Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz Friday acknowledged that serious problems remain in Child Protective Services, with 33 disciplinary actions taken against workers over the past year, including five firings and nine suspensions.
But he said a call by two county legislators for Social Services Commissioner Carol Dankert-Maurer to resign is simply an effort to “scapegoat” her for problems that the county is working to fix.
Poloncarz also revealed that a CPS worker had been scheduled to visit 8-year-old Jacob Noe in his North Buffalo home on the same day he was stabbed to death, allegedly by his mother.
Poloncarz was responding to a demand made earlier in the day by two county lawmakers calling for Dankert-Maurer to resign following the latest revelation that a CPS worker was in the midst of investigating the welfare of a child who later wound up dead.
Legislature Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo and Legislator Lynne M. Dixon on Friday morning called for Dankert-Maurer’s resignation following a Buffalo News article pointing out how a CPS investigation into Jacob’s living conditions and concern over his mother’s mental health languished after a caseworker assigned to the case had been suspended earlier in an unrelated matter.
Lorigo and Dixon insisted Dankert-Maurer should resign not only because of Jacob’s death but because of how other cases were handled by CPS in which children later died at the hands of their parents of caregivers.
“As many people have, I’ve grown frustrated learning about these deaths through the media,” Lorigo said.
“The Department of Social Services is $800 million of our $1.4 billion budget, and if Commissioner Dankert-Maurer is unable to do her job, which she has shown she is unable to do so, I think it’s time for a change,” he added.
Poloncarz on Friday confirmed that the CPS worker in the case was suspended without pay after failing to meet department standards in a large number of cases prior to Jacob’s death.
He said the suspended worker’s cases were reassigned to other workers for immediate follow-up. Children assigned to the suspended worker’s caseload were visited on the first day that worker was suspended, he added, noting that on the second day of the original caseworker’s suspension, a new CPS caseworker was scheduled to visit Jacob and his mother.
“Tragically, the child was murdered by his mother in the early morning hours of the day the visit was scheduled,” Poloncarz said.
“The loss of any child’s life is a tragedy, especially one taken in a violent manner. Our focus remains on preventing similar tragedies from occurring in the future,” he said.
Jacob’s mother, Jessica L. Murphy, has been charged with second-degree murder. A relative said she suffers from bipolar disorder. Police initially said there had been no CPS investigation into Murphy, 29, who remains in the Erie County Holding Center.
David R. Addelman, Murphy’s assigned attorney, said he is paying close attention to the latest developments regarding CPS.
“This adds another layer to what is already a complicated and tragic case,” Addleman said Friday.
Meanwhile, Poloncarz on Friday said his administration is conducting a thorough review to determine if additional changes are necessary at CPS.
“Making a scapegoat of any single individual will not improve the department, nor will it better protect children from harm,” the county executive added.
Earlier Friday, Lorigo insisted it was time to replace Dankert-Maurer because of CPS workers’ apparent failure to protect children under its purview in four high-profile cases over the past three years. Lorigo said he hand-delivered a letter to Poloncarz calling for Dankert-Maurer’s resignation.
“In that letter, I explain the disappointment I have in the Department of Social Services (and) the fact that, too often, we’re hearing and learning of deaths,” said Lorigo, who added that he would like to see an immediate nationwide search for Dankert-Maurer’s replacement.
“I think my colleagues in the Legislature would be willing to help with that search, possibly even explore bridge funding during the transition from Commissioner Dankert-Maurer to the new commissioner of social services,” Lorigo said.
He also accused the commissioner of spending more time tending to her role as president of the New York State Public Welfare Association.
“It’s my understanding that she spends the vast majority of her time dealing with that duty rather than her duties here at Erie County, which she is being paid for. If she is unable to spend the time to do the job of an $800 million county department, it’s time for her to go,” Lorigo said.
Dankert-Maurer was appointed social services commissioner in December 2009 under the administration of then-County Executive Chris Collins.
Following the death last September of 5-year-old Eain Clayton Brooks, allegedly at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend, Dankert-Maurer and the administration sought a reorganization of the department that called for the addition of three new department deputies and six new CPS caseworker positions.
The reorganization also created a new seven-member Child Protective Services team.
The spotlight had been put on CPS after the Brooks case and another high-profile, fatal child-abuse case in which CPS was accused of being slow to respond. Eain was beaten to deathdespite earlier appeals to CPS by extended family members. And in April 2012, 10-year-old Abdifatah Mohamud – who had called CPS himself for help – was beaten to death by his stepfather.
Robin Hart, the maternal grandmother of Eain, expressed sorrow and frustration over CPS and what happened to Jacob.
“I know CPS did changes but, obviously, they were not good enough,” Hart said.
The overhaul of the Department of Social Services was narrowly approved by the Legislature’s then Democratic majority over the objections of Republican-aligned lawmakers who, in January, assumed control of the body.
”We’ve already done the addition of new managers, or the addition of managers to the department, rather than just adding more caseworkers. I don’t think we need additional managers. I think we need new managers, which is why I’m calling on the commissioner to resign,” Lorigo said.
Poloncarz said the department has been working diligently to improve it child protective response, but noted there have been bumps along the way. Several recently hired workers have either not passed their six-month probationary training or have been reprimanded, suspended or fired, he said.