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Erie County cites drop in Child Protective Services caseloads

The high level of caseloads for Erie County Child Protective Services investigators continues to drop, with the average CPS worker carrying fewer than the state-recommended maximum of 15 cases for the first time in three years, county officials announced Monday.

With the decrease in caseloads, workers are verifying more abuse and neglect complaints, and that is providing more families with help they might not have otherwise received, according to Social Services Commissioner Al Dirschberger.

Two-thirds of CPS workers have 15 cases or fewer, and 95 percent have 25 cases or fewer, the commissioner said.

The continued change comes almost three full years after the death of Eain Clayton Brooks, 5, whose case drew wide attention.

With 120 full-time frontline caseworkers, those percentages translate to 80 workers at or below the state’s recommended maximum, and 40 who have more than 15 open investigations as of Aug. 31, said Peter A. Anderson, spokesman for County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.

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Seven of the 40 caseworkers had more than 25 cases, and one worker had 30 open investigations, Anderson said.

At one point, the average caseload was 50, but that number has steadily dropped following a 2013 audit by the state’s Office of Children and Family Services, or OCFS, and additional CPS hires sought by Poloncarz.

The audit was prompted by the sexual assault and beating death of Eain by his mother’s live-in boyfriend. CPS had received a number of complaints concerning Eain’s well-being prior to his death.

“Although our Child Protective Unit still has work to do, we have reached a critical benchmark by returning to an average caseload that is below the state-recommended maximum,” Dirschberger said.

“I want to commend our frontline employees for their hard work and tenacious efforts. I also want to credit our dedicated administrative team for putting together a smart plan to reduce caseloads and following that plan despite any criticism or setbacks.”

Nearly 35 percent of cases investigated by CPS are now found to have credible evidence of neglect or abuse, compared with about 30 percent in 2013, Dirschberger said. He attributed the increase to “more robust” investigations and “enhanced partnerships” with community stakeholders.

“We expect this will ultimately help families as we can address the issues causing their families’ hardship. Our department will continue to identify ways to strengthen our investigations so we can help families with needs,” he said.

Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes and State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, both Buffalo Democrats who have successfully sponsored legislation to make investigations into child abuse and neglect more responsive, commended the Poloncarz administration for reducing the caseloads.

They also pointed out that a law approved by the State Legislature and awaiting action by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo would make it a requirement that caseworkers could not have caseloads exceeding 15.

“Issues that families face in this generation are much more volatile than they were in the past. It puts a lot more stress on caseworkers, the families and the children who desperately need the services if the workers are overworked. And if you have more than 15 cases, you are probably overworked,” Peoples-Stokes said in urging the county to capping the remaining caseloads at 15.

Kennedy said, “Capping the number of caseloads each worker is responsible for is critical to ensuring that each case is thoroughly investigated and documented, and that we are comprehensively addressing abuse and protecting our most vulnerable children. As Commissioner Dirschberger has indicated, there is still more work to be done, but these latest statistics are promising, and … Poloncarz and his administration deserve credit.”

When asked about the county’s efforts, OCFS issued this statement:

“Erie County’s progress in managing its CPS workers’ caseloads follows a state-monitored and now closed corrective action plan where OCFS worked closely with the county to reduce caseloads.”

But Robin Hart, maternal grandmother of Eain, said the county has not moved fast enough to lower caseloads.

“Come Saturday, it will be three years since Eain died, and it shouldn’t have taken that long to get it down to two-thirds of caseworkers with 15 cases or less. I mean three years, come on. Will it take another year and a half to get the other third of caseworkers down to 15 or less. Another child could be killed in the meantime,” said Hart, who is suing the county on grounds of failing to take action to protect her grandson.

Eain was taken off life support Sept. 17, 2013, after suffering massive head injuries inflicted by Matthew W. Kuzdzal, who is now serving a prison sentence of 50 years to life.

The boy’s death was not the only one that prompted action by the county. There were two other children whose families were known to CPS prior to their deaths.

Some 16 months before Eain was slain, 10-year-old Abdifatah Mohamud was killed by his stepfather who struck him more than 70 times over the head with a baker’s rolling pin. Ali-Mohamed Mohamud was convicted of second-degree murder and is serving 25 years to life in prison.

In 2014, 8-year-old Jacob T. Noe was killed by his mother, Jessica L. Murphy. She told police she was “saving him from going to hell.” Murphy was later placed in a secure psychiatric facility.

Coinciding with the third anniversary of Eain’s death is a march and gathering from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the casino in Buffalo’s Cazenovia Park.

Hart and others have urged the public to attend the activities, which seek to raise awareness of child abuse and domestic violence.

email: lmichel@buffnews.com

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