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Niagara’s record child abuse levels trigger more county jobs

LOCKPORT – Child abuse reports are on pace to set a record in Niagara County this year, a direct result of a growing drug problem, according to Social Services Commissioner Anthony J. Restaino.

Restaino said that if current levels persist, the county will have about 4,100 child abuse reports this year. He attributed the record to the epidemic of opiate abuse leading to unfit parents and drug-damaged babies.

A recent state report said Niagara had the third-highest percentage of opiate-addicted newborns among all New York counties. Restaino said the May total of 383 child abuse cases was a one-month record. In response, two committees of the County Legislature this week recommended approval of two new caseworker positions to deal with the problem.

The committees approved a proposal to keep on the payroll two Head Start caseworkers who otherwise would lose their jobs at the end of the month, as the federal government is cutting off Head Start funding in the county. One of the workers will be reassigned to Child Protective Services and the other to Adult Protection, investigating abuse and financial victimization of elderly citizens.

The state will reimburse 82.5 percent of the salary and benefits for the CPS worker and 75 percent of the cost of the elder abuse worker. The annual cost of a caseworker, including benefits, is about $60,000 a year, Restaino said.

If the full Legislature approves Tuesday, the county will have 34 CPS caseworkers and 15 in adult protection, Social Services Director Burt Marshall said. The 2015 county budget created three new CPS caseworker jobs, but it seems that wasn’t enough.

“I’d 100 times rather see that $180,000 go into something to prevent that,” said Legislature Vice Chairman Clyde L. Burmaster, R-Ransomville. “We’re not winning this battle any more than we’re winning the war on drugs.”

County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz said he is frustrated. “They terminated the grant for the two caseworkers who were trying to do something about that proactively,” Glatz said.

“Each caseworker can do about 125 investigations per year,” Marshall said. State regulations require an initial visit on all child abuse calls within 24 hours and an initial report within a week. Niagara County is meeting that goal only 63 percent of the time, Restaino said. Having the new caseworkers should reduce overtime costs, Restaino added.

“These people are working five to 10 hours a week in overtime just to keep their heads above water,” Restaino said. The state recommends an average of no more than 15 cases per worker, but Restaino said he has some workers whose caseloads are approaching 30 at a time. “Fifteen’s an unreasonable number,” he said.

Last week, CPS workers seized a 4-day-old baby whose mother is an opiate addict who had just moved to Niagara County from Cattaraugus County. The child was placed in foster care, adding to the load of another family. Restaino said at the last Legislature meeting that the number of foster parents in the county is decreasing and more volunteers are needed.

“Cattaraugus County is the one who tipped us off,” Marshall said. “(Mothers) think that if they have the baby someplace else, they won’t get caught.”

Restaino said a welfare recipient who fails a drug test loses benefits unless he or she enters treatment. Marshall said benefits are reduced if a welfare client’s child is placed in foster care.

Majority Leader Richard E. Updegrove, R-Lockport, said, “We’ve always thought that if there were drug testing for public-assistance recipients that it would lead to mandatory in-house drug counseling that the taxpayers would end up paying for.” Restaino said that indeed would be the case.

“The irony is, this has to do with increased drug use,” Updegrove said. “Nobody who uses illicit drugs should be eligible for taxpayer public assistance.”

District Attorney Michael J. Violante said welfare recipients who fail drug tests usually aren’t charged unless the case is “egregious … something beyond not feeding enough and not changing diapers.”

Adult protection referrals also are at record levels, having increased nine of the last 10 years. The 2014 total of 633 is 57 percent higher than the caseload a decade ago.