A dramatic shakeup Wednesday at Erie County’s Child Protective Services is an attempt to ensure that two tragedies of the past 19 months are not repeated and to hold accountable people charged with protecting the welfare of children.
Following the beating deaths of two boys under the eye of the county agency that is supposed to protect abused and neglected children, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz’s administration fired two caseworkers and disciplined their supervisors.
In the two cases, different caseworkers had been warned that the boys faced danger from the men who eventually were accused of killing them.
“It’s sad that there are children beaten to death in our community, and we need to do everything possible to prevent that from occurring,” Poloncarz said while outlining steps that he says will increase accountability.
In Eain’s case, several relatives pleaded with caseworkers to remove him from the home.
In Abdi’s case, the child himself called 911 twice in one day to say he was being abused and that “it was a matter of life and death.”
People who work in the county Department of Social Services and others familiar with CPS operations all agreed that the disciplinary steps imposed by Social Services Commissioner Carol Dankert-Maurer were extremely unusual, given the number of people taken to task and the fact that the results were made public.
Dankert-Maurer fired two CPS caseworkers for mishandling child abuse complaints against Matthew Kuzdzal, the 26-year-old former live-in boyfriend of Nora Brooks, mother of Eain.
She also suspended the two supervisors of the caseworkers without pay.
In addition, two top administrators are swapping jobs. Robert Deisz, the administrative director of CPS, has been moved from that post to administrative director of Children’s Services in Erie County Social Services, and Roberta Farkas-Huezo, who had served as head of Children’s Services, is now in charge of CPS.
“We are doing this not as an indictment of Mr. Deisz, as he had no supervisory role in the Brooks case. However, we felt it was necessary for a fresh set of eyes to review the practices of Child Protective Services,” Poloncarz said.
Farkas-Huezo is a former child protective services caseworker, Poloncarz said in explaining why she is qualified to conduct a review.
“I don’t want this action to be perceived as an indictment against Child Protective Services workers,” the county executive said. “There are many, many very experienced, diligent workers in the division who spend their days protecting children. It is an exceptionally high-pressure position, and there are some employees who have been there for decades. What I want people to understand is that the actions taken this week by my administration are just the first steps we’ll be taking to strengthen Child Protective Services throughout the county.”
Those actions include the filling of two newly created posts approved by the County Legislature, first deputy commissioner of Social Services and second deputy commissioner, with one of the deputies overseeing services involving children and the other overseeing the different benefit programs for indigent individuals, the county executive said.
Poloncarz said it was unreasonable to expect that Dankert-Maurer alone could have a handle on all facets of Social Services with its multiple programs, divisions and 1,500 employees, whose ranks include funding for 102 CPS caseworkers.
There are at present 88 CPS workers and 14 vacancies, which include six newly created CPS jobs. All of the openings are in the process of being filled, according to Peter Anderson, press secretary to Poloncarz.
Sources in Social Services said that the disciplined and fired CPS workers are being made scapegoats for a system that lacks leadership and has resulted in hazards to children over the years.
“The people responsible are the leaders who should be fired. They have no clue on how Child Protective Services works,” a county Social Services worker said on condition of anonymity. “We are all expecting the caseworkers to get their jobs back. The caseworkers have been thrown out as sacrificial lambs. The problem is the leadership.”
Denise Szymura, president of Local 815 of the Civil Service Employees Association, which represents the CPS workers, offered a strong defense on their behalf.
“Our prayers go out to the family of Eain Clayton Brooks. His tragic death may have been prevented, if staffing levels in the Child Protective Services Department had not been cut to the current levels. It is a shame that all the blame has been placed on two caseworkers and their supervisors, and not on the commissioner and department administrators.
“Former County Executive Chris Collins cut away at the Department of Social Services, and his commissioner assisted in dismantling the department. Now, the front-line workers are left taking the blame. For years, caseworkers’ vacancies have not been filled.
“Their case loads are excessively large, and the employees are overworked. Nothing can bring this young boy back, but the county must do what is right to ensure proper staffing and re-evaluate the process, so nothing like this ever happens again. CSEA will be reviewing the case to determine the next appropriate step.”
Dankert-Maurer’s actions followed a review that started after Eain was taken off life support Sept. 17 and died, two days after a beating in the West Side apartment he shared with his mother and Kuzdzal.
Kuzdzal has been charged with second-degree murder.
In Abdi’s case, his stepfather, Ali-Mohamed Mohamud, is serving 25 years to life in prison on a second-degree murder conviction.
Eain’s loved ones said they had filed repeated complaints with the New York State Central Register telephone hotline for child abuse in Albany, informing workers that the boy was being physically harmed by Kuzdzal, in the months prior to his death. Kuzdzal and Brooks had lived together about 10 months after meeting last Thanksgiving.
The family members also said they made direct calls to local CPS workers and spoke with them in person, demanding that the boy be removed from the home.
Investigations conducted by CPS workers had cleared Kuzdzal of injuring the boy, according to letters obtained by The News that were issued by the state’s Office of Children & Family Services, which had based its information on the county workers’ findings.
Eain’s maternal grandmother, Robin Hart, said, “I can’t explain how happy I am. It is a start, it is a start. They lost their jobs, but they still need to answer for it in my eyes. ... I’m waiting for an apology or remorse. It won’t bring Eain back, but it’s the point of it. Stand up and admit you did wrong.”
A foundation named Eain’s Echo has been started by his family members, who have scheduled a child abuse “awareness walk” for noon to 3 p.m. Oct. 20 at Delaware Park. There is a registration fee of $5 that relatives say will be used entirely for promoting steps to fight child abuse.