Troubled families, troubled services?

Seven social workers on the front lines of dealing with troubled families have taken the unusual step of accusing their employer of cheating both taxpayers and the families they are tasked with helping.

The social workers – who are employed by the Buffalo Urban League – sent a letter to the Erie County Comptroller’s office Nov. 14 expressing “extreme concern” that their organization was failing to live up to the standards agreed upon in its county contract.

Their letter outlines a number of problems, including short staffing, inflated billing and a failure to store client information securely or train staff to standards outlined in the contract.

Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw launched a review Tuesday of the Urban League’s program.

“We felt that the allegation was credible and now this review will determine whether or not it’s true or false,” Mychajliw said.

Investigative Post independently obtained a copy of the letter and interviewed two of its signatories, who agreed to talk on the condition that they were not identified, for fear of retaliation.

The Urban League employees who sent the letter work with 120 families annually who have been referred by the Erie County Department of Social Services. The parents are at risk of losing their children due to problems ranging from neglect, drug abuse and domestic violence.

“Things have gotten to the point where we really aren’t able to do our jobs,” one of the employees who signed the letter told Investigative Post. “You go out and deal with other people’s issues all day – to come back to the office and still have all these issues is really hard.”

Another employee said the past few months had been “frightening” because of mounting misgivings among workers about the Urban League’s “skimming and scamming.”

This program is covered by a contract with Erie County worth $1.06 million – which includes a $65,000 increase agreed on in July as part of the county’s plan to tackle a backlog of cases handled by Child Protective Services.

The Urban League is a non-profit civil rights and human services organization. It has seven county contracts, including five of those for social services, according to the comptroller’s office. The contracts total $10.5 million.

The employees say they have repeatedly raised these problems with supervisors, but felt their concerns were not taken seriously.

Urban League President and CEO Brenda McDuffie spoke briefly to Investigative Post twice by phone, but declined to comment. Late Wednesday afternoon she sent a written statement saying the agency is “confident that our contractual requirements are being met appropriately.

An edited earlier version of the statement, included apparently by mistake, blamed a “misguided letter from two disgruntled employees whose jobs with the Urban League ended recently.”

“Creative billing”

Agency administration repeatedly encouraged “creative billing”, according to the letter to the comptroller.

One of the workers who signed the letter said she was encouraged to charge the county for chance meetings with clients like running into them at church or the grocery store.

In two other cases, according to the employees’ letter and interviews with two of those who signed it, the county appears to have been charged for time spent on “quality assurance” – paperwork like checking clients’ addresses – even though, to the best of their knowledge, no such quality assurance was carried out.

In addition, the letter says, the Urban League did not hire enough staff to fulfill its obligations to the county.

Their division was “intentionally understaffed to save wages,” resulting in “an inability for the staff to work at the expected quality of service,” the employees said in the letter.

The billing calculations in the contract assume 13 full-time staff who charge the county for 7 hours of work a day. But at no point during the year has the Urban League employed 13 full-time staff for this program, according to the letter. At times, said one employee, the program has had as few as 10 workers.

Due to the lack of staff, two of the employees said, they are expected to log 13 hours of billable work a day – an amount they say is unreasonable.

“The quality of service suffers,” one of the employees told Investigative Post. “At times, you might have to choose between skipping a visit or getting your paperwork done – and what if that one day is when something happens to the family?”

Confidentiality at risk

The letter also charges the Urban League with storing confidential client information on an unsecure system. The contract between the Urban League and Erie County says that the state’s database should be “the sole system of record” for case information.

But the Urban League also uses its own “unsecured” record-keeping system, employees said in the letter.

As a result, according to the letter, all records stored on the agency’s system are available to anyone working for the Urban League. In the state’s system, by contrast, social workers can only see records relating to cases they are working on.

The letter also says the 40 hours of training each year for workers described in the contract “appear to be non-existent” and that various agency programs, like employment and housing help, are “randomly available and dependent on the persistence of the worker, not a standard of the agency.”

The next step in the review process will be a meeting among representatives from the Comptroller’s office, the Department of Social Services and the Urban League, whose six other county contracts could also be up for review.

“If we see there may be a bigger problem then we will certainly look at that as well,” said Mychajliw, the comptroller.

He said the review process will take at least several weeks, and perhaps longer, depending on how cooperative the Urban League and the county Department of Social Services are.