New directors took the helm at both Ward County Social Services and North Central Human Service Center in Minot this month.
Sylvia Annan, a former foster care caseworker in Ward County, started this month as director at Ward County Social Services. She fills the vacancy created when former director Richard Bolonchuk left this past spring.
Laurie Gotvaslee, who has been associate director at North Central Human Service Center, has assumed the directorship of North Central in Minot and Northwest Human Service Center in Williston. She replaced Marilyn Rudolph, who retired.
Sylvia Annan, the new director at Ward County Social Services, stands outside the office in north Minot on Monday.
A native of Ghana in West Africa, Annan came to Minot by way of Norway, Canada and Vermont. She lived four years in Norway, studying through a scholarship program. She lived several years in Ontario before moving to Vermont, where she received her master's degree in social work from the University of Vermont. Her undergraduate degree is in human resources.
She came to Minot three years ago when her husband took a position in the math department at Minot State University. They have two sons.
Following her time in foster care with the county, she became director of outreach and admissions at Quentin Burdick Job Corps Center in Minot. She was there about four months before the opportunity arose to direct Ward County's social service programs.
"I know that my strength really is in the area of management," she said. Her motivation to apply those skills comes from being a recipient of the Title IV-E Program Scholarship, her passion to ensure safety and permanency for children and a desire enhance the well-being of families.
Her past experience with the county department also has prepared her for the job.
"That's a huge advantage. I feel that 50 percent of the battle is won right there, knowing the system and how it works and the people," she said.
Annan has plans for changes but wants to implement them gradually, knowing that the department is struggling with staff shortages while serving a growing community.
The department has seen a decrease in the number of people seeking economic assistance because of the availability of jobs and higher wages. However, child abuse and neglect reports have increased. Ward County, with only about a dozen foster care homes, is not equipped to handle the number of children needing services, said Annan, who hopes to recruit more homes.
The demands on social services come at a time when Ward County is short seven workers, four of them in child protection services.
Ward County had placed three employees in the child protection division on administrative leave earlier this year pending an investigation into whether they failed to follow up on cases that potentially could have created liability issues for the county. Jerome Gruenberg, county commission chairman at the time, said one employee retired and the other two were let go. He added there were personal conflicts among employees that contributed to the staffing decision.
The department is addressing its staff shortage in child protection by soliciting help from other social workers in the state. The county has contracted with one outside social worker to handle some of its cases.
Because lack of housing often stands in the way of attracting employees, the department remodeled an office into an efficiency apartment so a new employee can have a place to stay while looking for a permanent residence. The apartment has been occupied this week.
Annan also wants to make the department a positive place to work. She wants to create a formal process for staff to submit concerns so they can be officially addressed.
"That's going to be one of my main goals to make sure that all issues are dealt with, that everyone is held accountable for action or lack of action," she said. "We are strengthening our orientation process so new employees are in a better position to understand expectations."
The management system has been restructured, eliminating a social services supervisor position. Now each of the supervisors in child protection, family preservation services and home- and community-based services report directly to the Annan.
Over at North Central, Gotvaslee is pursuing her mission to ensure the agency continues to meet the needs of the region.
"My goal would be to continue services without a waiting list. I am very happy with the way North Central is able to get people in, and I really hope we can continue to serve the population of this area without a waiting list," she said.
Current active client numbers, both adults and children, total 3,390, which compares to 3,323 clients for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2011.
Gotvaslee, a McHenry County native and Granville resident, has served as associate director at North Central in Minot since 2009. She has more than 23 years of experience in the human services field, starting in the McHenry County Social Service office. She worked for 10 years with children and family services programs there before joining North Central in 1999 in a case management program for emotionally disturbed children. She has held various positions with the department, including regional representative and assistant regional representative to county social services and caregiver coordinator for the Family Caregiver Support Program.
Gotvaslee has a master's degree in family support from Nova Southeastern University in Florida and a bachelor's degree in social work and an associate's degree in criminal justice from Minot State University. She is also a 2011 graduate of the North Dakota Department of Human Services' leadership program.
The state department operates eight regional human service centers that provide counseling and mental health services, substance abuse treatment, disability services and other human services. The Northwest and North Central offices together cover a 10-county region.
Gotvaslee said her past experiences are valuable going into her new position.
"The one thing they have really prepared me for is looking at the big picture," she said. It puts momentary demands into perspective, she explained.
She doesn't let serving in an administrative role separate her from the clients, either.
"I enjoy the clients. They are the reason we are here," she said, noting she continues to stay in touch with people she has worked with over the years. "It makes you feel good to know that you have meant something to them."
Gotvaslee said the flood last year did unsettle operations because many clients and about a quarter of staff lived in the affected valley. The agency went to work immediately in assisting clients with relocation, providing mental health services and assisting people left homeless, she said.
The flooding of Oakwood Court, which provided affordable housing for a number of clients, forced residents to relocate. The building is being repaired so they can return.
North Central also restructured its services to continue assisting clients who relocated after the agency's transitional living facility closed. Trinity Health was no longer able to provide the leased space for the facility. Gotvaslee said Trinity and North Central continue to partner in other ways, though.
Other programs at the human service center have remained fairly consistent in recent years, although a new program addressing domestic battery started a couple of years ago.
The agency is preparing to launch a new program that piloted in Fargo and now is being introduced across the state. The program, Integrated Dual Disorder Treatment, serves clients facing severe mental illness and substance abuse issues.
"This is a very successful program," Gotvaslee said. "In the Fargo area, it has resulted in a higher level of care for the clients. It's a very intense method of case management."
North Central has been fortunate to be adequately staffed, having been able to fill vacancies in the past for a psychiatrist and other medical positions. There are some vacancies that currently exist among the 119 full-time equivalent staff positions, but the agency is keeping up in filling positions as they come open, Gotvaslee said.