Nonprofits question mental health expansion in NYC schools

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At the behest of Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city DOE hired 500 new social workers this fall.

Following more than 4,000 NYC kids losing a parent to COVID-19 since its outset in 2020, the city Department of Education (DOE ) hired 500 social workers this fall.

Therefore, every city public school now has at least one full-time social worker or school-based mental health clinic in addition to other pre-existing supports like community school programs and resources across the city, such as NYC Health + Hospitals and ThriveNYC. In total, more than 6,000 social workers, guidance counselors and school psychologists will provide support to schools this fall, in addition to community based resources.

Nadia Chait, director of policy and advocacy at The Coalition for Behavioral Health, questions the DOE’s plan to fill city schools with 500 “new” social workers. Photo courtesy Nadia Chait

However, with a nationwide social worker shortage, Todd Karlin, chief program officer at Astor Services for Children and Families, and Nadia Chait, director of policy and advocacy at The Coalition for Behavioral Health, were surprised to learn that the DOE was able to find 500 new ones. While the city claims all of the social workers are brand new, both Karlin and Chait told the Bronx Times that the city hired social workers from existing nonprofit clinics in DOE schools.

“There aren’t 500 unemployed social workers waiting for these jobs,” Chait said.

Currently, nonprofit organizations run 243 school-based mental health clinics that serve children and families. The Coalition recommends expanding these clinics to schools across the city, which could be done at little cost to the city because these clinics are licensed by the state and can bill Medicaid. Through these clinics, psychiatrists and other practitioners can provide a high level of care to address the wide range of mental health needs of students.

“Bringing more social workers into schools doesn’t solve certain problems,” Karlin said. “The question is where do the social workers come from?”

According to Karlin, instead of looking at what each school needs, the DOE is trying to do patchwork and fix everything at once. For example, certain schools need multiple social workers who can help kids deal with trauma, Karlin and Chait said. Since the nonprofits could have created clinics in more schools that would have been reimbursed, Karlin isn’t sure why the city chose the more expensive route.

Karlin said on paper hiring 500 new social workers sounded great, but in reality, simply wasn’t practical because they don’t exist.

“They’re taking away from some of the highest needs schools to support others,” he said. “No one talked to the schools beforehand to see what their needs are. We know there are many schools now with vacancies.”

Chait echoed Karlin’s sentiments and said that children already dealt with numerous issues before the pandemic and now will need mental health services even more. But certain schools may require more assistance than others and the DOE plan does not address that.

Chief Program Officer at Astor Services for Children and Families Todd Karlin doesn’t believe the DOE hired 500 new social workers this fall, as they have claimed. Photo courtesy Todd Karlin

“There’s no perfect solution,” she said. “We would love to work with the city on increasing the pipeline (of social workers to schools).”

In fact, Astor Services sent out a survey to nonprofits regarding social workers who left school clinics and discovered that many went to work for the DOE.

Of the 100 nonprofits that responded to the survey, at least half of their employees who left went to work for the DOE as part of the mayor’s initiative, said Yvette Bairan, chief executive officer of Asor Services for Children and Families.

“For Astor, that number is at least 70%,” Bairan said.

However, according to DOE Spokesman Nathan Styer, the DOE recruited a pool of more than 1,000 applicants and worked with local colleges and universities to find candidates.

“This year we made a historic investment in the long-term mental health support of our young people,” Styer said. “By hiring 500 caring adults for schools that previously did not have a school-based social worker, we are taking the important, and necessary steps to ensure our children are returning to safe, welcoming schools this fall.”

Reach Jason Cohen at [email protected] or (718) 260-4598. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.