By Emma Cotton/VTDigger
It’s hard to connect with social services in Rutland and Bennington counties.
That’s the gist of two surveys recently conducted by a group called Families at the Center in Southwestern Vermont, which, through a localized pilot project, aims to expand Vermonters’ access to services such as housing, child care, recovery support and food assistance.
The group recently received a $100,000 grant from the William J. and Dorothy K. O’Neill Foundation, an organization trying to end the fragmentation of social services across the country. In Vermont, it has also worked with Let’s Grow Kids.
Anecdotally, it’s well-known among staff at organizations such as the Rutland County Parent Child Center, Sunrise Family Resource Center in Bennington, and Reach Up, a statewide jobs program, that people seeking these kinds of services often fall through the cracks. The surveys, designed to point the pilot project in a fruitful direction, back up those accounts.
Of 173 respondents who have sought services, mostly from Rutland and Bennington counties, 86% said they needed assistance from between two to four agencies. Sent through local agencies and posted to Front Porch Forum and social media, the survey was written by project consultant Kim Friedman.
Two-thirds of respondents “stopped trying to access the supports and services they needed because they got discouraged or tired of trying. This suggests many unmet needs and a system that is unresponsive and complicated to navigate, especially on one’s own,” according to Friedman’s analysis of the survey results.
That statistic, in particular, validates much of what social workers suspected, said Steve Harrington, a case manager with the Rutland County Parent Child Center who helped spearhead the pilot project.
“It’s an impression that people have from their experience, but you don’t really know,” he said. “Once you disengage from someone, you might never see or hear from them again, so you don’t know what happened. Hearing that, yes, in fact, people are giving up on that scale, is important information to have.”
One question asked people about the obstacles that kept them from connecting with services. The analysis says the responses “paint a picture of a disjointed system that puts the onus of finding services on individuals rather than agency staff.” Barriers include difficulty filling out applications, losing benefits, wait times, a lack of response from agencies and negative encounters with staff members at various agencies.
Harrington said the last barrier also confirmed what he already knows: Positive relationships between case managers and those seeking help are important.
“Rapport is really a lopsidedly influential factor in how successful a person’s experience is,” he said. “If there’s no rapport, your chances of making any kind of progress are kind of slim.”
A corresponding survey taken by 75 area service providers showed challenges within the system. Sixty percent of social workers who responded said that, because of high caseloads, they’re looking to spend more time “getting to know families and their needs.”
Early ideas for the group’s pilot project include installing a system in which families choose a single case manager to help them navigate multiple agencies, “like a distributor in an engine,” Harrington said.
Social workers want to cut redundancy. Right now, families often fill out multiple applications with the same information and retell traumatic stories to a web of people, some of whom never get back to them.
That problem has sparked another preliminary idea: Provide one single application that would be shared among different agencies. Sixty-nine percent of service providers who responded said something “similar to a common application for colleges and universities” would “help a lot,” and 28% said it would help “somewhat.”
Harrington said paperwork occasionally gets lost in the shuffle between various agencies, which can cause a huge challenge for some families.
“I’ve had that happen,” he said. “If I hadn’t been a freewheeling case manager, these people would have been in a tent in the wintertime with a baby because somebody lost their paperwork.”
Now, the group will proceed to a design phase. Survey respondents were invited to participate in discussions that will help shape the final architecture of the project.
“The people who are involved in the family discussions and people who are involved in the service provider discussions will be getting together, and we’ll be trying to hash out what this test model will look like,” Harrington said.
Then, later this year, the group, in partnership with a wide web of agencies around the state, will identify families who can test out the chosen system, which Harrington hopes will eventually become a model for the state.
“It’s kind of like starting out on the right foot,” he said. “The more organized everybody is in the first place, then you would hope that things progress and that people are able to put the pieces together.”