Was dead mother failed by social services?

The story of the four-year-old boy who spent days alone with his mother’s dead body, surviving on milk and maple syrup, has prompted a public outpouring of sympathy and the donation of gifts that piled up at police headquarters.

Former employees of the Buffalo Urban League say there’s another side to the story.

The boy’s mother, Shaleena Hamilton, had been receiving preventive services under the $1 million contract recently audited by the county comptroller, according to six current and former Urban League caseworkers. The audit, released two weeks ago, found extensive problems in the agency’s handling of the contract, including overbilling, a lack of training for caseworkers and a failure to store client records on a secure computer system.

The audit did not directly address the quality of the services provided, but its findings raise questions about how well-equipped the Urban League is to provide services to vulnerable families. Hamilton’s death underscores those concerns, former Urban League caseworkers told Investigative Post.

_________________________________________________________

Charlotte Keith discusses her previous Urban League coverage on WBFO

_________________________________________________________

They said Hamilton had severe mental health problems and needed more help than she had been receiving, not just from the Urban League, but from the social services system as a whole.

“When I found out she died, I was mad – because they failed her,” said a former Urban League caseworker with direct experience working with Hamilton and her family.

The caseworker said she had told senior Urban League staff and county social workers responsible for the case that Hamilton should be referred for a higher level of services because preventive services were not meeting her needs. Her requests, she said, were rebuffed.

One of the six caseworkers, however, said that Hamilton was making progress and the county had approved a reduction in the frequency of the home visits she was receiving.

This story is based on interviews with six current and former Urban League caseworkers who are familiar with the case. Some spoke on the condition they not be named because confidentiality rules prohibit caseworkers from discussing specific cases; they were were nonetheless concerned enough about the way the case was handled to discuss it with Investigative Post.

Handling of case questioned

Hamilton was found dead in her apartment December 4 by Taijuan Littleton, a Rent-a-Center employee. Her father told The Buffalo News the autopsy report showed she had died from a blood clot.

Hamilton had been receiving preventive services from the Urban League for around two years before her case was closed in November, former caseworkers said.

Hamilton was well-known within the agency as a challenging case, they said, because she had severe mental health problems and sometimes acted erratically. At least four different workers were put in charge of the case in her time under the Urban League’s care – a testament to its difficulty, they said.

Hamilton “had a very unique personality: she was loud, friendly, funny,” said another caseworker with direct experience of the case.

“She might say things inappropriately sometimes but everyone who knew her knew that was just a part of her personality,” the caseworker said.

For several months, the case was assigned to a supervisor who former caseworkers said mismanaged it.

The supervisor would put Hamilton’s phone calls on speaker so other workers could hear, said Melissa Mattison, a former caseworker.

The supervisor would also bring Hamilton into the agency’s offices and make fun of her, said Susan Looby, a former caseworker was dismissed by the agency earlier this year.

“There was nothing getting done on the case; it was handled so inappropriately,” Looby said.

The supervisor, who caseworks said was later fired, was also discovered to have persuaded Hamilton to sign forms confirming she had made homes visits even when she had not, former caseworkers said.

The supervisor in question did not respond to repeated phone calls.

Unaddressed needs

Caseworkers were also concerned that the services Hamilton was receiving were not helping her and that she was not making progress.

“She needed someone in the home more than the amount that I could go,” said the former caseworker with experience working on Hamilton’s case.

She said preventive services could easily become a “dumping ground” for cases when a caseworker “doesn’t want to do the work to get the necessary referral” for a higher level of care.

Hamilton was receiving outpatient psychiatric care, according to two caseworkers with direct experience of her case. But some thought she needed even more intensive mental health treatment: several former caseworkers said they thought Hamilton’s case was serious enough that she needed daily home visits.

Hamilton “was definitely not getting the right type or amount of services,” said Mattison, who shared an office with a caseworker who was directly responsible for the case for several months.

But another caseworker, who had direct experience of the case, took a different view, saying that Hamilton was doing well under preventive services, and that neither the county worker on the case nor her counsellor raised any concerns about her progress, or about the prospect of closing the case.

Brian Bray, special assistant commissioner for the Erie County Department of Social Services, said preventive care cases are open for an average of about 300 days, but that the length of time for which a family receives services depends on their needs.

Having a preventive case open for almost two years with little improvement is “insane,” Looby said.

In response to a question about this case, Urban League President Brenda McDuffie said: “Our record speaks for itself. We provide excellent services to this community and we’re proud of our record of service.”

Critical audit findings

The Urban League’s preventive care contract with the county has been the subject of scrutiny since November 2014, when eight Urban League caseworkers wrote to the county comptroller to express “extreme concern” about the agency’s practices, ranging from a culture of “creative billing” to a lack of training opportunities. The review followed a report by Investigative Post.

The comptroller’s office conducted an audit, released Dec. 10, that found the Urban League charged the county up to $40,000 for work never performed or not properly documented. Among the abuses: bills claiming some employees worked as many as 170 hours in a single day.

“If you look at the amount the Urban League overbilled, at best it is gross incompetence, at worst it’s actual fraud of the taxpayers of Erie County,” said Stefan Mychajliw, the county comptroller.

The audit also found the Urban League tried to stonewall investigators and retaliated against the whistleblowers who brought the problems to the comptroller’s attention. All eight have now left the agency – either fired or effectively forced out of their jobs.

Urban League officials disputed the findings, although they did repay the county $20,000.

The audit did not consider six other contracts the Urban League has with the county. The audit findings have been forwarded to the County Legislature.

The Urban League is one of about ten agencies the county contracts with to provide preventive services – home visits and case management for families who have been referred by Child Protective Services because the children are at risk of being removed.

Hamilton’s case with the Urban League was closed around a month before her death, caseworkers said. The Department of Social Services declined to discuss Hamilton’s case, citing confidentiality rules, so it’s unclear whether she was whether she was receiving services from another agency, or directly from the county, at the time of her death.

McDuffie, the Urban League president, said that although Hamilton was not a client of her agency when she died, “we join with the entire community in extending our condolences to [her] family on her tragic death from natural causes earlier this month.”

Bray, the county’s special assistant social services commissioner, said case managers “work closely with agency staff to ensure families receive quality services.”

After the circumstances of Hamilton’s death became public, members of the public left gifts at police headquarters and Buffalo police bought her son a red bicycle.

“He needs so much more than a bike,” said the caseworker with direct experience working with the family. “That’s what made me really sad.”