Anthony Wells runs a union for workers with some of the hardest jobs in New York City. When a parent is accused of child maltreatment, his members knock on their doors to investigate. When teens are placed in locked facilities for serious crimes, Wells’ youth development specialists are responsible for rehabilitation and safety, night and day. These jobs got even harder last year, with the coronavirus pandemic making each home visit or day in detention a risk to lives and livelihood.
Social Service Employees Union Local 371, the New York City union for child welfare and juvenile justice employees, re-elected Wells as president last month, setting him up for a fourth term amid a historic public health crisis, economic slowdown and widespread social unrest. With unprecedented challenges affecting frontline staff across the city and nation, Wells sat down for a virtual interview with The Imprint to discuss the future for his 22,000 members, including thousands of city child protective specialists and their supervisors, youth detention facility staff and employees of almost every other city agency.
After successfully negotiating to avoid layoffs late last year, Wells said his members still need personal protective equipment and are now on the hunt for vaccines with other essential workers. He also said that the city’s two highest-security juvenile detention centers — Horizon in the Bronx and Crossroads in Queens — still face safety challenges and violence, more than two years since the state’s Raise the Age reform. Wells met with the city officials in December to discuss a major hiring push in the coming months, to make up for shortfalls caused by on-site injuries and staff out sick with the coronavirus.
A former detention caseworker, Wells came down with the coronavirus himself last spring, and described his harrowing visit to the hospital. He’s still feeling some mild symptoms, and hopes his workers take heed of the lessons he learned.
He also discussed how recent state policy changes have affected child maltreatment investigations, and whether the closure of schools and a dramatic decline in abuse and neglect allegations requiring investigation has made the job any easier.
The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How exposed to coronavirus are your child protective specialists and youth development specialists in juvenile detention these days? Is everybody comfortable that they are now able to get their job done more safely, with access to personal protective equipment [PPE], after months of shortfalls early in the crisis last year?
Nobody’s comfortable. We still have concerns. There are concerns about PPE, the cleanliness of the offices, air filters, the circulation in some of these buildings we work in.
In the juvenile facilities and Rikers, you are in close proximity and have no choice. How do you social distance from the residents, or inmates? It’s hard. We have issues with inmates not wearing masks. What do you do? We are fighting with the city and state now about getting more people tested. When you go into a public building, such as jobs centers, if you are a client, nobody asks you anything or gives you a temperature reading. Nothing.
Some of the buildings’ filters haven’t been cleaned in years, that’s a humongous job they have to do. I don’t know which are better than others, so we are concerned about all city buildings.
It seems like there have been a lot of changes that could affect CPS casework, even apart from the pandemic, including the new state law that will raise the standard of evidence for a CPS investigation, starting in 2022. How is it changing child maltreatment investigation and prevention work for your members?
I think it’ll be a good thing. Oftentimes, because of the criteria, workers are forced to make a case “indicated.” For example, you go to someone’s house, and there’s no food there, the policy says you have to say “indicated” — even if the person says, “Well listen, I didn’t have any money last week, I got laid off.” Or, if a parent has one incident, you beat a kid with a belt but it has never happened before, that case is still indicated. Anything that allows for a decrease in the penalization of parents is a good thing.
I think they also need to look carefully at people calling in false reports because child welfare can be used as a weapon against parents, parents against parents, neighbors against parents. That’s got to be strengthened.
Has it helped your workers that child maltreatment reports have dropped so much during the pandemic? With schools closed, teachers are reporting far fewer allegations to the state hotline. Or is everyone just worried there’s incidents that are being missed? How helpful are these lower caseloads for CPS, in terms of being able to do more thorough, careful work?
I’ve been doing this a long time, I never trust the city data.
Our focus is not just on the caseload number, but what do you have to do for each case? It’s really the workload — and to get that workload reduced, David Hansell as [Administration for Children’s Services] commissioner, has been working with us to look at internal policies. Some of it was redundant, some of it was ridiculous: Asking a 2-year-old “What is your life like?” They also have a policy of getting people to do reports earlier.
It’s not just the caseload numbers, it’s what’s required on each case. If you get a case, and go out there, and there’s nothing there, why do you have to do piles of paperwork?
I’m glad caseloads are down but in this pandemic it’s hard to measure that, because there’s no normal. Workers are working remotely, then going to houses, and they are so concerned about their safety when they go see a client. And parents are concerned about their safety coming in. We’ve had virtual visits. Visits in the hallways. People have to make sure that case conferences in the offices are done properly with proper distancing, proper face mask-wearing. We’ve had some issues with overcrowded conference rooms.
So, yeah, the caseload numbers are down, we are happy about that, but I don’t think that makes us marginally more comfortable, not now.
Talk about your COVID experience, what did you learn?
If you feel sick, go get tested. Don’t be embarrassed, this is not a social disease, this is a pandemic.
One of the places we were before I got sick was Crossroads. That was a location where two or three of our members died from the virus. That’s the point: You don’t know where, you don’t who, it’s not a blame game. One of my workers right now is in the hospital, and I’m concerned because I haven’t heard from them.
So if you feel sick, go to the hospital. I was lucky, I caught it early, I went to a good hospital, Queens Hospital. I was in the hospital for 13 days. Five or six of those days were kind of scary. Thank God, I never made the ventilator. I made oxygen. They made sure I was in isolation. It was really, really rough. I had pneumonia, too, which you can die from, it’s also the symptoms of COVID. It creates other conditions from which you can die.
Are you still feeling it?
I get a little tired. I lost 30 pounds in two weeks, but I found 10 of them somewhere already [laughs]. I’m wearing a jacket and shirt that only fit me again because I was able to go down a size.