County to lend counseling hand for BKW

BERNE — The Hilltown Family Center was staffed in a white church eight years ago by local parents of children with special needs. Parents could walk in to ask a question for free, or visit support groups. A developmental-behavioral pediatrician visited regularly and social workers were on hand.

When the $9.4 million federal grant for Families Together in Albany County didn’t get renewed in 2010, the services went away.

“I feel like, my family, everybody kind of drifted apart because we weren’t doing the therapy,” said a single mother who frequented Families Together with her nephew and two daughters. “The frustration level is very high.”

As early as mid-January, the number of families eligible for counseling through Berne-Knox-Westerlo will triple with a county-funded expansion meant to fill a void of social services for students who live far from the city of Albany.

Mary Beth Peterson was one of the parents who worked at Families Together in East Berne. Now, she is the director of the Hilltowns Community Resource Center in Westerlo and is charged with reviving a committee that will bring together local schools and social-service agencies throughout the county, to make them aware of needs in the Hilltowns.

Lonnie Palmer, interim superintendent at BKW, said the families targeted for counseling services are struggling economically or socially, and their children may have emotional or mental problems. They won’t all be special-education students.

“It’s families who have suffered in some cases some very debilitating circumstances, and they want it to end,” said Palmer.

The single mother, a client of the resource center, said this week she now drives nearly an hour each way into Albany for therapy for her nephew, who has post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder with mild retardation, and for whom she has been a guardian for more than 10 years. He is no longer a student at BKW.

The client went to Families Together as she was going through a divorce and her daughter began acting out in school. The client and her two daughters saw therapists at the Hilltown Family Center, as did her nephew, who talked to people his age and made friends.

“If he was having a bad day, it wasn’t a big deal to drive five minutes to sit and talk to somebody,” the client said of her nephew. “If I did that in Albany, I’d have to race around, driving in traffic, neglecting the other children.”

Moira Manning, deputy commissioner of the county’s Department for Children Youth and Families, said the preventative programs at BKW — called Connections and Home Run — are for children who are often at risk for foster care.

The current BKW Connections program brings counselors and after-school activities to the district for struggling students and their families. Children in Connections do team-building exercises, get help with homework, and set goals. A social worker visits their homes once every two weeks.

The district currently has two social workers and two psychologists.

The expansion of funding would grow Connections to serve up to 19 rather than the current 10 families, Manning said. A program called Home Run would be established for up to 11 families with students in sixth grade into high school, she said.

She hopes the programs would allow her department to assess how many children need psychiatric care in the Hilltowns. Creating a Hilltown outpatient clinic — a place for therapy, testing, or treatments — would require approval from the New York State Office of Mental Health.

“I know it’s needed,” said the resource center client of the BKW expansion, “but I really hope they can keep it staffed, finding the appropriate person with the right credentials, and somebody that’s not all about sunshine and rainbows. You’ve got to keep it real somewhere.”

Berkshire Farms is one of the agencies hiring a social worker for BKW; its website describes the aim of Home Run as keeping children at risk for foster care in their homes by teaching parenting skills and increasing family interaction for a child. Parents are taught how to take advantage of community services like churches, public assistance agencies, and food pantries.

When clinical workers visit families, Manning said, they ask, “What do you want to improve with your family?” She said the services are not mandated.

The client said she and her family were able, with the Families Together site, to talk with other people who live with children with special needs who understand them. Her nephew opens the refrigerator impulsively again and again each night.

“If you tell somebody that he did that 50 times, they think you can just tell him to stop,” the client said. “They don’t understand that it is deep-seated and his brain is firing.”

She also said, of Peterson and Kathy Whitbeck of the resource center, “When people in your family do things, you think it’s a direct reflection on you is one thing I have learned through Mary Beth and Kathy. And the other is, ‘No, it’s really not; you’re not going to die of embarrassment.’”

Tenuous funds

The county has contracted with Berkshire Farms, for which it will spend an additional $88,000 for the year, according to Beth O’Neil, director of accounts for the department; the contract with St. Catherine’s Center for Children would increase by about $97,000.

“It’s probably a bit rare for small, rural districts like ours to be receiving this level of support,” said Palmer, who has worked in urban school districts in Albany and Troy where similar services have been established.

Palmer said the district currently buses the students and pays for a teacher’s aid. He estimated an additional bus run and extended hours for the aid could cost the district around $8,000, needed only as more families are served.

A void in mental-health services for the Hilltowns was presented to Manning through Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany, which oversees the resource center.

Peterson said she has wondered since Families Together closed what would happen to the children it served.

Peterson hopes to have the Southern Rural Albany County Committee meet this spring in the Hilltowns, she said, and not require membership fees.

“One of the things we were finding up here, when I was working for Families Together, was there’s a whole lack of knowledge about what goes on in the Hilltowns community.”

Finding transportation and child-care are two major obstacles facing Hilltown families dealing with poverty and mental illness, Peterson said. Medicaid coverage for medical transportation covers only enough for a parent and an affected child, not any siblings or relatives.

“If a child’s in crisis, a family has to go down to Albany — then what happens to the rest of the family up here?” asked Peterson.

To give the family a break from the energy required to be with her nephew, the client applied for respite services through an agency in Albany. A family was found for nine hours a month. After three months, it ended.

“The family that I worked with in Altamont were wonderful, but it was lack of funding,” the client said. “They were a positive role model in his life, and for me, because he doesn’t have a male.”

She added, “What I was told was that the money had dried up, and there was no appropriate family.”

Social services available to BKW pre-school students under the federal Head Start program were reduced this year because of sequestration.

With a smaller grant, The Albany Community Action Partnership that administers the federal funds for social services throughout the county cut its Head Start funding from BKW and other rural districts in May.

The pre-school sessions at BKW were expanded, free from the limits set by the federal grant, but without the parenting skills, family outreach by teachers, and special-education services associated with Head Start.

The BKW district put its own $7,000 toward the half-day pre-school sessions for 31 students. The hours of teacher-parent contact were increased with the funds, but still about 20 hours less than last year, Palmer said at the time.

The district was denied at the end of December a grant for full-day pre-school it had applied for with the state’s Education Department. Palmer said Tuesday that he has requested the scoring the department used in assessing BKW for the grant.

In 2010, the Connections after-school program was in jeopardy of losing its funding in county budget cuts.

Amy Anderson was a parent at Families Together, where she learned about special education. She and Peterson are members of BKW’s committees on special education, which work with parents and staff on outlining needed services for individual students. By word of mouth, Anderson said, families contact her and she teaches them how to advocate for themselves in committee meetings and with doctors.

Anderson said the school’s current social workers are invaluable for struggling students and parents, but they don’t have enough time to reach all students with reading disabilities.

“These programs are like promises to the people of the district,” said Anderson. “We promise we’re going to get you ‘A,’ ‘B,’ and ‘C’ and, when they can’t meet the criteria and the grant gets taken away, that’s like a huge slap in the face.”

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