Removing Obstacles

Social Services Director Tonya Jackson on servicing the county

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As a daughter of a single mother and later, the single mother of a daughter, TONYA JACKSON knows about stigma, and she does everything she can to reduce it for people who receive social services.

With her background in banking, her education in business, management and public administration, and her experience in health and human services, she was recently tapped to serve as Social Services Director for New Hanover County. In this position, she seeks to remove obstacles for the approximately 300 staff providing services.

The department serves tens of thousands of families in New Hanover County to support child and adult safety along with economic support for food, medical, and emergency situations.

Prior to being named director for New Hanover County after a nationwide search, Jackson worked in health and human services for 20 years in Guilford, Brunswick, and New Hanover County. Most recently, she served for three years as New Hanover County’s assistant Department of Social Services director, credited with developing innovative processes recognized as best practices throughout the state.

She also led the county’s effort to provide $1.3 million in COVID-19 child care and housing assistance. The program has now been replicated in other counties across the state.

Searching for a job led to finding a career

Jackson came from a banking, economics, and finance background. She’d been working in banking for five years when she realized the next step in her career path would entail extensive travel. She was a single mother of a young child and wanted to be home with her.

She makes it clear she set out to find a job, not a career when she started working as a caseworker.

And then everything changed.

“It was like I understood because I had been there,” she says of the clients she served. “It was easy for me to relate. It was easy for me to be compassionate. I just understood. So, it made a big difference in how I interacted and serviced my clients.”

Before the year was out, she knew she was in this for the long haul.

The right mix

It’s unusual for someone who came up through the department of social services ranks to have a background steeped in things financial like Jackson has, she says. She’s found, however, that the business of financially managing the department of social services is vital to providing the services.

She wants to let the staff do what they were trained to do, and she will provide the leadership — another critical skill necessary to her role — to steer the department and remove obstacles to service provision. She’s passionate about ensuring the people she serves receive the services to which they’re entitled.

She says she’s committed to serving as steward of taxpayers’ money that funds the department while ensuring clients have access to services they need.

She credits County Manager Chris Coudriet with understanding the social and economic services workforce needs required in the community. She says he understands the difference between the industry norm versus what fits, specifically, with the needs of New Hanover County.

Jackson says she’s impressed with the amount of work that occurs around the clock by staff to ensure clients get the services they need.

“It is a very intricate plan that they use and it’s effective,” she says, noting each county uses its staff differently. “They’re very committed and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

COVID has called for ways of doing business that she couldn’t have predicted in her 20 years of service. Fortunately, in New Hanover County they were already working toward a telework model and had initiated a telework pilot program. COVID merely expedited the process.

She’s quick to point out that the changes it made in order to comply with changing requirements aren’t all bad. For instance, the department moved to a new business model, administering services virtually whenever possible while not compromising quality.

In essence, it has changed how they do their work, not what they do.

She and her staff understand that some things will never go back to the way they were pre-COVID.

“And some of that is positive,” she says. For instance, they may have a family that needs Medicaid and food stamps “and we can assess them and assist them and they never need to leave their living room.” In the past, the ‘unfortunate stigma’ associated with going to the agency to apply for services may have been a deterrent.

They’re finding creative ways to manage challenges, she says, “and we’re getting it done.”

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Categories: Women to Watch