Letter - RI Faces a Crisis in Human Services
Published in the Providence Journal on October 21, 2021
Benedict F. Lessing, Jr. MSW, CEO, Community Care Alliance and Member of Horizon Healthcare Partners
I cannot tell you over the course of a 40+ year career in human services how often I have met with elected officials stating “You are doing God’s work”. This is typically a precursor to a conversation about limited funding. It always comes down to priorities that do not meet human needs.
Twenty years ago Governor Carcieri took office promoting what he referred to as the “the big audit” which systematically stripped away human services resources. One result was eliminating planning and policy positions in State government which is one reason external consultants flourish in RI. Another was the weakening of the non-profit human services sector whereby funding salaries and infrastructure was cut and/or frozen making the operation of these organizations challenging at best. This is when we began to hear that we needed to think in terms of “less being more” and the importance of being efficient. Managed Care took root, particularly as a means of shifting government responsibilities to private companies paying very close attention to their bottom line.
Rhode Island is now facing a massive workforce crisis in the human services and healthcare sector. Staff is leaving community organizations in droves for higher paying salaries, generous sign-on bonuses and other benefits. Frequently, these are the staff that community based organizations trained for years but can’t compete with the salaries offered by State agencies such as DCYF, DHS, BHDDH or Corrections or hospitals.
Why does this matter? First, fewer people depending on these services will receive them. I am referring to homeless individuals and families, people with mental illness, individuals struggling with substance use and addiction, children and families that fall into the child welfare system due to poverty, domestic violence, mental health concerns etc. as well as children struggling with depression and suicidal ideation, newborns with developmental delays and/or other disabilities.
Elected officials fail to grasp that State agencies (i.e. DCYF, Family Court, BHDDH, DHS) depend on community organizations and cannot function without them. Schools, hospitals, Police and municipalities use these organizations to solve problems and address human needs they are not equipped to manage. A long term outcome will be greater dependence on institutional care and rationing of services which may include either first come first serve or those that are most acute. Expect greater utilization of Police, Rescue and hospital Emergency Rooms. In other words, less is just less.
As community based organizations shrink due to diminished funding, it will negatively impact the economy beginning with jobs and the businesses that support the sector. Unquestionably, local economies will suffer. Moreover, the competencies of these organizations that comprise the safety net for multiple populations will diminish without proper financial support.
As a career Social Worker and Administrator it has been maddening to watch this process occur. It calls into question our values, morality and common sense. The State’s fiscal and strategic approach to the delivery of human services couldn’t be more wrong-headed. We spend way too much of our precious resources on psychiatric beds, boarding kids in need of mental health services in Emergency Rooms, placing children in institutions, incarcerating mentally ill people and allowing too many people to sleep on the street while State owned facilities that could provide shelter remain vacant. State budgets and investments are policy statements that affect the well-being of real people. Until we see the people that need our support and take tangible steps to ameliorate their suffering, whatever is left of the human services safety net will only continue to unravel.
Please contact your local representative and ask them to support more equitable pay for human services workers.