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Too often, social workers assigned to protect abused or neglected children in New York are carrying too many cases. Their lack of time to give cases attention can add to the other risks the children already face.

That's the sobering upshot of a survey commissioned by State Comptroller H. Carl McCall. Its findings should be taken seriously by public officials responsible for the care of at-risk children.

One finding was that caseloads for child-care workers exceeded reputable national standards in 60 percent of New York's local welfare agencies, including those in Erie County.

Deborah Merrifield, commissioner of Erie County's Department of Social Services, says the standards are "within our reach" and accepts the urgency of assigning additional social workers to child-care functions.

County Executive Gorski has directed that all vacancies in child-protective services and foster care be filled. The department, Merrifield says, is now doing that.

Many of the most egregious caseload ratios showed up in the New York City area. Yet several upstate counties, including Erie, courted similar problems. Fortunately, caseloads in Niagara County fell close to or within recommended staffing levels.

The McCall survey looked at staffing patterns in three categories: child-protective services, which investigates allegations of child abuse; preventive services, which provides families with a variety of assistance designed to prevent the need to remove abused or neglected children from the home; and foster care, which handles children placed in temporary settings.

The maximum levels recommended by the Child Welfare League of America were 17 cases per worker in child-protective services and 15 in the other two categories. Erie County was close to the recommended level for child-protective services but nearly double for preventive services and foster care.

Where caseworkers are overburdened, one result is that children often stay too long in temporary foster homes. That offends the 1979 New York State Child Reform Act. Children should not spend years, it said, in temporary homes, trapped in uncertainty. They should be moved quickly to a permanent residence either by a return home or by adoption.

Since New York has not revised its caseworker standards for these welfare functions since 1969, Albany ought to revisit them with a fresh eye. They may need updating. The 1969 proposed levels generally run much higher -- 50 cases, for example, for foster care -- than the 15 cases proposed by the Child Welfare League of America.

Albany must take steps to promote adequate attention to manageable caseloads.

One of the most pressing responsibilities of government is to protect minor children who are abused, neglected or otherwise put in harm's way.

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