Promise Community: DCF demands need coordination

Group fights for families in crisis

By Tom Benton

Staff Writer

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The Facts

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‘You can meet the needs of the family and maximize the best success that they’re going to have.’

- Mary Pickener

SHELDON — Members of the Franklin Promise Community defended a plan to hire a service person acting as a liaison between the public, various agencies and the Department of Children and Families (DCF) at the Promise Community’s meeting Wednesday morning.

The Franklin Promise Community of St. Albans, Swanton and Sheldon is a coalition of community members tasked with creating long-term strategies ensuring all children enter kindergarten prepared to succeed — that means eliminating barriers to their success such as hunger, addicted parents and a lack of high-quality child care.

The Franklin Promise Community has designed seven strategies to accomplish that task after a year of studies. Promise Community Director Julianne Nickerson recently presented these strategies to DCF administrators. Franklin Promise Community members gathered at the Sheldon Town Hall yesterday to hear administrators’ feedback — but what they really wanted to know was why their “Bending the Curve” proposal was outright rejected.

“Bending the Curve” proposes hiring a full-time community coordinator to serve as a liaison between DCF caseworkers, representatives from other agencies and the public. The proposal also included hiring a part-time lawyer to ensure parents understand their rights in cases of DCF custody interventions. Federal grants will allot $200,000 to the Franklin Promise Community to implement its seven strategies; of that money, $62,200 would go toward “Bending the Curve.”

By the end of yesterday’s meeting, Bending the Curve was back on the table. Nickerson said she had misunderstood the proposal, focusing on the possibility of a part-time lawyer instead of the heart of the proposal, the community coordinator. She said she would bring the proposal to DCF administrators again with the proposal’s focus intact.

Franklin Promise Community members spent a heated two hours trying to clarify that focus, especially after Nickerson said Promise Community representatives had told DCF administrators not to worry about the Bending the Curve proposal. “We didn’t ask them for a lot of input on that one, because we knew it was controversial,” she said.

No one seemed surprised that DCF officials were not eager to support an initiative that could hire a lawyer to inform families how they might resist DCF’s custody process. But when informed that was the only part of the proposal that had been shared with officials, Franklin Promise Community members hammered Nickerson with concise explanations of the proposal’s fundament.

“Your dollars are not going to hiring a lawyer,” Franklin Promise Community member Mary Pickener told Nickerson. “It is hiring a service coordinator to better coordinate the services of very complex families with very complex needs, multiple needs.”

Promise Community members reminded Nickerson they interviewed nearly 400 community members involved in the DCF process about their needs. Those interviews provided a clear picture of a process in which the more individuals fail to meet DCF standards, the more standards are applied to the individuals and the more they fail — essentially, the current system requires the individual be molded to meet the needs of the system instead of a system molded around the needs of the individual. “A service coordinator could streamline those things,” Pickener said.

Pickener is a substance abuse prevention consultant for the State of Vermont. She described seeing people request medical leave from their jobs to meet family services criteria, “which is outrageous,” she said. “’I need to leave my job so that I can get all my stuff done so that I can get my kid back’ is not something that qualifies for medical leave. It’s just going to erode their ability to be successful if they can’t work because they’re too busy trying to meet all the service requirements that are being thrown at them. That’s what a service coordinator will do — they will help support that, they will help prioritize so that [the individuals] don’t have to do all 20 things at once. You can meet the needs of the family and maximize the best success that they’re going to have.”

Despite frustration with the situation, Franklin Promise Community members told Nickerson they did not blame her.

Nickerson told the group she is in a tricky position, in which she must please various stakeholders without sacrificing the success of the proposed Promise Community strategies.

After two hours of counter-arguments, explanations and specific citations from the Franklin Promise Community’s proposal document, clarifying the intent of Bending the Curve, Nickerson agreed to re-propose the idea to DCF administrators.

But now there is an additional hurdle. The process of approving the Franklin Promise Community’s strategies, especially if Bending the Curve requires tinkering to meet DCF approval, could delay the distribution of the promised Promise Community funds until March. The Franklin Promise Community must spend those funds by the end of 2017. That leaves the group nine months to implement its intricate strategies, and in doing so, plant seeds for long-term changes.

Other proposed Franklin Promise Community strategies include hiring community coordinators to connect families with parenting and child development resources, to print and distribute materials advertising Franklin County Home Health Agency child care programs, bringing additional Nurturing Parenting Programs to Swanton and Sheldon for two years, helping existing child care providers adapt to new licensing regulations with mini-grants, distributing food surpluses more effectively and adding three more transitional housing units for homeless families with young children.