Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz on Tuesday unveiled a package of 19 reforms he is suggesting to state legislators to deal with child abuse issues.
“The worst days of my administration were on the days of the death of a child,” which has happened six times during his tenure, Poloncarz said as he stood at the podium with Carol Dankert-Maurer, commissioner of social services, and Deputy County Executive Richard Tobe. “Right now we have a system that is stacked against children and stacked against CPS workers.”
The deaths of two of the children – Abdifatah Mohamud, 10, of Buffalo, who was beaten to death by his stepfather in 2012, and Eain Clayton Brooks, 5, of Buffalo, who allegedly was killed by his mother’s boyfriend last year – prompted a wide-ranging review of Child Protective Services procedures by state and county officials.
Poloncarz said each proposal was presented in the form of a proposed law, with a complete sponsor’s memorandum already written. “All the senators and Assembly members need to do is put their names on these,” he said.
While Poloncarz was making his announcement, the package was delivered to local lawmakers and heads of state legislative committees dealing with children’s issues. Two Buffalo Democrats who have been active on the issue immediately said they looked forward to reviewing the proposals.
State Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, said, “We will review the proposed bills, collect input from local families and statewide advocates and continue our collective efforts to reform and improve Child Protective Services to better protect our children.”
Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, said, “We applaud Erie County Department of Social Services for proposing additional changes to their system. We look forward to reviewing the legislation; working with Erie County DSS, local families and child and family advocates to improve accountability and the overall safety and well-being of our children.”
The 19 changes include such things as creating a new felony crime of endangering the welfare of a child; expediting the collection of medical and police records after an allegation of abuse; using technology, including audio recording of calls to the state abuse hotline; and collecting photographs from people reporting abuse.
The proposals call for:
• Establishing a new level of offense, a Class D felony, for endangering the welfare of a child, compared to a Class A misdemeanor under current law. That misdemeanor will be retained and will be renamed endangering the welfare of a child in the second degree.
• Amending the definition of neglect to create a presumption of neglect if there is a single incident of excessive corporal punishment, which would be defined as throwing, burning, biting, punching, kicking, choking, poisoning, caging or tying up a child, threatening or striking a child with a weapon, or causing “bodily harm greater than transient pain or minor temporary marks.”
• Creating a presumption of neglect against a woman who gives birth to a child whose blood or urine tests positive for a controlled substance. Marijuana and prescription medications will not be included, Poloncarz said.
• Allowing the Department of Social Services to subpoena records from private agencies for use in any investigation of a report of child abuse or any proceedings related to abuse or neglect.
• Requiring law enforcement and other governmental agencies to supply Child Protective Services with records within 72 hours of the request during an investigation of child abuse or maltreatment.
• Increasing the penalties for making false accusations of suspected abuse or neglect of a child or vulnerable person. Dankert-Maurer said her office gets a significant number of calls – 45 on a recent Monday – from parents who are angry about conflicts over weekend visitation. Without saying how many of that type of calls are false, she said two-thirds of all calls reported to CPS are eventually determined to be unfounded. Poloncarz said this law would only penalize those making repeated unfounded claims, “an excessive amount.”
The proposals would establish a civil penalty for making false allegations of suspected abuse or neglect. This would allow a fine of up to $5,000 for a first offense and up to $10,000 for a second offense.
• Requiring people who are mandated reporters, such as teachers and medical personnel who are required by law to report suspected child abuse, to receive training every three years on how to identify and report child abuse and neglect.
• Requiring the Office of Child and Family Services to provide certain critical information to local child protective services agencies, including whether the person accused of child abuse or neglect is a child care provider, or if any person named in a report is a known sex offender or was the subject of a previously founded report of abuse or neglect. This information sharing, according to the proposals, “will give critical information to a local child protective service at the beginning of an investigation which will better allow it to asses the risk to children.”
• Allowing local social services districts to prohibit informal child care providers from participating in the New York State Child Care Block Grant program if they are the subject of “an indicated report” of child abuse or who have felony convictions of a sex offense, crime against a child, crime involving violence, or a drug-related conviction within the past five years.
• Improving the Statewide Automated Child Welfare Informations System to allow for the storage of images and documents.
• Requiring telephone calls made to the statewide central registry to be recorded and the recordings kept.
• Requiring the transmission of all prior calls and report history from the state to the appropriate local child protective service for investigation.
• Requiring technological improvements to the statewide central registry, including Internet reporting and allowing the submission of photos.
Finally, the proposals call for increasing the financial resources provided by the state to local child protective services agencies by 4.84 percent annually; removing unrelated personal information, such as whether a family was receiving public assistance, from reports about child fatalities; requiring hospitals and birthing centers to educate new parents about the hazards of putting infants to sleep in beds with adults; making civil service exams for child protective workers a priority; and prohibiting the prosecution of a social services commissioner for disclosing information pertaining to a child abuse or maltreatment investigation “if done so in good faith adherence to state law.”