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Wretched living conditions for adults in county care cannot be tolerated

For years now, Erie County residents have worried – with cause – about the safety of children in the care of the Department of Social Services. So overwhelming were the issues, with children being murdered by their caretakers, that no one thought to worry about the adults under the care of Adult Protective Services. It was an oversight.

Adults living in at least two boardinghouses – at least one of them illegal – were subject to conditions so squalid and shocking that a Buffalo City Court judge, Patrick M. Carney, said he will make it his business to hold the owners accountable.

Squalid hardly begins to describe the conditions a reporter found at 496 E. Utica St. and that had also been discovered at 107 Grimes St. At the Utica Street house, sewage was backed up into the basement. Garbage bags piled outside a rear door were torn apart, possibly by the rats that had infested the house. In a refrigerator, food was rotting; inside the freezer whose door didn’t shut properly, ice up to 18 inches thick encased a box of hamburger patties and packages of cold cuts. Grillwork on heating vents was missing in some rooms and smoke detectors were missing from wall and ceiling mounts. The window of at least one bedroom was covered with a sheet of plywood.

For this, taxpayers paid $500 per month per tenant.

Something similar was occurring on Grimes Street, where the Erie County Health Department found the water had been turned off, saw evidence of a rodent infestation and found broken windows and other structural violations. Tenants were moved out of that house last month. The building has reportedly been repaired and will be rented out again on April 1.

This is a problem for Adult Protective Services. While the county has less influence over adults than Child Protective Services does over minors, the conditions in which these people lived were shocking enough to demand attention.

One problem, as a spokesman for Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz observed, is that adults cannot be told where to live, even if they are in the care of Adult Protective Services. “Those adults are permitted to live wherever they like, unlike children, who don’t have that freedom,” said Peter Anderson. “So, these people can reside where they like, and Adult Protective Services pays their rent at that location. Their rent is paid to the landlord, according to whatever amount they receive from Adult Protective Services.”

Fair enough, but housing conditions matter. When a judge makes it his mission to “shut down this home that was turned into an illegal boardinghouse,” to place the tenants in safe housing and to hold the property owners responsible, matters have already spun out of control. There needs to be accountability before matters become hazardous to the health and well-being of residents.

That’s an issue for taxpayers and that makes it an issue for Poloncarz and the Department of Social Services. Leadership at the department is about to change, but it’s fair to ask if the serious problems there have to do with more than just who is leading the organization.

Poloncarz has nominated Al Dirschberger as the county’s next Social Services commissioner. He is executive director at Journey’s End Refugee Services and holds a doctorate in social work from the University at Buffalo. He may be the right man for the job, but whoever the right man is should be prepared to reorganize the department from top to bottom, if necessary, to ensure as best as possible that children aren’t murdered and adults aren’t left to live in filth.