Compassion when it counts: The mind of a social worker

It seemed that an air of compassion followed Joe Allen with every step.


Joe Allen is a veteran social worker with Jackson County Social Services. He’s making arrangements to leave his current position in favor of a spot with children’s advocate group Guardian ad Litem of North Carolina. Photo by Caleb Peek.

As he opened the door to a windowless second-floor waiting room inside the Jackson County Social Services building, the looming sense of dread lingering in the atmosphere scattered. Sitting in a government-beige social services office has a way of conjuring up a type of hopelessness, but Allen’s bright smile provided a pleasant welcome.

Dressed in jeans and a Smoky Mountain High School polo, he apologized for his observance of the department’s casual Friday policy as we walked back to his office.

“Sorry for looking like this today,” he said. “Usually I try to look a little sharper.”

From the stacks of files in various parts of the room, it’s apparent that Allen is a very busy man. As one of Jackson County’s lead social workers, the bushy-bearded mediator has more than his fair share of cases to keep up with. One particular set of information takes up an entire corner of the 10×10 office, each overflowing folder bearing the same client surname. 

“That one’s about three years old now,” Allen remarked thoughtfully. “They’ve been through a lot.”

If anyone is qualified to discern whether a family has indeed “been through a lot,” it’s Allen. Over his eight-year career as a social worker, he’s seen everything from loving parents who made simple mistakes, to the side of humanity that’s capable of an advanced form of evil. 

Allen is a strong individual, sound physically, mentally and spiritually. But there are two aspects of social work that he finds unnerving, and one of them, he admits, almost caused him to quit.

The first is the concept of child removal.

Upon first mention, Allen’s warm eyes hardened under an icy gaze.

“This department will do everything in its power to prevent a child being taken away from his or her home,” he declares. There’s a new level of emotion in his voice now as he tries to find the verbiage to describe such a difficult part of the job.

“I hate it. It’s a sickening feeling seeing a family torn apart,” he explained. “But we have to do what is best for the child in any given situation, and sometimes, there is no other option but to remove that child from a dangerous place.”

That’s a hard pill to swallow, but a fair point considering the other, much less common part of the workday that Allen fears even more.

“I had a child death on a case while I was in Haywood County,” he said, lowering his voice with every word. “I was a new social worker with only a year or two experience under my belt. It was a pretty standard abuse case, and things were going well. But one morning, I got the call that it was all over. The child didn’t survive.”

“I almost quit. Right then and there, I had to make a decision whether I wanted to continue in this line of work or not. So I chose to try to become the best social worker the county had ever seen.”

Looking around the room, it was clear that social work is far from a glamorous title. It means long hours in a small office, sorting through pages of depressing information. It’s making a personal pact to make sure every case gets resolved as best it can. It’s devoting everything to the welfare of a child that you’ve never known before now, sometimes to have it all come to naught.

It’s love, only in a form that most just can’t understand.

At Cullowhee United Methodist Church that same Friday evening, Nov. 18,  the smell of fresh turkey, ham and a cornucopia of vegetables permeated throughout the building. But even more noticeable in the air was a sense of general relief.

The food was all free. Thanks to generous donations by a number of local businesses, an open invitation was extended to the needy of the community for a hot meal, free of charge and judgement.

It was all part of Western Carolina University’s Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. Recognized every third week of November, it’s one way that the college fulfills its promise of serving the community by reminding the area’s underprivileged that their struggle hasn’t been forgotten. In a county where nearly a quarter of its citizens fall below the poverty line (23.5 percent, according to the latest Census readings) and the average household income hovers just above $21,000 per year, a little help could easily become someone’s miracle.

In the kitchen and behind the serving line were members of the Western Carolina Student Social Workers Association. Now in its third year, the Thanksgiving dinner has grown from a one-time anomaly into an anticipated annual event. Past figures have recorded as many as 400-plus people being fed in one evening. An hour into the 2016 meal, the number of full bellies was already hovering around half of that.

Photostory: Thanksgiving at Cullowhee United Methodist Church

Kathryn Balough is a senior at WCU, set to graduate with a degree in social work in May. Until then, she’s president of SSWA, which meant that the organization and promotion of this year’s meal fell mostly on her shoulders. To her, Thanksgiving is a happy time. But she also realizes that for many in the rural backroads of Jackson County, the holidays can be hard for those who have little to be thankful for.

“Hunger is a problem in this community, especially around Thanksgiving,” the senior leader said. “And moreso, not necessarily that everybody can’t afford a meal, but some people don’t have a person to spend it with. And so we want to open up our area here to give people company and a sense of community.”

Amid the Christmas music and the holiday atmosphere, a community had been established inside a single room. Those who were lonely before now smiled and shared in conversation with those around them. There were no strangers, only friends. There was no hunger, only happiness.

According to Balough, that’s the entire point of social work.

“To me, it’s bridging the gap between the community and the resources that are accessible to the community,” she said. “Because a lot of people are out there that need help, but they don’t know where to find it. As a social worker, I like giving people information and letting them know that there is someone here to support them.”


The Jackson County Social Services building is home to the county’s child support, emergency assistance and other social service offices. Photo by Caleb Peek.

Joe Allen, like Balough, has years of experience being that someone. He’s been the support beam for family after family in two Western North Carolina counties. Now, his time as a county social worker is drawing to a close; Allen’s next career move is to be a representative of Guardian ad Litem of North Carolina, which sends skilled social workers to represent a child in court. These representatives are one of an embattled child’s most valuable allies that can advocate for a child’s best interest and make sure that the court hears his or her story.

For him, it all boils down to one trait: compassion.

“I do this because I love this community,” he says. “You never really know what a family is going through until that file comes across your desk. Then they become your responsibility.”

It’s proof that regardless of the situation, whether an endangered child or a hungry family, it takes a special person to put the needs of others before their own and truly make a difference.

Allen sums it up most professionally.

“Social work is the one job that makes sure that everybody, it doesn’t matter about their background, has a chance at happiness.”