Staffing shortages hit Solnit in Middletown

Despite the Lamont administration’s efforts to address the staffing shortages that have plagued Connecticut’s mental and behavioral health care system, long waiting lists and high demand for services persist, while beds in some of the intensive care units remain unoccupied.

SEIU District 1199, which represents more than 25,000 Connecticut healthcare workers, said the situation at the Middletown State Children’s Psychiatric Hospital is dire.

There are 85 vacancies in the Solnit children’s center alone, mainly nursing positions, but also a handful of positions for social workers, rehabilitation workers and psychiatrists.

Staff shortages across the health care system, particularly in nursing and social work, were an ongoing problem in Connecticut and nationally, even before demand for mental health services surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has only made the problem worse.

It’s a problem that affects a variety of mental health services statewide, from community-based programs to more acute hospital facilities. At Solnit, staff care for children with complex behaviors who have the most pressing mental health needs.

“It is well known that the Albert J. Solnit Center is the last stop, there is no other place where these children are receiving the level of care and services they need,” said Darnell Ford, Solnit’s chief child care officer and a SEIU member.

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The Lamont administration has taken several initiatives to mitigate the crisis here, including providing tuition fees to encourage low-income and minority students to enroll in accelerated nursing and social work programs and providing $35 million for human resource development initiatives to help Training of workers, including for highly specialized jobs at Solnit.

Contracts between SEIU workers and the state, which took effect in 2021, included pay increases for nurses and other job titles. The state also provides incentives for hard-to-fill vacancies.

“The safety and quality of care for the children and young people at Solnit South, as well as the safety and well-being of the staff, remains a priority in all of our efforts,” Vannessa Dorantes, the Department of Children and Families Officer who oversees the facility, said in a written statement.

But SEIU said the government’s efforts to date have failed to result in vacancies being filled at the pace and level required.

“The state is having a hard time retaining the few people that have recently been hired because they are not bringing people in fast enough,” Rob Baril, president of SEIU 1199, said in a written statement.

Solnit’s south campus is home to four mixed-use hospital units and three female juvenile psychiatric residential facility shacks. Two of the hospital units are not in use, including one that has been offline during the pandemic except when used as a quarantine room and another unit that has been offline since July due to staffing shortages. DCF said units will reopen when staffing levels allow.

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One of the cottages on campus has not operated as a patient housing unit since the Connecticut Juvenile Training School girls’ department closed several years ago, with no plans to reopen.

The psychiatric hospital is licensed for 50 beds, but its current total capacity is 42 beds, according to the DCF. 20 of them are in use. In the psychiatric residential treatment facility cottages the capacity is 21 with the current census of 12.

“We will continue to conduct the census to ensure the safety of children, youth and staff at Solnit South,” Commissioner Dorantes said. “Every single opportunity to promote the excellent work our employees do, the compassionate care they provide and the day-to-day impact they have on youth with complex behaviors is amplified as we attract new applicants to employment and act swiftly working to fill all remaining positions.”

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While staffing levels have kept many children on the waiting list, others are stuck in limbo in hospital settings while awaiting placements.

Namore Edwards, a policy organizer at SEIU, said her daughter has been in Solnit for two years, most recently in one of the on-campus psychiatric living facilities.

“This is absolutely outrageous. Children usually stay there for a maximum of six months,” Edwards said in an interview this week.

Edwards first spoke publicly about her daughter’s situation earlier this year at a joint meeting of the state legislature’s public health and children’s committees. Edwards described numerous obstacles she encountered in trying to get her children access to services for trauma they had experienced.

Her daughter, now 13, has been treated in Solnit for the last few years. She said her daughter has been denied inpatient treatment programs in Connecticut and across the country because she requires a high level of care. The latest recommendation for her daughter is to go to a group home, which Edwards says isn’t a viable option given her needs.

“We really just need the services, we need the help, we need to open up all these empty buildings here in Connecticut,” she said.

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