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A Conversation with Avery County Department of Social Services Director Barbara Jones

By Tim Gardner

Regarded by her employees, colleagues, friends and especially those who use Avery County Social Services for her strong work ethic, keen eagerness to help those in need and never-ending compassion for her fellow human-beings is the department’s director, Barbara Jones.

The Avery Senior Services Department has a most worthwhile reason for existence for the County’s citizens. Its mission statement reads: To be an advocate for and protector of the young, disabled, and aged citizens of Avery County.  To be an agency that works as a team to administer services and public assistance programs in an efficient, timely, consistent and professional manner. Continue reading for this reporter’s interview (my questions) with Jones (her answers) about the multitude of services available to Avery’s citizens through the Social Services Department and how her tenure in it has helped make her life fulfilling to the zenith, both professionally and personally.

High Country Press (HCP): For those who may not know you and for anyone who may want to learn more about you, what are your personal and professional backgrounds?

Jones: I am originally from the town of Washington in eastern North Carolina. I received my Bachelor’s and Masters Degrees from East Carolina University. I have worked in the Health and Social Services field for 35 years, including 19 years with Beaufort County Social Services.

I currently live in Linville Falls.

HCP: A two-part question: How long have you been Director of Avery Social Services? And how did it come about for you to be such?

Jones: I have been at Avery County DSS for 5 years. I have always loved the mountains and dreamed of living here. I had family in Spruce Pine, so when the Director’s position became available, I applied. I consider myself blessed to work in Avery County.

HCP: What are your job responsibilities and roles as Social Services Director?

Avery County Department of Social Services Director Barbara Jones

Jones: I am responsible for assuring that our agency complies with state and federal regulations for all programs. I am on call 24/7 for consulting with staff in emergency situations. Fortunately, we have a great staff and our supervisors are the best! I also strive to be a good steward of county, state and federal funds. I try to assure that we receive the maximum reimbursement and use our funding wisely to meet the needs of our citizens.

HCP: In detail, what are the various programs Avery’s Social Services offers such as Medicaid, food stamps, nursing home care, and emergency and community assistance?

Jones: There are a lot and I will explain all of them in the following manner-

Child Support Services – helps locate noncustodial parents, establish paternity, and petitions the court to order child support payments. Current caseload is 333, with collections in 2018 of $434,904.

Child Protective Services – Strives to ensure safe, permanent, nurturing families for children by protecting them from abuse and neglect while attempting to preserve the family unit. In 2018 we had 246 reports, 159 of which were accepted for assessment.

Foster Care – Provides temporary living arrangements for children who have been abused or neglected. With approval of a Court Judge, Social Services can take custody of children and place them in a foster home. We also hold annual classes to train interested people to become foster parents. We currently have 21 children in agency custody.

Adoption – Helps to find permanent homes for children. Last year we had 7 adoptions. We also provide Adoption Assistance, offering financial assistance for families that adopt special needs children.

Child Day Care Subsidy – State and federal funds to assist eligible families in paying for childcare while parents are working. We average helping about 100 children per month.

Adult Protective Services – The agency receives and evaluates reports of abuse, neglect, or exploitation of disabled adults. We received 62 reports last year.

Guardianship Services – Services provided to individuals adjudicated as incapacitated/incompetent by the court. Services include case management, placement, and support as needed. We average 8 wards.

Payee Services – For individuals who have difficulty managing their Social Security or Supplemental Income funds. The agency assures bills are paid and the client is not subject to exploitation.

Adult Care Home Monitoring – Adult care homes are licensed by the state Division of Health Service Regulation (DHSR) under state regulations and are monitored by Adult Home Specialists within the local DSS. Two homes monitored.

Energy Assistance – Federally funded programs that provide for a one-time payment to help eligible households pay their heating bills. Crisis Intervention Program-185 approved, 6 denied, $72,701.

Low Income Energy Assistance – 22 approved, 24 denied, $73,029

Food and Nutrition (Food Stamps) – Food and Nutrition Services is a federal food assistance program that provides low-income families the food they need for a nutritionally adequate diet. 6 less than last year in households, a total of 1,653 individuals.

Work First – This program helps parents support themselves and their families by offering short-term training and other services to increase the chances of employment. An average of $196.13 per month to 15 participating households

Medicaid – North Carolina Medicaid and Health Choice offers different ways that may help pay for some or all of the cost of health care. Each program helps people and families with certain health needs, and income and resource limits. 3,233 individuals served.

HCP: Approximately how many families and individuals does Avery Social Services serve through the Food Nutrition Service, Low Income Emergency Assistance and the other programs it offers?

Jones: In 2018 we had 5,612 visitors to our agency. As previously noted, programs serve as many as 3,233 (Medicaid), 861 (Food and Nutrition), and 507 households (Energy Assistance).

HCP: What do you consider the most satisfying aspects of your job?

Jones: When a child blossoms in the loving care of a foster parent, when a child returns to his parents, when a senior citizen receives the services needed to stay home, when a single mother is able to provide for her children, we (DSS staff) have succeeded.

HCP: What is your philosophy about being a good and successful social services director?

Jones: It is a delicate balance between caring and getting too emotionally involved. That’s a difficulty all of my staff members face. We try to be realistic, yet hopeful.

HCP: How many employees work under your direction and what would you like to say about their contributions to the county through their professional work?

Jones: We have a total of 33 staff currently. They are all dedicated servants of the community. Most are natives of Avery County and are dedicated to serving their neighbors.

HCP: What have been the most noted changes in social services work during your tenure in the profession?

Jones: When I began, we had no computers. Everything was on paper. Now we are linked by computer to every other DSS in the state. Cell phones and tablets are also required equipment.

HCP: Another two-part question: When millions, and sometimes even billions of dollars in budget cuts happen to various social service programs such as to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, and other programs are eliminated completely like President Donald Trump’s Administration has proposed with the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program and Community Development Block Grant Programs, how many Avery Countians would be negatively affected? And how do social services typically try to combat such cuts and program eliminations?

Jones: When we have such cuts, the burden falls on the volunteer and church community. We often refer to agencies such as Volunteer Avery, RAM’S Rack, and Feeding Avery Families, for clients that do not meet our eligibility requirements. The ripple effects would not only affect clients but every store in the county that accepts Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, which for those who may not know is an electronic system that allows state welfare departments to issue benefits via a magnetically encoded payment card, used in the United States. They are typically of two benefits: food and cash.

HCP: What should anyone in need of food stamps, Medicaid and/or other help from the Avery County Social Services Department do to obtain it?

Jones: Come by our offices in the County Administration Building located at 175 Linville Street in Newland or call 828-733-8230. My staff and I can help anyone apply.