Nassau is moving to end a $2 million contract with a nonprofit that for more than 20 years has operated a program aimed at keeping children out of foster care, following a dispute with the county's largest public employee union over who should provide the service. Officials of the Family and Children's Association, of Mineola, say social workers help up to 200 families a year obtain mental health and parent coaching services to prevent abuse, neglect and removal of children to foster homes.
Jeffrey Reynolds, the nonprofit's executive director, said county social services officials told him on June 12 that the program's $2 million annual contract will be terminated by March.
County officials cited a labor arbitrator's decision that Nassau should have notified the Civil Service Employees Association first when it moved to contract out a program run by the nonprofit, to give union members an opportunity to take it over.
"I feel we got caught up in a power play between the county and the union, and it's the children who are going to get hurt," Reynolds said. "These are high-risk cases. Our staff physically go into these homes and do everything they can to keep these kids out of foster care and eventually out of jail."
County Attorney Carnell Foskey said the nonprofit "provided a valuable and meaningful service; however we are bound by the decision of the arbitrator."
Department of Social Services spokeswoman Karen Garber said that over the next several months the department planned "to hire and train caseworkers who will assume responsibility" for the program.
CSEA filed a grievance against Nassau in 2012 that asserted the county did not give the union enough time to respond to a bid request to operate a small FCA counseling program for juvenile offenders.
During negotiations, the county and CSEA decided that the nonprofit should continue to run the juvenile program because it serves an "extremely at-risk population and there was a desire to avoid disturbing services in that area," Garber said. But they agreed that foster care-prevention duties should go to county workers.
"We don't want to see anyone lose their jobs, private or public, but I'm charged with protecting our members," CSEA local president Jerry Laricchiuta said. "The county violated the contract, and subbed out union jobs."
Elliott Shriftman, a Bridgehampton-based arbitrator, notified the county and the union in November that he agreed with the union's assertion about notification for the juvenile offender program, according to an interim award letter provided to Newsday by the county.
"It is fundamental that the union must be given notice and an opportunity to be heard in order to understand why its members will no longer be assigned work," Shriftman wrote. The county and the union must submit briefs to Shriftman before he can complete the decision. Shriftman declined to comment. At the Family Ties office in Hempstead, more than 20 staff members are preparing to look for work.
Donna Teichner, assistant director of the program, said many staffers have master's degrees in social work and counseling, and often respond to after-hours calls.
"We go into homes with roaches. We go into homes with gangs, to the places people don't want to talk about . . . to teach, to change the cycles of parenting, poverty, abuse and neglect," Teichner said. "Many of these families that have been involved with other services in the past, they're demoralized. We bring them up to let them believe in themselves."
One client, Virginia, 52, of Hempstead, who asked that her last name not be used because she lives in housing for domestic violence victims, said that before she entered the program she feared her disabled daughter would end up in foster care.
Virginia credits the program with "nudging me when I felt like giving up . . . They allowed me time to sit and talk about my problems and challenges and work on solutions. Now, I know that you can grow and become a healthier person and parent."