Women Supporting Women, Featuring Erin Dombrowski
"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not." The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
It wasn't until 2018 that I learned what a social worker really did. I had an idea, but life circumstances put one in our lives for a short while when caring for my mother-in-law. This poor woman - she was overworked to an extreme point where she wasn't able to do everything she needed to help us and my mother-in-law and she had all of the signs of burnout. I felt bad for her each time I interacted with her. It was such a shame that she had so much on her shoulders and seemed to have no help. She was a one-woman show and didn't have the benefit of a team to support her.
This woman needed a tribe. She needed people to lean on, collaborate with, brainstorm with, share the load with and be successful with. So why are social workers drowning? Undervalued? Underappreciated? Underpaid? Overworked? I could continue...
Here's a quick Google search definition of "social":
adjective 1. relating to society or its organization. Opposite: individual
2. needing companionship and therefore best suited to living in communities.
Social workers need to be part of a team to be able to help their community. It was so refreshing to hear that Erin's role as a school social worker is one with a team approach, not just for her benefit, but for the benefit of the students and families she works with - it allows her more resources to be the best social worker she can be. There's a massive social worker shortage and I completely understand why. If everyone has a work environment like the social worker I worked with for my mother-in-law, I would run far away from wanting to be one. We need more opportunities for social workers to be given an atmosphere they can thrive in and excel at what they do. We need more social workers like Erin, part of a team, that believes in the team, and works hard to provide help, comfort and relief for others.
What type of social work do you do?
I’m a school social worker, so I wear a lot of hats in the system. Part of what I do is working with special needs students who receive special education services for emotional or physical reasons. I act as part of a team with a lot of other specialists so we can come up with a plan to help them succeed in school. I consult with teachers to help support a student they might be struggling to engage. Another part of what I do is behavioral intervention services. So if a student is exhibiting concerning behaviors, I help to figure out what might be the cause and how we can help. Doing that also means that a lot of times I’m working directly with families to help them help them improve their kids behavior and keep consistencies at home. And of course there’s always connecting people to the resources they need. Sometimes we see homeless families or families who don’t have access to enough food or clothing and I find resources to meet those needs. I deal with DCFS if we suspect a kid might be in a bad situation. I connect families with outside therapy if they want or need it. We do a lot under the radar. There really is way more to education than people might think sometimes, but it’s all important. Kids spend the majority of their time during the week in school, so school needs to be the place where they get the most help they possibly can. You can’t expect a child to sit down and learn if their basic needs aren’t being met; if they don’t know where their next meal is going to come from or if they’re going to be safe at home. We have to address those things first to give them their best shot at an education.
What is a typical day like for you?
There really is no typical day. Everyday is different, but I love that. I have a consistent caseload of kids that I meet with on a weekly basis for individual therapy sessions. I also do assessments on students who don’t get social work services but might benefit from them, so that process involves a lot of interviews and talking to families to get background information. I’m also a part of the Behavioral Health Team at my school, so we have weekly meetings to discuss individual student concerns and how we can improve the school environment and support systems so that every student can benefit. It’s never fun when a crisis situation pops up, but when they do it’s my responsibility to handle it. Sometimes kids will come in extremely upset and it’s my job to get to the bottom of why and what we need to do, whether that’s just calming them down or taking further steps to keep them safe. If parents have concerns they can contact me and I’ll meet with them. Sometimes kids exhibit concerning behaviors at home that we don’t see in school, or vice versa, so I try to make sure that everyone is on the same page while still respecting the families privacy.
Sometimes I’ll sit down to type my case notes or reports in the morning and it gets so busy that by the end of the day I barely have a sentence done. It can be unpredictable but it keeps me on my toes, and I’m someone that gets bored easily. Seeing my weekly kids consistently gives me a good balance of stability while also dealing with the unknown. Plus they’re just so stinking cute.
When did you know you wanted to be a social worker?
For a long time I actually thought I would never want to work with kids. I thought it would be too sad or I wouldn’t know how to talk to or relate to them. I started off my career before graduate school working with adults in an inpatient behavioral health unit. Being in an inpatient unit is basically as bad as it gets for a lot of people who struggle with mental health. My patients were suicidal or mentally ill. Some also had substance abuse issues. And they were brave. They were brave to wake up every morning and try to keep going even though they were fighting against their own head. They were brave for reaching out for help even if it was terrifying. They were brave to trust us even if they had every reason not to. It was incredibly taxing, but I’ll never forget it. Yes it helped my career but above that it made me a better human.
The longer I was working there and I got to talk to all these people, the more I realized that many of the things they would talk about, whether it was traumatic life events or lack of access to services to help them stay healthy, so many of these things started in their childhood and were never resolved or addressed. And the person I had in front of me was someone who had grown into an adult body but was still mentally grappling with their past. I decided that I wanted to be at the root of the problem. I wanted to be someone on the first line of defense when kids are affected, so that they have a better chance of recovering. Yes it’s sad and sometimes scary, but if you’re there immediately to start offering help and support, to say “you are valued and loved and smart and important and I will do whatever I can to help you” that makes a huge difference in someone’s life. People don’t forget those things. And everyone, EVERYONE, needs it at some point. Everyone goes through things. Everyone has some kind of battle. I just wanted to be one piece of the puzzle that helps them get through it.
There’s no question that being a social worker and helping to make such crucial life decisions for others must be mentally taxing. What do you do to take care of yourself so you don’t experience burnout or bring your work home?
It’s an ongoing process finding ways to take care of myself, and most importantly I have to remember to do it. I try to exercise everyday to make sure I feel good physically. I go for long runs and just let my mind wander. It’s an hour or so I can turn everything else off and just take time for me. I like cooking too because it makes me happy, and sometimes the best thing after a terrible day is just some good food. I have an incredible group of people I trust to listen to me if I’m not okay. My family, my friends, my boyfriend. There have been times I’ve come home crying, upset over something I saw or heard or what was said to me. They are all patient and kind and just let me vent. I think the phrase I remind myself of the most is “you can’t pour from an empty cup”. I have to make sure I’m good before I try and help anyone else.
What is the most fulfilling part of your job? Difficult part?
There’s a lot of difficult parts, but I think the hardest part for me is knowing the trauma some of my kids have gone through. It breaks your heart over and over again knowing that life or people can be so horrible. It makes you ask a million questions about how and why some things happen. Some of the things I’ve seen and heard are things I don’t wish on anyone.
But at the same time, knowing I’m the person they trusted is the most fulfilling. Kids are always told “tell someone you trust” or “find a safe adult” to protect themselves if something bad happens, and it’s humbling every time when I realize that’s me, I’m the safe adult they’re trusting. when kids start to make progress and they are able to say “I’m upset” instead of throwing things or fighting, I feel proud. If a kid who was never showing up to school starts coming, even passing, I feel proud. Watching them use the skills we’re all trying to give them makes me feel hope. When families send cards or thank you notes or When students leave me drawings or crafts they made, I save every single one. I keep them in a little box to look at on the bad days. It reminds me why I love my job.
Erin, thank you for all of your work to keep children in our community safe and healthy. Your passion for your job and dedication to your role in the lives of others is truly appreciated! Thank you for making a difference!
Do you have a woman you'd like to nominate for a feature? Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stay safe and healthy,