The Erie County Legislature on Thursday unanimously approved plans to hire 37 new workers to help tackle a burgeoning backlog of cases in Child Protective Services.
But before approving the hires, the Legislature added a provision calling for Department of Social Services Commissioner Carol Dankert-Maurer to appear monthly before lawmakers to give updates on her progress.
The Legislature’s action capped a nearly two-hour committee hearing. Legislators grilled the commissioner and her senior staff on apparent deficiencies in CPS before reconvening last Thursday’s recessed Legislative session to vote on the hires.
The Legislature’s Republican-aligned majority stalled approval last week of the Poloncarz administration’s proposal to hire more CPS workers so lawmakers could have more time to ask questions.
The proposal stems from at least three recent deaths of children whose families had been contacted by CPS.
“I still think we have a managerial problem,” said Legislature Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, after the reconvened meeting.
“I don’t think the commissioner is doing an adequate job. I think we hired three top-level managers last September that, up to this point, I still haven’t seen what those three managers have done, whether or not it has had any impact on the safety of our children in Erie County,” said Lorigo.
Tough questions were posed to Dankert-Maurer by lawmakers Thursday. Some focused on the professional qualifications of her management team and allegations that CPS workers who, in addition to carrying high caseloads, complain of a work environment of fear and intimidation.
At least four legislators, across party lines, said they have been contacted by workers about such complaints. Dankert-Maurer said she was not aware of any increase in the number of complaints filed by workers with the Civil Service Employees Association, though she has over the past several months been working with the union on issues as they arise.
Dankert-Maurer said the 37 new positions she requested would be used to create three new CPS teams comprising six CPS workers each, as well as a team leader and a clerical worker for each team. CPS currently has 17 such teams, including one that was added during a reorganization of Social Services last September. The new hires also include 12 part-time investigators and one manager.
The three new teams “are going to be targeting those cases that we believe are higher risk, cases where the child is (under) 5 (years old) or more vulnerable to significant maltreatment concerns,” Dankert-Maurer said.
On the rising volume of CPS caseloads, lawmakers noted that CPS has three times as many open cases currently compared to a year ago. There were about 1,400 open cases in May 2013, which has jumped to 4,600 open cases as of Monday, said Legislator Ted B. Morton, R-Depew.
Dankert-Maurer said CPS worker casesloads skyrocketed following an unprecedented state audit, triggered by the beating death early last fall of 5-year-old Eain Clayton Brooks, allegedly at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend. Dankert-Maurer said the state also decided that CPS cases were being closed prematurely, recommending that many be kept open 65 days instead of 45, further contributing to the county’s backlog
Meanwhile, Dankert-Maurer said the plan she submitted to the Legislature had already been vetted by the state Office of Child and Family Services, which oversees CPS. She also denied that individual CPS workers and managers were currently being forced to work on cases for which they are unqualified in order to stem the backlog.
“I don’t want somebody going out in the field who is not feeling like they’re prepared. I would absolutely encourage them to speak up and we will provide them with additional training support,” said Dankert-Maurer.
Still skeptical, the GOP-aligned majority amended the Poloncarz proposal to require Dankert-Maurer to attend the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee monthly meetings to discuss topics such as the number of CPS cases that are open and closed, and whether CPS workers have reached the state-recommended level of no more than 15 cases per worker.
County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, in a news conference outside the Edward Rath County Office Building after the vote, said lawmakers will continue to receive the information they are seeking.
“The information on caseloads per employee, the amount of new cases that are coming, is something that we weren’t hiding and were always willing to give them,” Poloncarz said.
“We provide it to the state. We certainly don’t have an objection to providing it to the Legislature,” he added.
The county executive also commended the Legislature for approving the proposal today, more than two weeks after it was first presented to lawmakers, though he said he would have preferred if they had taken that action last Thursday.
“Directing the commissioner to attend, and only her, is something that only I can do. They have the ability to request, but I don’t see a problem most of the time because the commissioner shows up for the monthly meetings that they have anyway,” Poloncarz said.