Team Solnit South
The Albert J. Solnit Children's Center-South Campus (aka “Solnit South”) in Middletown serves youth with the most intensive mental health treatment needs. Solnit South’s hospital-level units generally provide treatment for youth who have transferred from other Connecticut hospitals because their needs cannot be met in any other setting. The youth admitted to their PRTF program have similarly struggled to be successful in a succession of community, residential and hospital environments. In other words, Solnit South serves among the most complex and vulnerable children in Connecticut.
Combine that sizable challenge with a global pandemic that turned work and life on its head, and it is very clear that Solnit South Superintendent Dr. Frank Gregory and his staff faced an awesome challenge.
How have they navigated these challenges?
"You can't do it alone," Dr. Gregory said. "Our success and strength are the result of a lot of people being thoughtful, planful and working very hard in a context that is very difficult to predict."
Dr. Gregory said the onset of the COVID pandemic in March was unsettling. "The first several weeks were scary and intense for a lot of people," he said. While most state employees were told to stay safe at home, the staff at Solnit South are tasked with providing 24-hour, seven days a week care and treatment. Staying at home is not an option, and so the threat of infection was and remains very real. The answer to this challenge was cohesion.
Dr. Gregory said, "How we responded was to band together." That meant a high intensity and frequency of communication. Initially, separate meetings with managers and supervisors occurred daily. Medical staff -- doctors and nurses -- were tasked with infection prevention, and they met three times a week. (The meetings have been able to reduce in frequency recently.)
"We tried to be responsive and proactive in our planning, implementation and communication," he said, adding that the meeting with supervisors was very effective in raising up issues experienced by front-line staff. "The structure of meetings and communication was intended to make sure that everyone participated in the decision-making process."
The meetings -- mostly done remotely on Microsoft Teams -- were so important, Dr. Gregory said, because of the dynamics of a 24-hour facility with 300 staff working all shifts and weekends. "We wanted a mechanism for staff to bring up issues in real time," he said of the multiple virtual meetings. "That was a key facet of the supervisory meetings."
Dr. Gregory said that Department managers external to Solnit South made huge contributions, including Dr. Nicole Taylor, the Director of Pediatrics, who worked with the medical staff on infection prevention. He also credited the Department's Fiscal office and Engineering department for securing needed personal protective equipment. And Wilderness School staff have been to Solnit South several times to provide additional therapeutic programming for the patients.
Another one of the major modifications Solnit South had to make was to shift family visits and family therapy sessions to remote or virtual methods. Restricting access to the campus was an important consideration to keep youth and staff safe. That meant outfitting the facility with multiple computer workstations with webcams.
Dr. Gregory fondly recalled the weekend in early Spring when he got a call from Valter Borges, the Department’s Chief Information Officer. “He said, ‘I’m here,’” Dr. Gregory recalled. “’I have your cameras. Where do you want me to set them up?’”
Mr. Borges was going to ensure Solnit South got what it needed – even if it took him sacrificing his weekend to do the job himself. The action meant a lot to Dr. Gregory and all the staff at the facility. “It was someone coming into the foxhole to help us out,” Dr. Gregory said. ”It was someone really coming to our aid.”
Dr. Gregory said it was that kind of thing that made the facility staff feel connected to the larger Department. “When we went into a quasi-lockdown, it helped insulate us, but it also had the risk of isolating us. This was one of many examples that showed we were part of a bigger Department and connected. People knew that we were here, and they had our back. That was important for us to know. We weren’t in this alone.”
Dr. Gregory said an overarching theme throughout the ongoing crisis is that staff at the facility and in the larger Department overall were willing to do whatever was necessary to keep everyone safe. “I see a lot of people rising to the occasion,” Dr. Gregory said. “It really highlights the commitment and dedication of our staff.”
Dr. Gregory said the facility found ways to support staff. For example, meals were provided for staff on campus to prevent unnecessary trips in and out of the facility. When possible, staff were granted some flexibility in their schedules, allowed to telework and to provide services through a telehealth model that relies on remote technologies.
Throughout this crisis the facility never stopped accepting new patients. Dr. Gregory noted that facilities are accustomed to working through storms and other challenges that are relatively short-lived.
“This was different because it was day-after-day, one day after another,” Dr. Gregory said. “Plus, people were worried about their own families at home, and the risk of possibly bringing something home with them. But we found ways to help take care of each other.”
It was that banding together that really made the facility effective during the most difficult of circumstances.
“It’s about connecting with people and facilitating their ability to make a contribution; to empower them,” Dr. Gregory concluded. “As a leader, you need to know when to be involved and when to stay out of the way. We have a lot of experienced, knowledgeable people here. My job is to help them do their job.”