One day after school last week, a New Canaan teen phoned the Kids In Crisis 24/7 hotline because a friend here in town appeared to be suicidal. Familiar with Kids In Crisis because of its TeenTalk program at New Canaan High School, the adolescent connected with caseworker (and TeenTalk counselor) Ed Milton. Within minutes, he met with the troubled youth, performed a full assessment, secured a psychiatric evaluation and resolved the issue by referring to an outside agency.
The interaction between a New Canaan teen and Milton—a fixture at NCHS who has earned his position as a trusted adult for scores of local adolescents, such as the friend in this case, by connecting and engaging with them—emerges far more frequently than locals may know.
Through TeenTalk last academic year, Milton served 149 NCHS students in individual counseling sessions, according to Kids In Crisis, and cases can touch on everything from family conflict and domestic violence to depression, alcohol and substance abuse, peer and social issues such as bullying, divorce, depression, stress, anxiety and suicide—sometimes resulting in youths spending a night in a bed at the organization’s Greenwich campus (families to this point have not been charged for the service, as the state has been helping by paying a per diem—more on that below).
New Canaan this fiscal year is paying $52,000 (see page 115 here), or about 61 percent of TeenTalk’s total cost, to host the program and facilitate local youths’ availing themselves of Kids In Crisis-run services. Those services are offered 24/7 through the organization’s hotline, and Milton himself works into a rotation of caseworkers on-call.
Last week, Kids In Crisis announced that the state has cancelled its $750,000 contract with the organization—a move that Denise Qualey, the organization’s managing director of crisis and clinical services, said jeopardizes its ability to provide those services.
“It’s about relationships for kids,” Qualey said on a recent afternoon from Milton’s office, a narrow room with a window that looks out on the parking lot and track beyond, located alongside the nurse’s station at the south end of the building.
“It all comes down to a personal interaction. They have this trusted adult they’ve met, Ed, and they feel connected, so when he kind of spoon-feeds them and their family over to an after-hours service when the schools close, they are more likely to follow up on that because they trust him and that is why it works so beautifully and is so successful. So when the state cuts money for our core services, which is our emergency shelter, they are cutting money that might reduce our ability to respond after-hours and provide Teen Talk support. The bottom line for us is: We never want to say ‘No.’ But if we have to reduce our beds or reduce any services after hours, it impacts our other programs.”
Though TeenTalk itself is funded by restricted town dollars and not at risk as a result of the state’s contract cancellation, New Canaanites avail themselves of all Kids In Crisis services, often following a referral from Milton. That includes not only meeting youths and families at any hour, but also taking kids overnight at the Greenwich-based, fully staffed Kids In Crisis facility, and discreetly getting them to school the next day. Asked about canceling their contract with Kids In Crisis, officials with the Department of Children and Families told NewCanaanite.com that they’ve reduced the public agency’s need for what they term “congregate care” facilities—an explanation that is misleading, according to Qualey, since it lumps the organization into the general category of a group home, which it isn’t.
Qualey said the organization, which already does a lot of fundraising—some 85 percent of its operating budget comes from foundations, grants and individual and corporate donors—now must figure out how to make up for the shortfall caused by the state’s contract cancellation (the second such cancellation in the past year, she said, with the first affecting beds for younger kids).
Leaders in New Canaan human services say that what Kids In Crisis does is both unique and critically important.
The organization is “imperative to supporting and protecting the emotional and social needs of our most at-risk students,” said Meg Domino, executive director of New Canaan CARES, a nonprofit that runs a wide array of youth, parent and community programs in town (like this one).
“The in-school office provides a place of solace, and one-on-one counsel to kids who might otherwise fall through the cracks, for social, emotional, physical and academic reasons. It also serves the more general needs of supporting any child who finds themselves in temporary need of emotional and social support, due to family crisis social challenge, bullying and other issues. Here in New Canaan, we are blessed to have Kids in Crisis closely involved with town resources, including Health and Human Services, CARES, YMCA and local law enforcement, allowing for the maximum collaboration and outreach for each student.”
In recent months, a cross-agency coalition has formed with support from First Selectman Rob Mallozzi, Town Councilman Penny Young, New Canaan Police Chief Leon Krolikowski and others to address the serious problems of alcohol and substance abuse, including heroin in New Canaan.
Mallozzi called Kids In Crisis “an amazing organization” and singled out Milton as “one of the greatest resources to our young adults in town.”
“I learned firsthand a few years ago about how much this organization means to us and will work with Health and Human Services, our schools and the town’s funding bodies to support their effort fully despite the actions of the state on their budget,” the first selectman said. “This isn’t so much about Kids In Crisis as it is about a state where priorities are skewed towards protecting government jobs over the health and services needs of its citizens.”
One central figure in the coalition—Jacqueline D’Louhy, youth and family services coordinator with the New Canaan Department of Human Services—said she and colleague Mary Pomerantz have used Kids In Crisis “for so many families in New Canaan where kids need to be placed for brief respite and conflict resolution from parents, caregivers or siblings.”
“When parents have needed to go inpatient for substance abuse or medical issues, Kids In Crisis offers a safe haven for kids to stay and their professional staff can meet any mental health needs the child may have. All of their staff are trained outreach counselors to offer phone consultations for youth in crisis or just needing support—for example, depression, family conflict or worried about friends. The outreach counselor will set up an in person meeting with child and parents to help resolve conflict in a neutral setting or help put more supportive interventions in place. Lastly, the TeenTalk counselor housed in the schools offers unbiased support to all kids struggling with any issue.”
For New Canaan High School’s TeenTalk counselor, Milton, the ability for Kids In Crisis to respond immediately to local kids and families who need a professional to intervene straightaway makes the organization a sort of emergency responder for family-related, non-life-threatening situations.
“I think some of the most challenging cases that we are involved with are really held together by Kids In Crisis, and I think it really is that 24-hour, seven-day-a-week piece,” Milton said. “Police respond to life-threatening situations. We are there before you get to that point. We can be that resource before it gets to that point with a child that should be removed.”