Poloncarz plays down problems at CPS

For workers at Erie County Child Protective Services, high caseloads and missed deadlines have become the norm. But Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz is adamant that the department no longer has any serious problems.

“We’ve made great progress and we’re headed on the right track, there’s just always a little more work to be done,” Poloncarz said.

County Legislators disagree. They voted 7-4 Thursday in favor of asking Poloncarz to personally discuss the performance of CPS at a special public meeting. But Poloncarz said he would not do so and dismissed today’s vote as “a political stunt.”

The county executive, up for re-election in November, had ducked questions from Investigative Post until we approached him at a press conference Monday.

Asked whether he acknowledged that problems in CPS persist, Poloncarz said he did not.

“I have to take umbrage with your statements and with your report,” he said.

But some county legislators – as well as the dozen current and former CPS workers interviewed by Investigative Post – say the department’s problems are far from over.

“It is totally unacceptable,” said Legislator Ted Morton, R-Depew.

“We still have massive backlogs and some serious problems in that department.”

Earlier this week, Morton, vice chairman of the committee that monitors CPS,  had written to Poloncarz, asking him to attend a special meeting of the Health and Human Services Committee.

“I do not believe that the fundamental problems of the department have been fixed,” he wrote, adding that “efforts to spin a positive image of the situation are misleading, if not a flat out lie.”

Misleading comparisons

The average number of cases assigned to workers more than doubled after an intensive 2013 state audit precluded the county from closing cases for several months.

In the first half of 2013, the average caseload was just 16; in 2014, it soared to 40. CPS has made some headway in reducing caseloads – but the average for the first half of this year still stands at 27, almost twice the state-recommended maximum of 15.

As a result, the department is still performing dismally in meeting state-mandated deadlines for assessing children’s safety and completing investigations. In the first five months of this year, 56 percent CPS investigations were not completed on time.

Poloncarz said caseloads are down by half compared to this time last year.

“If you look at where we were a year ago, and where we are today, it says that tremendous gains have been made by CPS,” he said.

Morton said that comparison was misleading.

“A year ago, it was crisis,” he said. “But compared to normal times, we’re nowhere near where we should be.”

County legislators last year approved the hiring of 37 new CPS workers, supervisors and special investigators on the condition the department report to lawmakers monthly on progress reducing caseloads and closing the backlog of cases.

“The positive results have been painfully, painfully slow,” Morton said.

“It’s still far too many caseloads per worker and with all of the resources that we’ve approved, there is something wrong here.”

Workers afraid to speak out

Poloncarz also took issue with Investigative Post’s reporting, saying that many of the former workers interviewed “had an axe to grind” because they had been fired.

Legislators say, however, that they’ve heard similar concerns from CPS workers many times over the last year. In his letter to Poloncarz, Morton wrote: “Both current and former employees have consistently reached out to legislators saying the true story isn’t being told.”

Poloncarz also denied that some families with open CPS cases go months without a visit from a caseworker, saying he had not heard of that happening.

But seven of the dozen CPS workers interviewed by Investigative Post said they had worked on cases where that had happened.

Kim Henderson, who resigned her job as a caseworker earlier this month, said one family she was assigned to work with had not been seen in almost a year.

Poloncarz said he expects caseloads to be down to the state-recommended 15 within the next year.

“The numbers are a little higher than I’d like,” he said.

Said Morton: “We are not anywhere near where we should be.”