Legislators Hear About Progress At DSS

OSWEGO, NY – The county’s health committee was updated recently regarding the progress being made at the Department of Social Services.

The number of reports of possible child abuse that come in each month from the state’s central registry has been on the rise.

From 2008 to 2009 there was a 20 percent increase in the number of reports.

“We are on target to stay at that level,” Fran Lanigan, the county’s DSS commissioner, told the legislators.

Communities have found that when there is a “high-profile incident” that the number of reports goes up and they stay up, she said inferring to the death of 11-year-old Erin Maxwell in 2008.

“In mid-2008 we very rarely had over 200 reports,” she pointed out. “They were under or well under 200 those months. Since late 2008, they have not gone under 200.”

The report on the department’s third quarter case review by the regional office was received in March. It highlights what progress they have made and the next steps for improvement in case practice.

“It says that we are continuing to move forward in identifying areas where we need to strengthen,” Lanigan said. “It points out we were struggling with making adequate assessment of safety within 24 hours. Things were moved around and changed, and as (the report) indicates, we are making some progress.”

“One of the things I have to say about last fall is that with the addition of staff and supervisors, things are improving. A number of those workers (last fall) were dealing with a tsunami of reports; meanwhile we had to have some of those workers earn the opportunity to become senior caseworkers,” Lanigan continued. “So now, they’re trying to finish up the cases that they were working, you have fewer hands to handle the volume of reports that are coming in, you have more reports coming in and fewer hands because now the senior workers are trying to lead a team in the right direction and get their new people on board and help the experienced people deal with the overwhelming circumstances.”

As a result of that, the department’s overdue reports number went up. The additional staff is currently helping lower those numbers, the commissioner said.

“A lot of times it isn’t that the work hasn’t been done, it’s that it hasn’t been put into the computer system,” she explained. “We are targeting overdue cases. Our goal is no overdue reports by the end of the year.”

“Are all of these cases that are being reported now justifiable?” asked Legislator Barb Brown. “Or, is it that the community is over-active because of what happened?”

“Every one is justifiable, because the state’s central registry takes it. They are the first screen and if there are any reasons to suspect that there is a circumstance, we go out,” Lanigan replied.

Historically, it takes communities about three years to recover and get onto an even operational playing field after a major incident, she added.

“I think we’re making all the right steps. We’re going in the right direction and I applaud the staff’s dedication,” she said. “You did not see staff up and leave. Often it is like rats from a sinking ship, so they say. The only person we had leave was a person who had planned to leave for educational purposes, and she’s now back. The staff worked very hard and diligently under not always ideal circumstances.”

“They were put under a lot of criticism that was not justified,” Brown agreed.

They still get it thrown in their face out in the field, Lanigan said of complaints about the Maxwell case.

As a result of the Maxwell incident, the county has formed a Child Protection Advisory Council.

The various community agencies and stakeholders together will work to improve communications between Child Protective Services and the public. The first 16 members were approved this spring.

The council is in the organizational phase, Lanigan added.

The group is coming together very well. They are beginning to work together as a community,” Lanigan said. “We’re on our way. I guess you could say we’ve taken our first baby steps.”

She also explained about the Enhanced Practice Court.

“A parallel activity that is occurring is the development of a best practice model court (Family Court) initiative that is co-chaired by the Family Court Judge and me in my role as commissioner. It basically is dealing with children in foster care. The goal is to improve the outcomes for permanency for children in alignment with federal and state mandates,” Lanigan explained.

The implementation team attended a conference and the second meeting of the advisory committee was held last week, she said, adding that Legislator Jack Proud, chair of the health committee, is also a member of this group.

A strategic planning event is being planned for the group.

“As far as staffing, I had mentioned two months ago that we have had some significant retirements. I am very pleased to say that the job of director of services was offered to Gregg Heffner and he accepted,” she said.

He comes with a wealth of experience in human services. Heffner most recently was clinical director of the Brownell Center, a mental health clinic in Syracuse.

“He is a new resident to Oswego County. He expressed that he wants to work in the community in which he lived,” Lanigan noted. “We are looking forward to having him start in April.”