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Hamilton County's new JFS director talks priorities: workforce, fathers, equity

Michael Patton is Director of Hamilton County Job and Family Services
Hamilton County Job and Family Services
Michael Patton is Director of Hamilton County Job and Family Services

Michael Patton has worked for Hamilton County Job and Family Services for nearly 30 years. Last month, he was named the agency director. He's the first African American to hold that role and credits previous department leaders who helped inspire and teach him. Patton says he hopes to foster the same kind of mentoring for others.

WVXU's Maryanne Zeleznik spoke with Patton about his many years of service and his plans for the future of the department.

So happy to have you talking with me today. It's not often that people work for the same organization for such a long time. Why did you stay with the agency all these years?

You know, when I got out of college, I was looking for something that I felt was important work and had an opportunity to get a job early as a caseworker at Job and Family Services right out of college and just really enjoyed the mission and the purpose of the organization and working to help the citizens of Hamilton County that were in most need. So I stuck around and then had some opportunities to advance during that time and was really happy with that decision and made a career out of it.

You had a long time to observe things that go on in the agency and how things work. As you take this new position, what are your goals? What do you want to do over the next several years?

Well, I'll tell you, the immediate goal for us and for me, in particular, is really addressing some of the workforce challenges that we have right now across the board within the organization. So we're making some efforts to really identify areas where we have vacancies that need to be filled. The important work can't be done without people in those roles. And so we're targeting some specific areas for pay differential increases in child welfare and also in our income maintenance divisions to make sure that we're competitive and we're retaining and encouraging new talented applicants to apply for positions there. So in the immediate future, that is really what we're working on and what I'm working on, in particular, because we want to make sure we have the right people in the right positions to do this important work.

Do you find that it's been harder during the pandemic? Has that presented new challenges?

Well, I think what we've learned is that a lot of the work that we do can be done in a remote setting. And so we've had some successes with respect to being flexible with our workforce and their ability to work from home and do good work from home. But certainly the challenges there are isolation for the workforce — isolation in terms of meeting with staff and being able to discuss issues and problems that they might face, as it relates to casework or matters that we are working on a day-to-day basis. So those have been some challenges that we faced as a result of the pandemic, as well, that we're continuing to work through and try to balance that work-from-home versus in-office work and how we can make sure we're doing the best work for the community that we can in that in that environment.

One of the things that came out as you got this job was that one of your great passions is working with fathers. Talk about that. Why is that so passionate for you?

Well, you know, we have — over the years of my experience at JFS — a lot of the work that we do and the mandates, quite frankly, that we have talk about working with children and families and in most case in our work, we're working with moms and children. And so throughout my career, it was very obvious to me that fathers were a huge part of a family. And we wanted to make sure that through the Fatherhood Collaborative of Hamilton County, we brought together organizations and individuals who work with fathers in some capacity in their work to discuss and talk about what we can do as a network of providers in organizations to support fathers, and learn about their needs and aspirations. And think about research and policy that might impact their ability to really be a positive impact on their family. So I'm happy that we continue that work, and I want to continue that work going forward as well.

You talked about wanting to also make the agency more equitable and inclusive. What work is being done in that regard?

We've worked with an organization locally for the last couple of years to help us understand what it means to be an equitable organization; to understand that through all levels of leadership, we need to be paying attention to the people that are in those roles; making sure that we're looking at equitable hiring policies and practices; making sure that we make decisions throughout the organization that take into account the unique aspects of human beings that come to work. So it's not just race, it's not just you know, age and gender, but disability, and across the board. So we're talking a lot these days about prioritizing how we can implement and embed equitable practices in our organization to make sure that we make good decisions. And I believe personally that if we are equitable and we are diverse, we make better decisions as an organization and we serve the public better because we have different perspectives that we can lean on and tap into as we do this work.

Well, we wish you luck in your new position.

Well, thank you. I appreciate the call. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak today.

Maryanne Zeleznik is responsible for all news and public affairs programming at WVXU. She also hosts Morning Edition Monday through Friday.