School social workers feel mental health crunch in McHenry County

State cuts, poor economy increase caseloads

Social worker Julie Carnes talks with a student in her office at Crystal Lake South High School. Carnes is one of the two social workers at the school.
Social worker Julie Carnes talks with a student in her office at Crystal Lake South High School. Carnes is one of the two social workers at the school.

State cuts to mental health funding and a poor economy translate into more families without insurance, and schools are feeling the crunch.

“I will have parents call and say, ‘I can’t afford to pay for the sessions. Could you see my students once a week?’ ” said Julie Carnes, a social worker at District 155’s Crystal Lake South High School. “We cannot assume the role of the primary services, but we try and see those kids through.”

In theory, school social workers provide intervention and counseling within the school walls and refer families to outside resources when the student needs it.

Between state cuts or money troubles at home, more students are facing longer waiting lists or receiving fewer sessions, said Todd Keesey, a social worker at District 47’s Hannah Beardsley Middle School in Crystal Lake. Transportation and time constraints can make it even tougher to make those appointments.

From the fiscal 2009-10 budget to the one for 2012-13, the state of Illinois has cut $187 million from its mental health spending, a drop of 31.7 percent, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. That puts Illinois fourth in terms of cuts by percentage.

“Who shores that up?” Hannah Beardsley Middle School Principal Ron Ludwig said. “Right here. We’re it.”

Even if they do have insurance, many insurance companies limit the number of sessions patients can receive, Keesey said.

“They may meet with them every other week or maybe once a month,” Keesey said. “You can’t always schedule your crises once a month. School social workers and school psychologists are much more accessible.”

That compounds with higher stress at home, Ludwig said. That stress trickles down to the kids, Carnes said. They hear their parents discussing financial difficulties or may have to stop their normal activities.

“A lot of things are falling on schools,” Riley District 18 Principal Christine Conkling said. “We may get more of it.”

The tightening is happening as many districts face budget constraints of their own.

While some schools have the funding to invest in mental health professionals, others have had to make cuts, meaning that one social worker could be the first line of defense for a thousand kids, sometimes across multiple schools.

Some small districts don’t have full-time social workers. Riley District 18, for example, has a part-time social worker come on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

“It becomes triage,” Keesey said. “Do you work with the student who is having difficulty during lunch with someone picking on them? Do you sit and spend time counseling the student who is having a divorce occur in their family? Grief and loss? Kids that are more significantly depressed and self-injuring?”

That’s on top of the time social workers have to spend with students who have individualized education plans. The state requires IEPs to set out, in minutes, the services each student must receive each week.

“We just keep lessening the opportunity for the [other kids],” Ludwig said. “We probably have 100 IEP kids. That means we have 950 kids who don’t have a label who you and I both know are probably hurting in some way – not all of them, but even if it’s 50 kids. How do you get to the kids without a label?”

Social workers are trying to help kids cope with homelessness, fragmented families, teen pregnancy, poverty, hunger and abuse, said Susan Krause, the Pioneer Center’s director of organizational advancement.

“[Social workers] have way too many people,” Krause said. “They’re inundated. They have 750 kids.”

There were 145 social workers in 2012 for the 70,000-plus kids in McHenry County-area school districts, about 9 percent of them part time, according to data submitted by districts to the Illinois State Board of Education. School districts also employed 105 psychologists, 14 percent of them part time, in 2012.

Unless schools address the underlying social and emotional needs of needs of students, the students aren’t going to perform, Keesey said.

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