Family & Children’s Counseling Services seeks federal funds amid ‘epidemic’ of mental health and substance use concerns

(Photo Source: Kevin L. Smith/Cortland Voice).

Cortland County’s Family and Children’s Counseling Services submitted an application to receive federal funds through the county’s American Rescue Plan allocation, which would help shore up staffing concerns at a time when state funding has become competitive. 

Family and Children’s Counseling Services executive director Lisa Hoeschele told members of the Federal Aid Allocation Citizen’s Advisory Committee Tuesday, the request for $100,000 in funding would help stabilize the organization’s budget for the next year, as well as do significant work when it comes to retaining and attracting highly credentialed staff.

The funding would help pay in part for in-school support clinics, children’s services, and other substance use disorder-related programs, Hoeschele said.

For local organizations that deal with mental health and substance use disorder counseling, Hoeschele noted, securing funding has become more dedicated toward applying for competitive grants.

“Oftentimes, when we apply for grant funding, funders aren't comfortable funding staff and operations, and that is a shame because in our business those are the people who do the work,” she said. “Without highly qualified and highly credentialed staff, the services we provide cannot continue in our community.”

Hoeschele said factors such as a lower salary compared to other areas in the region make it difficult to attract and retain staff. Currently, the starting rate for an employee working in mental health counseling at Cortland County’s Family and Children’s Counseling Services is approximately $48,000. Hoeschel also added state accreditation agencies require staff to attain complex higher education qualifications, including masters-level degrees.

“These are very challenging positions,” Hoeschele added. “Our retention rate is a challenge. People are being paid more elsewhere and we just can’t compete.”

Hoeschele noted that, although the organization’s retention rate in Cortland County has improved over the years, it is still below the 45 percent retention rate for mental health counseling employees across the state. She also indicated that salaries for mental health and addiction counseling staff elsewhere in the county is somewhere around $56,000-$58,000 a year. 

“(A lack of continuity among staff) contributes to a decline in treatment progression for our children,” Hoeschele said.

The organization has grown in the last 10 years. While the bulk of their staff is in Cortland County, Family and Children’s Counseling Services operates in five other neighboring counties. 

“The bulk of our staff is here and we feel we are an economic driver in the downtown area in particular when it comes to being able to add services, support and staff as they come through our community,” Hoeschele said.

The number of people in Cortland who require the organization’s counseling services has also continued to rise.

“We have seen a significant need in mental health needs especially for children and especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hoeschele said. “The fact that these rising needs are pushed by COVID does not negate the fact that the rise in mental health concerns is a long term issue when it comes to trying to provide and grow services.”

Hoeschele noted that in 2010, the agency had an operating budget of $2 million and had 30 employees. Now, she said, the organization has a $20 million budget and has 150 to 200 employees. 

“It speaks not to the fact that we are looking for opportunities to continue to provide services any way we can, but it speaks to the fact that there is an absolute pandemic when it comes to depression, trauma, mental illness and addiction concerns,” she said.