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State reveals plan for Richmond Social Services, creates special team to clear city's backlog of cases

Posted at 9:09 PM, Jun 05, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia Department of Social Services released the details of its partnership with Richmond Social Services after the agency developed an individualized plan to help the local department clear its backlog of cases.

For months, Richmonders have expressed frustration that the Richmond Department of Social Services has fallen behind in delivering critical benefits to those in need.

“I personally have clients that applied for social services for food stamps and Medicaid in December and January, and they still don’t have help," homelessness advocate Dr. Arlene Simmons said during a May press conference.

Data provided by the Virginia Department of Social Services (VDSS), which oversees 120 local social services departments, showed Richmond was noncompliant with standards on timely case processing.

The local department acknowledged it's grappling with extreme caseloads and significant staffing shortages, causing current employees to experience burnout.

After CBS 6's reporting on the issue, state leaders met with local officials to begin working on a plan for the city. VDSS Deputy Director Carl Ayers told state lawmakers during a public meeting on May 18 that the state created an individualized plan with the city.

State and local leaders pressed for answers on the specifics of the plan.

“First of all, we have to start with transparency. Like, where are we really? What is this special relationship?" Delegate Dawn Adams (D - 68th) said in a May interview with CBS 6.

“We want the same answers that a lot of the citizens, a lot of our residents, a lot of the people that live in our districts deserve," Richmond City Council President Mike Jones said during a May interview with CBS 6.

Richmond social services workers beg for help amid staffing woes, high caseloads: 'Why can't we be heard?'

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CBS 6 requested the plan on May 18. On Monday June 5, VDSS shared details of the plan with CBS 6 through an email.

The state is allocating portions of federal funding it received to establish a state processing and customer service team with a special focus on the City of Richmond.

According to a VDSS spokesperson, the state is utilizing dollars from pandemic administrative SNAP funding that was authorized by Congress in March 2021. The money was meant to help agencies meet the nutritional needs of their communities by supporting SNAP operations, and the funding is set to expire on September 30, 2023.

With this funding in place, state employees and contracted staff will help with Richmond's SNAP workload by:

  • Processing SNAP applications
  • Case renewals and interim reports
  • Evaluating eligibility changes

State staff will also assist with citizen services through:

  • Administrative support
  • Fielding calls from customers and responding to their concerns
  • Transferring cases to a processing office
  • Closely supervising staff and assigning and tracking their work

VDSS said these supports began in May and will continue through September 30, 2023, when the federal funding expires.
They said the plan could be extended beyond that deadline if additional funding is secured.

Additionally, the state will help Richmond recruit 66 benefit programs staff to include:

  • 34 Benefit Programs processing team staff
  • 30 case processors
  • 2 supervisors
  • 2 administrative workers

The state's human resources division also helped the locality transition some of its existing positions into entry-level positions, which allows an expanded pool of candidates to qualify and hopefully fill more vacancies.

CBS 6 has requested interviews with Richmond Social Services Director Shunda Giles since February, but the city's public relations director Petula Burks denied all our requests.

But on Monday, the city's YouTube page released a video of Burks herself interviewing Giles.

“Today, we’re going to have some amazing conversations with representatives from Richmond’s Department of Social Services," Burks announced at the beginning of the video.

During the 34-minute video, Burks brought up recent news stories.

"I want to talk about your staff. Being around them, they are just warmth personified, and we haven't seen those human faces in a lot of the stories we talk about. We have seen 'caseloads high, pushing papers and numbers.' But it's more than pushing papers and caseloads and numbers. It's human beings who are out here on the frontlines helping other humans," Burks said.

CBS 6 has requested interviews with Richmond social workers, but Burks rejected those requests as well.

Previously, some social services workers spoke to CBS 6 anonymously to raise concerns about the mounting stress of their jobs and what they called a lack of response from leadership.

Richmond social services workers beg for help amid staffing woes, high caseloads: 'Why can't we be heard?'

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Giles talked about her appreciation for her employees during the promotional video.

“In working with my staff, when they share, they’re not sharing about, 'This is just a caseload. It’s Ms. Giles, this is a person, and I need to get to this person.' It’s never about the volume in that it's just weighty, it’s 'I can’t get to the need.'" Giles said.

She added, “I’m sure hearing, 'We’re working on it, we’re working on it, we’re trying to do it,' but not seeing that change immediately, it's not like what we did with the salaries where it was suddenly, this really is a process.”

Giles did not mention the city's partnership with VDSS in the video.

You can watch the full video on the city's YouTube channel.

Depend on CBS 6 News and WTVR.com for in-depth coverage of this important local story. Anyone with more information can email newstips@wtvr.com to send a tip.

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