‘I’m trying to keep him alive.’ Life as an underpaid, overworked social worker in Providence – Originally reported by Dan McGowan, Boston Globe

Travis Wiggins

Travis Wiggins is a veteran social worker in Providence working with young people through Tides Family Services.

Providence, RI – When you work with the kinds of kids Travis Wiggins works with every day – the ones who are always someone else’s problem, the ones who spend just as much time in the courtroom as the classroom, the ones too many of us assume have no chance – you learn to set very straightforward goals.

For the 16-year-old kid from Providence with a propensity for boosting cars, Wiggins wants him to finish high school and get a job, any job. For the pregnant teenager in Pawtucket, it’s all about making sure that baby is born healthy.

And the lanky, baby-faced 17-year-old sitting in the back of Wiggins’ Nissan Quest on a recent Monday afternoon, red hoodie over his head and eyes glued to his iPhone screen just like any other kid in every city in America? College?

“I’m trying to keep him alive,” Wiggins says bluntly, explaining that the boy has been caught up in gang life in the city for most of his life. There’s enough fear that his rivals have a bounty on his head that I’m warned not to describe where in Providence we pick him up or where we drop him off.

That bar sounds tragically low for any child or teen in our state, but consider the kind of pressure Wiggins and his 100 or so colleagues at Tides Family Services are putting on themselves when they’re going to bed worried that one of their clients might not make it through the night.

If you’re thinking that they couldn’t pay you enough to work with that level of stress, the truth is that virtually no one doing this kind of work in Rhode Island is getting paid nearly enough.

An entry-level caseworker at Tides, a nonprofit that works with more than 500 families a year in Rhode Island, earns about $33,000 a year. They all at least have their bachelor’s degree, and many have earned advanced degrees or certificates. Wiggins, 44, is still making less than $50,000 after 22 years on the job.

“You kind of forget what good food tastes like,” Wiggins told me, before explaining that there was a period early in his tenure at Tides that he was feeding a wife and two kids on $80 for two weeks.

Like a lot of professions, social services organizations are experiencing a staffing exodus as employees realize they can make more money elsewhere. Some leave the nonprofit world to earn nearly twice as much at the state Department of Children, Youth, and Families, while others are simply opting for less stressful work away from human services.

“People have left to work at Lowe’s,” Beth Bixby, the CEO at Tides, told me. “They make just as much.”

Tides receives more than 80 percent of its annual revenue from contracts with DCYF, so it’s almost entirely dependent on money from the state to survive. Tides rarely sees those payments from the state increase, even as caseloads continue to rise. For the first time in its 39-year-old history, Tides has been forced to put some of its clients on a waitlist for services.

Travis Wiggins approaches every visit with a purpose.

“Wiggins approaches every visit with a purpose.” PHOTO BY SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF

As Wiggins has learned over the years, too many kids don’t have the luxury of time.

On any given day, a caseworker at Tides might show up at a kid’s house in the morning to wake them up and drive them to school, or give them a lift to work if they’ve got a job or to the recreation center if they need a place to hang out. I watched Wiggins buy a Pawtucket teenager some Chinese food so he’d have something to eat that day.

Then I tagged along with Wiggins and another client on a night-time visit to The Boiler Room, a surprisingly high-end music studio in the basement of an old mill building, and watched as this teenager attempted to perfect a new rap track.

In a poor attempt to sound relatable, I told the kid he sounded like DMX. He laughed a little, rolled his eyes, and definitely texted his friends about the weird stiff sitting awkwardly in the studio.
These interactions can be eye-opening for the untrained.

Earlier this month, I followed another Tides’ caseworker on two home visits, and watched as a mother heated the house with her oven while she explained that her sixth-grade daughter is now on her third middle school of the year after getting kicked out of two others.

At a different apartment complex in Providence, an eighth-grade boy admitted that he was suspended from school for threatening to slap a teacher, and his mother told us that he hadn’t come home the night before.

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