After nearly a year without a full-time leader, Alexandria’s Department of Human Services has a permanent director again. City Manager Philip Sunderland moved former DHS director Meg O’Regan into another job in the city last September, and naming Beverly Steele as interim director.
Debra Collins took the reigns at the troubled agency on Sept. 15. While her educational background is not in social work, psychology or family therapy, her work experience is almost entirely in public and private human service organizations.
Collins comes to Alexandria from Erie County, N.Y., where she was second deputy commissioner, third in command in the county’s Department of Social Services, with responsibilities similar to those she will have here.
“I visited Alexandria about eight years ago and even came to look at the available positions in the department,” Collins said. “At the time, there wasn’t a fit but when I saw this job advertised, I applied.”
Despite past problems for DHS, Collins said she thinks Alexandria is ready to improve. "Sometimes, out of tragedy comes new ways of looking at systems and shaping them to make them better.”
Her lack of clinical credentials is not a hindrance, she said. “I’m a manager. I think that clinicians should be involved in the day-to-day delivery of social work.”
Managers should focus on how the department itself functions, she said, finding the best match of employees and jobs, working with the community and making sure the department meets its goals.
COLLINS HIGHLIGHTED some of her successes in Erie County. “During my tenure there, I wore several hats,” she said.
While serving as a public affairs director and legislative liaison, Collins was also “in charge of intake and eligibility. One of the changes that I instituted was our front door welfare-to-work program. This was pre-welfare reform so it was considered to be cutting edge at the time. This was a new concept — asking the client to look for work while we were processing an application for welfare.”
Erie’s Social Services Department also received a national award for its family preservation component. “Once again, we instituted this program before the legislation was passed,” she said. “We required that minors return home unless they were able to show that they could provide for themselves. In the past, once you were 16, you could apply for welfare and live on your own. These were early welfare diversion activities so that when the legislation was passed, we were ahead of the game.”
Collins was responsible for initiating a targeted citizenship program. “Erie County was one of those areas that decided not to fund a food assistance program for non-citizens,” she said. “I met with food pantry providers, shelter providers and people from the Immigration and Naturalization Service and developed a contract with private groups to provide citizenship classes.”
There was a real need for the program: about 600 people, many senior citizens, were on the verge of losing their benefits. "Around 300 of the 600 participated in the program,” Collins said. “About 200 of those actually became citizens.”
COLLINS ALSO looked at corrective action measures that were imposed on the department in a goal-oriented manner.
“Each corrective action went into a system and we sat down and looked at the measurable goals and outcomes for them and developed a monitoring system so that we could quantify our progress toward correcting things that were wrong,” she said.
“We were able to show a six-month reduction in the time it took for expediting permanency in our foster care system, for example.”
Collins intends to implement many of these systems in Alexandria. “I believe that we have a responsibility to the community that not only do we do a good job in protecting vulnerable populations, but that we do it with fiscal responsibility,” she said. “We must do our jobs in a way that is both efficient and effective.”
Collins believes in teamwork, both within the agency and with the community partners that are vital to the agency’s mission.
“I do not have to be an expert in every area. I believe in making sure that staff do their jobs. I’m there to help support them; I’m there to help them set goals and I am there to hold them accountable for the goals they set,” she said.
“I’m very much a community, team-building, partner person. What you will find with my management style is team building, shared leadership and I hope that the vision that I ultimately set with the input of the staff and the community will be something that will benefit the city of Alexandria and its residents,” she said.
SUNDERLAND IS OPTIMISTIC. “I believe that Debra Collins is exactly the person who we need to lead the Department of Human Services at this time,” he said. “I have every confidence that she will do an outstanding job.”
Sunderland also praised interim director Steele, who has led DHS since O’Regan’s removal last September. “I can think of no one who could have done a better job at DHS for the past year than Beverly Steele,” he said. “I am very grateful to her for her dedication and leadership.”
Steele, a long-time city employee and former deputy city manager under Vola Lawson, is pleased with what she was able to accomplish during the past year.
While there were no surprises, she said that she learned many things over the past year. “I certainly learned more of the details than I knew before. I always knew that, for the city of Alexandria, this is a pretty good-sized department and there’s a lot of programs and a lot of complexity to the programs,” she said. “I think what I really learned was just more about that complexity.”
For the past year, Steele has had a dual role. “One was to come in and provide some stability in the department because the department had been through a number of things,” she said. “So my first priority was to provide stability and get to know the employees and find out from them what were their issues so that I could have a better understanding of where they were coming from and working to resolve those issues.”
But she also needed to examined the department, and decide where changes should be made. “In my mind, one of the biggest changes was to hire our current chief of services, Vickie Primer, in the child welfare area,” said Steele. “I think that with her hiring and the reforms that were started before I got here, as well as working with the employees about what it really means to be a social worker, we have moved forward.”
Staff members were reminded of the context in which they did their jobs. “We need to want to work with the community and to want the community to work with us on a variety of things that we are doing,” said Steele.
TO THIS END, Steele is assigning liaisons from the department to every civic association. “The police do this and it is a way to keep the community informed about what we do and to respond to concerns when they arise,” she said.
DHS is also working on an agency-wide uniform employee evaluation system. “We need to work with staff to set goals and with managers to hold staff accountable for meeting those goals,” she said.
Steele said she is also proud that she has helped to improve relations between DHS and UNITY, the group of in-home child care providers who care for children whose parents receive city child care subsidies.
“We certainly have more work to do but I am very proud of the little plaque that they gave me for moving things forward from where they were a year ago,” Steele said. UNITY had a history of concerns over pay rates and other conditions, which have begun to improve.
Steele has now returned to her role as special projects coordinator for the city. “The city manager and I have talked about a number of projects that I might work on,” she said. “We will see where I am needed.”