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Meeting the Needs

By Ahren von Schnell | Photos by Jessica McCafferty

All roads seem to lead back to the North Country. At least that’s been Christine Peters, the new Commissioner of Clinton County Social Services experience. Originally from Plattsburgh, she spent time in other communities learning and working, developing a broad perspective and depth of experience with which to meet the human services needs of Clinton County.

While earning a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from SUNY Plattsburgh, Peters also did internships with AmeriCorps and North Country Legal Services (now Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York). Those initial experiences instilled in Christine an awareness of issues occurring at the intersection of poverty and the law. Ultimately, she went on to earn a Juris Doctorate from Vermont Law School. She returned to the North Country and began private law practice, with focus areas such as Family Law and Workers’ Compensation Law.

This served a solid foundation of experience when a position for an attorney became available at the Clinton County Department of Social Services. In that role Peters worked primarily on issues related to child welfare. After several years, her dedication paid off when she was appointed as Director of Legal and Social Services, a position she held for 11 years before becoming Commissioner in March of 2023. Her background equipped Peters with a valuable set of tools as she stepped into the leadership of a department that accounts for the majority of expenditures in Clinton County. As Commissioner, a position dependent on a thorough understanding of psychology, law and administration, her experience is well-suited to address the challenges that arise in an occupation that is often crisis driven. And, with over 150 employees, even routine administrative duties are sure to benefit from her facility with organizational operations.

Peters’ role mandates her responsibility to provide adequately for those who are unable to do so for themselves, while simultaneously empowering such individuals to progress to a self-supporting status. Specifically, this means she is responsible for all phases of public welfare planning, financial planning and reporting to the County Legislature, as well as the State and Federal Government. Moreover, she oversees the public relations issues of Social Services, as well as the interpretation of public welfare programs to the community. She is responsible for certification of daycare centers, foster homes and adoptions, financial planning, medical treatment decisions, and lifestyle choices of those individuals in need of a guardian.

These are essential duties of leading a department that is responsible for performing casework services to families to minimize foster care placements, strengthening parenting skills of service recipients, administering public entitlements such as Medicaid, HEAP, SNAP, and Temporary Assistance/Safety Net. Peters and her department are also at the forefront of helping to address the rising level of homelessness within the community, as well as identifying employment opportunities for individuals who are eligible. Peters explained that Clinton County Department of Social Services is a silent economic driver in the community. Through the HEAP program over 2500 eligible households are provided with services and benefits valued in excess of $10 million. “That influx of federal dollars is provided to local vendors and energy companies for fuel, and to local contractors for repair services and installation,” she added. Additionally, the Child Support Unit collects an additional $10 million on behalf of children, which ultimately is redistributed to area landlords, banks, clothing and grocery stores, pharmacies, and medical offices. Moreover, $32 million is distributed to local families for Supplemental Nutrition benefits or SNAP, which in turn is spent in local grocery stores.

While this degree of services means the department accounts for a significant portion of the County’s tax levy, Peters emphasized that all possible attempts are made to reduce costs. The lion’s share of the fiscal burden is due to Medicaid, the costs of which are outside the department’s control. However, other programs operated by the department often receive state and federal reimbursement, helping to defray costs to taxpayers.

Despite the seemingly mundane nature of routine administrative duties, Peters explained there is no such thing as a typical day for the Commissioner. Generally speaking, she enjoys beginning her day visiting the various units under her supervision, conferring with the members of her team regarding the updates of the day. She is conscientious about staying current on relevant regulations, laws and policies. Often, she will review these during her lunch, followed by an afternoon devoted to long-term planning and project management. The rest of her week is peppered with meetings and work groups for a diversity of initiatives. She also strives to be available as needed for staff members to come to her with any problems they may be working on. Above all, she said, “Flexibility and changing direction is key!”

Peters philosophy is important, as the regional challenges are often national ones which have begun to trickle down to regional impacts. But, with foresight and adaptivity, she works to navigate the department through any obstacles that may arise. The most significant of these presently includes the rising tide of migrants, which has increased utilization of services from the department, increasing the draw on its limited resources. Additionally, the department has observed elevated rates of homelessness within the community, and is diligently working to identify the precipitating factors, in order to tailor an effective mitigation strategy.

The ongoing mental health crisis is another area of focus, with all staff members interacting with individuals with those needs. Response efforts involve staff being able to assess and refer individuals to the appropriate resources, with the hope that they may eventually have the tools needed to function at their peak performance level. This has highlighted the importance of developing and maintaining strong partnerships within the North Country community. To wit, Clinton County Department of Social Services has worked closely with the Office of Mental Health to co-locate case managers onsite at DSS, in order to assist staff to address client needs.

These partnerships are not limited to intergovernmental collaboration, however. Indeed, Peters noted that the department’s relationships with regional non-profit organizations represent a critical element in fulfilling DSS’s mission. “As Commissioner in this county, I don’t believe we can function without the non-profit organizations like JCEO, ETC, St. Joseph’s, Catholic Charities, NAMI, the YMCA, the United Way, CVFC, BHSN to name a few. They are integral to families’ success and our staff works collaboratively with them so the needs of all families can be met. We have a lot of rules, regulations and restrictions that sometimes prevent us from helping or being flexible, but with good relationships in the community, we are able to guide our clients to where they can receive help even if we can’t provide it.”

With a collaborative spirit like this, and the steady, experienced leadership that Christine Peters brings to her new role, it seems Clinton County Department of Social Services is in good hands. Yet she also understands the importance of self-care activities and, in her leisure time, she enjoys participating in winter and summer athletics, as well as cooking and gardening. When the opportunity permits, she is also known to indulge in a good book or a spirited game of chess.

And perhaps chess is a fitting analogy for the work ahead of Peters. Leading a large, local government organization which interfaces with numerous community entities will demand a keen perception of all the moving pieces and the synergy among them. She comes well-prepared to meet that challenge.

Clinton County Department of Social Services 13 Durkee Street Plattsburgh, NY 12901 518 565-3300

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