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No protection for child protectors


Monroe County officials, faced with a budget shortfall that may exceed $19 million, have vowed not to compromise health and public safety as they reduce the county workforce.

            But to the dismay of county Child Protective Service employees, their work to help children suffering abuse and neglect doesn't fit the administration's definition of "health and public safety." As a result, CPS workers say, the health and safety of those children is being compromised --- with potentially tragic results.

            CPS investigators typically respond to referrals from concerned neighbors, doctors, teachers, and judges. The investigators are charged with determining whether there's cause to take state action, such as removing a child from a home.

            Armed with little more than a degree in social work and the wisdom of experience, they often enter households where hostility, filth, drugs, and despair have created a dangerous situation.

            "It floors me that we're not thought of as public safety," says "Rita," a CPS worker who spoke on condition of anonymity. (County workers generally must get permission from the administration to speak to the press, and Rita says she believes that permission would not be granted in her case.) Past and future cuts have caused "a very big fear among staff that we can't keep children safe," Rita says.

            According to John Vasko, president of the Monroe County Federation of Social Workers, CPS's investigative division is understaffed, overworked, and will soon be under-qualified to effectively investigate allegations of abuse.

            Vasko says a job vacancy rate of 10 to 15 percent is standard in the division, owing to high stress and, subsequently, high turnover among those charged with investigating complaints of child abuse. As a result of the county's hiring freeze, Vasko says, the vacancy rate has jumped to between 20 and 25 percent. Investigators now number in the 30s. Last May, referrals for their services topped 600 --- a record high.

            The strong possibility of layoffs and the loss of experienced workers who opt to take advantage of the new early-retirement plan threaten to cause "a long period of turmoil" in the department, Vasko says.

            Until recently, a team of Department of Social Service Workers outside the investigative division reviewed the progress reports generated by CPS and foster-care workers to correct errors or omissions before the paperwork was sent to the state. But to save money, the county has been moving staff performing non-mandated tasks to jobs covering mandated services. And the nine reviewers were involuntarily transferred to work as CPS investigators in mid-July.

            Vasko objects to the transfers for several reasons. Eliminating the review process will likely cost the county money, he says, because the "independent reviewers" caught errors that would have resulted in financial sanctions from the state.

            He's also concerned that the transferred workers --- some of whom have never worked in CPS before --- won't be trained well enough to investigate cases.

            The state requires new investigators to complete a three-month "core training" before they hit the streets, says Vasko. But, he says, the county intends to shorten the training period for workers with some CPS experience (such as preventive or administrative experience), even if they've never done investigative work. In one case, he says, a worker who hasn't investigated cases for 20 years will receive only a week of training.

            In addition, Vasko has filed a grievance with the Department of Social Services over the way the transfers were assigned. According to the Federation's contract, Vasko says, the department must first canvas for volunteers to fill vacancies in CPS, then assign transfers according to "reverse seniority" --- transferring those with the least experience first. The dispute is headed for arbitration, but may not be settled until early next year.

The transfers have Rita worried about "the impact of people who don't want to work here being forced to work here." Within CPS, "people transfer out as quickly as they can, which means we get the newest workers all the time," she says. "Managers have to be in training mode all the time."

            Time pressures caused by the decrease in staff and the increase in the workload force investigators to make hard decisions about which cases to concentrate on. Given those pressures, "in cases where you might make extra follow-up visits, you don't; that's a luxury," Rita says. "In cases where you might spend more time working with the family, you don't. That's also a luxury."

            Those decisions cause their own anxiety. "We're triaging," Rita says. "And we're not perfect. With a number of variables out there, you never know if you picked the right one."

            Rita says Department of Social Services director Richard Schauseil and deputy director Diane Larter "have been diligent in trying to address" the problems, "but their hands are being tied."

            Calls seeking permission to speak with Schauseil and Larter were not returned.

Asked if he considered the work of CPS part of the county's health or public safety services, Republican Majority Leader Bill Smith of Pittsford says, "I think I would not say so."

            "Public safety is something that is relevant to all citizens of the county," says Smith. "It's similar with public health, which is among the reasons things like that get priority treatment when budget concerns become a problem."

            As budget negotiations progress, Smith says, "we're going to be hearing about a lot of things the county does that are worthy" of funding, "but narrowly targeted constituencies are going to be affected by lower revenues the county's getting now. We're not happy this happens, but this is how it works."

            County administration spokesman James Smith also did not return calls seeking comment.