Erie County child-protective caseworkers in some instances have caseloads more than triple the state recommended level of approximately 15, but steps to reduce the high numbers have been implemented, county officials say.
With caseloads as high as 40 to 50, Child Protective Services has offered overtime to caseworkers, instructed managers to perform more direct work in investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect, and rehired retirees to assist in reducing the numbers of open cases.
“Caseloads vary on a number of factors such as employee experience and difficulty of cases. Currently for some workers, caseloads are as high as 40 to 50. Caseload volume is also dictated by intake, which has been steadily increasing,” Peter Anderson, spokesman for County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, said in response to a list of questions submitted by The Buffalo News.
The increased caseloads are occurring, in part, because workers are taking more time to investigate cases and ensure that there have been appropriate responses before the cases are closed, according to a state official familiar with the county’s more intensive reviews.
Investigatory enhancements were initiated in conjunction with a review of CPS by the state Office of Children and Family Services after the beating deaths of 5-year-old Eain Clayton Brooks and 10-year-old Abdifatah Mohamud, whose families both had prior involvement with caseworkers.
An Office of Children and Family Services report released last week determined that caseworkers are conducting more thorough investigations and have overcome deficiencies that were cited last fall, following a state audit of about 1,000 open cases after Eain was allegedly killed by his mother’s live-in boyfriend at their West Side apartment in September.
It is anticipated that caseloads will decrease as workers and supervisors adjust to the new levels of review and as the number of caseworkers increases. CPS is budgeted for 126 caseworkers, an increase of 18 over the last six months, according to Anderson.
At present, there are 80 workers certified to handle cases. But since the start of 2014, seven caseworkers have resigned, two failed probation, four were terminated, and two voluntarily returned to previously held positions in county government. Three other caseworkers are on medical leave.
When Anderson was asked whether caseworkers are being disciplined for missing deadlines in performing work, he replied: “The department is focused on providing high-quality work and protecting children. Employees are encouraged to complete assessments and investigations in a timely manner, but never at the expense of conducting a lackluster investigation. Workers are regularly provided with feedback, job coaching, policies, procedures, protocols, etc., to guide appropriate practice.”
There is no question that the intake of complaints about child abuse and neglect has been steadily increasing. For instance, figures released by the county showed that the number of cases jumped by more than 1,400 over a three-year span – from 10,777 in 2009 to 12,181 in 2012.
In addressing the rising numbers of complaints and seeking more “robust and intensive CPS investigations,” the county is taking a proactive approach by developing proposed changes in the state’s social services laws, which have not had a major overhaul in four decades.
Changes that are being sought include:
• Increased penalties for individuals who make false reports of child abuse and neglect to the state’s central register’s telephone hotline in Albany. Seventy percent of the calls turn out to be unfounded.
• The possibility of electronically recording all calls to the register from both anonymous callers and mandated reporters, such as police, medical personnel and teachers, in order to provide caseworkers with improved information when conducting field investigations.
• Examining the practice of allowing anonymous complaints, since twice as many of those allegations turn out to be false compared with complaints filed by mandated reporters.
• Considering allowing counties to develop guidelines for use of evidence gleaned from social media sites.
State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, D-Buffalo, who has taken an active role in seeking changes in how CPS operates, welcomed the county’s desire to update the laws – something he also is seeking.
“Our comprehensive CPS reform legislation was developed with insight from state and county child-protection agencies, and we are encouraged by the county’s continued efforts to provide input and support improvements to the system,” said Kennedy, who is working with Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, in pushing for new laws to make the child welfare system more accountable.
Kennedy expressed concern about the larger caseloads and said the county needs to address it immediately, adding that he is working to obtain more resources so that local CPS departments can increase their staffs.
“The state stepped up to provide Erie County with stronger oversight and support during their recent review process,” Kennedy said, “and should now work to ensure counties have the resources they need to improve the system locally and statewide.”