Health Committee Updated On DSS Plan

OSWEGO, NY – The county’s Health and Human Services Committee heard an update regarding improvements at the Department of Social Services.

DSS Commissioner Fran Lanigan on Wednesday provided the committee information as to what she is doing to improve the department’s performance in the wake of several reports following the death last August of 11-year-old Erin Maxwell in Palermo.

The department has been criticized by many and put under a microscope in connection with its handling of investigations pertaining to the child.

The reports of suspected child abuse the department receives from the State Central Registry shows an increased number of reports for June as compared to previous years, she said, adding, “We are still on target for a significant increase this year over all.”

There were 229 reports last month as compared with 180 in June 2008.

They have been meeting frequently regarding the work plan once they got the (recommendations from) the Cornell report.

The report dealt with child protective services as a whole and didn’t focus just on the Maxwell case.

Earlier this month, legislators approved accepting a $500,000 state grant for DSS.

The funds will be used to hire more caseworkers and reduce the overall caseload, among other things.

“We have broken the work plan down into multiple areas,” Lanigan explained. “We have had probably over 60 interviews for positions, ranging from caseworkers to Case Supervisor B.”

In the area of administration/supervision, they have identified core competencies for Case Supervisor and Senior Caseworker position. They are also focusing on Communication (internal and external) and restructuring workflow – process improvements.

Most positions are ready to hire Aug. 3 or Aug. 10, she noted.

The logistics have been “extremely challenging,” she said.

“That’s a significant number of staff to come into the office,” she pointed out. “We don’t necessarily have all of the right furnishings in order to accommodate the new hires.”

There are taking steps to move things around to make space for the new staff as best they can, she added.

“We are looking around the agency, trying to reconfigure work stations so that people can have adequate work space,” she said. “It’s slow, but it’s moving forward. We are doing what we can to skrimp and pull things together.”

Cooperation from the Buildings and Grounds department and assistance from Central Services for phone and computer alignments have both been “excellent,” the commissioner pointed out.

They hold weekly “critical thinking” case reviews. The senior casework staff has been trained in the process and is now being observed in practice with assistance from the Syracuse regional office.

State training is set to begin in August for caseworkers and senior caseworkers. It will be conducted in Liverpool.

Lanigan has also facilitated a meeting with Oswego County BOCES Superintendent Dr. Joseph Camerino to identify strategies for improving relationships with the county school districts.

“…with respect as to how do we reach out to the schools; how do we get a dialogue going so that they hear what our concerns are and we hear what their concerns are and then we work together moving forward, building understanding, building cooperation.”

“How far along are we on the development of the community advisory committee are we? Are we just getting started?” asked Legislator Margaret Kastler.

Lanigan has been meeting with legislative leaders to clarify its purpose in order to prepare a Request For Proposal for a facilitator. The RFP will be issued by the end of this month, she added.

“The chairman (Barry Leemann) called a meeting of myself, the commissioner, the majority and minority leaders and the (health) committee chairman to begin talking about what the goals and scope of this task force will be,” explained Phil Church, county administrator. “We need to have that decided first before we can do the RFP for the facilitator.”

The plan is to have the makeup of the group and its bylaws decided by next month and bring it to the committee in the form of a resolution in time for its September meeting.

The facilitator will be somebody who has helped other counties put similar types of boards together, Church said.

“One of the aspects that is extremely critical is, it is one thing to hire new staff, it’s another thing to train them,” said Legislator Jack Proud, committee chair.

The commissioner will report periodically to the committee on the training progress so that committee members begin to understand the kinds of preparation caseworkers get before they start functioning out in the field, Proud added.

The county will follow up the state training, the commissioner pointed out.

The seniors and supervisors will work with the new hires to reinforce their training; they will also get evaluated on what they have learned and they will be paired up with an experienced worker in the department’s mentoring program, according to the commissioner.

There is a lengthy learning curve in a position of this sort, Proud said.

The commissioner agreed, adding that once new caseworkers are trained and in the field, it takes about two years for them to be acclimated. Within that time, there will, for one reason or another, be some turnover, she said.