Wilton Social Services says it can meet needs with less staff

While Comstock Community Center was closed during the pandemic, Social Services Director Sarah Heath said her department was able to work with fewer employees, and she expects to be able to continue doing so.

While Comstock Community Center was closed during the pandemic, Social Services Director Sarah Heath said her department was able to work with fewer employees, and she expects to be able to continue doing so.

Jeannette Ross / Hearst Connecticut Media

WILTON — The town’s social services department is down staff members, but that’s not a problem according to Sarah Heath, the department’s director.

While reviewing social services operations with the Board of Selectmen, Heath said the department has been doing things more “efficiently” since the pandemic, and can do with less staff right now. “It frees up staff time to do more things,” she said.

Over the summer, the department lost two staff members. Youth Services coordinator and clinical social worker Colleen Fawcett retired in August. Part-time adult and family social worker Phoebe Musico, resigned in July.

Social Services has since been operating with four employees — Heath, who does not have a degree in social work, social services activities coordinator Stephanie Rowe, senior services coordinator Lauren Hughes, and Deborah Wolyniec, an administrative assistant. In additon a part-time youth services counselor works with the department.

A permanent replacement for the youth services coordinator position will not be hired until “in-person” interviews can be held, with no immediate date set for the interviews.

There is no immediate plan to fill Musico’s position, however she is expected to return in a youth counselor position.

In a PowerPoint presentation, Heath said the mission of Social Services was to help meet the social and psychological needs of Wilton residents of all ages by providing information and referrals to local, state and federal social service programs, financial assistance, short-term counseling, and programming.

The senior center, Wilton Youth Services and the food pantry are specialized areas within the department. Social Services is also part of the town’s Emergency Management Team.

The pandemic, Heath said, forced Social Services to operate differently, and is requiring fewer staff hours.

The senior center, for example, has not been holding programs indoors. Classes and events are being held outdoors and via Zoom. For senior counseling, there is increased phone contact and less frequent in-person contact.

Short-term counseling and referral work is being done online. Kids in Crisis counseling services are being used by Wilton schools for youth counseling.

At the town’s food pantry, more gift cards are being distributed, and social services staff, rather than volunteers, are manning it.

State and federal programs are helping with unemployment issues.

“We’re still able to help anyone that needs us. If the need goes up, I promise I will come back and ask for additional help. Assuming numbers go up in town for people that need assistance,” Heath said.

Selectwoman Deb McFadden expressed support for the department, but wanted to ensure less staffing wouldn’t adversely effect residents. “We want to make sure Wilton residents are receiving the services they need,” McFadden said.

Selectman Ross Tartell called Social Services “critical” to the health of the town and how people feel. “When people are in trouble, they need to access services easily,” he said.

He asked Heath what the Social Services Commission, a volunteer board which provides general oversight of the department, thought about her plan. Tartell is the board’s liaison to the Social Services Commission.

Heath said she did not discuss staffing with the commission and instead chose to bring the issue directly to the Board of Selectmen.

“What happens if they [the Social Services Commission] have a different perspective from the selectmen?” Tartell asked.

Vanderslice said staffing was under Heath’s management, with her, as first selectwoman, acting as her supervisor.

“The Social Services Commission is advisory, and people on that commission have expertise and an understanding of this town. So, they may have something pretty good to say,” Tartell said.

The Social Services Commission is meeting on Thursday, Oct. 8, to discuss the department’s staffing plan.

During public comment, which was read into the record by Selectwoman Lori Bufano, Kevin Hickey said he hoped the town would increase, rather than decrease social services.

Editor’s Note: The story was corrected to reflect that social services plans on filling vacancies at a later date.