Erie County child protective workers are doing a better job at conducting child abuse and neglect investigations, the state’s Office of Children and Family Services has determined from its extensive review of the county following the beating death of a five-year-old boy last September.
The state office, in releasing its findings Friday, said the county is more thorough in its investigations than it had been when the state first reviewed approximately 1,000 open cases to make sure children were safe after Eain Clayton Brooks was allegedly killed by his mother’s live-in boyfriend at their West Side apartment.
Instead of doing only the minimum amount of required work in order to quickly close cases – a recurring theme the state cited in its initial review – CPS workers are now performing additional interviews and better documenting investigations.
“This review noted significantly more contacts with appropriate individuals. The case progress notes contained detailed relevant information about family functioning, and when necessary, specific incidents or events that addressed allegations in the child protective report,” the state’s report stated.
But in order for the county to sustain the progress it has made, the Office of Children and Family Services says more caseworkers should be hired and more training is necessary. There are currently about 80 caseworkers in the field, though CPS is budgeted for 126 and steps are being taken to fill the empty slots.
“The corrective actions that Erie County is developing and implementing will require leadership, perseverance and ongoing monitoring,” the report stated. “Consistent diligence is necessary to sustain the short-term improvements so that the higher standard for practice evidenced in this CPS determination review are sustained in the future.”
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz’s office expressed gratitude and a commitment to continue the progress cited by the state.
“We are pleased by the report’s findings and we welcome the perspective that OCFS provides as we work together to facilitate more positive outcomes for children and families. Among the report’s findings are investigative tasks completed in a more comprehensive manner, improvements in interviews with collateral contacts, and information gathering completed more diligently.
“These findings are an affirmation of the many initiatives the Department of Social Services has implemented in CPS over the past year, and this report is a testament to the hard work and dedication of CPS workers,” Poloncarz’s office stated.
The state office’s latest conclusions were based on its review of 275 cases the county deemed ready for closing out, but which required state approval before that could happen.
State reviewers generally agreed with the county, though the Office of Children and Family Services returned 11 cases for further casework action and 14 cases for updates in documentation.
And though the state cited overall improvements in how CPS now conducts investigations, it noted that some caseworkers and supervisors “were challenged in aligning the safety decisions recorded on the assessment tool with the information reflected in the case documentation.”
To address that, the state emphasized the need for ongoing training of workers and urged administrators to make sure that happens.
“They must maintain the established higher standards for all investigations, and create opportunities for ongoing training related to safety and risk assessments and training for critical thinking and decision making,” the report stated. “Finally, it is crucial that Erie County develop and sustain the guidance and standards for caseworkers to be allowed sufficient time for completing the thorough investigations they are capable of.”
State Sen. Tim Kennedy, who with Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes has been pushing for legislative changes to improve child protection statewide, said the state report is a positive development for children.
“Following months of investigation, this report indicates the state’s oversight has prompted improvements within Erie County Child Protective Services, but there’s still much more work to be done. We must remain vigilant in our efforts to protect our children, especially once they enter the system that’s set up to keep them safe,” Kennedy said.
Robin Hart, Eain’s maternal grandmother, said, “Even though they are trying and everyone is working really hard, it’s still not good enough.”
She and other relatives have said they repeatedly complained to caseworkers that her daughter’s boyfriend, Matthew W. Kuzdzal, was physically harming the child and how, at one point, Hart said she asked a caseworker if it would take Eain being killed for action to be taken. Kuzdzal has been charged with second-degree murder and sexual assault of the boy.
Two caseworkers were fired and two supervisors suspended by the Poloncarz administration as a result of Eain’s death. Top-level transfers of administrators also occurred.
Another case the state office cited in announcing its latest findings was the 2012 beating death of 10-year-old Abdifatah “Abdi” Mohamud by his stepfather, Ali-Mohamed Mohamud, who is now serving 25 years to life in prison for striking the boy more than 70 times with a baker’s hardwood rolling pin in the basement of the family’s East Side home.
As in the case with Eain, CPS had prior contact with the Mohamud family.