For the first time in years, good news is coming out of Erie County Child Protective Services. A state review of procedures has found that workers there are doing a notably better job of conducting child abuse and neglect investigations.
Those efforts will be bolstered with the county’s announcement that CPS investigators have been assigned to two hospitals to be available for immediate consultation in cases where there is suspicion of abuse or neglect.
It was a long time coming. At least two children have been killed in the past two years after Child Protective Services discounted reports of child abuse. In 2012, 10-year-old Abdifatah Mohamud was beaten to death by his stepfather. Abdifatah had called 911 seeking protection from Ali-Mohamed Mohamud, who is now serving 25 years to life in prison.
Just five months ago, 5-year-old Eain Clayton Brooks was also killed, allegedly by his mother’s live-in boyfriend in their Buffalo apartment. The boy’s family had repeatedly notified CPS about the child’s peril, but nothing was done. Matthew W. Kuzdzal has been charged with second-degree murder and sexual assault of the boy.
Against that grim backdrop, the state and the county acted. Following Eain’s death, the state examined approximately 1,000 open cases in Erie County and found disturbing lapses, among them that workers were performing only the minimum amount of work to investigate reports of abuse and neglect.
That appears to have changed. The state’s new report finds that the county is more thorough in its investigations, with workers going beyond the minimum and performing additional interviews and better documenting investigations.
The county has also stationed workers at Women & Children’s and Sisters hospitals, where, officials say, more suspicious cases appear than the other hospitals in the county, accounting for about 1,000 allegations of abuse and neglect each year. Kaleida and Catholic Health, operators of the two hospitals, will provide office space and equipment for the workers, who will work full time every weekday.
The expectation is that the proximity of CPS workers to health professionals will foster a collaborative relationship, and also allow for faster intervention when necessary.
In addition, the county has hired more child protection workers, improved its training and instituted greater oversight on the outcomes of cases.
Significant challenges remain. Even with the additional workers, greater oversight has led to individual caseloads more than triple the state recommended level of 15. That’s a prescription for tragic error.
The county is working to relieve that burden, by requiring managers to perform more direct work and by continuing to hire new staff, as the state has recommended. Eventually, the caseload is expected to shrink, but in the meantime, vigilance will be especially important.
As the state observed, the county will have to pay attention to ensure that recent improvements are not allowed to dissipate, but instead, become part of the agency’s culture. That kind of change doesn’t normally happen quickly.
Nevertheless, the turnaround at CPS is as gratifying as it is surprising. These improvements have been made in fewer than six months. That’s lightning fast for a bureaucracy, but given that, it makes you wonder why these problems couldn’t have been ironed out before two young boys died. At least others may be saved.