Child-protective workers move from one crisis to the next; it's the nature of their jobs. They often have to set aside follow-up work on existing cases when new, potentially urgent or severe, cases come in.
Often, when improvements are made in the public agencies that investigate child abuse and neglect reports, they happen the same way. Staffing and caseloads for Monroe County's Child Protective Services have been a concern for children's advocates and the Monroe County Federation of Social Workers – the union that represents CPS caseworkers – for several years. But the issues received greater public attention after the November 16, 2016, death of 3-year-old Brook Stagles, who died from abuse-related injuries.
A state abuse-and-neglect hotline had received two reports about Stagles that October, both alleging maltreatment. One concerned her biological mother and the other her biological father. The county investigated both reports thoroughly and found nothing that warranted intervention, Department of Human Services Commissioner Corinda Crossdale said during a press conference last week. Crossdale reviewed the investigation at the request of County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo.
Dinolfo is now advancing an eight-point plan to bolster the department as part of her 2018 budget proposal. The plan is aggressive and speaks directly to some of the concerns that advocates and CPS staff have identified. She said her budget will fund 30 new caseworker positions, which will bring staffing back to pre-2010 levels. And it will boost caseworker pay, which will help with recruiting and retaining staff, she said.
"I believe strongly that county government can always do better," Dinolfo said.
Her proposal would also reinstate the local child abuse and neglect reporting hotline, which former County Executive Maggie Brooks eliminated in 2015 to save money. The county switched to a state-run reporting hotline, and the following year county CPS caseworkers had to investigate an additional 1,000 cases.
Representatives of the Monroe County Federation of Social Workers have said that the state doesn't screen reports from the hotline much, if at all. The result: Monroe County caseworkers have to investigate any local reports received by the hotline – even something as trivial as a child whose pants were sagging. That's an exhaustive process that requires many hours of work. And in cases where caseworkers find children who need basics such as food or clothing, they have to take immediate action to secure those things for them.
The federation has also said that when the previous administration eliminated the local hotline, it did little planning to fill existing vacancies or prepare for the increased caseloads, which everyone expected to some degree. CPS workers have been inundated as a result and have put in hours of overtime trying to catch up.
Dinolfo's plan would also provide caseworkers with digital tablets so they can make reports from the field, and she says she will boost recruitment, training, and mentorship efforts. The Dinolfo administration had previously made some efforts, centered mostly around civil service, to fill vacancies quicker. But it also struggled with recruiting and retaining enough qualified people to fill the empty caseworker positions.
"The Federation of Social Workers is pleased with the Monroe County Administration's recently announced plan to address the concerns that we, and many other individuals and organizations in the community, have raised regarding Child Protective Services," the federation said in a written statement. It also thanked Dinolfo and Department of Human Services Commissioner Corinda Crossdale and said it hopes "that this plan represents an ongoing commitment to fully support Child Protective Services staff and the children and families that they serve."
Brigit Hurley, a policy analyst with the Children's Agenda, said her organization was thrilled with the announcement. CPS caseloads have increased over the past five or so years. And in recent years, the county has also cut funding for some valuable preventive services, she said.
But the Children's Agenda became very concerned about CPS vacancies and caseloads when the local reporting hotline was eliminated and the number of incoming reports spiked. In its past two budget analyses, it flagged the vacancies and caseloads as critical issues.
"This is a strong response on the part of the county," Hurley said.
Legislature Democratic Minority Leader Cynthia Kaleh voiced her support for the plan, too. Democrats have echoed the Children's Agenda's concerns over CPS staffing and caseloads. Democratic County Legislator Justin Wilcox has been working on a proposal to cap CPS worker caseloads, and recently, Republican County Legislator and city mayoral candidate Tony Micciche signed on.
Whether the reforms would have prevented Brook Stagles' death is unanswerable. Her father, Michael Stagles, pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide last week. His girlfriend at the time, Erica Bell, has been convicted of second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter. Bell beat Stagles, and both she and Michael Stagles prevented others from getting medical attention for the girl, according to media reports of the Bell trial and verdict and the Stagles plea.
The CPS caseworker handling the Stagles investigation was assigned less than 20 cases, Crossdale said last week. Staff made three home visits, attempted two additional visits, and did two direct observations of Brook, she said. They talked to both biological parents and other family members.
And Bell's trial showed that she and Michael Stagles went to great lengths to keep Brook Stagles away from people who might have been able to help, and that includes CPS staff, Crossdale says.