Tim Kennedy's Child Welfare Reform Falls Short

by / Nov. 10, 2014 11am EST

State Senator Timothy Kennedy’s easy victory last week over the GOP candidate, Ricky Donovan Sr., was all but assured after he walloped Betty Jean Grant in September’s Democratic primary. In that prior, more meaningful campaign, Kennedy based a sizable portion of his strategy on positioning himself as an advocate for tough child protection laws, and an even larger portion on constantly hustling funds to outspend Grant. 

The thorny issue of the state-mandated child welfare system fell onto Kennedy’s lap at a tragically opportune time last September after the brutal murder of five-year-old Eain Clayton Brooks, a child whose family had been the subject of multiple CPS investigations. Kennedy courted the youth’s family in front of the local media and announced he would be researching the incident and eventually proposed and passed a series of relatively perfunctory tweaks to CPS case practice and law as governed by the state Office for Children and Family Services, or OCFS. 

The piece of the proposed legislation with the largest possible import is one that has stalled on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s desk and awaits expiration: a mandate that counties are required to report their ratio of cases to caseworkers and report the number of caseworkers carrying more than 15 cases. When reached by phone, Kennedy’s office told us they couldn’t figure out why the governor has left the bill out to dry.

Recent years have been unkind to the county’s CPS staff: The number of annual reports made to the State Central Register—which in turn assigns investigations into maltreatment to the counties—has risen into the neighborhood of 12,000 per year. In the past year, workers with more than 80 active cases have been commonplace due to the logjam created when Kennedy aimed a painstaking OCFS audit at an already overwhelmed staff and administration.  

County Executive Mark Poloncarz has moved the legislature twice in the past 12 months to increase staffing in Child Protective Services by close to 40 percent. That enables CPS to identify more cases. The county’s Children’s Services division is the landing pad for these cases. The more reports that CPS investigates, the more children are placed out of their parents’ custody, resulting in more cases opened for Children’s Services, where 30+ cases per worker are de rigueur. For purposes of disclosure and otherwise, I resigned such a position last week. I was responsible for 30 cases (a mix of foster care, kinship care and preventive services) with a combined 60-some children. A 2006 study commissioned by OCFS recommended 12-16 cases. 

Poloncarz, Kennedy, and the legislature have shown a lot of love to CPS. But what about the things that roll down the hill? We should by know now, there are always things rolling down the hill. The legislature was made aware of the situation last June, thanks to the testimony of outgoing Children’s Services caseworker Pam Scotch. In an effort to persuade the legislature to hire more CPS staff, Scotch testified that workers were carrying caseloads over the precarious three digit overflow mark. As CPS responds to the avalanche, Children’s Services has been left to pick the survivors from the ice equipped with only ballpoint pens. Poloncarz’s office has not responded to our inquiry as to whether there is any plan in place to alleviate the high caseloads for Children’s Services. 

Meanwhile, the cases for the two workers who were terminated for having the dumb luck of drawing the Brooks case in the past, as well as the cases of their two supervisors who were suspended for good measure, are all headed to labor arbitration. The disciplinary actions were grieved immediately by CSEA, their union. Multiple sources with CSEA maintain that all four followed the established policy and procedure correctly. 

Poloncarz won a spirited campaign against a man who was just reelected to Congress in a landslide by courting the county’s unions as foot soldiers. He touted his father’s union pride. Even though his office didn’t respond directly to the question, you’d think he’d have to respect the decision of an independent arbitrator should those workers be exonerated. It might be a good time to remember that Poloncarz bucked the avalanche of money and support for Tim Kennedy to endorse Grant. Things are rolling down the hill everywhere.