Human Services Agency prepares for reorganization

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(Host) The Human Services Agency is Vermont’s largest government agency, employing more than 3,000 people. It provides a wide range of services – from welfare and mental health, to help for the disabled. It also includes the Department of Health and the Department of Corrections. A major overhaul of the agency got the go-ahead from the Vermont Legislature at the end of this year’s session.

VPR’s Lynne McCrea reports.

(McCrea) The problem has been the maze of services that makes it complicated for Vermonters to take advantage of the state’s efforts to improve their lives.

(Felicia Lambert) “They might be interfacing with four or five different agencies all at one time, trying to navigate their way through four or five separate pieces. And none of the pieces collaborate. No one works together!”

(McCrea) Felicia Lambert of South Burlington has a son with severe emotional issues, and she has physical disabilities caused in part by a stroke. But Lambert gets around in a well-equipped van, and in-between her kids’ activities she advocates for other families who are struggling to get what they need from the human services agency.

(Lambert) “And families’ needs are better met if there’s collaboration, so there’s no redundancy.”

(McCrea) Secretary of Human Services Charlie Smith points to a chart with boxes and a big arrow that shows one of the changes being made: a reduction in the number of departments and offices from eight down to five, with one of those five the newly created “Department of Children and Family Services.”

(Smith) “Take a household where one parent may be incarcerated, one may lack a high school degree and needs services rendered through welfare. There may be mental health needs, there may be substance abuse needs in the household.”

(McCrea) In the example Smith describes, one of his departments might be providing services to a parent who’s in prison, but neglecting other family needs, like job counseling or treatment for substance abuse.

(Smith) “Honestly, within our system the right hand may not know what the left hand is doing. So it doesn’t come across as effective in terms of really helping address the needs the family has.”

(McCrea) To get the whole picture of a family or client, Secretary Smith is making another change: the addition of a new field firector position to each of the state’s 12 regional districts.

(Smith) “What we’re looking for is a higher level of coordination and teamwork out in the districts, so they can look at a client’s needs in a coordinated fashion.”

(McCrea) For the past two months Human Services has been presenting its plan to the Legislature. Senator Jim Leddy, who’s been a strong promoter of the reorganization, is now in the awkward position of voicing concerns:

(Leddy) “I don’t think it has enough detail, that it’s clear enough of how it it’s going to actually work on the ground, for people who need the services, and how various state agencies are going to work closely as a team.”

(McCrea) Leddy also worries that the plan may be moving ahead too quickly. Secretary Smith recognizes that there are some unknowns, but he contends that a greater risk is to move too slowly.

(Smith) “We’re asking people to think very differently about how they do their work. We have no handbook about how to address a situation under the reorganization. We’re going to make some mistakes and then we’ll apply what we learned. And it will take some time, but we’re going to have a much better system at the end.”

(McCrea) For people like Felecia Lambert, the change couldn’t come soon enough. And she hopes it signals a changing attitude, where families and clients are respected as a part of the human services team:

(Lambert) “Families are desperate for this change – they’re desperate for it. They want to be respected, they want to have better access, and they want to have a voice.”

(McCrea) The restructuring plan is expected to be cost neutral, with staffing changes made through a redirection of resources. Secretary Charlie Smith plans to phase in the changes, initially with four districts, over the course of this summer.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Lynne McCrea.

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