A week after the beating death of a 5-year-old West Side boy, allegedly at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend, the Erie County Legislature unanimously agreed to hire six additional Child Protective Services caseworkers and a team coordinator to address burgeoning complaints of child abuse and neglect.
What the lawmakers couldn’t agree on Thursday was the need for three new management positions in the Department of Social Services, though, in the end, that request by the administration of County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz was narrowly approved by the Legislature’s Democratic majority.
The 6-5 vote was cast along party lines, with Republican, Conservative and Independence party members of the minority caucus seeking instead to swap the three manager positions for three additional caseworkers, which would have brought the total to nine.
During a news conference before Thursday’s vote, members of the minority caucus insisted that hiring three more caseworkers than the administration proposed would go further toward reducing the high caseloads of CPS workers. Relatives and neighbors of 5-year-old Eain Brooks have alleged that numerous calls to CPS went unanswered prior to the boy’s death.
“All of us agree that we should be protecting the most vulnerable in our society,” said Legislator Kevin R. Hardwick, R-City of Tonawanda. “But we think the problems that exist are going to be solved by more Child Protective workers and not more deputy commissioners.”
Hardwick and other minority Legislators said they were not convinced about the need for a reorganization of the Department of Social Services, even after a two-hour presentation made to lawmakers Tuesday by Commissioner Carol Dankert-Maurer and other members of the administration.
What was missing, according to Legislator Lynne M. Dixon, I-Hamburg, was testimony from caseworkers. Dixon said she decided to meet with a former caseworker herself.
“She was in tears about everything that happened, and she told me that we need more caseworkers,” Dixon said. “In my mind, having these additional caseworkers would go a very long way toward protecting the kids. That’s what our role is here. When we talk about this reorganization plan, that’s what we should be doing.”
However, the minority’s introduction of an amendment to swap the three managers for three more caseworkers went down to defeat. Later, the minority successfully introduced a motion to separate the administration’s request for more caseworkers from its request for new managers, but the Democratic majority prevailed in approving the administration’s original request in two 6-5 votes.
At a news conference after the Legislature’s vote, Poloncarz said he was blindsided by the minority caucus because they had offered him no clue that they would try to amend his request for a reorganization of the department.
“For some time now, they’d been talking about delaying the vote. We introduced this measure weeks ago, before the death of Eain Brooks,” Poloncarz said. “We knew we had an issue that had to be addressed with the caseloads in CPS and the issues associated with the administration, and … the amount of work was, truthfully, too much.
“We know we need to split Department of Social Services into a section dedicated solely toward the protection of individuals and a section dedicated solely toward the provision of public benefits, and then a third section, which is the administration with regards to [human resources], personnel, you name it.”
The administration said it seeks to immediately fill all 10 positions and is accepting applications.