Thoughts From The Director: May Edition, 2020
“The Best of Us….”
In times like these we learn a lot about ourselves and others. Some of what we learn is disheartening, and reminds us that the “rugged individualism” often thought of as the bedrock of our Americanism isn’t always what is needed when the focus is on what is best for all of us, not just for some. On the other hand, many of us have come to understand that being a unique individual doesn’t preclude ongoing, albeit painful, sacrifice for the greater good.
New Jersey has been living with social distancing for almost 6 weeks as we go to press. I’ve been incredibly impressed with the dedication, creativity and fortitude exhibited by our human services family. The efforts being made daily by our human service affiliated local non-profit organizations (to say nothing of our 10 County HS Divisions) are inspiring. Methods of working have been reinvented, staff (particularly our group home worker compadres as well as our Board of Social Service and Richard Hall employees) have bravely stepped up to continue to care for their clients- sometimes in person - even at a time when adequate PPE was a day-to-day question (fortunately this has improved somewhat in the last 2 weeks).
It can be difficult to fathom the sometimes overtly anti-science and dangerously undercutting messages encouraging “liberation,” as though the intention of our Governors (with our New Jersey Governor at the fore) is to repress the public and move us towards some dystopian vision of “deep state” control. While such sweeping orders should perhaps always be viewed with initial skepticism, when they are data driven, clearly designed to protect the public from a level of viral spread that would do permanent damage to thousands (more) of our citizens, observance and sustaining follow through are critical. Timing matters, particular closure choices can be debated (public parks, for example, reopening with some restrictions as we publish) and there is no “one right answer.” Are there consequences for following the science? There are, just as there are consequences for (in this writer’s opinion) getting a late start on mitigation and containment and overtly competitive quests for PPE that pit government entities against each other. The concerns about a prolonged period of “staying at home” are legitimate. In addition to the economic free fall (which punishes our least well-off residents more than any others) there have been, we believe, increases in domestic violence and child abuse, as already pressured and stressed partners and parents become even more so. Everything is magnified, so almost every “pre-existing condition” is ratcheted up: health vulnerabilities, struggles with substance use, anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges, family and marital conflict, etc. We will not come out of this COVID-19 tunnel unscathed.
And yet…stories of hope and inspiration abound. I have heard and seen wonderful things happen in this month of April. Many members of our Somerset County community have bonded together to get food to those who need it, connect frustrated and anxious residents with services, and network, brainstorm and collaborate. With the possible exceptions of our Department of Health and OEM staff, members of our Human Services Department and our affiliated community non-profits have extended themselves in ways that are the very definition of dedication.
There is something qualitatively different, especially in the helping professions, about being able to look someone directly in the eye, unseparated by a video screen. We all are eager for those days to return and, if we guard against prematurity, they will. Our delivery system just isn’t the same without human beings, in a shared space, connecting with each other. I don’t know about you all, but I promise not to complain about “too many meetings” when we eventually return to whatever will be our “new normal.”
As I said at the outset- in times like these we learn a lot about each other. I admire what I’ve learned about the folks who work in human services.
To a brighter day!
RECOGNIZING OUR LOCAL SUPERHEROES!
May 4 - 8 is Teacher Appreciation Week
May 6 - 12 is Nurse Appreciation Week
Source: pbs.org; photo by Donovan Kennedy
Somerset County's Department of Human Services salutes all the teachers and the nurses who selflessly and tirelessly dedicate themselves to serving others. Even when they are not at the frontline of a world health crisis, nursing professionals make a lifesaving difference every day. Meanwhile, teachers (as many of the parents are able to now see firsthand) are so pivotal in our children's lives inspiring them to learn and discover to help them reach for the stars!
While these two weeks are highlighted to celebrate the great work they do and their unwavering dedication and commitment to the community, be sure to celebrate what they do every day!
WE THANK YOU!!!
by Meg Isbitski, LSW, DRCC, Assistant Mental Health Administrator, Somerset County Department of Human Services
If you are concerned that you or someone you love is exhibiting signs of mental distress or a developing condition, consider these signs (according to the Campaign to Change Direction):
Personality changes: Any changes in behavior that seem out of character, including actions or speech that seem out of place? Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed? Changes in energy levels, sleep, or appetite?
Agitated: Experiencing an increase in anger, anxiety, agitation, or moodiness? Depression and other conditions such as anger, irritability, and frustration.
Withdrawn: Any change in typical sociability? Pulling away and isolating from other people and social activities? Failing to connect to others and having trouble attending work or school?
Change in self-care: A change in typical hygiene and personal care? A decrease in focus of taking care of self, home, and other personal responsibilities? Patterns of poor judgment and negligence forming, i.e. substance misuse or missing health appointments?
Hopeless: An uptick in feelings of being overwhelmed, frustrated, helpless, or hopeless? Becoming increasing difficult to find optimism or positives in any given circumstance? Feelings of personal worthlessness or guilt, or that things would be better off without them?
Community Resources for mental health and substance use supports during COVID19:
For more information: Somerset County Resources or call the Department of Human Services at 908-704-6300 (we are working remotely but will return your call).
In case of psychiatric Emergency: Call Bridgeway PESS at 908-526-4100Check in on your loved ones, coworkers, and classmates and speak up when you may be experiencing emotional distress or recognize it in others. The purpose of May as Mental Health Month is to celebrate living successfully by focusing on our mental health and wellness through a comprehensive lens. It is a time where we are able to reflect on past and current emotional struggles, as well as learn skills and techniques to improve daily quality of life—social distancing or not.
- Employment readiness programs are conducting mock interviews with students online. Staff is preparing youth who are working towards employment certifications or credentials through online meetings or phone calls.
- Youth are being offered online groups to connect with peers and staff and learn a variety of life skills.
- Students in Middle Earth’s afterschool programs meet virtually for fun activities in their clubs. They have imagined new theme parks, learned skills from Disney animators, made Play-doh, and much more!
- The Youth College Readiness Program is conducting all of their workshops online, covering topics such as applying for financial aid, SAT preparation, and managing stress. They are arranging virtual college tours. The staff is also working with high school seniors in reaching out to admissions departments, completing scholarship applications, and making decisions about where they would like to attend this Fall.
- Staff is personally calling every family who has a student in one of their mentoring programs to stay connected and offer care over the phone.
- Middle Earth created service projects for youth who need volunteer hours that can be done at home.
- Staff is touching base with every participant in their programs to determine if they or their families have any needs that can be fulfilled and the staff also talks to them about finding healthy ways to cope.
by Tracy Pluchino, MA, Richard Hall Community Health & Wellness Center
What are some of the images or thoughts that come to your mind when you hear the term “mental illness?” You may think of your own personal experience, that of family and friends or stories and images portrayed in the media. Along with the realities of mental health problems exist the persistent myths. Here are some frequently expressed myths.Myth: MENTAL HEALTH CONCERNS DO NOT AFFECT ME
Fact: MENTAL HEALTH CONCERNS ARE ACTUALLY COMMON
• 1 in 5 adult Americans live with a mental health concern such as Anxiety, Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder or Major Depression, Co-Occurring mental health and substance use challenges
• It’s likely that you know somebody be it family, friend or self who has a diagnosis
Myth: PEOPLE WITH MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES ARE VIOLENT AND UNPREDICTABLE
Fact: THE MAJORITY OF INDIVIDUALS LIVING WITH MENTAL HEALTH CONCERNS ARE NO MORE LIKELY TO BE VIOLENT THAN ANYBODY ELSE
• Only 3 to 5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with serious mental health concerns
• Actually, people with severe mental health concerns are 10 times more likely to be a victim of a violent crime then the general population
Myth: I CANNOT DO ANYTHING FOR A PERSON WITH A MENTAL HEALTH CONCERN
Fact: FRIENDS AND FAMILY MEMBERS CAN MAKE A POSITIVE DIFFERENCE TO THOSE LIVING WITH MENTAL HEALTH CONCERNS.
Friends and family can assist in getting the person the treatment and services they need by:
• Reaching out to them and letting them know you are there for them
• Treating them with respect
• Learning about and listening to what they are going through
• Helping them find the mental health services they need
Myth: MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS ARE A SIGN OF WEAKNESS
Fact: MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH STRENGTHS OR WEAKNESSES. IT IS A MEDICAL CONDITION.
• Genetics and brain chemistry contribute to overall mental health
• Life experiences shape mental health. This includes trauma and stress inducing events
• Family history can also be a component of mental health. Having a parent who has a mental health concern may increase in individual’s risk of also having one
by Gayle Kaufman, MA, Acting Program Coordinator, Juvenile Institutional Services
As a person who loves a good snow day or three so I can spend endless hours in my cave, I have often wondered how I would cope if I were placed in solitary confinement. It’s a topic that comes up frequently in the juvenile justice world, as many states work towards reforming their practices. I thought (cavalierly, I now realize) that, if only I were allowed to have books, I could probably spend weeks in a room alone, no problem.
Then the coronavirus came, and we were all ordered to stay home. By day four of my confinement, in spite of being able to spend my days moving between my sunny kitchen and cozy living room while interacting with colleagues and clients on my laptop and cell phone; and spending the evenings availing myself of endless media streaming options and books, I started feeling rather claustrophobic and realized that I needed to go outside for a walk, to feel the big open sky and the natural energy outside my walls (who’s with me?).
In most cases, inmates in solitary confinement are sequestered in a 6’x 8’ cell with little to no natural light. Youth who are held in county jails and adult state prisons are often placed in solitary confinement for 22 to 24 hours a day “for their own protection,” to avoid the abuses and influences of adult offenders. This practice inflicts damage that goes beyond feelings of extraordinary loneliness or depression. Depriving teenagers of all stimuli, such as social interaction and learning experiences, as well as basic visual and auditory input, actually causes neurological damage to their developing brains. According to the ACLU’s 2012 report “Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in the Jails and Prisons Across the United States,” youth in solitary confinement have high incidents of: • Psychological harm -anxiety, rage, insomnia, cutting and self-harm, suicidal thoughts and attempts, and struggles with mental disabilities and past trauma • Physical harm -lack of adequate exercise, which can result in physical changes and stunted growth • Social and developmental harm due to denial of family contact, lack of adequate education, the limitations of intellectual disabilities, and a lack of rehabilitation or support for social development Juvenile facilities also use various degrees of isolation, whether for punishment or protection, for incarcerated teens throughout the United States. According to the Justice Department, half of all suicides in juvenile facilities take place in solitary. But one particular incident brought the urgency of the issue to light- Kalief Browder spent three years at Rikers Island, an adult facility in New York, after being accused of stealing a backpack. He spent nearly two of those years in solitary while his case worked its way through the court. In 2015, at the age of 16, his case was dismissed and, after his release, he hanged himself in his own home.
Kalief’s death was a turning point in the juvenile justice culture. According to a 2017 report from the Marshall Project:
- In 2016, former President Barack Obama banned solitary confinement for minors in federal prisons
- In 2017, “a series of strongly-worded federal court decisions, new state laws and policy changes in Wisconsin, Tennessee, New York, California, Colorado, Connecticut and North Carolina have nearly eliminated ‘punitive’ solitary… It was already largely prohibited in at least 29 states”
- In July, 2017, a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled that “children have an age-specific ‘right to rehabilitation’ and that ‘solitary confinement violates it.’ Under the preliminary injunction issued by Judge James Peterson of Federal District Court in Madison on July 10, Wisconsin officials must stop holding youths in solitary for longer than seven days, and must allow them outside their cells for at least 30 hours a week. (They had previously been held in isolation for periods of 60 days or longer, according to the underlying lawsuit by the ACLU and the Juvenile Law Center.) The youths must also be provided therapy, education and recreation, the judge said.”
When we have successfully “flattened the curve” and waited out the coronavirus pandemic, we will return to our old routines (hopefully, not all of them; and- also hopefully- having learned some better strategies for having a healthy and vibrant community). When you, in hindsight, reflect on how this experience impacted you and your loved ones, bear in mind that extreme isolation will continue to erode the spirits and the minds of thousands of incarcerated teens, who will eventually serve their time and return to the community. The juvenile justice philosophy is to rehabilitate wayward youth, and we must take the opportunity to provide them with support and guidance during their period of incarceration, so that they can rejoin society as well-adjusted adults.
For more information, visit:
by Kimberly Cowart, Community Development Director, Department of Human Services
Like many of you, I am trying to manage all of the change, fear and uncertainty that are part of my new COVID-19 life. Working from home. decontaminating myself and my groceries, panic buying frozen vegetables and dried beans, binging on news that makes me anxious and scouring the internet for hand sanitizer and face masks are all part of my daily routine now. And even though I have seen incredible acts of generosity, compassion and innovation from my peers in the human services profession, friends and family members, I miss the good old days. A time when I could touch my face whenever I felt like it, shake hands with and hug people. Leave my house without worrying that I might catch a life-threatening disease that has no proven treatment and impacts people in a way that I can only equate to Russian Roulette.
I want things to go back to the way they were.
And yet, every once in a while, I am able to clear my head and reflect. I think about good things that are happening around me because of COVID-19. I remember that I am seeing and experiencing things that I have never seen before like an outpouring of gratitude and appreciation for people that usually serve in silence. I have found a new friend in the young woman at WaWa who, in my opinion, makes the perfect sandwich. We have a standing date and I love seeing her behind the counter in her mask and gloves. It comforts me and allows me to eat peacefully. A few days ago I told her that she is special to me- and I meant it. When I walk in my neighborhood, I see lawn and window signs and sidewalk chalk drawings thanking healthcare providers, emergency responders and grocery store workers. I think about all of the things I am learning and the relationships I am building in my new role as the Mass Feeding Coordinator through the County's Office of Emergency Management.
I am reminded that I actually finished a book that I started reading. I think about how I am calling to check on people that I have not communicated with in a long time. I check with friends to see if they need anything from the store while I am out. People are doing those things for me too and I cherish these caring gestures. I am isolated and yet, I am surrounded. A few days ago, I went to the Mobile Soup Kitchen with two other County employees to give out face masks and underclothes and to make sure that some of our most fragile and vulnerable constituents are alright. The three of us have never done that before and we agreed that it felt good to be out there. Friends tell me they are exercising more, spending quality time with grandchildren, hearing little ones talk more than they did before they we all got grounded.
Good stuff that makes me say out loud, "Thank you, coronavirus".
I am an optimist and I try to find something good in everything. I also like to plan ahead and I am ready to start thinking about the future. I want to prepare for the time when we begin to live in our new normal after we emerge from captivity.
Along those lines, I've been thinking about what should go back to the way it was and what should not. My hope is that I will hang on to the good changes that I have made and that I will let coronavirus leave me better than I was before we met. I hope that you will do the same thing and that we can all say "Thank you, coronavirus" about something good that will stay with us.
May we all live happily ever after. The end.
Your Answer Matters.
We know you got it. It came in the mail right around the time you added "social distancing" into your vocabulary. Is it sitting in your junk drawer? Under a pile of papers on your desk? Dare I say it? In the garbage? Well, if you never thought participating in the Census matters, this pandemic should have shown you just how important being counted is. The 10-year Census statistics affects funding for health clinics. Fire departments. Schools. Medicaid, SNAP, Housing Vouchers and Education Grants. And so much more. The Census results help determine how billions of dollars in federal funding flow into states and communities each year. And, you know what else? The results also determine how many seats in Congress each state gets. So when you want New Jersey to have better representation and to get better funding allocations for the things your community needs, go get the Census 2020 envelope, take the few minutes of your time and shape the future...for you, your family and your community.
One-Stop Career Center Zoom Workshops for May 2020:
Rutgers Cooperative Extension Invites You & Your Family Do & Learn Something Different!
The Department of Labor created a new web portal that allows New Jersey residents to contact the Department of Labor directly. This is a helpful tool for residents who have questions about their applications. To submit a message, residents must go to www.myunemployment.nj.gov and follow the instructions below:
- On the top navigation, scroll to the right for “Need Help” and unveil the drop down menu
- Choose Send an Email
- Choose Email: Submit a message through our new online form.
- Follow the prompts
NJ Human Services Announces $36 Million in Additional Food Assistance
Many NJ SNAP Recipients Will Receive Enhanced Benefits
April 28, 2020
(TRENTON) – Many New Jerseyans who receive food assistance through the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (NJ SNAP) will receive additional benefits in May to help address critical food needs related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
An additional $36 million will be provided to about 214,000 New Jersey households in May.SNAP supplemental payments were included in the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act. In March and April, Human Services announced $70 million in total additional NJ SNAP benefits that were provided to New Jerseyans to help purchase groceries.
“During this tough time, we want to make sure that we are providing as much food assistance as possible to eligible households for as long as we can,” Human Services Commissioner Carole Johnson said. “I continue to thank our Congressional delegation for their efforts to protect and help residents as we respond to this pandemic.”
The supplemental benefits will be directly loaded to NJ SNAP recipients’ Families First EBT cards as part of their regular monthly payment.
NJ SNAP provides food assistance to families with low incomes to help them buy groceries through a benefit card accepted in most food retail stores and farmer’s markets.
NJ SNAP currently serves about 674,000 New Jerseyans in 343,000 households. Households eligible for the NJ SNAP supplemental benefit will receive the difference between their regular SNAP benefit and the maximum benefit for their family size. These supplements will be in addition to standard monthly benefits. Households’ standard monthly SNAP benefit is based on household size and income. Under federal policies implementing the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, households that already receive the federal allowable maximum SNAP benefit are not eligible for supplemental payments.
“These extra benefit payments will prove critical to many New Jersey households, especially older adults and individuals with disabilities,” Human Services Deputy Commissioner Elisa Neira said. “Access to additional food assistance is more important than ever, and we hope that these new resources will give many individuals and families additional peace of mind.”
“During this difficult time, we encourage residents who need food assistance to visit and apply for SNAP online at www.NJHelps.org,” said Assistant Commissioner Natasha Johnson, who directs the Department of Human Services’ Division of Family Development and oversees the SNAP program. “We appreciate the dedicated staff at the County Boards of Social Services who are essential to getting these critical services to New Jersey families.”
Human Services also received federal approval to extend NJ SNAP recertification periods to six months for cases that were expiring in March, April and May. This means families receiving SNAP will not have benefit interruptions during that time.
COVID-19: United Way Announces Grant Program For Lower Income Working Families
Launches the “ALICE Recovery Fund”
The United Way of Northern New Jersey and the United Way of Hunterdon County have jointly launched the ALICE Recovery Fund (#ALICErecovery) to help support working families who are have lost their jobs, businesses, or had a loss of income due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
ALICE stands for Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed, and focuses on employed people earning more than the federal poverty level, but who are struggling financially and may be living paycheck to paycheck and unable to save for emergencies.
The newly created fund is strictly limited to assisting residents of Hunterdon, Morris, Somerset, Suburban Essex, Sussex, and Warren counties. (Suburban Essex includes the Caldwells, Cedar Grove, Essex Fells, Fairfield, Glen Ridge, Livingston, Millburn-Short Hills, Montclair, Roseland, and Verona.).
Eligible households will receive a minimum financial award of $500. Applicants must provide documentation that their household income qualifies as falling below the ALICE Threshold prior to the pandemic. In addition, applicants must show a loss of income due to the pandemic, beginning Feb. 1, 2020.
The income guidelines are as follows:
- Single adults must have had an annual income below $35,560 without dependents or no more than $88,128 with two or more dependents.
- Two adult households must have had an annual income below $52,444 without dependents or no more than $103,836 with two or more dependents.
Complete the application online on the United Way website. Also, check our Frequently Asked Questions about the ALICE Recovery Fund.
Please check this out for frequently asked questions around the ALICE Recovery Fund. http://www.unitedwaynnj.org/give/sf_alicerecoveryfund_faqs.php
As the need is great, United Way asks that anyone who can afford to donate, please consider making a tax-deductible gift to the ALICE Recovery Fund. Donations can be made to the ALICE Recovery Fund online at UnitedWayNNJ.org/ALICErecovery.
Feeding NJ's Most Vulnerable Residents
With the surge of layoffs and unemployment, the food banks and pantries are working tirelessly depending on donations and its volunteers to ensure that the most vulnerable residents will not go hungry. If you or you know a person/family who needs food resources and live in one of the 21 municipalities of Somerset County, click here to be directed to the county's food resources.
Take a look at the flyer made by Girl Scout Megan Taylor to help spread the word. The Food Bank Network with its main warehouse in Bound Brook is just one of the many food banks and pantries serving Somerset County.
Veterans Financial Assistance Available Related to COVID-19
- Temporary Rental Assistance
- Security Deposit Assistance
- Utility Assistance
- Temporary Emergency Hotel/Motel Assistance
Confidential Sexual Violence Advocate (CSVA)
Zufall Health Center is seeking great people to become trained as a volunteer to assist survivors of sexual assault through for its 24-hour sexual assault crisis hotline and/or provide support at the hospital or police department. No experience is necessary. A new training class (online) is starting in June. The 40-hour training which must be completed before becoming an active advocate.
On May 13th, participate in a Zoom Virtual Listening Session where you can bring your voice to the table when it comes to sexual assault in the LGBT+ community. Help improve outreach and support services to be more inclusive and pertinent. Click for flyer.