Interview with Dr. Carol Roberts
Director of Humans Services Dr. Carol Roberts agreed some time back to give an interview to Sierra County Prospect. You might think that would be easy to do; however, scheduling was a nightmare, and there never was a single block of time to do an interview.
Instead, we started the interview with an email, moved to a telephone conversation, and eventually got to actually meet for a few minutes.
Rather than present the interview in block style we’ve decided to integrate the interview by presenting it in feature form.
The Prospect talked with County Director of Human Services Dr. Carol Roberts about her job, the special nature of our community, the changing philosophies of social services delivery, and how she feels about the county and its people.
Carol Roberts is typical of County department heads, and very different. The similarities come from the reality of working in Sierra County: a hat rack jammed with different jobs, regulations and programs better suited to LA LA land than the Sierras, funding and staffing requirements that result in employees who are parsed across positions, and a very personal relationship with the people served.
Dr. Roberts is different from some department heads in that she tends not to bluster, declines from sensationalism, and speaks so modestly that the Board of Supervisors often seem not to hear. Observers of Board meetings will notice that Dr. Roberts executes her responsibilities with the skills of her profession: patience, careful listening, teaching when the moment presents itself.
Dr. Roberts brings a lot to the job, a Ph.D in clinical psychology and over 20 years in administrative and executive positions in social services delivery. She considers this kind of administration to be a specific talent, and it’s in this area that Dr. Roberts exhibited the only bit of brass: "I’m pretty good at what I do," she said with a quiet smile.
The position Dr. Roberts fills is different from similar positions in most California counties. In most counties, the chief administrator of a human services department would have: a deputy or two and staff dedicated specifically to administrative and fiscal analysis; reporting directors of health, mental health, social services including child welfare, elder welfare, public assistance, foster care and home services, and environmental health. "I watch 60 funding streams," she notes. Dr. Roberts has almost none of that support staff, and fills all those functions herself, or with a handful of staff.
On that subject, Dr. Roberts was almost monotonous: her staff shines. If there was a theme to her discussion, it was that she relies on the staff she has, and feels they are first quality.
It is probably not surprising that Dr. Roberts relies on staff. She is not locked away in an office behind an executive secretary trained in the art of keeping people out, she is familiar with her staff and many clients.
There is another reason to rely on staff: unlike other directors who can send deputy or sub-directors to trainings, conferences and meetings, Dr. Roberts frequently has no choice but to go herself.
To the lay person, these meetings might seem like a waste of time; the opposite is true. In meetings and conferences not only do directors learn of new and proposed changes in laws, budgets and policies, they network with people from other counties who have similar problems. Some of the greatest benefits of attending meetings are to share knowledge and resources.
Dr. Roberts’s remarks dealt with the strain of travel. "I spend a lot of time in Sacramento." She noted that some meetings were four day meetings; throw in travel time and that’s a work week shot. "I try to attend meetings concurrently when I can," but often the different departments of the state meet on different days. Dr. Roberts attends these meetings because they are about two things: funding and requirements; in other words, money, since funding is how money comes in, and requirements are how you might lose funding.
Funding is doubly critical in Sierra County, which is why she nurtures and protects those 60 funding streams. Dr. Roberts discussed the special problems we have in the county, including distances and weather, but especially unemployment. "The unemployment rate of Sierra County essentially doubled in a few years." Here Dr. Roberts was talking about true unemployment rate. She noted that many people in the county simply aren’t counted when the unemployment rate is tallied. She said that the intense pride and value for self reliance that many people in the county have can help mask the problem of poverty in the county.
Take homelessness for example. "In other counties you’ll see lots of people with signs asking for help or offering to work for food. In Sierra County you don’t see that. People who are homeless here couch surf, they live in campgrounds, families share single family residences." She noted that homelessness is still a very serious problem in the county, something the whole community needs to be proactive about.
In addition to problems with basic housing needs, there is another critical issue that is often hidden: "Food." Dr. Roberts sees clear indications that some people are having a hard time to get enough nutritious food. People here still have rural values; they don’t like to ask for help, especially public help. "There is a hesitancy to use services. There are also privacy issues" in a small community.
Her solution? "Get social services out of the blue buildings and in to the communities." Dr. Roberts noted that there are informal ways of helping in the community, small groups or projects, many of them not really set up to receive and distribute funding, but still very, very good at what they do. Dr. Roberts sees these informal services as critical to reaching people who simply won’t go to the "county" for help; "these quiet, often anonymous groups are meeting important needs, and we’re seeking to support them."
Dr. Roberts noted that there has been a change in the people who seek services. "People who have been middle class have been hit hard by the economy." She said they aren’t used to seeking services, but they should. Everyone is in the same boat, there is no shame in asking for services.
She pointed out that County Social Services and Workforce Development were already working for the cogen plant employees who were recently cut adrift without warning. "There will be assistance if they need it," she said.
What about helping too much? Supervisor Lee Adams, in particular, has been vigilant on the Board of Supervisors, concerned about how social services can intrude in the lives of individuals. The Prospect Fringe editor is in complete agreement, and asked this question: What do you do in your department to prevent unwarranted intrusion into the lives of families, the poor, and the mentally ill?
Dr. Roberts didn’t evade the question or pretend the problem doesn’t exist, but described two ways the rights and dignity of county residents are protected. "There is a plethora of laws protecting the rights and privacy of customers," she said. She was referring to the maze of privacy laws which can even prevent a social worker from sharing information with a mental health counselor, and which require the participation of a court before decisions can be made about people.
There is a second way intrusion is mediated: the changing culture of service delivery. "The Mental Health Services Act of 2004 has changed the philosophy of service delivery in all departments." Under the old system, social services and mental health staff were the experts, and they dictated to "clients." The philosophy has changed, "it’s consumer centered, and consumer driven;" the role of the consumer in their own care is expanded. "We have resources that are designed to assist the consumer."
Finally, we asked Carol Roberts a softball question: What is special about Sierra County to you?
"First, the staff. I have the greatest staff in the universe. Second," she said waving her hand in a gesture encompassing the county, "the natural beauty and the openness and friendliness of the people."