Even before the pandemic struck in March, the past year has been challenging for the Department of Social Services in St. Lawrence County, a rural county just south of the Canada border. Just days after Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) ordered New Yorkers to stay home to stop the spread of the coronavirus, the department’s commissioner retired.
Court dockets in St. Lawrence County were already backed up due to whirlwind turnover among attorneys for children and parents when proceedings had to be moved online. And in June, 18-year-old Treyanna Summerville was found dead in her home in Gouverneur with signs of malnourishment and abuse, seven years after Child Protective Services first learned of alleged physical abuse at her home, according to statements by her older brother.
Two months later, county officials named Cindy Ackerman to take over as Commissioner of Social Services. Ackerman has spent most of her career working in organizations that support people with developmental disabilities. Most recently, she was the director of residential services at The Arc, serving St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties.
The 108,000 residents of St. Lawrence County, more than 90% of them white, are split among several small cities and the county’s expansive rural areas. The median household income of $52,000 is about three-quarters of the state average, and one in three children lives in poverty, according to 2019 Census projections.
In an interview with The Imprint, Ackerman outlined how she aims to reverse the county’s striking increase in the number of youth in foster care. That number has more than doubled from 156 in 2015 to 322 children today, bucking the downward trend seen across the state and nation.
For much of the pandemic, Ackerman’s department avoided coronavirus infections. But on the day The Imprint first spoke with her in mid-November, one of her staffers tested positive for COVID-19, and the department’s main building shut down for deep cleaning.
The following day, Ackerman spoke by phone from the parking lot outside her office and described her goals, which include reducing the number of children in foster care and the length of time they remain in the system. Ackerman said she is also working to get more children placed with their relatives in St. Lawrence County.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What does your access to COVID-19 testing for foster youth and their caregivers look like?
Nothing’s easy up here in the north. We’ve had times where it takes four to five days to get test results, and that’s just too long, so we’re in the process of reassessing what we can do to expedite that process. I get worried because if a worker tests positive, there might be 30 people who potentially need to quarantine, so I need to know sooner rather than later. With the numbers up again, it’s become a huge conversation in our county — we need faster testing equipment, more rapid testing and more testing that’s easily accessible.
What are your biggest priorities for St. Lawrence County social services in the areas of child welfare, foster care or juvenile justice?
Our main focus right now is that we have an extremely high number of children in care relative to our population — we’re an outlier. So I asked our staff what do we think happened five years ago, what were our roadblocks, what were we doing differently then that we’re not doing now?
We’ve begun to bring back in some practices that I think got lost with everybody always being so busy, like permanency case reviews. We’ve been really focusing on the kids that are in institutional care and going through the list to see what we can do to bring them to a better opportunity closer to home, in their own county, or a less restrictive environment.
Our main objectives right now are to increase our preventive care, including intensive services for families, and increase our review process for children in institutional care and in these intense support foster care homes to see what we can do to get these kids out of care sooner.
Our average stay in care for children overall is about 611 days — that’s almost two years. So we’re looking at how to bring that number down. We have one case where a child has been in a residential setting for three years. Why? Is that really where she needs to be for three years? I really want to bring her back to St. Lawrence County where she can see her family because right now she sees them not very often, and that’s a huge part of bringing a family back together.
How does your background in working with people with developmental disabilities connect with your new work in foster care and child welfare?
We have several children who qualify for services from the Office of Persons with Developmental Disabilities, so if they’re in institutional residential care, I’m looking at whether that’s the right setting or whether there’s a better setting where they could have permanency closer to their family, or in our county, or in a facility like the ones I oversaw. This department hasn’t ever really known what to do with those cases, and they haven’t always ended up in the best situation. I personally review these cases with the caseworker.
What kind of preventive services are currently available, and what would you like to be able to offer?
We’re looking at offering a more intensive type of preventive services. We’re considering creating a team to take on the really tough cases, who might cover just two cases at a time and really get in there to either prevent them from going into foster care at all or help them get out of our system sooner.
It’s difficult for us in upstate New York because we don’t have the availability of services that they will have in a city. We’re looking at the services that are considered high-quality services under the Family First Act and asking, what would it take for us to be able to provide those services here in this county? We travel so far for services. Why can’t we bring them into our county?
We have an overall goal to decrease our kids in care even by 5%, which doesn’t seem like much, but that’s a lot. Once we get our practices in place and can see that number come down by 5%, we’re going to know what’s actually working and what we need to revisit.
Can you identify some of the main drivers of Child Protective cases and foster care placements here in St. Lawrence County?
I can definitely say that our opioid crisis has been a huge contributor to it over the past five years. Our county is looking at bringing opiate treatment to this area, and we’re trying to work on other ways to support these families and get them back together. Still, drug addiction is not something you can pick up one day and put down the next. It ends up being a prolonged situation where children just end up with us longer than if it wasn’t drug-related.
I think we need to push more training for our staff to understand not only the opiate crisis but also the whole mental health piece that goes with that. We have some young staff that are very good, but I think sometimes they don’t have that true understanding of what actually happens with mental illness and with addiction and the why behind these things.
One of the other things I know that you’re facing is the general problems of turnover and attrition. What are you trying to do to address staffing challenges in St. Lawrence County?
We’ve got a plethora of reasons why staff leave, especially when we’re talking about Child Protective Services in foster care and prevention — it’s a tough career path. If you’re down staff like we are, you’re probably not going to get the hands-on, long-term training you really need, because there’s no way to do it. We try to do it, but it’s obviously not as effective as we’d like to be. So we’re thinking about developing teams to help new staffers feel less alone and get more constant support. We even talk about maybe developing teams that specialize in domestic violence or drug addiction.
If you look at the numbers of Child Protective reports over the last 12 months, do you see a noticeable dip or slowdown after the pandemic began?
No, not at all because with the schools re-opening, we end up getting a lot of calls. One, it does put extra eyes on the children, but the other thing is we get a lot of calls for educational neglect. There are calls coming in that really don’t reach that action level, but there’s just not good criteria or a good understanding between the Department of Social Services and the school district on how we can work through that. I’m going to reach out to the superintendent and see if we can do a Zoom conversation to talk about that and get some ideas for making clear criteria.
Sometimes it comes down to a child who hasn’t logged on for a couple of days and then it becomes a CPS call when it could be anything. I think of it as I were the parent myself: What if I’m the commissioner and I have super sick children or I’m sick, and the next thing you know it’s like, “Oh my gosh, I need to call the school or I’m going to have CPS called on me.” We need to talk about it and come up with a solution that works for everybody.
Going back to that question of resources: The state has a huge budget shortfall, and it’s already started withholding 20% of some of the funds it owes to counties. Are you concerned about how that will affect your ability to improve staffing and improve services in your department?
A little bit, yes. We’re trying to watch our tentative budget both with and without the 20% withholding. So far, we haven’t had much impact, but we don’t know if maybe next month we might. It’s a little frustrating because it’s really hard to plan when you’ve got that lurking about.
Has recruiting foster families become harder during the pandemic? Are you worried about the number of foster families you have available right now?
We’re becoming saturated because of the growing number of children in our care. We’re used to having 150 kids in care, so when you bring it up to 322 children, it floods the system. You end up with children in different counties or out of state, so we’re trying to focus on what we need to add to our home finder unit so we can bring this all back to St. Lawrence County. It is definitely more difficult with COVID right now because you don’t have the total flexibility to get into homes and assess them.
Are a significant number of children placed in residential centers or congregate care?
We have about 22 children that are in those types of centers right now. We’re starting with that list and the data and looking at the children that maybe don’t need that level of care anymore, the reasons why and what might be an alternative option. Can we bring that back to the level of what the Children’s Home offers, or do we have some foster care homes that are used to children that have more intense behaviors? Or if they’ve been doing well for a while now, we may even be able to bring them back to their family but really push in with services so that they can be successful there.