For the second time in just over a year, the Child Protective Services Division at Alexandria’s Department of Human Services has a new chief.
Vicky Primer has been on the job for just over three weeks. She is replacing Pamela Hyde, who left in January after less than one year on the job.
“We believe that Vicky will bring a breadth of experience both in the public and private sectors that will serve our child welfare system well,” said Beverly Steele, the interim director at DHS.
Primer has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Ohio State University, a master’s from the University of Dayton and a doctorate in marriage and family therapy from Kansas State University. She began her career working with the chronically mentally ill, then moved into case work in a public child welfare agency in Lincoln County, Ohio. While at Kansas State, she worked for the state of Kansas’ child welfare agency training staff. Most recently, she ran a private agency that serves Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties in Maryland.
“My first love has always been child welfare,” Primer said. “When this job became available, I saw it as an opportunity to get back into the field. We have had some very candid conversations and I believe that Alexandria wants to be the best child welfare agency possible. I am looking forward to working with the staff and the community and with other agencies to make that happen.”
THE AGENCY came under scrutiny after the death of three-year-old Katelynn Frazier in 2000. The child died shortly after being returned to her biological mother. Other cases of children being left in unsafe conditions have also come to light in the past year.
Primer’s hiring was just one of the first steps in restructuring the agency. Steele came to DHS when former director Meg O’Regan was reassigned in September, 2002. The search for a permanent director is ongoing.
“We hope to begin interviewing sometime this month,” Steele said. “We have been working with a firm and there are some candidates. The first step will be interviews by a panel that the city manager puts together. Then we will have agency interviews.”
Steele hopes that a new director will be hired by the end of the year.
Based on conversations during the interview process, Primer has some ideas about her priorities for the next few months. “Right now, we are trying to get a handle on the workload distribution and creating a more effective structure within social services so that the workload is distributed well, that we are meeting all of our mandates within the timelines that we need to meet them and that our workers aren’t working more than 40 to 45 hours a week,” she said.
“The increased requirements from the state and the federal government really do require a lot of documentation, which is not a bad thing, but now we need to figure out how to provide that documentation, continue with our really good case work and have the documentation reflect what we are doing.”
THE OTHER GOAL is to implement what was termed best practices. “We need to identify the very best practices in the child welfare field at this point and implement them,” Primer said. “We want to be a model agency. We want to be able to demonstrate outcomes and we want to know that the work we are doing is going to produce outcomes for kids and families in the community that are positive.”
Some of the programs that are being studied are model courts, a child advocacy center and others. Alexandria’s juvenile and domestic relations court is designated as a model court. The child advocacy center concept would bring together social workers, police, prosecutors, guardian ad item and child advocates under one roof. These people would work together from the time a case came into the system until final disposition.
“We are also looking at refining our risk assessment tool so that it works for every piece of the agency and we are looking at community monitoring,” Primer said.
Primer is responsible for 40 staff who work in all areas of child welfare, including fostercare, child protective services and permanency planning. Each staff member has a case load of approximately 16 children.
“We are going to work closely with the staff in selecting a best practices model that best fits our agency,” Primer said. “It is essential for the staff to be a part of this process. I have learned that if I select a model and say 'here it is,' the staff may implement it in 10 years or so or never. This is going to be a collaborative process.
“That doesn’t mean that not changing the way we do things is going to be acceptable,” Primer said. “That’s not a choice. We are going to look at several best practices models and talk about them. Then we are going to select one that helps us to work more efficiently and thus more effectively.
"If we are more efficient, we will reduce staff stress and provide better services to children and their families. There is already a lot of good case work happening here but there are always things that we can do to make that even better.”