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Reduced caseloads for Child Protective Services workers is lifesaving progress

Some families in Erie County paid a terrible price for understaffing in Child Protective Services, but a new report shows that conditions have improved significantly. On average, today, caseworkers are handling fewer than the state-recommended maximum of 15 cases each. That’s important progress.

Excessive caseloads helped to create conditions that contributed to the deaths of children, including Eain Brooks, Abdifatah Mohamud and Jacob T. Noe. In each case, overworked CPS workers were already familiar with the families.

It was a shocking and disturbing revelation to Erie County residents that children at risk were left in the care of those who would eventually kill them.

In the past, caseworkers overlooked what in retrospect appear to be clear signs of danger. Abdifatah Mohamud made two calls to CPS himself before his stepfather, Ali-Mohamed Mohamud, beat him over the head more than 70 times with a baker’s rolling pin. The child was 10 years old. The family of Eain Brooks called CPS multiple times to report that he was being abused. Eain lived to be 5 years old.

The silver lining around this black cloud is that the county responded. Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, who appeared to be genuinely distraught at the deaths, made himself the point man for improvement, proposing new laws, pushing for greater staffing and, eventually, changing the leadership of the Department of Social Services.

It’s paying off. Average caseloads are below recommended levels for the first time in three years. As a result, said Social Services Commissioner Al Dirschberger, workers are verifying more abuse and neglect complaints, thus providing more families with help, and likely saving lives.

It doesn’t mean CPS has achieved all that it needs to, however. While the average caseload is below recommended state maximums, some workers continue to carry more than they should.

Although 80 of the county’s 120 full-time frontline caseworkers carry no more than the maximum, the remaining 40 workers still had more than 15 open investigations each as of Aug. 31.

The rate of progress seems reasonable, given the demands of hiring and training, but for some, including those who have suffered inconsolable loss, it’s not fast enough. Among them is Robin Hart, the maternal grandmother of Eain, who suffered severe head injuries at the hands of Matthew W. Kuzdzal, former boyfriend of Eain’s mother. Kuzdzal is now serving a prison sentence of 50 years to life.

“Will it take another year and a half to get the other third of caseworkers down to 15 or less?” she asked. “Another child could be killed in the meantime.”

It’s not necessary to agree with Hart that progress is too slow to acknowledge the urgency of making continued progress as quickly as good hiring and appropriate training allow.

This really is a matter of life and death.

The improvements at CPS followed a scathing report by the state Office of Children and Family Services. It required Erie County to submit a “corrective action plan” to the state. The county complied and the improvement is both notable and welcome.

But the state’s job isn’t over. It will be beneficial to all for the OCFS to conduct another review at some point in the not too distant future, hopefully to confirm the county’s path toward improvement or, if appropriate, to look for additional improvements in performance. The goal should be for Erie County CPS to become the model for similar agencies around the country.

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