Toman works to make a difference|New DSS director wishes to assist residents in need

Published 9:58 am Friday, July 31, 2009

Since moving to Beaufort County to serve as director of the Beaufort County Department of Social Services, Sonya A. Toman has seen the effects of the economic downturn on the lives of people throughout the county.
She hopes the department can join with other organizations in the community to help people pull through these tough economic times.
“We can’t do it without the community’s support,” she said.
“We’re having more and more people come to our door all the time,” she said. “And we hope to partner with others in the community to help people through the crisis so they can stay self-sufficient.”
Toman began working as the department’s new director in June.
She succeeds James P. Harriett, who was dismissed from his position in November 2008 after serving in that post since early 1994.
Toman oversees the day-to-day operations of one of the county’s largest agencies, one with a staff of about 111 employees and a budget in recent years of some $91 million in federal, state and county funds.
In her new position, Toman will receive a salary of $76,434 a year, according to Jim Chrisman, assistant county manager and the county’s finance officer.
DSS provides an array of services to county residents — including child-protective, senior and a variety of public-assistance services, with the goal of helping those it serves meet basic needs while working toward self-sufficiency.
Reaching self-sufficiency has become more difficult for many people in recent months, Toman said, as reflected in department statistics: Applications for food and nutrition services were up more than 16 percent in June over the same month last year; Work First employment-services cases are up 25 percent, among others.
Like many social workers, Toman, 54, said she was drawn to the profession by the chance to make a difference.
“Social work is a calling and a profession. It’s not just a job it’s a commitment,” Toman said. “If you can make a difference in a few families’ lives, it’s worth it.”
An eastern North Carolina native, Toman grew up in Robeson County.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology with a concentration in social work from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, graduating with honors in 1972. She also earned a master’s degree in social work with a specialization in family and child services from East Carolina University in 1997.
Toman has a variety of social-work experience including more than 19 years of supervisory and management experience in child-welfare services and managing a team that oversaw more than 100 child abuse-prevention programs across North Carolina.
She began her career as a social worker in Robeson County, where she worked from 1976 to 1980, handling a variety of services. She joined the staff of the Cumberland County Department of Social Services in 1980 and stayed with that agency for 18 years. She first served as a social worker III in Cumberland County and then as a social-work supervisor III overseeing a child-welfare unit with 11 employees before being promoted to the post of social-work program manager, overseeing a section with more than 60 employees.
In 1998, Toman joined the N.C. Division of Social Services in Raleigh as a program manager and oversaw North Carolina’s federally funded Safe and Stable Families Program as well as other state and federally funded child abuse-prevention programs. While there, she joined with a state university to develop a plan for improved training for community-based programs, among other activities.
In 2002, Toman returned to Cumberland County and served as assistant director for child-welfare services with the Cumberland County DSS.
Toman left North Carolina in 2003 to accept a post with the Arizona Department of Economic Security in Yuma, Ariz., as program manager for the Division of Children, Youth and Families in a district that ranged from the Mexican border to Utah.
“I thought it was an opportunity to do something different professionally,” she said of the move.
While there, she discovered that she enjoyed working in a more rural setting and, when she had the chance to return to eastern North Carolina, she was happy to take it.
During the coming months, Toman hopes the agency can recruit more families to provide foster homes for the 65 Beaufort County children who are in foster care.
Currently, the department has homes in Beaufort County for only 43 percent of those children. Most local children in foster care have to be placed outside of the county, she said.
“It’s not just about the right thing to do, being in family foster homes is the most cost effective thing to do to help these children,” she said. “But we can’t get that done without the community involvement.”
The department also plans to emphasize adult services and, with the help of the community, work toward filling gaps in services available to them.
And the department hopes to improve its efforts to inform the public on services that are available and work to ensure that those who do ask for services are treated fairly.“It’s not an easy thing to ask for help,” she said. “And we want those who do to see us in a more positive light.”
Toman said that since moving to Beaufort County, she has enjoyed gardening and, after spending several years in the desert, she loves looking at the water in Pungo Creek near her home.