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Bringing a whole new view to the hill

Dennis Richardson:
Bringing a whole new view to the hill

When Dennis Richardson’s predecessor arrived at Hillside Children’s Center in 1969, he was able to tour all of the agency’s facilities by the end of his first morning on the job.
When Richardson stepped into the president and CEO’s shoes a little more than a year ago, he, too, took that tour. But he was still touring early this year.
Founded on Hubbel Park in Corn Hill in 1837 as the Rochester Female Association for the Relief of Orphans and Destitute Children, Hillside Children’s Center has grown not only in size but in scope. What began as a children’s alternative to the almshouse has metamorphosed into a nationally respected agency whose 44 programs–covering group housing, emergency shelter, special education, foster care, day treatment, adoption services, and preventive and outreach family-support programs–are the most diverse of any such organization in the Northeast.
A devastating fire at the turn of the century prompted Hillside’s move to its current spot atop Pinnacle Hill, where institution superintendents drew upon the British cottage concept in building a new home for Rochester’s orphaned children. Since then, Hillside has evolved through the different philosophies of housing and educating these children, eventually moving beyond foster care and adoption to aiding in a broad range of emotional and mental-health problems–not just for children, but for children in the context of family.
With a budget of more than $38 million (all but $1.2 million funded by the state), a staff of 1,075 and a volunteer base approaching 350, Hillside serves some 12,000 children and their families each year.
Now, under Richardson’s tutelage, Hillside is preparing to embark on yet another dramatic transformation.
A $6 million school building completed in 1993 and the recent gift of an adjacent 28 acres of forested recreation land set the stage for a planned multimillion-dollar face-lift of the six original cottages. But these physical changes do not tell the whole story.
Hillside’s charge over the next two years is to turn itself from a provider of nearly four dozen sometimes disconnected services into the hub of a comprehensive, integrated service-delivery system for families and children. The latest buzzword in all manner of health care and human services, integration is looked upon as a buffer against the challenges and potential ills of competition and managed care.
As the family-welfare industry as a whole sees fewer referrals for on-site treatment, some agencies will try to expand their geographic base. The organization positioned to maximize change will be the one that escapes oblivion.
“We decided we couldn’t tweak services,” Richardson says. “We had to transform them.”
That means, for instance, that programs now administered as separate services with different caseworkers, criteria, processes and funding sources will be managed as a continuum. One caseworker will be assigned throughout a child’s or family’s affiliation with Hillside.
And many services now provided on the hill or in the two dozen other sites spread throughout Rochester and the state likely can be delivered–in cooperation with other agencies–out in the community, closer to clients’ homes.
“I think we will see a greater volume of children passing through,” Richardson says, “but for a shorter period of time.”
A large part of the plan’s success depends on funding and policy changes at the state level, including a move away from per-diem, program-specific payments and toward lump-sum, capitated rates that would allow Hillside to distribute money where it sees fit.
Lobbying is heavy on the issue. And Richardson believes that the next several years could bring great change via increased county oversight of state-disbursed block grants; more flexibility for counties to mix money across services and to set up managed-care systems; and the merging of various state child-welfare departments into one entity.
The latter change in particular–which Richardson says is “not even in its infancy–it’s prenatal”–would eliminate a major headache for Hillside and its brethren: the tangle of dealing with multiple funding and policy provisions dictated by the route through which a child is referred to services.
Right now, for instance, cases referred through the state Office of Mental Health yield higher reimbursements than do those channeled through the state Department of Social Services.
Also crucial to the success of the transformation is an openness to constant learning, a concept modeled on the learning-organization theory promulgated by Peter Senge and the Center for Organizational Learning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ford Motor Co. and Motorola Inc. have adopted the approach, but Hillside believes it is the first to use it in a human-service setting.
The idea for the transformation now under way at Hillside preceded Richardson. But, says search committee chairwoman Ann Hayslip, this New York City native put the plan into high gear.
“We as board members had the vague feeling that Hillside needed to (take) some grand steps forward, particularly in terms of being connected with the community at large, as well as being part of a broad advocacy network for child and family welfare,” she says. “Dennis turned it into action. He redesigned (the idea) to lead us in that direction.”
Richardson puts a decidedly more modest spin on the course of events, emphasizing that the process has been a team effort in the truest sense: Early in his tenure, a team of representatives fanned throughout the Hillside community, gathering input.
Now, Hillside’s Redesign Team is exploring the methods and structures necessary to reach that vision. A blueprint for implementation is expected by December, with completion hoped for by March 1997.
But while Hillside is leading the push, it does not necessarily intend to lead each venture along the way. Richardson, drawing on the experience of businesses such as the Coca-Cola Co., recognizes that collaboration typically is more effective than co-optation.
“Wherever (Coca-Cola) went, it had to have a 51 percent share. But they found it wasn’t as successful in Third World countries as it had been elsewhere, and they realized that was because it was a market they were not familiar with,” he explains. “So, they let someone else be the dominant partner in those markets.
“We will let the experts be dominant in the relationships where they can do the best job.”
Similar thinking brought Richardson to Hillside from the Children’s Study Home in Springfield, Mass. Happily ensconced with his wife, Kathy, their three children and a view of the mountains, Richardson did not so much seek the post as be drawn to it.
Hayslip, vice president for counseling services at Career Development Services Inc., recalls that Richardson, 41, stood out as being “an exceptional match.” The product of an intensive, yearlong national search, he was chosen because he indeed seemed the expert who would lead Hillside to its new identity.
One of eight children born to religious, community-centered parents, Richardson grew up in New York City and New Jersey. He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology, but eventually decided the environmental nature of social work was a better fit. His master’s degree from Columbia University School of Social Work in 1981 helped him pursue increasingly responsible roles at a variety of institutions in the Northeast.
Attracted by Hillside’s national reputation and values he saw as consistent with his own, Richardson viewed the move as an opportunity to pursue his vision of what a child- and family-welfare organization should be like.
“One of the biggest changes (in child welfare) is recognizing that when you serve children unto themselves, you’re really doing a disservice to them,” Richardson says. “We decided that what we really want to do is build healthy families. … We also realized that the best thing to do was not to take kids out of families unless their safety is at issue.”
Each era brings new challenges for the center on the hill. War, rampant child labor, and apathy about child abuse and neglect fed its earliest efforts. Drugs, violence and a fraying social fabric are the breaking points of today. The need, Richardson observes, is always there. Only catalysts and circumstances change.
He tells of a 3-year-old found wandering the streets in the early morning hours who, upon being brought to the center’s emergency shelter, tugged at even the toughest heartstrings. Then there is the good kid who started dressing like a hood because he thought it would protect him from violence at school. And there is the eerie way children not even old enough to drive talk about life with short-term perspective.
Scenarios such as these tell Richardson there still is much work to be done–and how vitally important it is that government funding not be cut, that private donations increase and that enough money be available to fairly compensate the frontline staffers.
And now he, the gentle-mannered advocate who favors time with family, and books about Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt over more material pastimes, has been pegged as the person to guide Hillside through these and other coming challenges.
“Dennis is a visionary, but he couples that with the ability to implement change, to get people working together in a positive way,” Hayslip says. “And you don’t always find those two together.”


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