Perspectives from the Field: While OCSE waits for a permanent commissioner to come on board, we are sharing stories submitted by state and tribal child support directors.
This month, we feature Rhode Island Child Support Director Sharon A. Santilli’s story on providing opportunities for families beyond normal child support operations.
The Rhode Island Department of Human Services Office of Child Support Services has always focused on assisting community organizations because we try to help the parents and children in our caseload with issues well beyond just child support. The staff truly care about the families we serve and focus on philanthropic opportunities throughout the year.
In 2014, we recognized that our population had an overall need for basic necessities and a critical need for clothing — particularly outerwear during the winter months. The staff came up with the idea for the “Child Support Cozy Closet.” Several staff members volunteered immediately, and I enthusiastically and whole-heartedly supported their efforts.
As we all know, our customers enter our office with not just child support issues but with a host of problems involving housing, employment, nutritional needs, transportation, and clothing shortages for themselves and their children. While it’s helpful to refer our parents to available community resources, it is more satisfying to provide something tangible immediately, like warm, clean clothing.
We started the Cozy Closet during the winter of 2014 primarily with donations from staff who brought in gently used coats and outerwear for parents and children. Catherine Legault oversees the day-to-day stocking duties, examining the items to make sure they are suitable and then loading them onto the racks. We have signs posted around the office encouraging customers to help themselves.
The need was so great that we found it challenging to keep the closet full on a daily basis. We offered staff one dress-down day a month if they contributed new or gently used clothing to the closet. Catherine exchanges donations for ribbons that staff wear proudly on their Friday dress-down day.
After observing the critical need of our families and considering the success of the program during the winter months, the staff decided that this should be a year-round effort. They began bringing in spring, summer, and fall clothing, as well as blankets, toys, and books.
Our challenge is keeping the Cozy Closet full. As staff cleared out their home closets, we extended our outreach request to RI human services staff and community-based organizations. We encourage them to drop off their clothing. Staff members also pick up donations.
Over the years, the RI child support staff has identified struggling families in our caseload and adopted them for Christmas and Thanksgiving. I am proud to report that the child support staff has fulfilled every Christmas wish list over the years — no matter how extensive or how many people are included. When our own employees needed our help, we adopted those families anonymously as well. In addition, we often have dress-down days for other causes including breast cancer awareness, the Freidrich’s Ataxia Association, the United Way, and Wigs for Kids.
Staff find it satisfying to see big smiles on children’s faces as they leave the office carrying dolls, toys, and books, and to see parents so thankful to have a winter coat for their child. Recently, one of our Rhode Island College interns gave us a very large donation. It included toys, books, clothing, and a young girl’s comforter set with sheets and matching curtains. A customer was in the waiting room when the intern placed the items in the Cozy Closet. The parent immediately asked if she could have the entire set and was delighted that she could finally decorate her little girl’s room.
I am very proud that the RI child support staff continually go above and beyond their traditional duties to assist families. We are one of the few state agencies that have a unique opportunity to interact with both parents on child support issues and help families in other meaningful ways. We perform simple but beneficial actions that cost nothing and require minimal staff resources. It is extremely rewarding for us, and I believe it goes a long way in changing the public’s perspectives of the child support agency.
For more information on her state’s outreach activities, contact Sharon Santilli at email@example.com. Sharon has been the child support director in Rhode Island since 2004 after serving as chief legal counsel for 16 years. She was president of the National Child Support Enforcement Association in 2008 and president of the National Council of Child Support Directors in 2015.