Doing the work: Social Services department seeks to innovate and reflect

Director Diane Kuknyo has been working with CDSS for more than 26 years. Director Diane Kuknyo has been working with CDSS for more than 26 years.

The Charlottesville Department of Social Services oversees a broad array of programs; everything from Child Protective Services to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid, and more.

In its November 18 annual report to City Council, the department’s advisory board highlighted some of the complicated challenges CDSS faces, along with its dedication to internal improvement. Medicaid expansion has been a particular focus over the past year. 

“An individual who had lived in a tent with medically complex issues is now housed and receiving medical care,” CDSS Advisory Board Chair Christine Gough said, citing one example of the effect that Medicaid expansion has had on the lives of city residents.

Virginia’s statewide Medicaid expansion took effect on January 1, 2019, and local applications more than doubled: the CDSS received 903 Medicaid applications from October to December of 2018, compared to 458 in the same period the preceding year. 

“It’s incredible to see the difference in health care for our homeless. It’s really amazing. There’s no more standing in line hoping you can get some meds,” said Diane Kuknyo, the director of the department, at the council meeting.

Of course, an increase in services rendered means additional work for CDSS staff. “The agency has faced some challenges during this period,” Gough said. “There has been a 50 percent increase in ongoing Medicaid renewal work. However, the positive results in our community far outweigh the increase in work.” The state has provided funds for two additional employees, but the department hopes to add another administrator as well.

More localized concerns have also shaped the recent work of the department. Charlottesville’s lack of affordable housing has been felt in particular by Child Protective Services—unstable housing creates unsafe situations for children.

“Housing is a problem. The cost of housing is a problem. Along with drug use and domestic violence,” Kuknyo said at the council meeting. The cause of many CPS interventions “is not abuse, it’s neglect, and the neglect falls into inadequate housing or inadequate supervision.”

Assistant Director Sue Moffett expands on that point in a later conversation at the CDSS offices. “We’re really active with the mainstream housing programs,” she says. “Families and individuals can grow when they don’t have to worry about where they’re going to sleep at night and how they’re going to keep themselves safe.”

Moffett emphasizes that more affordable housing isn’t a cure-all, however. “It’s certainly easier to feed your children, and have adequate child care, and have a house that’s adequate, when you’re not poor,” she says.

The city councilors in attendance expressed their admiration for the department’s work given the resources available. “I’m rather perplexed with the amount of help that’s still needed,” Councilor Wes Bellamy said. “With our three new councilors still in the room… I hope and pray that all of you can push this up to the front of our budgetary needs.”

Moffett, however, draws a distinction between the funds required to complete the day-to-day work of the department and the resources required to innovate. The department currently has 107 employees. “Based on the current caseload standards, we’re not understaffed, we’re essentially right on target,” she says.

“I will say this in comparison to other localities,” Kuknyo says, “generally City Council has been pretty fair with us.”

The city budget doesn’t affect the department’s major programs like SNAP and Medicaid, which are federally funded. City money can help the department push forward in other ways, though. “We know that if we want to continue to be a best practice agency, and a trauma-informed agency, that we need to do some innovative programming, which would require some local dollars,” Moffett says. 

Some of that innovative programming is already underway. The CDSS has displayed commitment to turning a critical lens on its own practices, exemplified by an ongoing study undertaken in conjunction with UVA. Professor Michele Claibourn runs the university’s Public Interest Data Lab, which has produced a detailed report examining racial disparities in the city’s child welfare system.

“We asked for it,” Moffett says of the study. She says CDSS is “the only agency in the state” examining its practices in this way.

One of the study’s major findings was that black and multiracial children were referred to child welfare services more frequently than white children. In response to the study, the CDSS has begun to run experiments in which CPS reports are processed without any identifying information available to the intake worker. The department hopes that any racial disproportionality coming from within the department will become apparent through this blind review system.

From Claibourn’s perspective, the study offers an opportunity for her students to learn hands-on social science skills while at the same time putting the power of the university to good use. “The students learn to use data in ethical ways towards equity and justice, not just towards industry and Google and commercial interests,” Claibourn says. They also “extract more university resources to answer questions that the community has.”

The department has conducted these experiments on top of completing its regular responsibilities. For Claibourn, that sets it apart. “I think the overall existence of this collaboration is a signifier of how hard the department is working,” she says. “In doing the work, you don’t always have time to take a step back and evaluate in a really deep dive kind of way.”

“I’d love to see the possibility of doing more work like we’ve done here,” Claibourn says. “And I think the city’s been very open, actually.”


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