Selectman Ross Tartell (L) and First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice (R) Credit: Town of Wilton Zoom recording, Feb. 21, 2023; PicCollage

As part of this year’s budget-setting process, Selectman Ross Tartell is raising questions about whether the Town of Wilton is sufficiently responsive to the mental health needs of residents, eliciting pushback from First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice.

As the Board of Selectmen (BOS) finalizes its FY2024 budget proposal, Tartell has focused on whether Vanderslice has considered if the current scope and function of the Social Services Department might need to expand at a time when youth and adult mental health concerns, among other needs, have significantly increased.

Much of the discussion between Vanderslice and Tartell has taken place in a series of written exchanges in a question-and-answer format as the BOS members reviewed the First Selectwoman’s $34.7 million budget proposal. (One exchange was posted to the Town website on Feb. 15 with a subsequent exchange on Feb. 17.)

Although the Q&A topics were wide-ranging, GOOD Morning Wilton is reporting on the substance of the Q&A between Tartell and Vanderslice on the subject of mental health and Social Services.

Raising Fundamental Questions

In his initial Q&A, Tartell wrote that “there appears to be increased need in the town for social service support.” Vanderslice agreed with that general assertion, citing an increase in the number of Social Services Dept. clients, including those using the Wilton Food Pantry, needing heating assistance, and seeking mental health referrals, among other needs.

“My hope is that Social Services has the resources, i.e., staffing and budget, to strengthen its ability to meet the critical social service needs facing our community,” Tartell wrote. 

Where Tartell perceives the needs could be surpassing the department’s current capabilities, Vanderslice does not. She pushed back on Tartell’s suggestion that the Social Services Dept. has “stepped up its visible activity in the community” such as participating in panel discussions, Police Department initiatives, and other activities. 

“Historically, [Social Services] has always partnered with the Police Dept., the Health Dept., Wilton organizations, and organizations outside of Wilton, such as The Hub, Positive Directions and Kids in Crisis, to provide programming and panel discussions on many issues facing the community,” Vanderslice wrote. “This has been true with Sarah Heath as the Director and with Cathy Pierce, her predecessor. Topics have run the [gamut] reflecting what is happening in the community.”

Vanderslice attributed Tartell’s perception of increased Social Services activity to the greater saliency of the topic of mental health generally, and specifically to the “widespread increase in mental health issues among Wilton youth” and “the increase in substance abuse deaths, particularly related to fentanyl and other additives,” among other factors.

Vanderslice defended the department’s performance and staffing model.

“[Social Services] continues to meet the needs for which the department is responsible,” which include “providing [mental health] referral services and financial assistance to those who qualify,” Vanderslice wrote.

Referrals vs. Counseling

Vanderslice emphasized the distinction between providing referrals and actual counseling.

“Neither the schools nor the town provide mental health counseling services,” she wrote.

Vanderslice acknowledged that the scarcity of counseling providers in the area — including Wilton but more broadly throughout the state — is a real problem.

“The lack of adequate resources is not [new] for the region or the state,” Vanderslice wrote. “The difficulties accessing available mental health providers worsen[ed] during and following the pandemic. Connecticut has consistently been ranked [among] the worst states for availability of mental health professionals.” 

“The [Social Services] Department is meeting the needs of those directly seeking assistance and those referred by the schools,” Vanderslice wrote, obviating the need for additional staff despite the “hard work” by staff members to match individuals with the appropriate counselor or program to effectively meet their needs.

“Again, the tremendous need is for mental [health] providers. The [Social Services] Department is not a mental health provider,” Vanderslice repeated. “They are meeting their referral responsibilities.”

Assessing Community Needs

Tartell suggested the magnitude and nature of the community’s mental health needs may not be fully understood by the Town. He questioned Vanderslice on why the FY2024 budget did not include funds for an assessment of the mental health needs in the town.

Vanderslice responded that Wilton’s Health Department is conducting a Community Health Assessment (CHA) and developing a Community Health Improvement Plan, both of which include a mental health component.

Expanded Scope?

Tartell sent a second series of questions and comments to Vanderslice. (He conceded during the Feb. 21 BOS meeting he had not seen Vanderslice’s responses to his earlier questions before sending the second set of questions.)

“My real question is in regard to understanding the depth of current and emerging social service-related issues in the Town and deciding if Social Services should proactively expand its scope to address those issues.” 

“That is why I suggested the diagnostic needs analysis — to help identify the issues and begin to explore if those issues can be addressed by the department,” Tartell wrote, referring to the “pressing needs” of groups like the LGBTQIA+ community, food insecurity, and several other issues.

Vanderslice responded at length, emphasizing that she considers the question of the department’s scope to have been settled in 2020, when conflicts between the Social Services Commission and the department’ director, Sarah Heath, brought public scrutiny to both the department’s operations and the commission’s purview.

At that time, three Social Services commissioners, including the chair, resigned after publicly expressing concerns about the Social Services Department‘s capacity to meet the demand for services and doubts about whether the department was being proactive and responsive to mental health needs, especially among Wilton youth.

“As discussed at the Sept. 22, 2020 meeting, the Social Services Department has a narrow scope. Unlike the Wilton Police Department, which is responsible for the public safety of the entire community, the Social Services Department is not responsible for the social and psychological needs of all Wilton residents,” Vanderslice wrote. “The department’s purpose it to help residents meet their needs through information, referrals, financial assistance, short-term counseling, as defined above, and programming.” 

“This same narrow scope is true of our neighboring communities and most municipal social services departments,” Vanderslice added.

Vanderslice also sharply refuted Tartell’s comment that “Social Services probably has more requests for services and a wider range of services than any other town department.” 

“That statement is not correct. The Wilton Police Department has the most requests for services and provides the widest range of services,” Vanderslice wrote, citing WPD response to over 12,000 incidents in 2022, spanning domestic violence, sexual assaults, drug overdoses, crisis events related to mental health, and more, along with providing educational programming and school resource officers.

Tartell believes “the department is doing a really good job of carrying out its responsibilities and making good use of its resources” but seems concerned about the department becoming “overwhelmed.”

“It is critical that [the department] be clear on what it can do if it is to avoid being overwhelmed and losing its effectiveness,” Tartell wrote.

Vanderslice maintains that is her job.

“It is the responsibility of the first selectwoman, the town administrator and the department heads to properly manage so that employees aren’t overwhelmed and all departments are effective,” Vanderslice responded. 

“It isn’t the role of the Board of Selectmen to manage the departments,” Vanderslice continued. “If a member of the Board of Selectmen hears or sees an issue, that issue should be emailed to the first selectwoman to investigate and address.”

A Liability Issue

In response to Tartell’s comments about referrals and counseling, Vanderslice made it clear why the Town is not providing counseling services: it’s a liability issue.

“Referral services and short-term counseling are acceptable per Town Counsel and don’t come with the same risks to the town,” Vanderslice wrote.

“Our use of the term ‘counseling’ refers to long-term counseling, serving as the resident’s therapist,” Vanderslice clarified. “Our use of the term ‘short-term counseling’ refers to in-the-moment counseling to help the resident in the moment and properly refer to an appropriate counselor.”

Town Counsel Ira Bloom has advised Town employees should not be performing long-term counseling,” Vanderslice wrote. “Doing so created financial risk to the Town and potential significant liability. Former [Board of Education] Chair Debbie Low and [Wilton Public Schools Superintendent] Dr. Kevin Smith shared they received the same advice from the BOE’s counsel.”

“There are a small number of residents who appear to be urging the Town and/or the schools to provide long-term counseling services,” Vanderslice continued. “As such it is important for board members to understand the financial risks and potential liabilities.”

One reply on “Tartell Questions Whether FY’24 Budget Will Adequately Address Wilton’s Mental Health Needs”

  1. Hey Ross, your heart is definitely in the right place. Gen Z’s are in a funk now, we can’t even get a simple LGBTQ+ proclamation like other towns, and requirements have changed dramatically since the last 2020 analysis 3 years ago. If the town can bond the taxpayer $2,200,000.00 for an easement that benefited only 3 individuals in town, we can certainly find money to expand social services…

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