In the wake of the horrific deaths of two children, a number of witnesses Thursday told a State Assembly panel about other children they said were beaten and abused and how Erie County Child Protective Services failed to take action.
• A mother telling of how her ex-husband made home movies of their son and another boy play-acting scenes in which the son was shot in the head with a toy gun and the father then posted the videos on YouTube.
The grandmother of the same boy testified that on several occasions, when her grandson returned home from visits with his movie-making father, the child had black eyes, a swollen lip and black-and-blue marks on his leg. CPS, the grandmother said, called the injuries accidents.
• An adoptive mother of a developmentally disabled 10-year-old said the county is punishing her by attempting to terminate her parental rights because she contradicted a decision that her son was stable enough to leave a residential treatment facility.
• Robin Hart, the maternal grandmother of one of the two slain boys, testified that there are strong protections for adult couples when one is accused of assaulting the other. Police, she said, are required by law to remove the offending spouse. But the same automatic protection is not in place for a child who is “marked up” in an alleged assault by a parent or caretaker.
Following the slayings of two children — Hart’s 5-year-old grandson and a 10-year-old boy — in the last year and a half, Assembly members came to Buffalo City Hall to find the holes in the CPS system and develop laws to try to prevent other children from dying at the hands of abusers. Other counties across the state, they said, are likely to have some of the same problems as Erie County.
Eain Clayton Brooks, Hart’s grandson, was beaten to death Sept. 15, allegedly by his mother’s boyfriend, Matthew W. Kuzdzal, 26. Kuzdzal also is accused of sexually assaulting the boy.
Abdifatah Mohamud died at the hands of his stepfather in April 2012, when Ali-Mohamed Mohamud struck the child more than 70 times on the head with a baker’s rolling pin in the family’s East Side home.
In both cases, CPS had prior involvement.
Laura Velez, the deputy commissioner of child welfare and community services for the state Office of Children and Family Services, started Thursday’s testimony by saying reviews by the state conducted after each boy was killed revealed systemic problems in how CPS workers handled child abuse investigations.
Of 110 cases randomly reviewed by her office after Abdifatah was murdered, the state found that county caseworkers frequently closed cases in less than half the 60 days allowed by law to complete an investigation.
The state office also determined many families ended up being repeatedly “re-reported” to the state’s child abuse hotline.
After Eain’s death, Velez said the Office of Children and Family Services conducted an “unprecedented” investigation, reviewing more than 900 open child abuse and neglect cases in the county. It found insufficient documentation of whether a proper safety assessment had been conducted in about 200 of the cases.
The county was given 48 hours to produce additional documentation or provide services to ensure the child’s safety, Velez said, adding that the state will be issuing two separate reports on findings from its review of the 900 cases.
“The deaths of these two young children have raised troubling questions about Erie County’s case practice,” Velez said. “Certainly, there are strengths in Erie County Child Protective Services. However, there are systemic issues that must be addressed. Necessary system improvements must be both short-term and visible, and long-term and sustainable. They require leadership, accountability and support for Erie County Department of Social Services and its workforce. OCFS is prepared to both support Erie County and hold them accountable in these efforts.”
What became clear early on at the hearing was the high numbers of cases statewide and locally that child protective workers handle.
About 320,000 telephone calls are made annually to the state’s central hotline for child abuse and about 160,000 are determined to have enough merit to be forwarded to local CPS workers for investigation. Erie County last year received about 12,000 child abuse and neglect complaints.
After questions regarding staffing and caseloads posed by Assemblyman Sean D. Ryan, D-Buffalo, Velez said the recommended number of open cases a caseworker should have under best practices is 12.
But Erie County Social Services Commissioner Carol Dankert-Maurer testified that 60 percent of her 102 caseworkers have between 16 and 25 open cases. Forty-three other counties, she added, have caseworkers who have more than 15 open cases.
Close scrutiny by OCFS, Dankert-Maurer said, has caused local caseworkers to take additional time investigating their cases to make sure all aspects of the allegations are reviewed. In the past, she said, caseworkers acted quickly to close cases as a means of managing the size of their caseload. Many cases can be closed in 30 days, she said.
But now, she said, “they are second-guessing themselves.”
The commissioner also said a state computer system, “Connections,” is cumbersome when it comes to retrieving information on a family’s case history.
“The labor-intensive process recently required a seasoned CPS supervisor to spend eight hours piecing together across many records and many screens all the history… for a typical, complex Erie County family,” Dankert-Maurer said.
Lawmakers, though, had their own questions about long delays when it came to filling six newly created CPS caseworker positions after the commissioner testified that last March, months before Eain was killed, she had decided the new positions were needed.
State Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, repeatedly asked Dankert-Maurer why it took several months to make the hires.
Dankert-Maurer explained that she asked her staff to put together a hiring proposal despite the fact that staff members told her they felt caseloads were manageable. Once the proposal was formalized, she said, she went to the county executive’s staff, which reviewed and supported it.
But Kennedy asked why an emergency session of the Erie County Legislature was not requested last summer to approve the hires, which were not made until September.
“Do you believe having a special session would have helped?” Kennedy asked. “Would there have been a different outcome with Eain Brooks?”
Dankert-Maurer said, “I’m not answering that.”
Kennedy continued to press her on the slow hiring process.
“Would the department have functioned better?” Kennedy asked.
She conceded that the department would have been better off with “six additional folks.”
Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns, D-Buffalo, said someone needed to held responsible for the deaths of the two young boys. “Who is responsible?” he asked.
Dankert-Maurer said, “Ultimately, it is my responsibility.”
She pointed out that while most CPS staff is professional and dedicated, some caseworkers are not suited for the work and that efforts are under way to transfer or fire some workers. Two caseworkers were fired after Eain was killed.Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, urged more of a role for Erie County Family Court to help determine if children are safe in a home. She said she realized Family Court already is overloaded with cases, but that there could be a benefit in having an outside entity take a look at the cases to decide earlier if a child should be removed.
Peoples-Stokes also recommended increased training of caseworkers to spot mental health issues, explaining that people who harm children are likely to be mentally troubled. Velez agreed with the assemblywoman.
Robin Hart and Carolyn Spring-Baker, the paternal great-grandmother of Eain, urged lawmakers to require caseworkers to make collective decisions on whether a child should be removed from the home. Dankert-Maurer testified that the standard practice for caseworkers is to review their findings with their supervisors.
Peoples-Stokes latched onto that point and said it made it even more disturbing that if that occurred, two children still ended up dead.
Some of the most compelling testimony came from parents sharing their experiences with CPS.
Karen Healy, the adoptive mother of 10-year-old Kavant, said that when she disagreed with a decision that her son, who is diagnosed with mental disorders, was well enough to leave a treatment facility, the county sought retribution and began a petition to remove her parental rights.
Her son has since been placed in five different foster homes and is now hospitalized for psychological treatment. The county’s heavy-handed approach, Healy said, has caused more problems for her son. “He called me on the phone recently, crying, ‘Mom, help me,’ ” Healy said.
Dr. Lori Ullman, a dermatologist, testified that her 9-year-old son Jack is in two internet YouTube videos that depict extreme violence. In each of them, the boy is shot in the head with a toy gun by another child. She said her ex-husband made the videos. Lynn Ullman, the doctor’s mother, testified that on several occasions after Jack returned home from visits with his father, he had bruises.
“The caseworker told me there was an investigation in progress and then said it was an accident, case closed. I said ‘an accident? It would be an accident if it had happened once,’ ” Lynn Ullman said.
Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, D-Binghamton, chair of the Children and Families Committee; and Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi, D-Forest Hills, chair of the Oversight, Analysis and Investigation Committee, who conducted the hearing, assured parents their comments would be thoroughly considered as steps are taken to improve laws protecting children.