After months of escalating concerns about its child protection and foster care services, local lawmakers in St. Lawrence County, New York, are bringing in an independent firm to conduct a comprehensive review of the system charged with protecting the rural county’s most vulnerable children.
The move follows heightened scrutiny of the county’s practices and the abrupt resignation of Commissioner of Social Services Cindy Ackerman in late August, after just one year of a five-year term.
“We’ve got problems, and they run the whole gamut of what social services does,” Legislator Joseph Lightfoot (R), who chairs the county board’s services committee, told The Imprint. “It’s been going on longer than I even care to think about.”
The independent firm hired to conduct the review, the Bonadio Group, will now interview Department of Social Services (DSS) staff and complainants, review case documents, and study local policies and procedures. The firm will provide monthly reports to the services committee and immediately notify the county administrator if it discovers any “serious issues.”
Signs of a crisis in foster care have been building since at least 2018 in this mostly white community along the Canadian border, where the manufacturing industry that once sustained towns has been in steady decline, causing strain on families. The county, like other more rural parts of America, has seen a steady rise in opioid addiction, and substance use was named as a risk factor in nearly half of child protective cases in 2017.
This February, an audit by the state Office of Children and Family Services found that in 2018 the county placed children into foster care at a rate nearly three times greater than the state average. From 2016 to 2020, the number of children in county custody increased more than 70%, even as the foster care population declined across New York.
The influx of children led to alarmingly high caseloads for county workers. Caseworkers here manage the lives of 28 children at a time, according to data presented to legislators in August by Child Protective Services Supervisor Heather Rand. That stands in contrast to the state child welfare agency’s recommendation of a maximum of 12 active cases per worker. The heavy workloads have contributed to high turnover, Rand said: The Department of Social Services employs fewer than 30 caseworkers, and a total of 23 caseworkers have left their jobs since 2019.
Ackerman, who took over the child welfare agency in August 2020, told The Imprint in January that running the agency shorthanded made it difficult to provide workers with necessary training and oversight.
The state audit found the greatest lapses in child protective services. Following a report of possible abuse or neglect, county workers are required to assess the safety of all children in the household within seven days. But from April to September of last year, a third of those assessments were not completed on time in St. Lawrence, and half of the reports reviewed in the audit did not include sufficient information about potential risks to children.
Last year, two girls, ages 10 and 18, died in separate incidents of abuse and neglect at the hands of their parents, despite multiple previous contacts with child protective services. In the wake of their deaths, residents criticized child protective services in public protests.
In February, Ackerman presented troubling data on high caseloads to several legislators and the county administrator. The following day, in an email viewed by The Imprint, she sent the county administrator the four pages of the 33-page state audit that summarized the areas requiring improvement. Over the next four months, the board approved Ackerman’s request to hire 20 caseworkers, of which 16 were new positions.
“Getting the new caseworkers felt like a breakthrough, but it always came at a price,” Ackerman told The Imprint. “After my presentation in February, the relationship with the board really deteriorated.”
Ackerman’s departure came after months of tensions between the former commissioner and several members of the board, each of whom felt the other was hindering needed reforms.
The tension came to a head in August, when several legislators and the county administrator obtained the full audit for the first time. Lightfoot said he had never been notified about the audit when it was released in February, and blamed Ackerman for keeping it under wraps. In a recent conversation with The Imprint, he also said that the Zoom format of meetings had sometimes made it difficult to hear the commissioner’s presentations and engage her in dialogue.
Ackerman told The Imprint that the audit had been mentioned in the February presentation and in her email to the county administrator. She resigned in August, and returned to work as a director at The Arc, a nonprofit that supports people with developmental disabilities.
The commissioner’s duties are currently being managed by Rand, while a search continues for her replacement. The county has five applicants so far, Lightfoot said.
Meanwhile, pressure on the county has grown as angry parents, relatives and foster parents have repeatedly appeared during the public comment portion of the board of legislators’ monthly meeting. They have had a range of complaints, accusing caseworkers of moving children between homes unnecessarily, sidelining willing relatives and inappropriately prioritizing county employees for foster care placements.
To elevate these and other concerns, former foster parent Courtney Fantone formed Communities Helping Individuals Living in Distress, or CHILD, a group that has hired legal counsel. Last week the group submitted 45 complaints to the social services agency, the state child welfare agency and the attorney general, Fantone said.
Legislator John Burke (R) said he appreciated the concerns raised by Ackerman during her tenure with the county and that understaffing remains an ongoing problem, contributing to high caseloads and missed deadlines. He also noted that the elected officials overseeing the child welfare agency are not merely “innocent bystanders.”
“We put DSS in a terrible position, and we put the public in a terrible position,” he told The Imprint. “We have to give them the resources they need before we can hold them accountable for the job we expect them to do.”
Lightfoot, on the other hand, questions whether “throwing more bodies and money” at the issue was the right solution, and said he didn’t know if hiring more caseworkers over the past few years would have helped prevent the surge in placements and allegations of mishandled cases. Instead, he told The Imprint that supervisors need to provide stronger oversight to make sure caseworkers completed required visits and properly followed procedures.
He said the board of legislators “certainly bears some fault” for not demanding more complete and frequent information from the social services department about caseloads and safety checks prior to this summer.
“Now, we’re demanding it,” he said.