Social workers deserve more respect and pay than we give them

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For the past 21 years, I’ve spent the majority of my days caring for my son, who has autism. He has obsessive-compulsive disorder and is largely non-verbal. After washing and re-washing his hands countless times, resisting getting out of the shower, putting on and taking off socks, getting him out every morning takes two to three hours.

Carrie Sonneborn

If you’ve ever had a baby, you’ll remember sleep deprivation, diapers and battles of wills. Many parents of children with special needs continue in this mode, forever. I spend hours every day being her “social worker”: advocating, arranging and scheduling therapy and classes, hanging on the phone seeking services. It’s a full time job.

With his diagnosis, my professional career was difficult to maintain and my income plummeted. When my son was 5, he qualified for certified practical nursing. I became his “CNA parent”. The salary was not enough to cover our bills but I felt grateful; at least I would have health insurance again.

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For a long time, I didn’t even realize I was a caregiver; I now avoid the more common term, “helper”. This work, like motherhood, literally underpins all of society and makes all other work possible, but it is largely invisible and vastly undervalued. Every day, social workers do the essential work that allows millions of people with disabilities and older people to live in safety and dignity.

It’s time for a major change in the way we respect, appreciate, support and compensate those who provide care in our society.

Social workers are largely women — mostly women of color — who have long been overlooked. This stems directly from systemic sexism and racism. The line of thought is that women have always done this work “for free” and slaves have done this work “for free”, so why should we pay them properly now? Care work is seen as something women do for free in their presumed role as “donors” to society and the family.

As a parent of a child who needs round-the-clock care, I know firsthand how physically, emotionally, and mentally demanding care work is. We often face behavioral issues and aggression that make even the most routine activity a struggle. Without appropriate mental health care or respite, the health consequences for social workers are real.

I am also a care consumer. When my son was first diagnosed, despite my advantages of being an older, white, English speaking, overeducated parent, navigating the system seemed impossible without support. Recently, it took me eight months to find a dentist who could perform general anesthesia to fill his cavities. To this day, I often struggle to find services from all kinds of social workers because they are understaffed and have months-long waiting lists.

I am far from alone. In Colorado, an estimated 12,000 adults with disabilities have childminders over the age of 60. There have always been parents caring for their children with disabilities, but we have never seriously considered a political response to what happens to those adult children when their parents are gone.

A perfect storm is brewing. As the percentage of people with disabilities continues to rise and the baby boomer generation ages, the demand is skyrocketing. Meanwhile, social workers are leaving the profession in droves. The industry is struggling to recruit and retain workers, creating a crisis-level labor shortage.

Without bold action and major investment, this downward spiral will continue. We need to change the conditions that lead to burnout and workers leaving the field. To do this, social workers must have a voice and decision-making power in the redesign of the system. Social workers know what needs to change to provide jobs that avoid burnout: adequate pay, benefits, regular shifts, respite, mental health days, and salaried positions.

The reality is that every person, at some point in their life, will provide care or need care. It’s time we valued care work for the essential work that it is.


Carrie Sonneborn, of Lakewood, is a leading foster home provider with Colorado healthcare workers unite.


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