DSS director, moving on, notes ‘change is often bittersweet’

By Michael Becketts

Guest columnist

Change is often bittersweet. I write this as I prepare for my last day as the director of the Durham County Department of Social Services, a privilege I have held since August 2012.

While I'll no longer be working directly for Durham DSS, my work will still impact the agency as I become Assistant Secretary for Human Services in North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services. I will have direct oversight of the Division of Social Services and the Division of Aging and Adult Services and will help improve systems and deepen collaboration in counties, including Durham.

I am proud of the work that the agency has accomplished during my tenure. Our many successes include the implementation of the state’s NC FAST computer system which processes public assistance benefits. Together with Durham County’s Information Systems and Technology Department, we developed a mobile application that allows Durham County residents to submit documentation for benefits using mobile devices, a first for the state. Our staff implemented the six principles of partnership to provide the highest level of customer service and personal development. We received a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to create the Durham Integrated Domestic Violence Program.

The accomplishment of which I am most proud is the way that our agency's employees and community partners work together with one goal in mind: to address the needs of marginalized people in need of support. Children, aging adults, and those in our community who are disenfranchised have many local champions. While managing through a changing landscape, we have ensured that compassionate, non-judgmental services are provided to clients, developed significant partnerships with community stakeholders, and worked diligently to support the professional growth and development of employees.

Our work isn't done. There are many things that DSS can and will do in partnership with other community organizations and government agencies to improve the array of services and the delivery of those services to our customers. I am thrilled to pass the baton to Catherine Williamson-Hardy, the agency's interim director, who is committed to building on the good work we have done over the past few years as the DSS board conducts its search for the new director.

Catherine, who has nearly 30 years experience in social services, has spent almost six years as our agency's assistant drector of customer accountability and talent development. Her extensive background as a caseworker, an assistant director and a trainer — combined with strong leadership skills and experience in our agency as well as other social service organizations — will enable her to provide exceptional and steady leadership that will ensure continued growth and development in our community.

Soon after I became director, I was asked about my vision for Durham DSS. I said that my mission was for Durham County DSS to be the best DSS in North Carolina. That vision has guided our work. The success of the agency is not mine alone, but rests in the hearts and on the shoulders of dedicated employees, supportive county leadership and willing community partners. These three groups created the opportunity for innovation and creativity in service delivery.

The success of DSS is not predicated on one person but on the collective vision of a community that sees our agency as a support to many of our neighbors, friends and relatives. I am confident that the agency will continue to be progressive, constantly improving and dedicated to our mission to “partner with individuals, families and the community to help our residents achieve physical, social and financial well-being.”

As I watch in my mind the movie of the last five years, I am saddened that I am now seeing the closing credits. But I know that the epilogue of this story shows that there is more to be written and many more great things to come here in Durham. These next developments will be built on the foundation of what's been set over the past five years. The next leaders of this agency will continue to hold the vision, strengthen our already great customer service and community relationships, and work toward a Durham that provides opportunity and support to each resident.

Michael Becketts, new assistant secretary for human services in North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services, was director of the Durham County Department of Social Services for nearly five years.