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Giles hopes to boost services to troubled teens

Jeremy Lazarus | 5/12/2015, 7:59 a.m.
Shunda T. Giles has been preparing for her transition from lawyer for the Richmond Department of Social Services to its ...
Shunda T. Giles, the new director of the Richmond Department of Social Services, exchanges a fist bump Monday with her predecessor, David M. Hicks. Mr. Hicks becomes a Richmond General District Court judge on July 1.

Shunda T. Giles has been preparing for her transition from lawyer for the Richmond Department of Social Services to its top manager.

On Monday, the 41-year-old attorney took over the leadership role of the department of more than 400 staffers and a $74.5 million annual budget, all aimed at strengthening families and providing services to meet essential human needs.

The graduate of Varina High School who earned her law degree from the University of Richmond said she surprised herself in finding she enjoys the management side.

She said one area she hopes to upgrade involves the department’s services to troubled and delinquent teens.

David M. Hicks believes she will do a great job, with her legal experience and association with the department standing her in good stead.

“We’re not yet at the place we want to be,” said Mr. Hicks, who has led the department for the last 15 months while also serving as senior policy adviser to Mayor Dwight C. Jones. He turned over the reins to Ms. Giles as he be- comes a judge in Richmond General District Court on July 1.

Mr. Hicks said he recommended that the mayor appoint Ms. Giles as his successor “be- cause I believe she can take this department to the next level.”

In the course of a year, the Social Services staff touches the lives of more than 86,000

city residents, or 40 percent of Richmond’s population.

The agency is involved in everything from helping the hungry to get food stamps to protecting children and the elderly from abuse to assisting poor people to get health care through Medicaid.

“Pretty much anything that involves people, we deal with,” Mr. Hicks said.

A former Richmond commonwealth’s attorney, the 55-year-old Mr. Hicks was brought in to stabilize and turn around a department that had been struggling for several years. The agency had faced allegations that it was failing to protect children.

In addition, the department was failing to meet state benchmarks in handling applications for aid.

His efforts at change apparently have worked. State data for the past 12 months indicate the department is now generally meeting or exceed- ing the benchmarks in serving foster children and reviewing applications for aid.

The department generates more than $550 million a year in federal and state aid for the people it serves. About $386 million, or 70 percent, involves Medicaid payments for health services, and $92 million, or 16 percent, involves food stamp benefits.

Ms. Giles, who served as a senior assistant city attorney, had been a part of Mr. Hicks’ leadership team.

The two began working together in 2012 when Mayor Jones put Mr. Hicks in charge temporarily of another troubled city agency, the Department of Justice Services. His appointment came amid a furor over failure to properly operate the city’s Juvenile Detention Center and other programs.

Mr. Hicks said that Ms. Giles, who also represented that agency, was among the people who helped him lead the agency’s turnaround and reopening of the detention center.

She provided sound legal advice and sensible counsel, he said, and he began considering her

then for management positions. Before now, she was not interested.

Ms. Giles, who earned her undergraduate degree from James Madison University, has been engaged in city legal matters since law school. She did an internship in the City Attorney’s Office while studying for her law degree and later joined the city’s legal office after graduating in 1999 and passing the state bar exam.

She is the granddaughter of the late Rev. B.S. Giles Sr. of First Union Baptist Church in Mechanicsville.