NEWARK, NJ — The Essex County Division of Welfare was renamed as the Essex County Division of Family Assistance and Benefits on Thursday, May 19. In addition, County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. outlined a number of ongoing initiatives — including an expanded waiting area, call center and interactive kiosks — that will enhance customer service and streamline the delivery of services.
“Approximately one in five Essex County residents receives some sort of assistance from the Division of Family Assistance and Benefits. The division provides vital support that helps sustain families during difficult times, keeps residents in their homes and assists the elderly and frail. Our division’s new name better reflects this broad range of services that touch people of all ages and backgrounds,” DiVincenzo said in the release. “Our customer service initiatives are examples of our continuing efforts to provide customer-friendly accommodations and service to our clients.”
“What’s important is that the delivery of service to our clients is the best that it can be,” Freeholder Cynthia Toro said in the release. “This space has been completely transformed and, through a variety of ongoing initiatives, red tape is being eliminated. It’s encouraging to see so many positive changes taking place.”
“Today we are announcing that the Division of Welfare is being renamed as the Division of Family Assistance and Benefits. But today is also about the investments we have been making to improve service and enhance accommodations for clients,” Essex County Citizen Services Director Anibal Ramos said in the release.
“The Division of Family Assistance and Benefits is more representative of the menu of services and support we provide to residents who are going through difficult times. Our division provides the first step to help clients obtain economic, health and nutritional assistance,” Family Assistance and Benefits Director Jeanette Page-Hawkins said in the release. “These changes are designed to benefit our clients and provide them with a positive experience when interacting with our office.”
The decision to rename the division was made because a large majority of clients do not receive “welfare” benefits. Over the past year, from March 2015 to March 2016, the number of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families participants has declined 5.3 percent and General Assistance participants has declined by 48 percent. Meanwhile, participation in non-cash assistance programs has increased dramatically. Adult Medicaid participation increased 2.7 percent to 12,065 from 11,748 and Family Care Medicaid participation increased almost 24 percent to 46,735 from 37,751. The number of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, participants has been steady at a count of 60,380. Page-Hawkins also pointed out that Essex County has improved its SNAP timeliness rating to 96 percent, up from 83 percent a year ago.
Renaming the division coincides with the completion of a capital improvement project to enlarge and modernize the main client waiting room on the first floor of the division’s offices at 18 Rector St. in Newark. Offices on the first floor were relocated to other parts of the building to free up space on the first floor and enable the waiting room to be doubled in size. In addition, a second magnetometer was installed at the entrance to enable clients to be screened more quickly upon entering the building. The additional capacity and second security station are geared to eliminate any lines from forming outside the building.
Computer stations — or kiosks — have been installed in the first floor waiting area and on the second, fourth and fifth floors to provide clients with access to www.njhelps.org, a state website that provides information to clients to help them determine from which assistance programs they are eligible to receive benefits. Clients also can complete applications online for SNAP. It is anticipated that congestion at intake windows can be reduced by providing information at the kiosks.
Another initiative to reduce client wait times being used by the division is a centralized call center. Clients can call 973-395-8000 and speak to Family Service workers about their case files and have questions answered. The call center opened in July 2014 and has received a total of 315,906 calls through early May 2016. There are between 1,000 and 1,500 calls received daily. The center staff is equipped to respond to clients in three different languages — English, Spanish and French.
After the press conference Miles Berger of the Berger Organization, the owner of the building at 18 Rector St., joined the county executive in unveiling a mural on the first floor of the building. Painted by Newark artist Umberto Matos, the mural depicts scenes of the cherry blossom trees in Essex County Branch Brook Park, the Seated Lincoln and the Historic Essex County Courthouse, swan paddle boats and the train ride at Turtle Back Zoo.