Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz responded forcefully last week to revelations that Child Protective Services mishandled a second case that led to the death of a child. Whether he also responded effectively remains to be seen but, at least initially, it looks like a good start.
On Wednesday, Poloncarz and Carol Dankert-Maurer, the county’s commissioner of Social Services, announced that two caseworkers had been fired, and their supervisors suspended without pay. In addition, two top administrators are swapping jobs in what Poloncarz described as an effort to bring “a fresh set of eyes” to the practices of Child Protective Services.
Given the secrecy around this agency, it is difficult to know if Poloncarz has done enough or if the county has made the right changes. Under some circumstances, supervisors can be as culpable for grievous mistakes as those who report to them. Thus, it is hard to know if suspensions – even without pay – are appropriate or sufficient for these supervisors.
It’s hard to argue with the idea of bringing a fresh perspective to Child Protective Services, although it is important that it be the right perspective and that it translates into policies and actions that keep children safe and alive.
Child Protective Services has failed tragically in two cases over the past 1½ years. Last April, Abdifatah Mohamud was beaten to death by his stepfather. Ali Mohamad Mohamud tied the 10-year-old boy to a chair in their basement, gagged him and then bludgeoned him with a rolling pin. Twice previously, the boy had called 911 for help. Help never arrived.
And last month, a 5-year-old boy, Eain Clayton Brooks, was beaten to death despite his family’s repeated calls to Child Protective Services, warning that the child’s life was in danger. His mother’s live-in boyfriend, Matthew Kuzdzal, has been charged with second-degree murder.
In another twist in the Brooks case, the boy’s paternal grandmother says that Niagara County Child Protective Services failed to look into complaints of abuse filed when the boy and his mother lived in North Tonawanda.
Niagara County officials strongly deny ever receiving a report of abuse.
The deaths of Abdifatah and Eain are the cases we know about. What we don’t know is how many other children are being abused or neglected without losing their lives, despite warnings to Child Protective Services.
For that reason, alone, it is important for the Erie County investigation to continue to be sure that all the factors involved in these deaths are examined. And now, with the allegations involving Niagara County, that county needs to make sure it is doing everything possible to protect children.
Denise Szymura, president of Local 815 of the Civil Service Employees Association, defended workers in Erie County Child Protective Services and laid the blame for these deaths at the feet of former County Executive Chris Collins and his commissioner for “dismantling the department” and leaving caseworkers with an impossible task.
“Their case loads are excessively large, and the employees are overworked,” Szymura said in calling for “proper staffing” to ensure that such tragedies don’t reoccur.
Certainly, staffing is an issue that needs to be examined and, indeed, the county voted to add caseworkers and supervisors in the aftermath of Eain’s death.
Whether, and how much, of an issue that is needs to be determined. That should be one of the goals in the investigation launched by the state Office of Children & Family Services. But other issues need to be looked at, as well, including training, performance, supervision and follow-up.
Still, accountability matters. If the fired caseworkers can explain how staffing issues left these children in peril despite repeated warnings, then they should have that opportunity.
Either way, it is entirely possible that many people need to be held to account.