County Welfare Directors are on the front lines of an ongoing crisis

Jeff vonKaenel

Most days I think I have a difficult job publishing three alternative newspapers, at a time when giant internet corporations are gobbling up the advertising revenues that used to support independent journalism. But last week I attended the conference of the County Welfare Directors Association, a nonprofit association of California human services directors who oversee welfare, food stamps, Medi-Cal and Child Protective Services. My job suddenly seemed pretty easy.

Nothing in my job compares with running a navigation system that helps people in need find government services, such as emergency housing. Nothing compares with making life-changing decisions about whether a child should be removed from his or her parents’ home with only limited information about the present and future. Nothing compares with helping those suffering from severe mental health issues wade through complex government paperwork that would be a struggle even for someone like myself, a college-educated man who is not currently suffering from hallucinations.

Their challenges include the opioid epidemic, the rising costs of housing, increasing income inequality, and the anger that is being directed at our society’s most helpless.

At a convention with 900 people engaged in the same field, one gets a feel for the group: What they are like, what jokes make them laugh, who they admire and how engaged they are. This was my first CWDA convention. I was there because our publications division has created eight-page newspapers for many of the county agencies. As I attended the workshops and sessions, I was repeatedly struck by the empathetic audience response to the stories about people overcoming obstacles.

A vendor selling handkerchiefs would have done well when social rights activist Lateefah Simon told her personal story about being a teenage mother in and out of the justice system, and described her work with young, marginalized women of color in the Bay Area. The audience was moved by UC San Francisco physician Margot Kushel’s stories about providing health services to the population of aging homeless people in San Francisco. They heard how Child Protective Services is shifting its philosophy to moving children out of group homes and into homes with foster parents who maintain a relationship with the biological parents, but recruitment has been a problem, particularly for older foster children.

Only those who care deeply about what they do would sit through three days of sessions on such technical topics as “Recruitment of resource homes and trauma informed practice in schools” or “Collaborating and connecting housing partners to serve families experiencing homelessness.” What these human services directors are doing is incredibly difficult and so important.

We have been reminded recently of the dangerous work of our nation’s first responders. These individuals, at great personal risk, willingly rush into the fire or toward the gunfire to save lives. We are so lucky that there are brave people who take these risks for others. But I was reminded at the CWDA convention that we should also celebrate those who are willing to help people in crisis, 24/7. They deal with emergencies that are just as critical, and they are tasked with helping people who are marginalized and vulnerable. I have just two words to say: Thank you.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.