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‘I’m trying to keep him alive.’ Life as an underpaid, overworked social worker in Providence

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.

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.

Wiggins approaches every visit with a purpose.

He’s a bigger guy, but he carries himself like a friendly teddy bear. They know he’s not a cop, but everyone starts out a little suspicious. With a tiny lisp that makes him sound a little like Mike Tyson, and a smile so wide that it pulls his mask below his nose, Wiggins has a remarkable ability to connect with anyone.


His first priority is making sure no one is in danger, but then he asks questions about school – “where were you today?” – work, or life in general. He gossips, talks sports and music, anything to build a relationship.

And for the most part, the clients treat Wiggins with plenty of respect.

He’s an O.G. in the social services world at this point, so he occasionally finds himself working with the children of former clients from 15 or 16 years ago. They know that he grew up on Swan Street in South Providence, graduated from Central High School, and worked his way through college at Johnson & Wales.

Some of the clients are even willing to listen to Wiggins’ rap songs. He’s been performing in Providence for years, and goes by Flizz. His work makes it into plenty of tracks, like on “Mama said:”

I seen the other side, it’s only real to them; what they consider struggling, we call it heaven sent. If we could only switch on this pipeline to prison; poor condition, poor education, nobody wanna listen.

But Wiggins will also tell you the work has taken a mental toll on him. He still talks about a chilling triple homicide in Providence that occurred 10 years ago. Wiggins knew everyone involved – the killers and the deceased – and it still haunts him.


Wiggins could easily leave Tides to get a better-paying gig, and he admits that he has considered leaving the job twice in two decades.

But then he tells you what keeps him at Tides.

It’s the stories like Antwone Matthews, a troubled kid from Mount Pleasant High School that had gang tattoos before he could legally drive. Matthews was sent to the Rhode Island Training School before his senior year after a robbery charge, and Wiggins was assigned to keep him on track when he returned to Mount Pleasant.

“In the beginning, it kind of cramped my style,” Matthews told me. But Wiggins kept showing up, asking if he needed anything, and buying him lunch once in a while. Matthews didn’t know it at the time, but it was Wiggins’ way of saying, “I’m not giving up on you.”

Matthews got his act together, moved to Atlanta, and got an associate’s degree. Now he’s a corrections officer in Vermont, and he’s applying to become a probation officer.

Wiggins is one of his references.

“I owe it to him because he never asked me to do anything, or talked about how poor I was,” Matthews said. “He was just a positive Black person, and I said, ‘I want to be like him.’”

Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.