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Social worker starts new job in Eau Claire library

In a secluded corner with comfy chairs, houseplants, decorative lamps and a nice view of the Eau Claire River, Libby Richter awaits the next person who will seek her help at the city’s public library.

On the job for 1½ months, she’s already used her social work experience to help people apply for government programs, fill out housing applications and even assist a person get into rehab for substance abuse.

Word-of-mouth has gotten out that L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library, 400 Eau Claire St., now has a person available 40 hours a week who is focused on addressing poverty, mental health and substance abuse issues.

“I’ve had a lot of walk-ins,” Richter said.

She’s the library’s first community resources specialist, one of two new positions the City Council created at the library through this year’s budget.

“She’s really connected with the people that use our library,” library director Pamela Westby said of Richter.

Navigating the paperwork and bureaucracy of getting services for mental health or addiction issues can be difficult, Westby said, and having someone who knows how to handle that is a positive addition that the library can offer the community.

“One part that’s been really neat is people know about the position and are coming specifically to the library to find their way through the different services,” she said.

People referred by the Sojourner House homeless shelter, Positive Avenues day center, the police department or other social services have found their way to Richter already.

Twice a week Richter uses the Friends of the Library Lounge — the secluded rear corner of the first floor — as her office. But if a patron wants more privacy, they’ll go upstairs to the cubicle office where she is for the rest of the week.

A typical day so far for Richter involves seeing one to two people who need her help and then researching how other libraries use social workers to provide services.

Worlds converging

Richter brings social work and library experience to her new job.

“It’s always been a passion of mine to see how these worlds converge,” she said. “And the city did that for me.”

A 2014 graduate of UW-Eau Claire’s social work program, Richter has spent the past 2½ years at Eau Claire domestic abuse shelter Bolton Refuge House, as the organization’s family interaction advocate.

In addition to social work, she’s also got work experience in libraries. Richter worked at Menomonie’s public library when she was 16 and then during college she worked at McIntyre Library on the UW-Eau Claire campus.

Richter sees libraries as good settings for social workers because they’re welcoming, peaceful, free to all and have a wealth of information available.

“It’s always been a safe place for me and it’s like that for a lot of people,” she said.

For two years Westby has noticed how other libraries have been adding social workers to their offerings in some way.

“It’s been really interesting to see how developed it has become,” she said.

Local expert

An assistant professor at UW-Eau Claire has become an expert in the phenomenon and is co-authoring a book that will be published later this summer.

Mary Nienow, assistant professor of social work, and librarian Sara Zettervall of Minneapolis wrote “Whole Person Librarianship: A Social Work Approach to Patron Services.” The two friends began studying the issue about seven years ago after a discussion about their respective jobs and people they serve.

“At the time when we started this, nobody was talking about it like they are now,” Nienow said.

San Francisco was the first city in the U.S. to hire a social worker for its public library. There are well over 30 library systems now that do the same, but many others that have social work interns or regularly bring in practitioners to provide services.

“It’s really caught on in the last few years,” Nienow said.

When asked why social workers are popping up in libraries of all places, Nienow said, “We always go where the people are.”

She added that people seeking help through a library wouldn’t face the same judgment they can experience when using a FoodShare card at a grocery store or when going into a building where people normally get government assistance.

“The library is not a stigmatized place in terms of getting services,” Nienow said. “It’s safe, it’s warm, it’s nonjudgmental.”

Second job

The other position created this year at the library is an early literacy and outreach librarian position, which will work with children between birth and 8 years old, but with a particular emphasis on 2 to 3 year olds.

“That’s a critical time when the brain is developing,” Westby said.

Intended to serve families with social, economic and educational disadvantages, the position is intended to foster literacy among at-risk youth.

Research has shown that children who are proficient at reading before third grade are less likely to need government assistance, be unemployed or go to jail, Westby said.

An employee has been hired in that position but won’t start on the job until May 28.

Finding funding

The process of funding two new library positions became a point of debate among some candidates during April’s City Council election. Several challengers railed that the jobs were added in the same November City Council meeting that also approved the 2019 city budget.

Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle said she wanted to do something in the 2019 budget to address poverty and homelessness in Eau Claire. In her visits to other cities, she’d seen that some libraries had hired social workers to help residents with those issues in their lives.

“The library is a trusted resource in the community,” she said. “It makes sense.”

Emmanuelle asked Westby, who also had an interest in adding social work and outreach staff to the library, to make a presentation during an early November budget session. That meeting was intended as a time for council members to bring forth potential amendments to the proposed 2019 budget. However, the plan to pull together the funding for the new library positions didn’t come out until Nov. 26 — the day before the 2019 budget was approved.

The $179,800 budgeted for salary, benefits and other costs related to the two new jobs was pulled together from money that had initially been planned for a variety of contracted services.

The budget changes needed to hire the new library workers were passed in a slim 6-4 vote on Nov. 27.

Councilman Jeremy Gragert said he cast one of the opposing votes because the list of cuts needed to fund the new jobs came up too quickly, and he found some to be not palatable. (One of the cuts did prove unpopular earlier this year as Gragert had to lead an effort to find $20,000 in the budget to restore funding for portable restrooms at several city parks that don’t have permanent facilities.)

But he’s glad the new jobs have been filled and is excited to see the work they will be doing.

“I certainly support the positions,” Gragert said this week.

And though she hasn’t met Richter yet, Emmanuelle said she’s already heard of people who had “fallen through the cracks” go to the library and get resources that will help them improve their lives.

Richter already has ideas on how she’d like to teach life skills classes on cooking, bring social work interns to the library and host conversations for residents to discuss local issues.

“I hope to make the community more aware of the community members who are struggling with homelessness, mental health and substance abuse,” she said.

Security for Wisconsin lieutenant governor increases

MADISON — Wisconsin’s Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, the first African American to hold the post in state history, had nine times more hours of security protection during his first two months in office than his Republican predecessor had all of last year, records show.

The online publication first reported on the issue Tuesday based on records it received from the Wisconsin State Patrol and Barnes’ official calendar. The Associated Press also received a portion of the records later Tuesday.

Barnes is a former state representative who ran on the ticket with Gov. Tony Evers. They defeated then-Gov. Scott Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch in November.

It’s not clear why Barnes was receiving so much more protection. Wisconsin State Patrol spokesman Mark Rescheske said the decision was made by the patrol and the governor’s office.

He would not say whether a security threat warranted the coverage. Barnes, when asked about it Tuesday, declined to comment and referred questions to the patrol.

Evers’ spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, said it is ultimately up to the State Patrol to determine coverage.

“We will not compromise when it comes to safety and security,” she said.

Wisconsin Republican Party spokesman Charles Nichols called the additional security Barnes is receiving “appalling” and said he was misusing taxpayer money to “use the State Patrol as his own personal chauffeur service.”

Wisconsin’s Dignitary Protection Unit, which is part of the State Patrol, provides security to the governor, his family and staff. It also provides security to other elected officials, including the lieutenant governor and those visiting Wisconsin on official business, as directed by the State Patrol superintendent.

The records provided run from Dec. 28, 10 days before Barnes was sworn into office, through March 1.

The records show that Barnes had protection for seven days when he had no official events, based on the review. Three of those days were Sundays, when the only entry on Barnes’ calendar was church. Another day, a Saturday, all Barnes had listed was a 30-minute phone interview.

On one of the Sundays, Barnes received 18 hours of protection when he attended church with Evers in Milwaukee and then came to Madison six hours later.

The records also show that Barnes received protection on six days when the majority of his scheduled events were either in the state Capitol or within a couple blocks of it. He averaged more than 18 hours of protection those days, one of which was the Jan. 7 inauguration.

Barnes also had security protection on Feb. 26 when he went ice fishing for the first time with Democratic state Rep. Nick Milroy in Springbrook, located about 270 miles north of Madison.

The total cost of the 898 hours of work from the Dignitary Protection Union over the two-month period totaled $36,662. Kleefisch received protection for just seven days and 95.5 hours in all of last year, compared with 47 days that Barnes did over two months, the review found.

In 2017, Kleefisch had 170.5 hours of coverage. Barnes had five-times as much in just over two months.

Kleefisch’s former chief of staff, Dan Suhr, said that when Kleefisch first took office in 2011 she did not have State Patrol protection. Kleefisch did have it during the Act 10 union protests, but only for official or campaign events where she was appearing as the lieutenant governor, not personal reasons such as going to church, he said.

After that volatile period when Walker and others were receiving death threats, Kleefisch stopped receiving State Patrol protection and instead received it from less-expensive Capitol Police, Suhr said.

Then in 2017, when Kleefisch’s office added a staff member, she only received law enforcement protection on an as-needed basis for events that were considered higher risk, Suhr said.

The only reason Suhr said he could see for Barnes to have around-the-clock protection is “if there’s a security threat, which justifies it.”

Pence to visit Altoona to tout trade agreement

Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to visit Altoona this week to promote the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.

The visit, announced Tuesday by the White House, comes after President Donald Trump held a rally in Green Bay last month. It marks Pence’s first visit to Wisconsin since he attended a campaign rally in November in Hudson. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported the visit would take place on Thursday.

Pence plans to visit J&D Manufacturing in Altoona, where he will participate in a roundtable discussion with local business leaders and then deliver comments about the trade deal’s impact on Wisconsin.

The J&D stop likely reflects the importance of international trade to the company, which manufactures large fans, cooling systems and other equipment for the agricultural market, said Brian Westrate of Fall Creek, treasurer of the Republican Party of Wisconsin and a member of the 3rd Congressional District GOP executive committee.

Wisconsin is expected to be a toss-up state in the 2020 presidential race. Trump won the state by less than a point in 2016.

The visit demonstrates how important western Wisconsin and Wisconsin are to Trump’s re-election chances, Westrate said.

“There are very few paths to winning the next election that don’t include winning Wisconsin,” Westrate said. “It seems like six states will decide the next election and Wisconsin is one of those. ... It’s nice to matter.”