MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS: COMMUNITY NEEDS CAN’T BE MET
BUREAUCRATIC PROCESS AND DELAYS LEAVE SOCIAL WORKERS WITHOUT LICENSES AND CONSUMERS WITHOUT ACCESS TO SERVICES
July 14, 2021—Over 160 social workers, legislators and agency leaders showed up this morning to provide virtual public comment and share their first-hand experiences with a non-responsive and broken licensing board that is creating a community crisis.
The New Jersey Board of Social Work Examiners, the entity responsible for the licensing of social workers in New Jersey has failed to respond to emails, cannot be reached via phone, and has suffered a significant and troubling number of staff turnovers in the last 19 months.
Applicant phone calls and emails to the BSWE have gone unanswered since the onset of the pandemic. In an informal survey conducted earlier this month by the National Association of Social Workers – New Jersey Chapter (NASW-NJ), 87% of respondents said they were unable to receive a response from the BSWE via phone, email, or postal delivery.
In the absence of communication from the BSWE, individuals are turning to NASW-NJ—their professional organization—for assistance. They have reported they cannot get licensed to work, have missed job opportunities and promotions due to licensure delays; meanwhile, agencies report they have waitlists upwards of 3 months for clients to access mental health services—because they cannot hire enough qualified, licensed employees.
“Countless applicants for licensure have had to endure delays of several months, at a time when their services are needed more than ever,” said Assemblyman Paul Moriarty, Chair of the Assembly Consumer Affairs Committee. “The delays in granting licenses not only affect the income of the workers involved, but also the many people who could have been served by each worker. We must find a way to accelerate the approval process and allow people to get to work.”
One pending applicant, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear a license will be denied, shared: “I applied for my licensing exam in March of this year (2021). I paid my licensing fee and uploaded all required documents. I have heard nothing about the status of my application since.”
Another shared: “[I] passed the masters exam September 2020 and sent all the requirements by mail to the office. I also sent all requirements by email and have not received any correspondence to date. I cannot reach anyone by phone and all my emails have gone unanswered so far.”
“At a time when agencies are looking to hire more social workers, and more individuals are seeking mental health services, it is not acceptable to hear that our government is preventing individuals from entering or advancing in the field of social work,” declared Assemblywoman Joann Downey, Chair of the Assembly Human Services Committee.
“We have been in discussions with the Division of Consumer Affairs for over a year, with little to no progress on these very significant issues,” shared Jennifer Thompson, MSW, Executive Director of NASW-NJ. “The response is always ‘tell applicants to email.’ But when they do, they don’t get a response,” she continued. “We now stand on the brink of crisis, if we aren’t already there. Our communities’ needs for mental health care cannot be met. Social workers cannot be licensed in our state in a timely manner. They are losing jobs. They are choosing to relocate to states where the system is functional.”
Dr. Dawn Apgar, Director of the undergraduate social work program at Seton Hall University and a national expert on social work licensure who previously Chaired the New Jersey Board of Social Work Examiners, states the problems are multifaceted and require immediate action to get graduates into critical helping positions. Apgar posits that “one of the major issues involves the inability of applicants to get information about the status of their application. They wait and keep emailing with no idea of when or if they will hear back. Other states have call centers and protocols in place which ensure written responses to emails in 24 to 48 hours. The problem in New Jersey appears to be getting worse – not better.”
“For years, the behavioral healthcare system has been contending with staff shortages and a constantly increasing demand for these vital services, which has risen exponentially as a result of COVID-19 and is expected to continue,” adds Shauna Moses, Vice President of Public Affairs and Member Services for the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies (NJAMHAA). “Behavioral health professionals need to receive their licenses in a timely manner in order to meet the current and future needs of New Jersey residents. If treatment is not readily available, individuals would be at risk of experiencing worsening health conditions and possibly risk of suicide.”
“With the pandemic further straining the capacity of New Jersey’s overstretched behavioral health services system to deliver services, it is exceptionally disappointing that bureaucratic delays are preventing the licensure of qualified social workers to work in the system and deliver those services. These delays amplify providers’ challenges in filling vacancies, and ultimately limit access to care for people who need it now,” said Kimberley Higgs, LCSW, Executive Director of the New Jersey Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association (NJPRA).
“If social workers are to be called to action and to serve, the systems that control licensure to protect the community must also be responsive to the community’s needs,” notes Thompson. “These systems are an essential part of solving the mental health crisis in our state, but right now, the Board is taking messages and will respond in 3-9 months,” she added. “But for a client in crisis, they don’t have 3-9 months to wait for a professional’s help. It might literally mean life or death. That’s why we’ve now engaged our state’s legislators to help address the problem. The Attorney General’s office and the Division of Consumer affairs needs to take action now to address the short-comings of the Board.”
Founded in 1955, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) is the largest membership organization of professional social workers in the world, with more than 100,000 members. The New Jersey Chapter is the second largest chapter in the United States, with more than 6,500 members. NASW-NJ works to enhance the professional growth and development of its members, to create and maintain professional standards, and to advance sound social policies. Learn more at www.naswnj.org.