so, why do you stay? What do you need, and what would you like, to make it easier for you to remain in social work? And where do you think social workers could be deployed to provide value added, particularly if they are not already being used in that capacity? Please share your thoughts with us by taking our short survey.

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The Strange Phenomenon of “Helicopter Parents” in the Workplace

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on August 28, 2017 · 0 comments

Social work: The term contains the word “work,” and it’s a fact that what happens in the private sector, in the world of business, has bearing on social work and social workers too. There is little that happens in the modern workplace that we cannot apply to what we do — an to the workplaces that constitute our agencies. This makes trends in the workplace at large relevant to social work, even when only indirectly. So what does the strange phenomenon of “helicopter parents’ tell us about the modern workforce?

Suzanne Lucas, commenting in Inc., cites a New York times article about parents who “hover” like helicopters over their children. Some follow their kids through school and college right into the workforce — one example being of a father who applied for a job on his son’s behalf and even attended the interview with him.

“Here’s the thing,” Lucas writes. “Most parents are not this awful. They truly are not. But, enough are. And why are they? Because they’ve been helicoptering for years and years and have had great success with it. In fact, the schools reward students whose parents hover and punish those who don’t.”

Lucas goes on to explain that the phenomenon is not new, but has grown in more recent years. Parents have learned, she says, that when they push back against their children’s teachers, teachers quickly relent. They raise grades. They grant do-overs and additional chances. This improves a child’s prospects in a parent’s eyes.

“I don’t blame the teachers, by the way. I cannot imagine the nightmare of being sandwiched in between parents and administrators and still trying to teach the kids something. And, so this strategy works, and parents think it will continue to work, but it comes crashing down when the child reaches the workforce… [That’s because] the workplace is about achievement, not niceness. We don’t hire people to be nice. We hire them because we believe we can make more money with them working for us than we could earn without them working for us. Businesses aren’t concerned about your child’s future or current self-worth. If your child isn’t a productive part of our team, we don’t want your child around and no amount of your whining will change that.”

The contrast has some interesting implications for social work, because the way parents and parenting affect the attitudes of both children and parents can make a difference when attempting to build rapport with clients. That rapport, that relationship, is the key to making progress with many clients. That means knowing what they’ve done and why they do it can help a social worker reach some parents that might otherwise be reluctant to address real issues.

What do you think? Have you encountered this odd phenomenon in the workplace or when in the field on the job? Share your stories with us.

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Should Women be More Like Men on the Job?

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on August 25, 2017 · 0 comments

According to the NASW Center for Workforce Studies, full-time social workers are 82 percent women and 18 percent men. Fully 89 percent of part-time social workers are women. This is a field that is heavily female-dominated. While it’s easy to debate and discuss why that’s so, it’s nonetheless a reality of the profession. Most people would say it’s a good thing, as social work requires a great deal of empathy and emotional rapport with clients — something at which women excel. But are there reasons women in the workforce, and women in social work, might choose to emulate men?

Maria LaMagna, in MarketWatch, cites a recent report that says women are making a key error in searching for role-models. “New Boston Consulting Group research shows men and women pursue role models at work differently,” she writes. In a report on gender-balance in the workplace, the consulting firm “asked some 17,500 employees and 200 senior executives which strategies they thought were most effective in creating diverse workplaces. They had 39 options to choose from. The most popular answer: Some 51% of those who responded said formal flexible work policies were some of the most important factors (those responding could select more than one answer). Some 48% listed ‘antidiscrimination policies’ as a priority. The third-most popular answer was slightly more surprising… Some 44% said role model visibility, or the ability to identify people employees can look up to as role models at the company, was a top priority, followed by public commitment to diversity and informal flexibility policies at work.”

The article goes on to explain that role models take on more significant for women than men, according to the research. Women were more likely than men to say they benefit from strong professional networks, and look for those role models differently compared to their male counterparts. They tended to look for role models that looked just like them, whereas men found their role models based on individual traits rather than individuals who fully reminded them of themselves. In other words, a single mother would tend to look for other single mothers as role models, while a man who wanted to be more assertive at work would seek as role models other people he saw as assertive.

So in what way should women be more like men on the job, both in social work and in the workplace generally? According to the research, they should push themselves to seek the value of role models who don’t necessarily correspond to their demographic or circumstances. Widening the net affords more opportunities to network with, and learn from, individuals who exemplify the traits female social workers might wish to develop.

Who are your role models? Where and how did you find them? And what do you see as your most important areas for professional growth? Please share your thoughts with us here.

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Is Bias In the Workplace A Problem? And If It Is, How Do You Respond?

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on August 16, 2017 · 0 comments

The topic of bias in the workplace, especially “unconscious” or otherwise unintended bias, is a hot one these days. This bias affects social workers as much as it affects anyone else. It can conceivably interfere with their ability to achieve rapport and thus positive results for their clients. In many cases, the social worker involved may not even realize this is happening. The problem extends to all areas of staffing for the social work field (and employment overall). A recent article in Fortune by Brett Arends highlighted some interesting factors where bias in hiring is concerned — factors that we can extrapolate to other areas of staffing in the workforce generally and in social work specifically.

“Why do so many black Americans face discrimination when they look for work? Is it simply because so many recruiters have a racial bias? Or is something else at play?” Arends asks. “Researchers recently set out to find some answers by sending out thousands of fake resumes for jobs around the country, and they turned up a surprising, and little-noticed, answer. In a nutshell: it’s not that recruiters themselves necessarily have a racial bias; instead, they fear some of their customers do.”

These attitude are analogous to the relationship between social workers and clients. In other words, it’s not that social workers or the personnel managing their agencies are biased. It’s that they fear some of their clients might be. “[Researchers] submitted 9,400 fake resumes of nonexistent recent college graduates through online job applications for positions based in Atlanta, Baltimore, Portland, Oregon, Los Angeles, Boston, and Minneapolis,” writes Arends. “…Overall, black applicants were invited in for interviews 15.2% of the time, while white applicants received invitations 18% of the time. To put it another way, African-Americans were 16% less likely to get called in for an interview.”

The twist, as Arends puts it, is that the discrimination was found, not across all fields, but specifically in jobs with a customer focus. “In other words,” Arends writes, “the problem isn’t that Joe Smith doesn’t want to hire young African-Americans, but that he is worried that if he hires a black sales associate, old Mrs. Jones may take her business elsewhere.”

The revelation that bias can be one person removed from the source is an interesting one. It means that if social workers want to achieve better rapport with their clients, particularly when dealing with clients from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds, they must examine not only their own prejudices, but their fears about their clients’ prejudices. Both can provide barriers to working effectively with those social workers are trying to help. This, more than anything, is the takeaway from bias research like this.

Have you encountered unintentional bias? Do you fear you might harbor it yourself? Have you ever looked at it from this perspective? Please share your thoughts with us here.

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Work/Life Balance… And Beyond

by Social Work prn of Philadelphia on August 14, 2017 · 0 comments

The issue of work/life balance is a critical one for social workers because of the often high-stress and sometimes emotionally traumatic nature of the work we do. Social workers must contend with some of the ugliest components of society… alongside some of its most beautiful and fulfilling moments. This is the double-edged sword that is working to help the public as a profession. It can be remarkably  rewarding and fulfilling, but it can also be stressful, upsetting, and draining. The high workloads and chronic staffing shortages of social work contribute to a great deal of personnel churn, which threatens rapport and often sabotages progress made with a specific client. The only way to cope with these stressors and problems is to strive for a work/life balance that make social work sustainable in the long term.

According to a press release at Market Wired, national workplace happiness surveys point to factors beyond merely work/life balance. “Teem, a developer of cloud-based meeting tools and analytics that help workplaces optimize productivity, [recently] released results from its second annual Employee Happiness report, identifying trends related to workplace happiness and demonstrating the importance of better management to enable a more content and productive workforce,” reads the press release. “Besides some surprising changes from Teem’s 2016 Employee Happiness report, this year’s data reveals that almost half of employees are unhappy in their work in part due to poor work/life balance and feeling underappreciated in their role. Although there is excitement around emerging workplace technologies, it is clear that mismanagement of workplace technology can be a contributing factor to employee burnout and poor office communication.”

What does that mean? The press release goes on to explain that unhappy or unsatisfied personnel are “bad for business as demonstrated by recent headlines and research. Teem’s 2017 report finds that unhappy workplaces are created by poor communication, stifling workplace design, and lack of guidelines concerning communication and tech use when not on the clock, among other factors.”

In other words, the increasing connectivity of the modern world is making it harder for social workers (and all other employees) to leave the rigors of their work behind at the end of the work day. As technologies change, businesses and social work agencies must refocus on flexibility to prevent burnout. Burnout helps no one and contributes to the personnel churn that make existing problems worse. Providing employees with greater flexibility is one item highlighted by the Teem report as something that can help even out these issues.

It’s a simple fix, too, require little in the way of additional resources. Simply allowing personnel greater flexibility makes it easier for them to manage their workloads in an increasingly fast-paced and interconnected setting. Do you agree? Would greater flexibility lead to less stress and a lower potential for burnout in your position? Please let us know what you think.

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