Boots on the Ground

by Kathleen BelangerKathleen Belanger, Challenges for Human Services columnist

In my last column, I discussed some possible roles for philanthropy in rural communities. In particular, I highlighted work done by the T. L. L. Temple Foundation, which maintains an office in rural East Texas. The foundation’s philosophy is that having a local presence, i.e., “boots on the ground,” provides a deeper understanding of the community and its needs, a more cost effective method for disbursing dollars, and more flexibility and responsiveness to changing local economies and needs, reducing the amount of time and expense required to evaluate service provision.

If it is important for foundations to have a physical presence, how much more important is it for human services to have at least some physical permanent presence in small communities? I recently visited a small county with a population of just under 10,000 people. While there were numerous publicly funded agencies that visited the county to provide substance abuse counseling, workforce assistance, child protection and other services, I could identify no local publicly funded human service professionals—no local child welfare workers; no local staff to help fill out SNAP (Food Stamps) applications, disability forms, Medicaid or Medicare forms, let alone explain the variations on Medicare; no local workforce counselors; no local adult protective service staff. There was not one human service professional with “boots on the ground”—someone locally responsible for preventing troubled families from breaking apart, for keeping an eye on the needs of the very rural elderly.

In fact, in this county, the people who recognize that they are addicted to drugs or alcohol have only their churches or neighbors to turn to for local help. They may not have the transportation to seek treatment in another county, or they don’t personally know and trust the regional worker who visits on a limited schedule. So they don’t ask for treatment. Elderly people there who live alone and lack transportation often depend on a neighbor to get medications or essentials from the store. When the neighbor moves or is taken ill, it is not unusual for the elder to no longer take medications, to miss meals, or even to become seriously ill and hospitalized. While child abuse is at least as prevalent in this county as in others, it is underreported. There are fewer investigations of abuse and neglect, fewer support services to families to keep children safe, fewer removals of children in unsafe situations. Without child care services, children may be cared for in substandard methods, the parent may not be able to work, or the children may be left alone. And transportation is just too expensive to drive out of county for work. Social service problems, including mental health crises or child abuse, are often referred to the police who may not be trained, equipped or staffed to handle what social workers in other counties handle.

Without treatment provided locally, the “need” is undercounted, or recorded in other counties where treatment is available, with future resources allocated to the place where the need is documented. It is a vicious cycle.

The single-day visits by relative strangers, the emergency responses, access through the Internet to a public information site, all of the part-time people coming in and out of the county, and the total expenditures combined do not take the place of a single local human service professional.

Unlike the medical field in which there are open positions that are unfilled, rural human service positions have evaporated, probably even faster than post offices. As both state and federal governments move to increase specialization and constrict funding, the most rural positions have been eliminated within agencies, at the same time as poverty has grown. In fact, the recent National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect found that poverty and unemployment are significantly related to child maltreatment, and that rural children suffer maltreatment at roughly twice the rate of urban children. And yet these are the places with only part-time itinerant help and serious transportation challenges.

Of course we can’t have a child welfare worker, a facilitator for applying for public benefits (SNAP, health benefits, etc.), substance abuse counselors, etc., in every community. But we could very well have one human being, one real person, who could do multiple jobs. We could do this by having funding streams allocate the fair percentage of human service dollars to the counties, possibly through health and human services regional offices, with requirements that they be spent on locally based human service professionals with multiple roles and responsibilities, funded through multiple streams. In fact, when we analyze the current funding required for part of the salaries, the transportation, and time lost in transportation, we might be able to fund several positions. We might be able to bring quality human service jobs back to struggling communities. We might return caring leaders who can earn a living, but who could also help support the outstanding volunteer efforts that have sprung up in the human services desert, providing a linkage to regional, state and federal information, discretionary funding and policy. We might be able to fund several pairs of boots on rural grounds, not through special time-limited and unsustainable grants, but through public policy.

The relationships and intimacy of place are rural gold. Let’s honor and support the intimacy of place by bringing back multi-talented human service professionals to their hometowns.

Kathleen Belanger, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Social Work at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and is a member of the RUPRI Human Services Panel, co-chair of Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) National Advisory Committee on Rural Social Services, and recipient of CWLA’s Champion for Children award in 2005 for her work in rural child welfare. Belanger has published and presented on human services issues in a variety of publications and forums. In addition, she has worked for more than 20 years with rural communities, where she has helped found several non-profit organizations and advocated for rural resources.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rural Health Information Hub.

Back to: Fall 2012 Issue