Social Workers Struggle to Support Maine Families as Program Resources Dwindle

Community Concepts’ case managers and alternative response workers serve as lifelines to resources and support for the most vulnerable Maine families, even as major reductions in mental health, drug treatment and affordable housing programs have taken their toll.

With more severe budget cuts to support programs – or in some cases their elimination – being proposed at the federal level, families with few resources to help connect them to community supports and treatment around mental illness, addiction, child health problems and other challenges will be put in greater jeopardy.

“People that are on the margins live a very tenuous, vulnerable existence, and a threat to any of the programs that help them get by creates added stress and reduces their ability to actually rebound from wherever they are to become self-sufficient,” said Shawn Yardley, CEO of Community Concepts.

On Social Work Month 2017, and World Social Work Day on March 21, Community Concepts honors its Children’s Case Management and Alternative Response workers, who are on the ground every day helping families in trouble get on a path to self-sufficiency.

Children’s Case Management is for children with MaineCare and a mental health diagnosis. Families come into the program voluntarily. Case managers help parents receive in-home support for challenging behavior and other resources to help them address a new diagnosis of any mental, behavioral or developmental disability.

Alternative Response is triggered by a request from the Department of Health and Human Services, which has received a report of child abuse. The Alternative Response Program conducts assessments related to child safety and well-being, and identifies family strengths and ways to help reduce risk. The Alternative Response program also makes referrals to community resources to help address the family’s needs.

Challenges Facing Families

Those who come into the programs are often facing challenges such as unstable housing, which comes along with financial limitations.

“Someone may not make a livable wage, and that’s really hard. They’re working, trying to get to the right place in their life, trying to make positive choices, but their housing may take up 60% to 70% of their income because they are on a wait list for subsidized housing,” said Kim Fogg, an Alternative Response worker of 16 years with Community Concepts.

Mental health and substance abuse issues and a lack of treatment options are also key concerns.

“Parents are not qualifying for MaineCare as readily as they used to,” Fogg said, so more people are unable to afford treatment for mental health that may impact their functioning on a day-to-day basis. “We struggle with that. We call around to agencies asking if they have any grant funding to help or sliding scale that really can be affordable for families to access treatment.”

A Family Transformed

A single mother with three children was able to turn her life around over the course of two years working with Community Concepts Children’s Case Manager Bethany Merrill.

The mother, a victim of domestic violence, was actively abusing drugs, and the family’s housing situation was unstable and unsafe when she first came into the program.

Merrill became the family’s lifeline to mental and emotional support and concrete resources. She helped them find placement in subsidized housing and coordinated outpatient mental health counseling for both the mother and her children. She also arranged for a clinician to provide in-home parenting coaching and worked with the kids’ school to ensure they were using services there.

Two years later, “she’s now in her own place, her kids are involved in activities, they are doing better in school,” Merrill said. “You can see a total transformation for the mom and kids.”

Ongoing Reduction of Resources

The social workers at Community Concepts rely on a host of internal and external programs to help their clients, but those programs are under constant threat.

“One of the hardest parts of our job is that there are just not enough available resources,” Merrill said. “We can have all these grand ideas and things that we think could help and support a family, but when you go to actually access them, the funding has been cut, or the wait lists are so long that a family doesn’t want to wait or can’t wait.”

The role of discretionary funds has increased in importance as other programmatic resources have fallen away, according to Fogg.

“If there’s a concrete need such as diapers or beds for children to sleep on, we can access some limited funding to help provide that very concrete need for a family,” Fogg said. “Such funds are helpful but don’t help solve deeper problems.”

The state of these support programs grows more precarious each year, and the recent budget proposal at the federal level signals even more difficult times may be ahead for those in greatest need.

Community Concepts is a nonprofit organization supporting residents in Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties with a dynamic range of programs: children and family services, transportation, heating and utility assistance, affordable housing, and financing for housing and businesses.