Commissioner says social services changes are in works

HUDSON–Last week William Moon, the Social Services Commissioner of Delaware County, who has over 35 years of experience in the field, presented a report full of recommendations to help the Columbia County Department of Social Services do its job better for less money.

In an interview this week, Columbia County Department of Social Services Executive Director Paul Mossman discussed whether Mr. Moon’s recommendations, which call for specific changes in the way foster care placements and homeless services are handled, are feasible.

“In the next two to three months we’ll be very busy,” said Mr. Mossman, “but it’s doable and will have an impact on our numbers although at first the savings may be lowered by start up costs. Some things we had looked at in the past but weren’t able to follow through on. Some suggestions made sense but we never thought we could realize them. It’s good to have an outside perspective. It will be our blueprint for 2011. A year from now we’ll be in a better position.”

The department is poised to act on the report’s suggestion that it move the county’s homeless residents — currently there are 96 of them — out of the motels, where they currently reside, and into apartments leased by the department. A group of single residents, male and female, will start the move within the next four weeks, said Mr. Mossman. Two apartments are under renovation and others will follow. The change could bring monthly costs down from $2,000 per person to $600 each.

“Two landlords contacted the department. We are working with others. There is housing stock in the area to support the plan,” said the commissioner.

The apartments, which will each house more than one occupant, will have fewer amenities than motels. Rules forbidding smoking and drinking will be enforced by supervision. “It is emergency housing,” he emphasized. The apartments will be located in and around Hudson to save on transportation that must be provided by the department to enable clients to access services at the department’s offices.

A move last week of two families from one motel in Valatie to other locations, was not part of this long-term plan; it was done for other reasons, said Mr. Mossman.

The department also plans to expand its employment training program, another of Mr. Moon’s suggestions. But the department needs help from local employers. Businesses and organizations that participate in the Community Welfare Work Experience Program can receive free labor performed by department clients, who are legally required to work in order to receive public assistance checks. Mr. Mossman said that his department has hired several people who first came to work through the CWWE program.

Realignment of the heating assistance program known by its acronym, HAEP, another of the suggestions by Mr. Moon in the report, is under consideration and might free up staff to start a work group similar to one that the Corrections Department has started.

Foster care was another area where Mr. Moon identified excessive spending.

“One goal for next year,” said Mr. Mossman, “is to reduce the number of children in foster care. We need a better network of foster and respite options.” Respite provides a time apart for foster kids and their families.

“I don’t think we use respite enough. If used appropriately, we could avoid the need to place them outside their homes. We don’t have enough homes that we can contact in the middle of the night and not enough places to send teens,” he said.

“Long-term placement should be the last alternative,” said Mr. Mossman, referring to the institutions that handle kids that cannot otherwise find homes in the community. “We should have a service plan for children who are at risk before they reach the point of needing time out from their homes. You can ward off a lot of issues ahead of time.

“We need more preventative programs like parenting classes,” he said. “Kids often get into trouble because they are bored, and not engaged. We can help with that.”

One new program that may help is the Vision Project, now in the grant application stage in collaboration with three other organizations, the Berkshire Farm Center, the Columbia County Probation Department and the Hudson City School District. The project will take a multi-disciplinary approach to at-risk children and families and will work through every grade level at each of the Hudson schools to provide support ranging from counseling and therapy, to building social skills and violence prevention work, to replace behavior problems and bad habits with “the push to succeed” that every child needs. If the grant application is successful, it will provide $350,000 in Federal Funding to start and run the program for three years.

Columbia County has one of the highest foster care placement rates in the state, but during the past seven years, Mr. Mossman said his department has reduced the foster care caseload by 27%, and current discharge rates from foster care are higher than current placement rates.

Adults, single, married or living with a partner, working or not, who have an extra bed if not a bedroom and  are willing to take a part-time, three-month course and submit to a background check can help a child by becoming foster parents for temporary or long term placements. Financial support is available and starts at $15 a day to meet the child or teen’s clothing, food and educational needs.

For more information about foster care or for employers interested in helping the CWWE program, call Mr. Mossman at 518 828-9411.

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