April 16, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
As we’ve seen from California to Arizona to Texas to Mississippi and South Carolina, the serious business of protecting children from abusive and neglectful adults isn’t taken very, well, seriously by states. Now we know the same is true in Erie County, New York (Buffalo News, 4/15/19).
It’s the same litany of problems. Low pay means too few caseworkers who are then overworked. That leads to high turnover rates that mean inexperienced caseworkers handle most of the load, or try to. Predictably, that all means children who need help don’t always get it and those who don’t need it often get state intervention into their families.
Here’s how it goes in Erie County:
Up to one-third of front-line CPS caseworkers leave their jobs each year because of stress or burnout, or they couldn't meet the job requirements. Others found easier jobs, often for more pay.
The caseworkers, who feel undervalued, say their low salaries and high turnover make it difficult for the county to hire and retain enough staff to protect children.
Cases are constantly reshuffled among those who remain, many of whom are inexperienced. More than half of the current 118 CPS caseworkers have been on the job for under three years. About one in four have less than a year's experience, according to Social Services data.
A recent survey of CPS employees, administered by the workers themselves, asked how they feel when they get ready for work. About half picked the same word: dread.
"The thought of coming to work keeps me up at night," wrote one CPS employee. "Even on the weekend, I get anxiety over the work I haven't finished and the work that's yet to come. This job literally gives me diarrhea."
"People are often crying in the bathroom and feel they have no support," another wrote.
Other employees said they love the nature of their work. They just need help.
Social Services administrators acknowledge attracting and keeping workers is a problem. Jobs remain unfilled.
"We don't have enough people taking the exam," said Deputy Commissioner Mary Ellen Brockmyre, "and people aren't accepting the job if they do get it."
Of 65 people who could have been hired after the most recent civil service exam, only 20 took the job.
It’s a familiar refrain. What’s different is that Erie County caseworkers took their complaints to the state Legislature.
County employees started showing up at County Legislature meetings in August wearing red clothing. That month marked the start of an aggressive campaign by Child Protective Services workers for more respect and more pay. They distributed white binders filled with pay research and job expectations. They testified.
Then they came to Health and Human Services Committee meetings, and they met with individual legislators over the next seven months.
At least one legislator was impressed.
"Nobody in my six-plus years in the Legislature has ever brought forth a more well-reasoned, evidence-based and researched proposal, and they're getting the cold shoulder by the administration," [Legislative Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo] said.
So how did Erie County respond to the best-reasoned, “evidence-based and researched proposal” Lorigo had ever seen? Officials refused even to look at it or meet with caseworkers. As Lorigo pointed out, nothing in the law prevented them from doing so, but that’s what they did – nothing.
It’s not hard to see where this is headed. Indeed, if the truth were known, it’s probably already there. The children of Erie County are being badly served by the agency that’s supposed to look out for them. That’s true because the county refuses to offer salaries sufficient to attract and keep enough qualified people. Those who do hire on soon leave due to the stress of too many cases and too little pay. And the beat goes on.
What will it take for the county to improve its CPS agency? In Texas and elsewhere, it took a massive class action lawsuit plus the deaths of several children that received much attention from the press. Is that what it’ll take in Erie County? Do children have to die before those who didn’t receive the attention they deserve?
I suppose we’ll see, but there’s an old lesson to be found in all the bureaucratic language and non-responsiveness. It is that we don’t really value children very much. We say we do and certainly the overwhelming majority of parents love and care for their children well. But the assumptions behind public policy toward children are unmistakable. From CPS to family courts to adoption law to child support laws and on and on, we regularly do the opposite of what’s in children’s interests. I’ve spelled it out many times. Erie County is just the latest example of so, so many.
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