Virginia Singletary shifts uneasily in her chair while thinking of how fellow at-risk parents may lose their children to foster care if Nassau County takes over the nonprofit-run program that helped her.
Family Ties, run by the Family and Children’s Association (FCA), coached the 52-year-old Hempstead woman through what she called “crucial situations” as she tried to keep her family together, something the program has done for about 200 families annually over the past 20 years. But the program’s 28 social workers recently learned that Nassau plans to end its contract next March following an unrelated union dispute, officials said. That’s because the union that represents county Department of Social Services (DSS) workers last year won a grievance to take over a separate program, but county and union officials later agreed to have Nassau absorb Family Ties instead, officials said.
“The word alone, DSS, gives me a jilt in my stomach,” Singletary said, adding that the agency hasn’t been as helpful to her as FCA. “I’m just feeling like the sheet has been pulled from under us.”
In 2012, the Nassau County Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) Local 830 had filed a grievance arguing that the county didn’t give the union enough time to respond to a proposal to hire FCA to offer alternatives to children who are so disobedient that their parents, guardians or other authorities must file a Person In Need of Supervision (PINS) petition in Family Court.
When approved, PINS petitions allow judges to place dangerously out-of-control minors in foster care, group homes or other facilities where they can get special behavioral treatment. To give kids subject to such petitions a chance to improve and remain with their family, New York State a decade ago mandated PINS Diversion—the counseling program that CSEA said DSS should handle, not FCA. The nonprofit’s PINS Diversion program is called Family Solutions.
Last November Elliott Shriftman, a Southampton-based arbitration attorney, ruled in favor of CSEA. DSS officials said that the settlement hasn’t been finalized, but an informal agreement was reached allowing FCA’s $2 million Family Ties contract be converted to a county-run program instead of FCA’s $1.3 million Family Solutions contract. It’s unclear when that deal is expected to be finalized; Shriftman could not be reached for comment.
“Pursuant to the interim award, and with the mediation of the arbitrator, preventive services were returned to union members rather than PINS Diversion,” said Karen Garber, a spokeswoman for Nassau DSS. “The PINS Diversion program serves an extremely at-risk population, and there was a desire to avoid disturbing services in that area.”
Asked to explain how children facing foster care if their parents aren’t helped by the Family Ties program are less “extremely at-risk” than children facing foster care if their parents win a PINS petition, Garber conceded that both sets of clients face “the same level of risk.” She then said that DSS workers aren’t experienced enough to handle PINS Diversion cases.
“Family Solutions offers a wider range of clinical services, whereby Family Ties offers a wider range of casework,” Garber said. “It was recognized during mediation that civil service titles within DSS’s child welfare division does not require clinical experience, which is necessary to manage PINS Diversion. Based on the arbitrator’s decision, it was determined that Family Solutions should remain intact, and CSEA members could perform preventive services.”
Now it’s FCA staffers who feel like their family is being broken up by bureaucrats. They plan to rally,testify and hold a news conference on the issue before the county legislature holds its next meeting in Mineola on Monday.
“Our staff and the kids in the community are being caught in the crossfire of a labor dispute between the county and the union,” said Jeffrey Reynolds, FCA’s president and CEO. He said that DSS Commissioner John Imhoff gave him the news on June 12.
“It was like walking into a buzz saw,” Reynolds added, “because that program was never on the table.”
Rich Dopkin, director of communications for the CSEA, said that since the award is not yet final, he could not address the specifics of the case, but he insisted that “no one is getting neglected.”
The staff of Family Ties, FCA’s second-largest program in Nassau, touts a 98-percent success rate of keeping kids out of foster care. Likening their casework to a calling, they’re concerned about how well DSS social workers—who’ve seen multiple rounds of layoffs in recent years—will handle their clients.
“It’s not just a job for us,” said Donna Teichner, assistant director of Family Ties, which is based in Hempstead. “It’s a mission.”