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CPS caseloads drop after child deaths prompt hiring

Child Protective Services caseloads – as well as the number of open cases – have dropped sharply since the hiring of additional caseworkers last year, according to a monthly report released by the Erie County Department of Social Services.

According to the report, there were 2,866 open CPS cases in Erie County on April 30, down 2,052 from a high of 4,918 recorded in May 2014. That marks the first time since November 2013 that the number of open CPS investigations has fallen below 3,000, DSS Commissioner Al Dirschberger said in a prepared statement Tuesday,

The average number of cases per CPS worker dropped by more than half from a year ago, to 25. That is still 10 more cases per worker than the state recommends, but Poloncarz administration officials expect caseloads to continue to drop. Spokesman Peter A. Anderson said the drop in caseload has been gradual over the last 10 months, averaging a reduction of 180 cases per month.

In June 2014, the Legislature approved an administration request to hire 37 additional CPS workers. That move was precipitated by the deaths of three children whose families had been contacted by CPS before the children were murdered by a caretaker in their homes.

It was the second time in a year that the administration sought to hire more workers to help reduce a huge backlog in CPS cases. In late September 2013, a week after the beating death of 5-year-old Eain Brooks by his mother’s live-in boyfriend, the Legislature agreed to the administration’s request to hire six additional caseworkers, though the Republican-aligned minority at the time balked when three additional DSS managers also were hired.

“There were issues with the number of cases per worker and at that time, some of us in the Legislature had asked for more caseworkers to be added and not managers – but workers – because of that high caseload,” recalled Legislator Lynne M. Dixon, I-Hamburg, on Tuesday.

Nine months later, after 8-year-old Jacob T. Noe was stabbed to death by his mother in their North Buffalo flat, the administration returned to the Legislature with plans to realign CPS and a request for additional hires.

Republican-aligned members, by then in the majority, in turn sought a change in leadership at DSS. Lawmakers did not get that immediately, but the administration agreed to provide the Legislature’s Health & Human Services Committee with a monthly report on the Department of Social Services’ progress. “The Legislature, I think, was looking for accountability and is still looking for accountability,” said Dixon, committee chairwoman.

“We’ve accomplished some of that with the change in leadership,” she said, referring to the eventual departure of former DSS Commissioner Carol Dankert-Mauer. “We’ve accomplished some of that with the addition of caseworkers, and we’ve accomplished some of that by requiring this monthly reporting.”

Administration officials Tuesday said that, in addition to the decreases in CPS caseloads, its report to the Legislature also shows that more than 800 cases were closed last month alone. Also, overdue investigations – those taking longer than seven days to complete following an initial complaint – were significantly reduced, from a high of 3,296 at the end of May 2014 to less than half that, or 1,532, by the end of last month.

“I do think that we have to look at any of these reports with a critical eye ... We have to analyze the numbers that are provided to us,” said Dixon.

Legislature Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, said the trends outlined in the report are “obviously good news.”

“Whether or not the trend continues is something that still needs to be monitored,” Lorigo said.

Administration officials said there are no current plans to request additional staff for Child Protective Services. All the workers hired for the positions created in June 2014 have completed their training, though some have left during that time, Anderson said.

There are currently 114 CPS workers handling at least five cases each. Anderson attributed the drop in caseload not only to staffing increases, but also to improved processes developed by DSS managers and supported by the state Office of Child and Family Services, along with the fostering of strong partnerships with community stakeholders and Local 815 of the Civil Service Employees Association.