Essex County service providers battle striking level of societal ills
By Tim Rowland
Two representatives of nontraditional families — a young woman who had been raised in foster care, and a woman who had to step in and raise her grandkids — told their stories to a group of Essex County caregivers in August, illustrating the challenges that are affecting strained Adirondack households.
Largely due to addiction and family dysfunction, county health providers believe many residents are becoming entrapped in a cycle that guarantees the debilitating issues affecting today’s parents will be passed on to subsequent generations.
And these issues appear in the Adirondacks far more than elsewhere in the state.
“In the beginning I thought I was an oddity — a grandparent raising grandchildren,” said Melinda Morin, a BRIEF (Building Resilience in Essex County Families) family representative. That was before she realized that her situation represented that of a quarter of Essex County households, 8% above the state average.
Felicia Gabriel, meanwhile, talked of what it was like bouncing in and out of the county’s foster care system — depending on whether her father was in or out of prison. Foster parents could be nurturing or abusive. If abusive, she might be abused or chased by someone with a knife and told that no one would believe her if she complained. “I didn’t know what security really looked like,” she said. If the foster parents were good, she could be removed from the home just when she was beginning to let her guard down. “Every time I started to love someone, they would leave,” she said.
The BRIEF coalition formed two years ago with the goal of breaking the cycle of addiction, dysfunction and a general lack of knowledge of what it takes to be a good parent.
The coalition aims to break that cycle by identifying at-risk youngsters and stepping in with care and education before trouble sets in. Typically, social workers using established data points can identify which 6-year-olds will be in trouble by age 12.
But most programs don’t call for intervention soon enough. BRIEF representatives believe that if the child can be reached early, they might be spared a lifetime of suffering, and reduce the chances of familial dysfunction when they have kids of their own.
Dysfunction is represented by drug and alcohol abuse, but also in mental health issues, disabilities, a reliance on foster care and young people who have become disconnected from societal structure, such as schools or jobs.
While not peculiar to the Adirondacks, these dents to the social fabric are more severe here. Essex County, one of two counties located entirely within the Blue Line and the Adirondacks’ most populous, far outstrips the state averages for disabilities, alcohol-related injuries and deaths and foster care admission rates.
An Essex County child is four times more likely than those elsewhere in the state to end up in foster care, where care is uneven at best. Other children struggle at home with parents who are abusive, addicted, emotionally absent or imprisoned. The children in these families are more likely to develop these same problems, which in turn affects their own children.
Terri Morse, director of the Essex County Mental Health Department, called BRIEF a “system of care” where a “collaborative group of individuals and agencies work toward helping residents of Essex County take care of their own.”
BRIEF provides family help to multiple age groups and multiple family conditions, teaching infant care, emotional development, nutrition and life skills.
The rural and healthy Adirondack environment plays a role in both mental and physical health, said speakers at the conference.
“Bodies don’t disconnect with spirit,” said Jessica Darney Buehler, director of health planning and promotion for the Essex County Health Department. “If I could write one prescription it would be to take a walk, get outside in nature with a friend.”
BRIEF is composed of more than 40 groups and individuals, including health departments, schools, clergy, police, probation offices, addiction centers, social services and family representatives.
State data show the challenge ahead. Since 2019, the number of “disconnected” young people out of school and out of work has increased 11%, while at the state level that number at the same time has decreased 6%.
To reverse the trend, BRIEF hopes to strengthen families with support that includes parenting classes, where parents are taught how to better handle conflict, nurture and communicate. Some have enrolled in these classes to win custody of their children, but others have signed up simply to learn skills that their own parents failed to hand down, Morse said.
BRIEF seeks to eliminate the “bad parent” stigma and welcome people without judgment.
Children, meanwhile, are empowered to make decisions and embrace causes and activities about which they can develop a passion. Advocates said children do better in life when they practice social bonding with people or animals and develop hobbies and interests. They also need boundaries and goals with expectations of high achievement.
Care givers, said Angie Allen, Essex County Department of Social Services deputy commissioner, practice “unconditional non-judgment” and teamwork. “Everyone has the capacity to help build resilience in families,” she said.