ST. ALBANS — Former Secretary of Human Services Doug Racine said Tuesday that his departure from the agency came as a surprise.
He was invited to a meeting with Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding and the governor’s chief of staff Liz Miller yesterday and informed he was being dismissed, he added.
“The governor was not there,” Racine said, although he did speak with him later that day by phone.
“The reason they gave me were that they wanted a new style of leadership for the agency,” said Racine in an interview with the Messenger.
The Agency of Human Services (AHS) is one of the largest in state government, encompassing health care, economic and family services.
“We’re dealing with people who are going through difficult times sometimes through no fault of their own and sometimes self-inflicted,” said Racine.
His focus has been on improving the efficiency and operations of the agency, while also working to transfer resources from programs that respond to people in crisis to preventative measures. “In terms of making government work effectively, I’m very proud of the work I’ve done,” he said.
In housing, for example, that meant redirecting resources from programs to house homeless families to programs that prevent them from losing their housing and ones that get families back into permanent housing quickly.
The agency took a lot of hits during he recession, said Racine. At the same time it was losing personnel, it was gaining a larger caseload. “We’ve been able to add some positions,” said Racine, adding that caseloads are starting to decline.
AHS has drawn fire in the past year after three young children with connections to the Dept. of Families and Children died in the custody of parents. Two of the children had been reunited with their mothers after being removed by the state.
Asked if that situation was behind his dismissal, Racine answered that would be a question for the governor. At a press conference yesterday, Gov. Peter Shumlin denied the deaths had played a role in Racine’s ouster.
Racine acknowledged that he has not had a high public profile, and that he believed the governor wanted someone at AHS who would be a larger public presence.
“My job is to get things done for the governor,” said Racine. “I feel very good about the work I’ve done.”
A longtime criticism of AHS revolves around an application system, which requires recipients to file multiple applications. The intention is to combine applications, but first the agency must address its computer system, which is 30-years-old, explained Racine.
“We have streamlined a lot of services,” he said. A program to streamline applications for services by families has been rolled out in Addison and Franklin counties.
“We’ve tended to look at programs in silos and we need to look at families,’ said Racine.
The work to integrate services has been one of his biggest accomplishments at AHS, Racine said.
He also cited the creation of a new mental health system in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, which flooded the state mental hospital. That system is focused on providing services locally whenever possible. With the new system, “people with substance abuse problems get more than ‘here’s a cup of methadone,'” Racine said.
AHS also has created performance measurements for its programs, intended to determine how well programs are working. Similar measurements are being built into contracts with outside service providers.
“I feel really good about the emphasis on early childhood,” said Racine. Social workers now accompany health department nurses on home visits, “so we’re looking at the family as a whole,” he said.
While serving in the Legislature, Racine co-chaired a commission on child poverty. “Kids should have opportunities,” he said. “Kids start off kindergarten behind and it’s a struggle to catch up.”
Racine said his immediate plan for the future is to take some time off, but in the long-term he plans to resume working on ways to address poverty.
“I’ll be looking for other ways to work on these issues,” said Racine.
Racine, a long time state senator, lost the Democratic primary for governor to Shumlin by fewer than 200 votes in 2010.