Frustration with social services erupts after Wilton crisis

WILTON — The Social Services department is being accused of not taking enough of an active role to help school community members who are dealing with three recent deaths. The department has been in flux with a few vacancies and some employees redeployed.

Deborah List and Genevieive Eason, members of the Commission on Social Services, criticized Social Services Director Sarah Heath, at the commission’s meeting last week. They accused Heath of not taking enough of an active role as a town crisis resource following the recent deaths of three members of the school community, including two students.

The town was shaken by the death of Cesar Jimenez, a longtime plant manager for the Wilton school district who died suddenly on Sept. 20. The next day, Wilton High School junior George DiRocco died from an apparent undetected heart condition. Another high school student died from an apparent suicide on Oct. 5.

Grief from the deaths was widespread among children and adults, with a Service of Hope community gathering held by Wilton’s Interfaith Clergy Association on Saturday to help with the grieving process.

“We are hurting. Our students are hurting,” Janet Nobles, a music teacher at Middlebrook School, said after the service.

Following the death of the second student, 200 Wilton parents joined a Zoom support call with only two hours notice, according to Eason.

“That tells you how much need there is. Social services should have been part of that. Youth services hasn’t participated in the crisis response, and that is not OK. That is not meeting the needs of Wilton residents, and I am very frustrated,” Eason said at the commission meeting.

In response, Heath said she had reached out to the schools and made herself and her staff available to them.

“[Schools superintendent] Kevin Smith knows that my department is here and that we’re able to help. I don’t really know what else I can do other than let people know that I am here and my department is here and that we are available for counseling,” she said.

The mission of the social services department, according to the town’s website, is to help meet the social and psychological needs of Wilton residents of all ages.

List, the commission’s chairwoman, and parent of three high school students, said she received notices from the school about support services, and social services was not mentioned in them.

“I am concerned that while you may have offered yourself up as a resource, I didn’t see social services being presented as a resource to the community and that is seriously concerning to me. I don’t know where that disconnect is, that’s a problem,” she said.

Eason and List were also concerned that Heath has not filled a vacancy for the department’s youth services coordinator position, which provides counseling and crisis intervention services for Wilton’s youth. During this current crisis, they said, that position would have been a valuable resource to the community.

The youth services position has been vacant since July, when former coordinator Colleen Fawcett retired. Fawcett gave several months’ notice to the town of her retirement.

“We knew eight months ago our youth services coordinator was leaving, and knew it was going to be a tough fall. We asked you in June and July when you were going to fill that role. It could have been filled before Colleen left and she had time with the transition,” Eason said to Heath.

At a recent Board of Selectmen’s meeting, Heath said her department had been working efficiently with less staff since the pandemic struck, despite vacancies for a youth services coordinator and part-time youth counselor.

“There is a plan to hire a second part-time counselor later in the year, when an increased need is expected,” she told the board.

This led List and Eason to question whether Heath intended to fill the youth services coordinator position. “We need our residents to know we have this capacity in town,” List said. “It’s budgeted for, we’ve always had this service provided for, and we have families in town that need to access this service,” she said.

“I am well aware of the fact that we are available,” Heath responded. “That we have not had to turn anybody away that is looking for counseling. We are a resource for short-term counseling for anybody that needs it, anyone who has barriers to receiving it otherwise. That’s our job and we do that.”

List read into the record a letter dated Oct. 8, from the leadership teams of all five Wilton Parent Teacher Student Associations, expressing their desire to fill the youth services coordinator vacancy as soon as possible.

In response to the PTAs, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice submitted a letter saying Heath had informed her that she plans to hire a youth services coordinator.

Heath confirmed to the commission that she intends to hire a youth services coordinator as soon as the job description had been updated.

Commissioners Paul Nisco, Danille Mancuso and Selectman Ross Tartell, the selectmen’s liaison to the Social Services Commission, reviewed steps to move forward.

“From my perspective, I see this as an issue of execution,” Nisco said. “There is intent perhaps, but the execution is lacking in my viewpoint from assessing this conversation.”

“I agree with Paul,” Mancuso said. “As a commission, we need to work together. I didn’t like the tone. I know everyone’s upset, but it’s not going to get us anywhere, so let’s just put a plan into action and see what we can do going forward.”

“It’s a personal issue for many of us, heartbreaking, pain, anger. There should be accountability. So let’s take a look at what broke, what didn’t work, what we could have done better and put a plan in place to move forward,” Nisco said.

List recommended Heath start delivering written monthly reports to the commission again, a practice Heath stopped for some time, choosing to deliver oral reports instead.

“I will give it some thought,” Heath said.

Nisco proposed assessing the situation at the commission’s next meeting to address gaps in execution and delivery. He suggested taking a “quick survey” to gauge if members of the community believed they were getting the counseling they needed.

Tartell agreed and suggest taking a quick survey of key stakeholders.

During the meeting, Heath also reviewed other services provided by the Social Services Department, in which she said Parks & Recreation was part of the town’s Social Services network.

Nisco said he thought it was a stretch to classify Parks & Recreation under social services.

“I get concerned when I see two separate organizations try to merge. Parks & Rec has one mission statement and social services has another,” he said.

Heath responded that the social services aspect relates to mental health and physical well-being and that the senior center, which falls under social services, provides recreational activities.

“Since so many departments in town have merged when someone has retired or left, is there a possibility that Parks & Rec and social services is being thought of as merging in the future when Steve Pierce [Parks and Recreation director] retires?” Commissioner Bettye Ragonetti asked.

“I don’t think that’s something I would reply to at this moment,” Heath said.