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Giving 200% -Personally and Professionally

Careline StaffFor over 30 years, Lisa Daymonde has dedicated her career and life's work to protecting the most vulnerable and oppressed children in society. As director of the Department of Children and Families' (DCF) Careline operations, now for the second time, she never could have imagined her leadership skills would have included supporting staff during a global pandemic. 

The Careline is often described as the "front door" of the Department.  It operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The Careline has remained fully operational during the pandemic with staff actively assessing calls and responding to the most critical situations at night, weekends and holidays.

Careline staff are deemed "essential." So, when snowstorms, tornadoes or other circumstances impede daily operations, they continue their mission critical work.

Those acts of nature end. The pandemic has not.

Lisa Daymonde has been in her office almost every day as COVID-19 moved across the state. "I need to be present with them," Lisa stated in reference to her staff who occupy the 5th floor at 505 Hudson Street in Hartford. "How can I best lead my staff to ensure children and families are safe?" she constantly asked herself during this time.

Running the Careline is a lot like managing New York City; it never sleeps. With perhaps the most well-known phone number statewide used when a child is in need of protection, staff annually handle over 100,000 calls -- with schools making up approximately 40% of the new reports of child abuse and neglect.

Lisa describes the work as "fast paced," where each call is different, and where she learns "something new each day."

When discussing her work, she is humble and quick to give credit to her four program supervisors, Gloria Jeter, Brooke Morris, Gloria Campos and Brendan Burke, for their efforts and dedication. She was equally quick to bring up the camaraderie of the primary investigators for their cohesiveness and willingness to assist one another.

Work during the pandemic has been an entire team effort.

Lisa emphasized that the Careline encompasses many components and includes the social workers and social work supervisors who assess calls. The Careline also includes other units such as the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), Education Professional Investigation Unit (EPIU), Background Check Unit and Risk Management. Each of these groups within the Careline play an important role on a statewide basis.

"Across all units and shifts, staff rallied to work better together and address the obstacles which came their way," Lisa stated. "Staff were flexible with scheduling to reduce the number of people in the building, address vacations and other time related matters," she added.

The Careline is operating now under a "new norm," as Lisa describes it. That happened by building upon lessons learned both professionally and personally starting in February 2020 as the pandemic was just beginning to ramp up. At that time, with news of the virus spreading across the globe, Lisa began meeting with her managers along with the Tina Jefferson, Bureau Chief of Child Welfare, to plan. The biggest question they had to answer was "what would happen if the state shut down?"

It is this proactive approach that directly results in the success the Careline has experienced during these trying times. It is also another example of Lisa's leadership.

Lisa believes the pandemic has brought out the most difficult of times and also the best in people. She stated staff have "risen to the occasion." An example of this is the teamwork of multiple staff after a young child was seriously injured.

During the COVID Pandemic, we have faced many challenges at the Careline with traumatic cases and when asked for an example that highlights our teamwork, this one stands out in particular as it highlights the nature of the resilience of Careline staff. It can be challenging to feel a sense of teamwork with a staff reduction schedule in place, not always having your supervisor or your usual peer supports present when you receive a challenging call.  Careline received call regarding a child who was severely injured by a dog they loved. Patrice Red, a seasoned Careline Screener took the initial call from the responding officer who reported the horrific accident of a child being mauled by a Rottweiler in front of their older sibling. The officer described the chaotic scene of the struggle to release the child from the dog's mouth. The call continued to describe the desperate attempts to free the child from the dog and ultimately the dog was killed to free the badly injured child from his grip. All of the adults suffered physical injuries in attempts to save the child from the dog and the older sibling witnessed the entire event.  As expected, this was a call we do not often receive and it alarms many who are receiving, reviewing, assigning and responding. We often think a screener's job is done when the call is over and the report is processed, however the calls last in our minds and hearts for much longer.  From Patrice, to the assigning supervisors Tara Lewis and Brenda Avila, and primary investigator Sandi Liquindoli, the support for each other was evident. Based on the initial report, it was decided Sandi would respond to the hospital to assess the parents and commence the investigation. Responding to a hospital presents an added layer of concern for all staff as we are often thinking about the pandemic and what we may be exposed to while in the hospital. 

With professionalism and concern, Sandi quickly learned the nature of events and the support the family needed became the primary concern. Given the older sibling's specialized needs, the family had asked that the Department wait to interview the child as they had contacted the child's mental health provider and wanted additional supports in place. Sandi had also ensured the hospital staff had contacted their crisis department to provide additional support to the family. The family did allow for Sandi to virtually "check in" with the child and introduce herself. She was able to observe the supportive and positive interaction between the parents and the child as he asked his parents questions about his sibling and how his sibling was doing without asking investigative questions. If the immediate and extended family had not had the experience with the Department as understanding and respecting the family's needs while assessing for safety of the children, the family may have not received the community support needed through this trauma. 

Throughout the case, it was apparent the support the staff received from each other, Careline leadership throughout the weekend including the Commissioner's Team.  Staff checked in on each other, allowed for space to vent and express their emotions about the case, and were mindful about the rest of the calls and cases throughout the holiday weekend. Staff took the time to ask, "how are you?" and not the standard "are you okay?" that only allows for the one-word answer and moving on to another topic. Leadership checked in throughout the weekend on the screeners and on Sandi, even when she was assigned her second exceptional circumstance of the weekend, there was discussion about how she was doing. All of the Careline supervisors over the weekend were mindful of the cases being assigned and the impact it may have on Sandi and her peers. Additionally, Sandi's peers checked in on her as they communicate throughout the weekends on their difficult cases and give each other the space to express their feelings.

This case, sadly, highlighted the importance of communication and why we need to be deliberate and effective in our communication and support with each other as we realize how valuable it is only in extreme cases of trauma and crisis. The Careline is unique in the Department with their role and support for each other. There is a level of understanding when it comes to the work and the importance of their presence in the work. To the screeners, the work is more than a phone call. For the primary staff, they understand they may be the only Department representative who is able to meet with a family in person when they are experiencing a point in their life when they need assistance. To the supervisors who understand their roles are to ensure the safety of children at all hours of the day and night, including weekends and holidays, and again, this may be the only time we can help a family.  The Careline staff support one another beyond the hours of their shift and the ending of a phone call; they are remarkable. 

Lisa has used her physical presence in the office as an opportunity to touch base more frequently with her staff and to get to know them better on a personal basis. Staff have noticed. Recently, a Careline employee sent a complimentary e-mail about her to the Commissioner's Office - articulating her appreciation for Lisa's leadership.

In addition to the strain from the pandemic, racial injustice and social unrest have dramatically impacted our communities -- especially over the past three months. This called for Lisa once again to be creative in her leadership style. Lisa said the Careline Racial Justice Team has experienced "lots of stops and starts" over the last several years, but there is a greater role for the Careline Racial Justice Team to assist the staff as callers and families are experiencing greater needs resulting from social pressures.  She said there is tremendous enthusiasm, excitement and determination to create action to move the needle towards becoming an anti-racist Agency.

The pressures on Lisa to manage staff during a pandemic were a heavy burden. A good reminder that we never quite know what the person next to us is experiencing.

Keep this thought.

There is one other fact not many know about Lisa and her family. In June, her son, Michael, was deployed to Iraq as a member of the United States Armed Forces. "Nothing can compare to worrying about the safety of your family and your kids during this pandemic and racial unrest," Lisa stated. She and her son are able to FaceTime a couple of times a week, and she is counting the days until he is home again.

Leading staff during a global pandemic, racial unrest and while a son was deployed- all while running a 24/7/365 operation.

How did she do it?

Lisa credits her family for their love and support. She also acknowledges her collaboration with other leaders across the agency, including those with whom she communicates on a daily "scrum" call and with the child welfare division. These connections allow her to feel visible and less isolated.

More than anything, Lisa demonstrates her gratitude for her staff and their efforts.

What has Lisa learned over the past 6 months?

"We are a stronger and more cohesive staff now," Lisa stated.

She stated she has also learned to "lean on staff more."

Lisa admits she is a "perfectionist," and not one to necessarily practice "work and life balance." She has always given "150%" to the job.

Now, Lisa reports she is "giving 200% in these trying times."

Thank you, to the Careline staff for all you do and to for your leadership!