Erie County Social Services Commissioner Carol M. Dankert-Maurer on Tuesday proposed hiring 37 new workers to assist with a burgeoning backlog in Child Protective Services.
Dankert-Maurer was summoned to appear before the Legislature's Health and Human Resources Committee to answer lawmakers' questions about apparent deficiencies in the unit following revelations two weeks ago that CPS had an open investigation into the welfare of 8-year-old Jacob Noe when he was stabbed to death, allegedly by his mother, on May 14 in their North Buffalo home.
Her appearance came in the wake of two county lawmakers' calling for her dismissal.
Dankert-Maurer said the 37 new positions she requested would be used to create three new CPS teams, comprising six CPS workers each, as well as a team leader and a clerical worker for each team. CPS currently has 17 such teams, including one that was added during a reorganization of the Social Services Department that was requested by the Poloncarz administration and approved by the Legislature in September.
In addition, the administration wants to create 12 part-time investigator positions that would be held by former police officers and sheriff's deputies. There also would be a coordinator for the three new teams.
“These resources are needed to reduce our caseloads and to maintain caseloads of 15 (per caseworker), the amount recommended by the state,” Dankert-Maurer said.
She said CPS worker casesloads skyrocketed following an unprecedented state audit of CPS, triggered by the beating death last fall of 5-year-old Eain Clayton Brooks, allegedly at the hands of his mother's boyfriend. The audit included a review of 900 open CPS cases and an additional 250 that were about to be closed but that were required to remain open during the course of the audit, Dankert-Maurer said.
“An indirect result of the audit is that caseloads became unmanageably high,” she said. CPS gets 1,000 new cases to investigate every month.
Currently, the average caseload is about 50 per worker, with some having more cases and others fewer, largely depending on the individual worker's level of experience, Dankert-Maurer explained. The addition of the three new CPS teams would introduce between 18 and 20 additional frontline CPS workers to the unit, raising the current number of 131 frontline CPS workers to about 150, she said.
However, Pam M. Scotch, a former child welfare worker who resigned Friday for family reasons, testified before the Legislature committee Tuesday that there are CPS workers with upward of 100 cases.
“The numbers are off by a lot. We need way more than 18 workers, and our caseloads are not averaging 50,” Scotch said. “I know that CPS workers are carrying caseloads of 100, and that is just not acceptable.
“So, I come here on behalf of the children of Erie County. We do need more people, but it's not working at this level.”
Neither Dankert-Maurer nor other department heads at the informational hearing directly rebutted Scotch's contention. Dankert-Maurer did say that the administration has otherwise made a lot of progress after the audit by the state Office of Child and Family Services. “In all my 30 years as a Social Services employee, I have never seen such efforts that have gone on in the last many months to reduce caseloads,” she said.
Dankert-Maurer said that CPS investigations have since become more rigorous and that management has introduced initiatives aimed at reducing the CPS backlog, as well as improving practices and working proactively to improve the system.
However, Legislature Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca – who two weeks ago joined Legislator Lynne M. Dixon, I-Hamburg, in calling for the commissioner's resignation – said it was evident that the administration's plan to overhaul Social Services in September was not good enough because it sacrificed more frontline workers for new managers.
“I remember sitting in these chambers in September fighting hard for more caseworkers,” Lorigo said. “What we were told is that we're going to add three new management positions that were going to help alleviate the caseloads.
“When we wanted to add 10 more in September, perhaps that would have alleviated some of these problems.”