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Headshot of author Deborah Holt-KnightLeading a Crisis Program While in the Grips of a Global Crisis 

by Deborah Holt-Knight, Deputy Commissioner, Adult Protective Services, Department of Social Services, New York City Human Resources Administration

Oprah Winfrey once said, “Cheers to a new year and another chance for us to get it right.” It was very soon after ringing in 2020 that I realized that “getting it right” is exceedingly challenging. I was excited to enter the new year with a 2020 vision for my personal and professional life, happy to say goodbye to 2019. After all, I thought it could only get better after the sudden death of my father and two other close family members in the latter part of 2019. The year commenced with clear goals for the NYC Adult Protective Services (APS) program that were designed to enhance the efficacy of the initiative. The senior APS team established goals that were documented, submitted, and approved by the administration, including plans to develop a hoarding training curriculum that would reach 500 APS staffers and the full implementation of New York’s first Repatriation Program. They were ambitious; however, the APS administrative team was confident that the goals were obtainable with commitment and hard work. The team was ready to meet the challenges of 2020, or that is what we thought.

After enduring a tough 2019, I was ready to check another item off my personal bucket list, a trip to South Africa in February 2020. While preparing for new beginnings, there was chatter on the news circuits about a virus in China. Shortly before my epic trip, there were reports that the human-to-human transmission of this new virus was outside of China. I checked to see if South Africa was impacted and there were no known reports. Traveling through the airports and witnessing an increased number of travelers wearing face masks was unsettling. I took precautions and wiped down my space on the plane and buckled in for the trip of a lifetime. Upon return to U.S. soil, little did I know that life was going to drastically and quickly change, forever. 

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The virus was impacting 110 countries and territories around the world and there was a risk of global spread. I asked, what does this mean for my family and friends, APS staff, vulnerable clients, and me? How do I lead a crisis program when the world is in crisis? Who do I turn to for mentorship since we’ve never experienced anything like this in our lifetimes? 

In retrospect, the Agency’s transition to crisis mode was seamless. The meetings began, the difficult questions were asked, and the plans were made. Then the headaches began, literally.  I had a headache that I couldn’t shake – something was wrong. Could it be I was infected with this deadly virus or was my pressure elevated from the stress? To protect my colleagues and staff, I made the decision to stay home, and just the very next day, the Governor shut down New York. He ordered nearly all of the State’s workforce to stay home to prevent the surge of COVID-19 and the spread and deaths associated with this disease. 

The Commissioner of the NYC Department of Social Services (DSS) -- which is comprised of the administrative units of the NYC Human Resources Administration (HRA) and the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) -- introduced the concept of telework to over 15,000 employees and serving clients by phone and online whenever possible. APS was able to successfully move its largest APS central intake unit, APS rep-payee program, APS case management services, and remote training to the homes of more than 400 APS staffers. Concurrently, the State’s Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), which provides state oversight to New York APS, provided certain waivers, temporarily relaxing several of the mandates that proved challenging during stay-at-home orders. However, while very helpful, the waivers issued by OCFS of course did not exclude in-home visits for clients in need.

New York became the epicenter of the virus and anxiety levels were high. APS frontline staff were still responsible for visiting some of New York’s most vulnerable people in their homes. During this period, frontline workers across the globe were largely ill-equipped due to the lack of personal protective equipment available. With the City, State, and nation facing similar supply chain challenges, and with PPE prioritized at the time for hospital settings and medical workers during the height of the pandemic, there were moments in which we had to make the tough decisions to proceed with home visits to ensure our clients didn’t lose continuity of services. As a leader, I felt responsible for asking our staff to continue to serve and report for duty in these difficult circumstances – I was compelled to identify new ways to strengthen our work together. In the darkest times earlier this year, as our whole City worked to adapt and do the best with what we had, there were times I asked myself if it was time to dust off my sewing machine to meet the demand! I found that advocacy and transparency was the answer, and I became vocal about the need for PPE. The team’s transparency and championing led to the donation of PPE from sympathetic community partners until stable supply chains were established. 

During these unprecedented times, with so much uncertainty and change, combined with personal and professional stressors, the well-being of staff and family became paramount. Our senior team made individual telephone calls to staff, and the weight of the information quickly became overwhelming with stories of so much sickness and death. During just three days of calls, I documented 29 instances of related death or illness while speaking to staff. I admit, I was not totally transparent during these calls. Many knew that my husband was battling the virus and was struggling to recuperate, but I didn’t reveal that for weeks I was also battling COVID, feeling the pressures of the job, as well as the respiratory symptoms of the virus. I was tasked with telling staff to take precautions while I was the one who tested positive. 

In a need to increase outreach to staff and our clients, the senior team delegated the responsibility of contacting staff to our APS social work supervisors. The social workers called each employee and many high-risk clients to better understand the status of their personal well-being, health, and safety. It was imperative that they felt supported. Based on the initial success of this initiative, it was determined early on in the pandemic that remote outreach to staff, clients, collateral sources, and community partners was the only way to protect the health and safety of our community. 

Faced with the need to provide daily statistics and status reports at a moment’s notice, we realized that many of our internal processes were not structured to meet the needs of our new reality. In a moment of clarity, an APS regional manager, who had no prior IT experience, searched for a resolution and was able to develop a library of surveys and polls using a verified online application. This application, which allows you to create shareable surveys and polls in minutes, can track participant responses, providing real-time results and analytics that were greatly needed during this time of uncertainty. The forms were user friendly and could be easily accessed via a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop. Our surveys can now be analyzed without scouring through countless spreadsheets, with crucial information just a click away. 

The pandemic has caused our team to re-think how we can improve our internal processes, including by leveraging technology to establish new forms of communication to strengthen our ability to serve New Yorkers in need. Prior to COVID-19, the concept of remote work was not embraced by most of the social services sector. The pandemic dictated the need to equip staff with the necessary tools and resources to help them do their jobs while working from home. A new lexicon was adopted. Words and phrases like “remote access,” “ZOOM,” “team meeting,” and “you’re on mute,” are now standard operating language. Although COVID-19 wreaked havoc in innumerable ways, it has also spawned creativity and ingenuity that will propel APS into the future.

Effectively managing during a pandemic requires the support of numerous governing bodies, as well as various community partners and staff. This pandemic has highlighted the importance of teamwork and the need to work together to achieve a common goal. It will also help you reassess your own goals and management style. An effective COVID leader should lead with a vision and a plan that is rooted in transparency. It’s essential to exhibit calmness even when you’re afraid and instill confidence and hope for the future in your team. 

Although COVID-19 remains a threat, it’s not too early to start thinking post-pandemic. Will we ever return to the way things used to be? I suggest that we will never return to “normal.”  As we navigate and face the perils of COVID-19, racial inequality, budgetary constraints, widespread unemployment, and much more, we push forward because we know that our City’s most vulnerable residents depend on these vital lifelines. And as vulnerable adults face additional abuse, exploitation, and/or evictions, the need for APS interventions will likely increase – and we stand ready to meet the mission and support those who count on us and the services we provide every day. 

During the COVID-19 outbreak, DSS-HRA-DHS staff continue to work around the clock to support the New Yorkers we serve while working from offices, shelters, homes, and in the field - including at clients’ homes. The amazing NYC APS team and the support and mentorship of my immediate supervisors made this journey possible, even when at times I doubted my own capabilities. It takes a strong and committed team to lead APS. When we are on the other side of the pandemic, we will be a better program, ready to face whatever the future brings. How do I know? Because, when New York City was attacked on 9/11/2001, and years later endured Hurricane Sandy, we came back stronger and more committed than ever before. 

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