The disbanding of a federally funded trauma team that helps people deal with the Sandy Hook massacre has forced the Massachusetts town to improvise to ensure the recovery care continues.
But the Newton’s plan to replace the Recovery and Resiliency Team with four of its own full-time employees is more than a stopgap – it is part of a larger process of assuming long-term responsibility for helping Newtowners live with an irreplaceable loss.
“It is a huge challenge, but we need to accept our reality and find the pathway to the resources we are going to be responsible for providing for decades,” First Selectman Pat Llodra said. “We have to be honest about it and own it and say ‘this is who we are.”‘
If Llodra and other leaders had their way, the six-member Recovery and Resiliency Team of counselors and care managers would stay in Newtown for a least another two years, because it has gained the community’s trust that is so integral to trauma recovery work.
But from the team’s inception in mid-2014, everyone knew the mission would end in March when Department of Justice funds run out, even if Newtown’s need for trauma services remains high.
“There are new people coming forward needing support every day,” said Melissa Glaser, a licensed professional counselor who heads the team. “But we knew that the Department of Justice had awarded funds for an 18-month term, so everything we have done has been with the knowledge that this team as it exists will be exiting.”
The danger is the trust between the team and 800 Newtowners who have received services will need to be rebuilt when new town employees take over in March under an expanded social services department.
“It has the potential to create gaps, however, the town is trying to prevent that,” Glaser said during an interview in her office on the town’s Fairfield Hills municipal campus. “Many of our support programs will be able to continue with the structure we have put in place.”
The town’s plan to add a team of four social workers and specialists to help people navigate the convoluted mental health care system would be financed with a combination of fund transfers and grants.
Two grants of $50,000 each have already been secured from Danbury-based Praxair and from the Newtown-Sandy Hook Community Foundation. The grants will offset most of the cost of hiring two employees in March. A larger single grant from the federal Victims of Crime Act will be requested next week and would cover costs of two additional employees for three years, Llodra said.
“Our goal is to get enough resources in place so that we have sustainable community wellness and mental health,” Llodra said. “Our core needs are still present and they have not gone away.”
The Resiliency and Recovery Team was created with part of a $7 million justice department grant Newtown received following the 2012 slaying of 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The idea was for the team to reach out not only to the families of the victims and those in the school that day, but to everyone who was affected by the worst crime scene in Connecticut history. The team was also a clearinghouse about where to get help for post-traumatic stress, a resource for navigating the fragmented mental health system, and a developer of training and support programs for teachers and first responders.
The problem is there has been much more than just the terrible tragedy in Sandy Hook to confront.
Recovery efforts have been set back by the glare of national media attention, the divisiveness of political debate over gun control and mental health, and by the hostility of conspiracy theorists who deny Sandy Hook happened.
“There is no short-term solution in trauma and grief work,” Glaser said. “And this situation is obviously extremely complicated with all the different layers that impact this community.”
As such, it took months for the team to earn the trust of people whose hurt is beyond repair.
“Just six months ago they started to make an impact, so that we are starting to see some success,” said Llodra, who serves on the team’s oversight board with Joseph Erardi, the schools superintendent, and the Rev. Matthew Crebbin, president of the Newtown Interfaith Clergy Association.
“The R&R team worked hard to establish relationships and develop credibility with people, and to close that effort down and restart it with new people means we are going to have to rebuild those relationships again,” Llodra said.
Llodra stressed no personal information about anyone who was assisted by the team can be shared without that person’s permission.
The town’s Board of Selectmen began acting before Christmas to prevent the disruption of grief services in March, transferring $40,000 from a contingency account, which, along with $100,000 in grants, will pay for two new employees.
At the same time, the additions will improve the Social Services Department’s ability to meet more needs in the community. The department currently does not have mental health professionals.
“We haven’t had a person with a degree in social work or a professional psychologist or clinical people,” newly elected Selectman Herb Rosenthal said during a recent meeting. “We have had to purchase those services in the past when we have needed them.”
Selectman Will Rodgers agreed.
“I am very excited by this,” he said at the December meeting.
The town’s challenges will be to hire professionals who are certified in trauma work, and to continue funding the recovery effort, Glaser said.
Models have been established for town employees to follow, and Glaser’s staff will offer training to ease the transition, she added.
“It is very hard to quantify the impact of all our work,” Glaser said. “But in the 18 months we have been in place, we have provided a tremendous amount of support for this community.”
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