From the frontlines: connection through chaos

Part two of a look at Wayne County’s human services department

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HONESDALE, PA — “Consumers” is the official term to describe the folks enrolled in Wayne County’s psychological rehabilitation program. Director Kim Follmer doesn’t like using that word, however, and refers to them instead as “her peeps.” The psych rehab “peeps” and its staff are like a big family, Follmer said. As the spread of COVID-19 promised to prevent the group from having their daily meetings, they set up a conference phone line so that everybody could remain in touch throughout the duration of the stay-at-home order.

“We talked about it in groups just to prepare everybody—knowing something was coming and wanting to have things in place, kind of a safety plan,” Follmer said. “So we weren’t completely caught off guard.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic has put many people throughout the country out of a job—including a chunk of Wayne County employees—necessities like caring for people’s mental health, protecting children and feeding the county has made some human services departments busier than ever. By changing procedure and going remote, the county’s human services team has continued to provide modified versions of the services it provides all year.

Using the conference line, the psych rehab group has meetings twice a day at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Follmer said that the members have also taken it upon themselves to call and check in on each other, in addition to having group meetings.

“They’re supporting each other… If they don’t hear somebody on the call for a couple days in a row, somebody [will reach] out.”

A regular portion of PA Department of Health Secretary Rachel Levine’s COVID-19 press briefings has become informing residents of resources available to those whose mental health has suffered as a result of the pandemic. Some of the effects include fear and worry about one’s own health, difficulty eating and sleeping, worsening of chronic health problems and increased drug use. Follmer said that the psych rehab family supports one another through this kind of stress all the time.

“[Stress and anxiety] plays right into some of the stuff we work with on a daily basis,” she said. “It’s nothing new for anybody.”

The behavioral health team at large has kept in contact with residents through phone and video conferencing, executive director Margaret Ennis said. This can make it more difficult for mental health professionals to connect with their clients.

“You discern a lot from somebody even just looking at them and being in their presence, so we miss that element when we are strictly on the phone with them,” she said. There is a positive side too, however; check-in calls allow employees to maintain more consistent contact with residents than before. In addition to the regular caseload work, employees make weekly check-in calls to everyone they serve.

“The individuals we work with, their needs vary… they may need food, they may need toilet paper and toothpaste, they may need medication—all of those kinds of things that create challenges to them that the workers are able to facilitate.”

One of the defining mantras of Wayne County’s human services team is “no wrong door,” deputy administrator Lori O’Malley said. Administrator Michelle Valinski echoed that philosophy.

“We are an integrated human services department, which means that we treat the entire person,” Valinski said. “If they come into our housing department, and they have a need for transportation, or they have a need for behavioral health services… we can make those connections while the individual is sitting in our housing department, and we can make sure they get what they need [on] that day.” 

Serving all the varying needs of individuals has kept many of the departments much busier than before this pandemic, Ennis said. “We’re people’s go-to, we’re their first call.”

Not only do they have bigger workloads, but many human service employees have had to meet that demand while adapting to working remotely. Out of the 45 behavioral health employees, Ennis said that only five are still in the office.

It’s a similar situation for Children & Youth Services (CYS), whose executive director Rozalyn Burke said that 75 percent of employees are working from home. For a department with caseworkers who tend to work in the field and visit people in their homes, CYS employees are constantly calculating how to balance staying physically safe themselves while continuing to keep children safe in their homes.

“Our guiding question has always been, is there imminent or present danger to a child or children in the home?” she said. “[We] would then… decide whether we were going to respond in person or if we would make some phone calls, conduct a FaceTime visit, or a Zoom visit.”

With the added barriers of the pandemic and stay-at-home order, CYS has been “thinking outside of the box” in an attempt to continue reaching those who need help.

Burke said that the department’s social service aids have collaborated with regional school districts to deliver grab-and-go lunches to families’ homes. CYS compiled a list of families that it was already serving as well as families that wanted to utilize the meal program but could not drive to the schools to make the pickup.

“[Delivering this food] gives us the opportunity—not to do a formal assessment… but to informally be able to see them come out on their porch, give them a little wave, ask how’s everything going,” she said. “We’ve gotten creative in the ways in which we’ve done outreach with our families… and that’s what this agency is about, helping in any way we can, when we can.”

Some directors are hopeful that the outside-the-box solutions they have utilized during this pandemic will be valuable assets in the future, beyond the pandemic. Valinski said she’s hopeful that residents become more aware of the resources available and that they’re only “a phone call away.”

“It sounds funny to say in the middle of all this craziness, but I feel blessed,” Follmer said. “I think [human services employees and residents] have realized how much they really mean to each other and how much they really count on each other; I think that’ll be a change coming out the other end that’s going to make a difference for everybody.”

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