With demand for social workers and counselling services in schools and throughout the public system increasing as the COVID-19 pandemic rages, the chronic shortage of qualified professionals has become glaring.

There are currently 127 School Social Workers (SSWs) attached to the School Social Work Unit, Ministry of Education (MOE). However, a document from the MOE listed the ideal number of SSWs needed to service the primary, secondary and Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) sectors at 334. This shows a shortfall of 207 SSWs throughout the system.

The largest shortfall of SSWs has been recorded for primary schools which need 183 professionals but operate with 73. At the secondary level, they need 67 more SSWs to bring the numbers up from the 54 that currently operate. While at the ECCE level there are no SSWs assigned and they have made a recommendation for 30 qualified professionals.

The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted the local population leading to increases in poverty, depression, suicide, anxiety, crime, narcotics usage, domestic and sexual abuse, mental disorders, and nervous breakdowns. As the need for urgent counselling grows daily, the demands being placed on the shoulders of social workers are also increasing.

According to the Ministry of Social Development, the National Family Services Division has spent a significant amount of time counselling victims of crime, particularly family-related issues including violence.

Officials revealed that in fiscal 2020, 3,719 people had been counselled and that for fiscal 2021 thus far, 2,292 people had accessed counselling after experiencing some form of abuse or violence.

MOE: School Social Workers provide integral services to students, parents, communities

According to the Ministry of Education, SSWs are a pivotal connection between students, schools, parents, communities, governmental social services agencies, and other civil societies for the best interest of students.

They provide the services needed to assist students in reaching their full potential so they can perform at their best.

Assigned to the seven education districts in Trinidad, the Student Support Services Division (SSSD) said some of the issues so far addressed by SSWs include child abuse, mental health, homelessness, teen parenting, chronic absenteeism, grief and loss, violence, social skills, coping and resiliency.

In response to COVID-19, the MOE said SSWs continue to provide integral and necessary services to students, parents, families, educators and communities.

As a result, officials admitted, “Additional services were necessary to meet the needs of our students, parents and communities.”

NGO: Civil society & State must join hands

Confirming there is an urgent need for social workers and reinforcing just how important this cadre of workers are for non-governmental organisations, the International Women’s Resource Network (IWRN) said “There are women and families and even men who are experiencing a lot of hurt, pain and anger in our society as a number of individuals feel challenged by not having resources to provide for their families, in particular, people who have been affected by the new lockdown measures.”

Providing counselling to people who continue to flock to them daily, IWRN’s president Sandrine Rattan said they had seen hundreds of cases in the areas of mental health, poverty, intimate-partner violence, suicidal thoughts, unemployment/under-employment, and online challenges with children particularly those under age 13.

Rattan said, “There is now an urgent need for the Ministry of Social Development to connect with civil society organisations who are currently engaged in providing psychosocial support such as the IWRN and Families in Action.”

She believes if the appropriate action is not taken “there can be a rise in suicidal deaths, increased incidents of depression among both adults and youths, compounded by incidents of self-harm among the youth population.”

Rattan said even though her officers are “stretched thin and overworked” as they try to respond to every case that comes to them, the lack of resources has been hampering efforts to provide the type of assistance some people urgently need.

Programmes developed by Social Work Unit due to COVID-19:

1. Hotline services–The SSSD hotline was created to address the need for urgent assistance to students. Through the hotline, SSWs are able to receive calls and referrals. The hotline services are available to all students, principals, school administrators, parents, external help agencies and other concerned citizens seeking support and assistance. All hotline calls are considered referrals that follow the SSSD referral process. This hotline service is managed by the senior SSW and the Social Work Specialist.

2. Student Support Groups–The purpose for the creation of virtual support groups for students and families is due to the onset of COVID-19 and the closure of schools. Students and families may be placed at further risk with the absence of face-to-face support that is usually provided to the families by SSWs. The main aim of the support groups is to treat with the psychosocial distress students and their families may experience. It will further provide students and parents with substantial educational, emotional, mental and experiential support.

3. Community Voices–This project is geared toward fostering a better working relationship between the community and the school. It was deemed necessary to improve this relationship because of the many challenges faced within the school system. Complex cases involving ‘at-risk children and victims of abuse warrant greater collaboration among the professionals directly involved in assessing and intervening in those cases for the best interest of the nation’s children.

4. Parent Support Group–During COVID-19, family functioning is especially critical to students’ performance and well-being and as such, proper parenting is central to ensuring that students are socialised in ways that allow for their holistic development. It has been acknowledged that various challenges during this time may hinder students’ capacity to develop in healthy ways.

A MOE official explained, “Some families are increasingly experiencing traumatic circumstances such as the death of a loved one, domestic violence, job loss and the complications that follow these issues. Yet other parents are increasingly faced with challenging circumstances and struggle even more to maintain family equilibrium. They, therefore, need assistance to cope and assist their children with what has become our new normal. A Virtual 3 Parenting in Education (PIE) Support Group is an appropriate intervention strategy which can be utilised to assist parents who are faced with these challenging circumstances.”

Former minister speaks:

Political activist and human rights advocate, Verna St Rose Greaves who is also a social worker said “social workers should undergo psychoanalysis and psychological assessment before graduating and obtaining certification and renewal licensure.”

The former gender, youth and child development minister called for advocacy to be a bigger part of their learning.

“We continue to train social workers in malfunctioning agencies. They have to be trained in communities. We should not be paying for spaces.”

Insisting that vacant government housing can be used in such settings in order to reach a wider audience, she said “We look outside the community for so-called experts to come in…leaving no database or structure in place. We need to acknowledge the expertise of residents in these communities who can help.”

Referring to what she described as “divided loyalties,” St Rose Greaves explained, “When you work for the State, you serve the people, not the party. Social workers are torn by divided loyalty in that they will choose an employer over a client.

“At its simplest, social work is about helping people to cope. There is no doubt that in times of difficulty there will be exponential growth of the client population. Unfortunately the people most affected are usually left out of discussions and decisions that will impact their lives.”

In expecting social workers to create opportunities and spaces where marginalised voices get a place for expression, St Rose Greaves said this would entail social workers being present at the tables of decision making in different places and at several levels.

“As key players in the development process, social workers engage with people who are most likely to be negatively affected by the economic downturn. In T&T, the majority of social workers are employed with or attached to programmes funded by government.”

St Rose Greaves said this pandemic has underscored that “not only do we need social workers, we need them to be strategically placed. The pandemic has only heightened the need for strategic and critical social work intervention. There is a bit of a dilemma because more than ever, we need a hands-on approach while COVID dictates demand hands-off.”

Expressing disappointment that social workers are yet to be declared frontline workers, the outspoken activist said while some adapted to an online presence very quickly and efficiently, too many have been stymied by what is lacking.

Referring to this cadre of workers as resource developers who need to advocate more for what is needed now, she suggested an insurance hazard allowance for them.