For retiring social worker, people are his passion

Riley 100 |


Andy Harner retiring social worker

Andy Harner has spent 35 years guiding families through some of the most difficult experiences they’ve ever faced.

By Maureen Gilmer, Riley Children’s Health senior writer,

Andy Harner was once affectionately described as a heart with two legs.

He no doubt laughed about that then just as he does today, reflecting on a 35-year career in social work for Riley Children’s Health.

Harner, who joined Riley’s social work team in 1989 at the age of 25, has spent the past several days and weeks cleaning out files and saying his goodbyes as he prepares for life outside Riley. His last day is May 3.

As clinical manager of social work, he doesn’t apologize for leading with his heart.

“I do have a lot of emotion, but who can do this work at Riley without that,” he asks. “You can teach anything else but that. Compassion and empathy are what people need the most in this environment.”

Andy Harner retiring social worker

Cheryl Ramey-Hunt, Harner’s manager, said he has those qualities in spades.

“Andy brought his heart to Riley kids, their families and colleagues,” she said. “The work here is rich, complex and challenging. I recognize how much he loves Riley and the mission.”

Andy Harner retiring social worker

As a member of Indiana’s Behavioral Health and Human Services Licensing Board since 2001, Harner has been the team’s north star when it comes to any questions or concerns about social work licensure, she said.

“His empathetic presence will be missed.”

For social worker Leah Crane, having Harner as her manager has been “an incredible gift.”

“He has supported me and encouraged me both inside and outside of Riley. Andy is an unbelievably generous person. Always so giving to others and sacrificial of himself.”

As Riley celebrates its 100th year in 2024, Harner can’t help but marvel at how the focus of social work hasn’t changed much in the past century, but the environment that social workers must navigate continues to change.

In his presentations over the years, he has introduced people to the story of Riley’s first social worker – Edna Henry – and the trails she blazed for the hospital and the School of Social Work at Indiana University.

Edna Henry social worker

“The year after Riley opened, they hired Edna Henry, who came to us from the East Coast, where she had just finished a master’s in social work,” he said. “It was a relatively new line of study in the early 1900s, and she came here and really put together the social work program at Riley and University Hospital.”

He never worked with Henry, mind you; he’s not that old, he laughs. But she has had a tremendous impact on his work at Riley.

“It's amazing some of the things that she and the team were really doing back then,” he added, especially in understanding the impact of a diagnosis or a traumatic experience on a family.

“People are more than their diagnosis. For patients and families, this is just a portion of their lives, and figuring out how to put this new trajectory of their life in view is a really important role for social work,” he said.

“We talk a lot about social determinants of health now. Edna was really doing that work back then.”

When Harner began his career at Riley, he worked in the hemophilia program as part of a multidisciplinary team. At that time, an estimated 10,000 people around the country who had the bleeding disorder were also infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, as a result of blood transfusions.

Ryan White was among those people.

Ryan White AIDS patient

“They had this chronic illness, then they had HIV as well,” Harner said. “And there was a lot of fear about HIV at that time. There was this perception that this was God’s retribution for people who were not living a lifestyle that they felt was appropriate.”

People were cruel, but White and his family helped change the conversation. The Indiana teen, who fought for the right to attend school after his diagnosis became public, was treated at Riley from the age of 13 until his death in April 1990 at age 18. A sculpted image of the young man was rededicated last year and hangs on a wall near the Maternity Tower atrium.

“Ryan White and his family made a huge impact,” Harner said. “And there were so many other kids in Indiana and across the country who really benefited from their ability to be vulnerable and to really put themselves out there.”

From hemophilia, Harner moved into oncology, high-risk asthma, the burn unit and sickle cell disease. With the latter, he saw the disparity that still exists today in the areas of research and treatment for a disease that primarily strikes people of color.

“You can’t help but look at race and think, what role does that play,” he said. “Is there racism in our country? Yes. Is there health disparity? Yes. And is it up to us to try to figure out how to do things differently? Yes.”

Social workers sometimes must say the things people don’t want to hear, he explained.

“Hopefully, we are people who are supportive, but we also are people who call things out that need to change. Not always just with a person working one on one with a family, but also in the work we do at a macro level in society.”

Harner, the guest of honor at a retirement celebration Thursday at Riley, is looking forward to having more time to travel with his partner, as well as indulge in his hobbies of cooking, gardening and enjoying classical music.

Throughout his career, he strived to maintain a good work-life balance, which he encourages younger professionals to practice as well.

“Some of the secret sauce has always been having a strong family, a good group of friends/colleagues and a partner who supports you. You have to be able to fill your cup outside work,” he said.

He acknowledges feeling a bit wistful as he closes the door on his professional life at Riley.

“I look at the new social workers coming on board, and I’m so excited to see them at the beginning of their careers. I’m going to miss being part of helping them grow within the profession.”

Photos by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist,, submitted and from Indiana University Bloomington Archives