County unit has great responsibility

By CHRISTINE SCHUYLER

I find myself writing this commentary for three reasons:

To define the Chautauqua County Department of Health and Human Services.

To provide education on the roles and responsibilities of a “Local Social Services District.”

To respond publicly, as requested by a letter writer to the Dunkirk OBSERVER (Feb. 17) to allegations that Social Services pays fines for clients.

Every county in the state of New York has what is called a Local Social Services District. In Chautauqua County, this district, traditionally called the Department of Social Services (DSS), is now part of the consolidated Department of Health and Human Services. As Director of Health and Human Services, I officially act as the county’s commissioner of Social Services and Public Health Director. I am very proud and honored to serve in this leadership position and sincerely feel that we have incredible and unique opportunities to make positive change for the greater good.

Numerous studies have identified that socio-economic factors are some of the biggest determinants of health outcomes. By addressing these issues comprehensively, we stand to effect true system changes that will result in long-term societal improvement and sustained fiscal benefit for all.

The organization’s mission statement: “The Chautauqua County Department of Health and Human Services, in collaboration with our partners, protects and promotes the health, safety and self-reliance of all those in Chautauqua County and provides essential human services, especially for those who are least able to help themselves.” We are divided into the following divisions: Administrative Services, Public Health, Family and Children’s Services, Temporary Assistance, Medical Assistance and Services, Legal Affairs and Youth Bureau.

The responsibilities of a local social services district are immense and complicated but basically include:

Provide aid to eligible recipients through the Family Assistance, Safety Net, Day Care, Employment, Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called food stamps), Medicaid and Home Energy Assistance Programs as dictated by federal and state regulations.

Establish an initial child support obligation of a legally responsible individual through the Family Court, collect support payments, enforce and modify existing support orders.

Protect children, adults and families by enforcing the mandates of New York State Social Services Law.

As I hope you can derive from this basic description, not everyone who does business with a local social services district is on “welfare” as many programs and services fall under this umbrella. Public assistance is only one component of our responsibilities as dictated by the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, New York State Office of Children and Family Services, New York State Department of Health and New York State Unified Court System. Within these programs exists several instances where we manage an individual’s own funds, such as one’s Social Security, pension, or paycheck.

In these instances, fines or fees would be paid with the individual’s own money just as their rent, utilities, or other bills would be. Specific sections of law that cover such instances include: 42 U.S.C.A. 1383 (Representative Payee for Social Security); state Mental Hygiene Law, Article 81 (Guardianship); state Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act, Article 17 (Guardianship of an Infant); state Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act, Article 17-a (Guardianship of Mentally Retarded and Developmentally Disabled); and state Social Services Law, Articles 10 and 6 (Children).

On Jan. 16, I directly and very clearly responded to the writer’s concern that taxpayer dollars were used to pay fines in a local court as follows:

“Thank you for reaching out to me. While I can appreciate your concern, I can assure you that public funds are NOT used to pay fines.”

For some reason that he chose not to articulate to me, the writer chose not to believe me. I have also repeated that answer to various legislators, elected officials, and members of the public. Confidentiality rules prohibit us from acknowledging or discussing specific cases. We do not write the federal and state rules and regulations, but we are required to adhere to them. If persons disagree with the program rules, they should contact their state and federal representatives. If someone has information about fraud or abuse of a program, then they should call the fraud hotline at 1-800-388-5365.

I’m hopeful that people can now have a greater appreciation for the extensive work and responsibilities of the Chautauqua County Health and Human Services as your local social services district and local health department.

Not only does the writer owe me a public apology as promised; he should also apologize to staff, clients, and the general public. His choice to not believe me when I responded to his inquiry has permitted him to continue to perpetuate a misunderstanding to the detriment of those served by this department and the staff of this department.

Christine Schuyler, BSN, RN, MHA, is the director of Chautauqua County Department of Health & Human Services.