Youth and Family Services waiting in limbo

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Naugatuck Youth and Family Services Acting Director Christina Koch Gamble sits in her office on Tuesday. –LUKE MARSHALL
Naugatuck Youth and Family Services Acting Director Christina Koch Gamble sits in her office on Tuesday. –LUKE MARSHALL

NAUGATUCK — Naugatuck Youth and Family Services Acting Director Christina Koch Gamble stepped into her current role last July after former Director Jane Lobdell died. Since then Gamble, who was the assistant director, has received a $5,000 stipend for doing both jobs, and the future of the department remains to be determined.

Borough officials have decided not to hire a new director for now and are awaiting the results of a strategic planning study before deciding the next step.  

The West Hartford-based consulting firm Blum & Shapiro is conducting the study. The study is evaluating the operations of borough government and one of the areas it is looking into is the social services Naugatuck provides and the level to which the borough should fund them.

Mayor Robert Mezzo has said on numerous occasions the final decision on funding for the department will be made by the Board of Mayor and Burgesses, not the study.

“I think it’s an important service they provide. The question has always been who should provide the service,” Mezzo said.

Mezzo said there’s been debate in the Joint Boards of Mayor and Burgesses and Board of Finance before he was mayor relative to whether or not Youth and Family Services and some other social services the borough has traditionally provided are now appropriate realms for the public sector to be involved in, given current financial constraints.

Mezzo said one of the benefits of the Blum Shapiro study is being able to examine the services the borough provides more strategically with an outside prospective to analyze what other options exist and, if the borough should be doing it another way, what are some of the options to get there.

“There’s nothing in the Blum Shapiro report that’s a magic solution to anything. The preliminary reports that we’ve seen will suggest certain transitions and processes and recommendations to get there, but there’s nothing that says on Aug. 1 this is going to happen,” Mezzo said.

Gamble said if the borough chooses not to continue funding the service, it could not exist as it currently does.

“The only extra money we get is from a couple of grants that pay for a couple part-time positions and pay for some programs; so, no, you couldn’t run the whole operation on that,” Gamble said.

The department sees on average 50 clients a week, Gamble said. It provides a variety of services including individual, couples and family therapy as well as anger management. It also provides funding for programs on bullying, diversity and smoking in the borough’s schools, she explained.

Geoffrey Drawbridge, chairman of the Youth and Family Services Board, explained that even the grants the department receives would be in trouble if the department doesn’t receive enough support from the borough.

“The state grants that we’re getting help but in no way take the place of the support from the town. We have to have a certain amount of support from the town or we don’t qualify for the grants. So it’s a two-edged sword,” Drawbridge said.

In the absence of a full-time director, Gamble has stepped into the leadership role.

“Everything pretty much falls on me now, any of the decision making, anything that goes on here. Overseeing the supervision of the grants we get. Supervising the staff,” Gamble said. “I don’t get much time off or days off, or get to take vacation. I’m always here.”

Drawbridge said the loss of Lobdell and being unable to hire a replacement has had a noticeable effect on the service.

“When you have a small staff to begin with and you lose a key person it has a great impact. We’ve struggled for a year now, and it’s becoming more and more apparent that we need to take on somebody at some level to help shore up where our shortcomings are,” Drawbridge said. “If you only have one full-time person and a part-time secretary you’re not going to be able to get out into the community and do those outreach programs you were doing so well prior to this.”

Gamble pointed out that Naugatuck Youth and Family Services provides a unique service for the borough.

“We’re unique in that we are low to no cost. There are other private agencies that people can go to, but there is a waiting list,” Gamble said. “We have a very low sliding scale fee. Basically what people can afford. And nowadays people can’t afford much. So we get really low income people. Some people without insurance and some who cant afford the co-pay on their insurance.”

Drawbridge said other mental health organizations aren’t able to offer services at such a low cost because they are not funded by a municipality and need to make a profit to remain in business.

“That’s how we fill a need where the others can’t. They have to survive,” Drawbridge said.

Drawbridge said regardless of what the report said and what borough officials decide to do, the service will try to find a way to continue.

“We don’t want to throw in the towel. We don’t want to be resigned to the fact that we can’t continue. We’d like to continue in some form and hopefully one that would be most beneficial to the community. It’s tough. It’s tough,” Drawbridge said.

Gamble said the service would have to completely restructure to remain viable.

“The only other thing we could do is, in doing therapy now we do not take any insurance, so it would be to look into how to change the structure of the agency so we could take insurance. But that takes time. And then you have to have the time to do all the billing and the paperwork, so that takes time and more staff. But I think it’s going to come to try to do that so we can generate income,” Gamble said.

In addition to the family counseling services that it provides, Naugatuck Youth and Family Services is also an integral part of the Juvenile Review Board. Gamble is also a member of the Juvenile Review Board.

Gamble said the board has seen an increase in number of cases being referred and will soon see another increase since truant cases will start being referred to the board as well.

“The kids who are referred have to be first-time offenders. So it’s really getting the kids who have their first offense and seeing if we can turn this around,” Gamble said.

Drawbridge said even if the service is unable to continue on how it has been operating in the past, it still needs to keep its sites on what is important.

“If we are not able to resume with the same energy that we had before then we’ve got to try and make the best of a bad situation. The one thing we really don’t want to jeopardize is that Juvenile Review Board,” Drawbridge said.

Florence Sarigianis, a licensed family and marriage therapist who works part time at the department, said she believes having a service that allows the borough to take care of its own residents is an important thing.

“The fact that Naugatuck can take care of its own in a facility like this is important. I live in a town where they outsource and I don’t think they do a good job in that. … It’s not the same thing because it’s not taking care of your own,” Sarigianis said.

The report from Blum Shapiro is due back later this year. Borough officials have said that, if they decide to keep the service, there is enough money in the current budget to hire a new director.

For Drawbridge the future of the service is tied together with the future of Naugatuck.

“If you talk about the future of the community you’ve got to look at the health of the community,” Drawbridge said.