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Al Dirschberger, PhD '09, MSW ‘99

Al Dirschberger

Al Dirschberger at his office in the Erie County Department of Social Services.

Mosaics, Fall 2015

Turning Evidence Into Policy: The Ultimate Best Practice

by Judson Mead

When Al Dirschberger (MSW ’99, PhD ’09) was confirmed as the new commissioner of the Erie County Department of Social Services in March 2015, he took office with three principal ideas about running the sprawling department: infuse their work with a solution-focused trauma-informed approach, establish evidence-based best practices as the guiding principle for department programs and make the department more community based.

To attack his first agenda item, Dirschberger contacted School of Social Work faculty members Sue Green and Denise Krause. He called his doctoral studies supervisor Barbara Rittner to discuss the second. And he established a schedule that, by his estimation, puts him in his large but Spartan corner office in the county government building in downtown Buffalo for about 15 percent of the workweek.

Dirschberger didn’t have long to put his plan together. The commissioner’s job fell on him from a clear sky when all of his attention was devoted to mastering his job as executive director of Journey’s End Refugee Services, which he’d started only three months before.

He’d come to Journey’s End after 28 years — his entire career — with Gateway Longview, a large Buffalo-area child and family service organization, starting when he was a college student as a time-out room aide who helped children struggling with mandatory summer school and eventually rising to the post of vice president for residential services.

While getting situated in the world of refugee settlement services, Dirschberger answered an invitation from the Erie County Executive to what he assumed would be a discussion of candidates for the county’s head social services job. Instead, he found himself the nominee. Now he manages 1,600 employees and a budget approaching $600 million.

Dirschberger spent his early years at Gateway Longview on the recreation staff and subsequently supervised a residential facility housing 13 children. A social worker associated with the unit invited him to participate in family counseling sessions, which inspired him to pursue an MSW at UB; he followed the community-macro track and earned his doctorate 10 years later.

In the course of his doctoral studies, Dirschberger became interested in how to affect change — in organizations, in people’s lives — through policy. Now, in a sense, that’s his job.

He knows that, when utilized by policymakers and practitioners, evidence from research can change practice. He knows that research has showed that children placed outside the home for more than 22 months were at risk for mental health problems, and, during the course of his studies, he learned of the scant correlation between what children learn in residential settings and the lives they lead back in the community.

He also knew, as a major provider of residential services, that in Erie County the average stay for a child in residential care was 14 to 16 months. So, synthesizing this bevy of evidence, he led a partnership between Gateway Longview and the Department of Social Services to tackle the problem of long stays, eventually shortening the average stay to four to six months.

The calls he made to the School of Social Work in March started an ongoing discussion about how to establish solution-focused trauma-informed practice in the department and how to make evidence-based practice the department’s guiding planning principle. Dirschberger says that in six months, he and the School will have a laid a foundation for realizing those goals.

Four months into a five-year term, he likens the learning curve to a rocket blasting off. He came into office knowing the child welfare and juvenile justice side of the department; he’s cramming on the department’s benefits and assistance and Medicaid administration roles.

He says the department has outstanding deputy and first commissioners and a “strong, confident executive team.” And he says that the only way for the department to be effective is to partner with the community. So you won’t find Al Dirschberger in a citadel — look for him out and about.