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State says Erie County CPS workers did only the minimum in abuse cases

Erie County Child Protective Services caseworkers often performed only the minimum amount of work required to investigate child abuse and neglect cases, and that might explain why there are so many repeat complaints of abuse against families in the county, a state report prompted by the slayings of two young boys has determined.

The Office of Children and Family Services, which released the report Friday afternoon, says the high number of repeat complaints indicates caseworkers did not take appropriate actions when the initial complaints were received.

“Approximately 72 percent of the reports under review involved families with a history of previous child protective investigations within the past four years, with 24 percent having five or more previous reports. This would suggest that the underlying issues related to the previous reports of abuse and maltreatment were not adequately addressed, resulting in a chronic pattern of additional reports in many cases,” the report stated.

The state review of approximately 1,000 open child abuse and neglect cases in Erie County began after five-year-old Eain Clayton Brooks was beaten to death in September. His mother’s live-in boyfriend, Matthew W. Kuzdzal, has been charged with second-degree murder and sexual assault of the child.

Some 16 months earlier, 10-year-old Abdifatah Mohamud was struck more than 70 times over the head with a baker’s rolling pin by his stepfather, Ali-Mohamed Mohamud, in the basement of their East Side home. Mohamud was convicted of second-degree murder and is serving 25 years to life in prison.

In both cases, CPS had prior involvement with the families of the boys.

The report also cited recurring themes in CPS that need to be addressed, such as caseworkers moving too quickly to close cases and failure to conduct meaningful interviews to gain a clear understanding of the families and their needs.

In some cases, follow-up investigations amounted to faxes sent to medical providers seeking immunization records of children.

“Child protective investigations showed evidence of minimum compliance with the regulatory requirements rather than thorough and complete assessments of the family and children,” according to the report. “Workers made the minimum required contacts and visits, and then moved quickly to close the cases. Although the OCFS reviewers were looking at the cases from a safety perspective, it was evident that a substantial number of workers were preparing to close their cases within 10 to 15 days after receipt of the report.”

State Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, described the report as upsetting.

“As the father of three young children, I find this report’s findings, which indicate a lack of follow-through and thoroughness, to be extremely troubling and outright unacceptable. This needs to change immediately,” Kennedy said. “The report gives a critical understanding of the systemic operations within Erie County and outlines initial improvements that must be made.”

A statement from Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz’s administration said the county intends to continue working closely with the state to make improvements, with some of them already accomplished, but noted statewide guidelines for child protective operations are outdated.

“The current CPS model in New York State is over 40 years old, and conditions today are very different than in the early 1970s. Expecting a contemporary CPS worker to respond to a call and solve an issue immediately is akin to expecting law enforcement to respond to a 911 call and instantly resolve the problem.

“It is time for New York State to fully review the provision of Child Protective Services statewide, implementing best practices wherever possible and revising outdated policies and procedures. We in Erie County will continue to work to safeguard children as proactively as possible, always learning and applying new information to reinforce our future responses,” the administration’s response stated.

The state concluded its report by requiring Erie County to submit a “corrective action plan” to the state by Dec. 21:

• The county must include evidence of a better understanding by caseworkers and supervisors of the “distinction between safety (those factors that present immediate/impending danger of serious harm) and risk (risk of future abuse or maltreatment).”

• Caseworkers’ reports must include documentation showing that they have made “collateral contacts that provide meaningful information about the child(ren) and family in their investigations.”

• The county must implement “a robust supervisory oversight system that provides caseworkers with clear direction regarding the elements of a safety assessment, necessary and complete documentation, and the judgment necessary to assess the safety factors identified in each case.”

• A “quality assurance process” must be developed to ensure caseworkers and supervisors have put in place a plan of engagement and assessment of family needs. “This is particularly true for those cases with a substantial number of prior reports,” the report stated.

• An administrative oversight system that monitors supervisory practices also is required, in addition to strengthening the role and use of community members as collateral contacts.

“Teachers, medical professionals, and family members can all play an important role in understanding the family dynamics and understanding the safety factors involved in a child’s life,” the report stated.

In the case of Eain, relatives said they made repeated calls to CPS and the state’s child abuse hot line but never were updated on what was done to protect him.

Robin Hart, the boy’s maternal grandmother, said she complained directly to a caseworker and asked if her grandson would have to die before anything was done.

Reacting to the state report, Hart called for the removal of Erie County Social Services Commissioner Carol Dankert-Maurer, saying that she does not deserve to be allowed to complete the final year of her five-year appointment.

“Two boys that I know of have died since she has been there,” Hart said. “My question is, why are we letting her still be there?”

CPS, Hart added, needs to change its philosophy and not be so eager to keep children with their biological parents, especially when there are signs of danger, as was the case with Eain, who had marks on his body she believes Kuzdzal inflicted on him in the months before the killing.