New Milford Youth Agency increasing services due to effects of COVID-19: ‘We value our youth and we take care of our youth’

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox
Jason O'Connor, executive director, left, Alexis Rinaldi, LPC intern, and Sara Wells social worker, all with the New Milford Youth Agency, Thursday, July 29, 2021, New Milford, Conn.

Jason O'Connor, executive director, left, Alexis Rinaldi, LPC intern, and Sara Wells social worker, all with the New Milford Youth Agency, Thursday, July 29, 2021, New Milford, Conn.

H John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticut Media

NEW MILFORD — The town is increasing the New Milford Youth Agency’s social worker services as an effort to help young people in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The increase in services involves two positions: changing the agency’s current social worker’s hours from 30 to 40 a week, and the possible addition of a second social worker in the future.

The increase is part of a two-year trial that was unanimously approved at Monday’s Town Council meeting. The total funding for the increase, which is in the amount of $225,000, will come out of American Rescue Plan (ARPA) federal funds.

The changes, long-term

Currently, social worker services at the youth agency are provided by Sarah Wells, “whose primary position is a programmer; as well as a licensed professional counselor intern that we were able to get through Fairfield University, and a contracted clinical supervisor,” O’Connor said.

After two years, the social worker’s new, 40-hour work week will “most likely” become a budgeted full-time position, said Jason O’Connor, director of the New Milford Youth Agency, who made a presentation at the meeting.

The second position would involve hiring another full-time, 40-hour a week clinical staff member — should the need arise.

“If we become inundated and need to bring on another individual — that money is available,” O’Connor said.

The new staff member would be a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), he added.

The need

At the Town Council meeting, O’Connor said there’s an ongoing need for social worker services.

He cited the CDC’s statistics of nearly 1 in 5 children nationwide who have a mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, or disruptive behavior disorder. Of those children, only about 20 percent receive care from a specialized mental health care provider.

Additionally, he said within those populations, the sub-populations of LGBTQI, minority populations of children of color suffer even more.

He added LGBTQI youth are more than twice as likely to feel suicidal and over four times as likely to attempt suicide compared to heterosexual youth. He also said children of color have higher rates of mental illness but are less likely to receive that care.

He also brought up the pandemic, saying “With COVID came increased isolation, came an increase in anxiety, demands, expectations — in just a whole new world of unknown.”

He added no one knows what will happen in a year or two from now, in regard to the true detrimental effects of COVID on children’s mental health.

O’Connor and Bass said they’ve spoken to the schools and with community providers “to see how the town can help the community,” O’Connor said.

They decided that the increased services at the youth agency is a “no cost option.”

The New Milford Youth Agency, which began offering clinical and counseling services in June, doesn’t charge for its services. Currently, 10 students are either already receiving services or are scheduled to receive them soon.

As a result of the pandemic, a LSCW and licensed professional counselor are positions that are “very much in demand,” O’Connor said.“The stigma of mental health has decreased. More people are openly willing to target their mental health, adults, included.”

He added the increased services at the youth agency “is to address head on the isolation and teen depression that we’ve all seen when it comes to remote learning and COVID.”

COVID “has exacerbated the need of self care, mental wellness, and really taking care of oneself,” he said.

O’Connor said the addition of the new services at the youth agency provide “another opportunity to show that the town of New Milford, New Milford’s Youth Services, and the adults — we value our youth and we take care of our youth,” he said.

The changes to New Milford Youth Agency were one of a half dozen items approved by Town Council Monday, to be paid for by ARPA funds. Others changes pertained to childcare assistance, a senior citizen advisory board, a Brownfield Community Challenge grant match and the John Pettibone Community Center. The total amount approved by Town Council to come out of ARPA funds was $1,050,137.75.

sfox@milfordmirror.com