Wilton’s Social Services: Efficiently Meeting Town Needs or Missing a Beat?

For the Wilton community, like elsewhere, this fall has been challenging. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues unabated, it has taken a serious toll on the public in many ways, including the negative effects of social isolation and challenges to mental health.

As a key safety net for the town, the Social Services Department must not only meet the ongoing needs but also be poised to meet new, emerging needs during a crisis. Recently, there’s been public criticism by people familiar with the department about its ability to do that.

While members of the town’s Commission on Social Services, school PTA officers and some citizens have publicly raised concerns, Wilton First Selectwoman Lynn Vanderslice and Social Services Director Sarah Heath are assuring Wilton residents that the town is meeting (or exceeding) demands for social services.

GOOD Morning Wilton has been following public meetings on the topic of Social Services and is encouraging residents to pay attention to the public discourse about the critical services offered by the Social Services department and the upcoming review of the Social Services Commission’s charge.

Deborah List, currently serving as chairperson of the Commission on Social Services, declined to comment for this story outside of a public meeting. But since mid-summer, List and other commission members have been vocal in their concerns about the department’s capacity to meet demand for services, largely due to staffing changes, and urging the town to fill vacant positions promptly.

By the September and October commission meetings, the tension between the commissioners and Heath had clearly escalated, peaking during the Oct. 8 commission meeting. In that meeting, commissioners reiterated their concerns and challenged Heath on whether the department was adequately prepared for and responding to mental health needs amid the persistent pandemic, and among Wilton youth in particular.

Heath has remained steadfast in her responses to the commission’s inquires, that the department has responded appropriately to current needs and would increase staff or staff hours, if and when needed. At the same time, Heath’s delivery of information has been viewed by commissioners as less than forthcoming of late, something they perceived as a change from past department leadership, for reasons they did not appear to understand.

Outside observers of the recent commission meetings may be left wondering why the communication between the commissioners and Heath appears so tense, even adversarial at times, when they should presumably be working with a common purpose. After the Oct. 8 commission meeting, GOOD Morning Wilton invited comments from two of the more vocal commissioners (List and Genevieve Eason), as well as from Vanderslice and Heath. They all declined to comment on the record at that time, although Vanderslice and Heath did speak with GMW just this week after the November meetings of the Social Services Commission and Board of Selectmen.

As a next step, the commission agreed at the Oct. 8 meeting to conduct a “process review and assessment” of the department prior to the next meeting, with the goal of identifying ways to improve, going forward, on what it felt were missed opportunities in recent months.

The agenda of the commission’s Nov. 12 meeting included plans to discuss that process review and assessment, as well as a regularly-scheduled monthly update from Heath. However, the commissioners’ plans for this agenda were stymied by Heath’s last-minute notice that she would not be attending the meeting.

While commissioners were surprised and frustrated by Heath’s absence, it is important to note, the commission is not a governing authority over the department; the director of the department reports to the First Selectwoman, not to the commission.

The friction may stem from the commissioners’ interpretation of their “charge”–i.e., what their role and responsibilities are and how they might best direct their efforts to supplement and support the workings of the department. The official charge of the Social Services Commission is something that is currently under review by the Board of Selectmen. (Read more about the commission charge later in this article.)

All of the parties appear frustrated with what has become a degree of dysfunction, something that is only adding to the challenge of social services delivery during these difficult times.

The Fundamental Concern:  Department Capacity And Preparedness 

On multiple occasions, both Vanderslice and Heath have explained that the Social Services Department’s staffing needs have changed significantly during the pandemic. The Senior Center, for example, has been closed due to COVID-19 and no longer requires the duties of a full-time employee; that employee has been redeployed but, according to Vanderslice, is expected to return to that full-time position when the Senior Center re-opens.

Over the summer, longtime Youth Services Coordinator Colleen Fawcett, LCSW, retired. She was not immediately replaced, raising alarm among commissioners and others with interest in department activities.

One such group expressing its concern was the PTA. At the Social Services Commission’s October meeting, a letter co-signed by all five of the Wilton schools’ PTA boards was entered into the record. Similar to the views voiced by commission members during earlier meetings, the PTA officers expressed significant worries about the Social Services Department’s capacity and responsiveness to the mental health needs of Wilton’s youth, citing the continuing effects of the pandemic and other events as examples of growing needs. The letter (which is available at the end of the October meeting minutes) asserts the beliefs that referral services being offered by the department are “not a solution” compared to locally available support/counseling, and that the vacancy in the youth services coordinator position should be filled immediately.

Both Vanderslice and Heath have repeated that the department is meeting demand for services and that a “reduction” in personnel is a mischaracterization. In an email response to the PTA letter, Vanderslice wrote, “Neither the Social Services Director, myself or the Board of Selectmen are seeking to reduce staff. Nor are there plans to cut staff,” while at the same time conceding, ”Though I can understand… you would find it hard to imagine that the department is performing more efficiently and effectively with less staff.”

Heath has since updated the youth services coordinator’s job description, and a search to fill that position is ongoing. This part-time position requires a master’s degree in social work (or related field) and at least two years’ relevant experience.

Missed Opportunities?

Genevieve Eason, who recently resigned from the commission, is also the executive director of the Wilton Youth Council, a non-profit organization that works to “promote the well-being of Wilton students”.

During the Oct. 8 commission meeting, Eason proffered the case that the Social Services department has not participated as it should have in responding to the mental health needs of Wilton youth, particularly at the high school, this fall. She suggested a key reason for this lack of proactivity is the reduction of the department’s capacity from roughly 58 staff hours per week in February to just 17 hours at the time of the meeting, according to her calculations.

Eason also cited examples of what she felt were misplaced priorities by the town, such as redeploying Social Services staff to assist the Parks and Recreation Department, and other missed opportunities by the department (chiefly, a more proactive response following recent student deaths).

But where commissioners may perceive gaps in staffing and reductions in services, Heath sees more efficient performance. In fact, in her presentation to the Board of Selectmen on Sept. 22, Heath cited improvements to the delivery of social services as a result of staffing changes and more effective utilization of staff hours during the pandemic.

Heath said, “During the pandemic, we needed to change the way we deliver services and use resources.” That included “utilizing outside agencies to supplement counseling hours” rather than hiring a replacement in the youth services position. She noted that using outside services such as Kids In Crisis for counseling in Wilton schools “allows for greater ability to flex up and down based on demand.”

Without a youth services coordinator in place (and with finite counseling hours available through the department), commissioners questioned in the Oct. 8 meeting whether the department is top-of-mind as a resource or has a real “connection” to the schools.

But that does not appear to be the case, according to Superintendent Kevin Smith, who characterized the relationship between the schools and the Social Services department this way to GMW:

“We have had a very long and successful partnership with Wilton Social Services and Wilton Youth Services… The Social Services Department plays a key role in acting as a mental health referral agency and also supporting the work of the schools… We are also incredibly fortunate in this region to have a number of readily accessible mental health resources beyond the schools and social services… Collectively, we are able to provide the support our students and families need. Though the last month has been incredibly challenging as we’ve worked to support so many different members of our community, without the ongoing support and partnership with Wilton Social Services and a number of other agencies in the region, we would not be able to meaningfully address their needs.”

Who’s Delivering Services?

Smith’s comments highlight the fact that the Social Services department is just one of many resources the district can tap when students need support.

At the high school, for example, the mental health staff consists of school psychologists, guidance counselors and social workers, in addition to Kids in Crisis, an outside organization retained by the school. These employees and resources are the first line of supports for Wilton students, not the town’s Social Services department.

Heath’s recent presentation to the BOS said the department’s role in helping to meet the social and psychological needs of Wilton residents “is accomplished by providing information and referrals to local, state and federal social service programs, financial assistance, short-term counseling, and programming.”

She emphasized that the role of the department is to “facilitate access” to resources; not to be an agency per se for those services, but rather to operate as part of a “network” of other entities to meet social services needs. She included in that network local area non-profits, state agencies, the Wilton schools and other town departments.

Members of the commission have questioned what they consider a new or renewed emphasis on “short-term” counseling.

Heath’s response is that counseling has indeed been available throughout the pandemic and says any suggestion that counseling needs may be going unmet is simply not accurate. “From the outside [the department] appears short-staffed but the counseling hasn’t changed,” she told GMW.

Vanderslice noted, “It is important to remember that the purpose of youth services… has been to provide short-term counseling for students whose families cannot afford counseling, while facilitating a referral for longer-term counseling. That was the model five years ago when I became first selectwoman and still is the model today. Youth Services is not a general public counseling service.”

Vanderslice understands why commissioners and the public may be concerned about the department’s ability to respond to what they assume are overwhelming needs in these turbulent pandemic times. Just as there were expectations of greater job losses among Wilton residents, or lost/deferred tax payments to the town, Vanderslice said, “people assumed there would be a rush to Social Services… and that didn’t happen. So I do think if you don’t know the details [about the department] then you do get these perceptions.”

In actuality, she said, the opposite is true. “The referrals coming in [to the department] are less than we have the capacity to handle. We are under-capacity right now in terms of counseling.”

Review of the Commission Charge

Vanderslice has initiated a review of the “charge” for the Social Services Commission, along with other town commissions, that are under the discretion of the Board of Selectmen.

In a recent memo to the Social Services Commission, Vanderslice asked the commission to review its current charge at its next meeting (scheduled for Dec. 10) and “make recommendations to be shared with the BOS”.

The charge was last updated in March of 2015, with an emphasis on being “advisory” in its purview. The charge states:

“…the Commission on Social Services is hereby established with the fundamental purposes of identifying the present and anticipating the future needs for human services in the Town of Wilton and making recommendations concerning those needs to the Board of Selectmen. In addition, the Commission’s responsibilities encompass establishing and/or maintaining advisory relationships with organizations and agencies providing social services to the town and its residents. The Commission may serve as a forum for concerns and efforts relating to social service issues.”

In that 2015 BOS meeting, it was clear that the Social Services commissioners (then led by Peg Koellmer, who has recently re-joined the commission) felt strongly that their role was advisory in nature and their expertise did not extend into social services programming or operations.

But the question of whether the commission should have any oversight responsibility was raised by the members of the BOS at the time. Bill Brennan, then first selectman, described what he called “de facto oversight,” which other selectmen, including Michael Kaelin, seemed to encourage the commission to retain. Still, the charge as written in 2015 does not explicitly include an oversight role.

That appears to be at the crux of the tension between the current commissioners and the department. What is the line between the commission’s need to understand the operations and capacity of the department, before it begins to cross over into instructing, influencing or critiquing the department leadership?

For Vanderslice, the line is clear. “The commission does not have supervisory or instruction authority over any members of the social services department,” she told GMW. As such, she would prefer to see the commission more focused on external relationships and the community at large rather than looking inward at department operations and processes.

Heath said, “We’re a professional department, run by professional people. We’re happy to be working with a group of people [the commission] who want to help the community and look at social services in our area. But that certainly doesn’t include staffing and how we are providing [services].”

Commission members serve as volunteers. Vanderslice recognizes that Wilton relies heavily on scores of volunteers to fill its many commission and board rosters, and that it is often a bigger undertaking than they expect. FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) laws, meeting procedures, even the very definition of a “meeting” create a different learning curve than in business or other sectors.

In part due to the difficulty of recruiting a steady stream of volunteers, Vanderslice is also reviewing commission membership numbers, with some likely to be reduced. The Social Services Commission, for example, was originally established with nine members, but only five are currently serving. Vanderslice has indicated that a final number will be recommended after the commission’s charge has been reviewed.

As the charge is being reviewed and potentially modified, residents may submit their comments for consideration to both the commission and the Board of Selectmen.

Would you like to serve on the Commission on Social Services? Candidates are being sought to serve on this and other town boards and commissions. Details and instructions can be found on the town website.