Mary-Margaret Sweeney

Mary-Margaret Sweeney

Social Justice Solutions | Staff Writer
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Chronicling an MSW Internship: Working in the System

It’s been a bad winter here in Chicago. With highs in the 20s today, I wondered if any of my four clients would show up at the agency to be escorted to a dental appointment. Both families braved the sideways snow and the stinging wind and made it to the office. We made the 10 minute walk to the dental clinic over un-shoveled sidewalks. It struck me that I had spent my morning downtown in the Financial District, and those sidewalks were immaculate. Unsurprisingly, a neighborhood with a refugee resettlement agency and a Medicaid dental clinic ten minutes from one another is not as well maintained.

We arrived and began the usual process of signing consent forms and running my clients medical cards through the computer system. Due to some glitch, two of the children were not showing up in the system. We called DHS, we tried every combination of birthdays and names, to no avail. I called my supervisor who was out of the office running a program. I called the family’s case manager, and an interpreter. The clinic would not bill the family at a later date, but was only able to accept payment up-front and refund later. My clients were not able to pay for the service. I understood their policy, but looked at my clients shivering from their commute to my office, and our walk to the clinic. Was I really going to tell them it was all for nothing?

After calling everyone I could, the answer was that we could not front the cost for the family, the dental office could not bill them later, and DHS was never able to confirm this family. I had to give my phone to the mother of the two children and have an interpreter tell them that they would have to leave and make another appointment.

I told the interpreter to make sure the client knew how sorry I was. I told the other family I would come back for them, and escorted the dejected family back to the office through the cold. With one sudden gust of wind, ice crystals, snow, and rock salt swirled into the air and pelted our faces. The youngest child began to cry. I got them back to our office where I connected them with their case manager. And then I set out again to return to the clinic.

As I walked back, I thought about how inconvenient being poor is. I was fortunate as a child to go to the dentist every 6 months, and remember my mother pulling out her checkbook at the end of the visit, paying out-of-pocket as her job did not provide dental coverage. But she could pay it. I never went without dental or healthcare when I needed it, and had preventative care. I never ventured out into single digit weather on three buses just to wait for another forty-five minutes to be turned away due to a computer error. My mom understood what medical professionals were saying about me, and could explain it to me.

I tried to advocate for this family today, but was not able to get what I wanted for these clients. And that hurt. But I hope by telling their story, I can shed light on the plight of those using social services. For all of the ink spilled chastising some for abusing the system, I don’t think we spill hardly any at all discussing how the system abuses people, too.

By Mary-Margaret Sweeney, MSW Intern
Staff Writer

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