OSWEGO, NY Ã¢â‚¬â€œ The Oswego County Legislature took steps today to improve the Department of Social Services.
Legislators approved accepting a $500,000 state grant for DSS.
The funds will be used to hire more caseworkers and reduce the overall caseload.
Prior to the vote, Bill Reed, the president of the county’s office unit of the CSEA, urged the lawmakers to pass the resolution.
“I’m here today to talk with you about a significant step that you’re going to take. Today, the county legislature takes the first step in turning the corner from tragedy to hope,” he said.
It was about 11 months ago that 11-year old Erin Maxwell of Palermo died. The circumstances of her demise created a firestorm of criticism for the county’s DSS.
“Your votes for increasing child protective staff will begin Ã¢â‚¬â€œ I want to stress begin Ã¢â‚¬â€œ to work to prevent child abuse and neglect in our county,” he told the legislators. “By now, you’ve all read the Cornell Report (which noted caseworkers were dealing with approximately twice the amount of recommended caseloads), you’ve recognized the need for staff, new methods of management, but I wonder if you or most of the public have seen the other glaring need the Cornell Report points out.”
For too long in Oswego County, child protection was seen as “a private matter, a secret matter between DSS child protective services and an individual family,” he said.
This way of thinking cannot continue, he added.
“The children of our community are the concern of everyone in the community,” he said. “And, only if the entire community is working together can they be protected.”
He encouraged the legislature to follow through on the Cornell Report’s recommendation to create a community task force to get more people involved in the issue, adding, “We all have an obligation to make sure that the kids are safe.”
“We take the first steps today, with you vote on the staffing increase. But, this can’t be the only step. The road is a long one and the steps you are authorizing today will take several years before we really see an affect,” he said. “We have to be committed to the idea that the community owns this problem and the community can find the answers to this problem.”
The grant funds are “in no small terms, a product of Commissioner (Frances) Lanigan’s work with the state,” according to Legislator Jack Proud, chair of the county’s health committee.
“What we’re doing today is taking steps to address those deficiencies (noted in the Cornell Report) and to improve things, so hopefully we can prevent (another tragedy) from happening,” Proud said. “We’re going to train people, it’s not enough just to hire people. You have to train them, and we’re going to train them in newest techniques.”
Speaking at recent county committee meetings, Lanigan explained that while the process has begun, no one has been hired. It takes about two years to train new caseworkers, she added.
The turnover that historically occurs during that time is largely due to burnout, not salary issues, she pointed out.
“We are going to move forward with the community,” Proud continued. “We are reaching out to other areas of the community; because this has got to be a cooperative system. If we don’t talk and understand each other then there will be openings in our safety net and too often children are victimized.”
This was the county’s first step, Proud said, stressing that it “is not the only step.”
Legislator Mike Kunzwiler said it took time to digest all the information in the reports that followed Erin’s death. He had questions, and Lanigan answered them, he said.
Once the grant money runs out (in 2010), taxpayers’ money will be needed to pay for the staffing, he pointed out.
Oswego County Administrator Phil Church has already begun addressing that issue. There are some cost savings to be found within the department as well as other options, he said.
The county needs to be sure it monitors DSS, Kunzwiler added.
“This is a good way to go forward. But again, caution comes with us oversighting this department and staffing. I think it’s a positive direction here,” Kunzwiler said.
“I couldn’t agree with the Minority Leader more,” Legislator Shawn Doyle said. “I am pleased that we have been able to work across the aisle to try and find a bi-partisan solution to this. Mike is exactly right; it is incumbent upon all legislators to monitor the caseloads and when there are vacancies, see if there are ways through attrition if we could reduce staff. It’s all of our responsibilities to make sure that this works.”
Legislator Barry Leemann, chair of the legislature, pointed out that he is working on getting the community task force set up “as soon as possible.”
Not all legislators were in agreement, however.
“We’re missing the real problem here. The real problem is professional management,” Legislator Art Gearsbeck said, claiming that DSS isn’t managed well.
“Mrs. Lanigan has had this position for six years. She has 272 employees Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ a health committee that will give her anything she wants and she’s had six years to do. She didn’t recognize the real problem, until now. Now she wants four more years to correct the problem. I think that it’s time for change; I think the taxpayers have got a right, they think that she should be fired, I think she should be fired,” he said.
Throwing more money and staff at the problem was putting the cart before the horse, he added. They first need a professional manager to run the place, according to Gearsbeck.
Legislator Art Ospelt called the question and the majority of legislators voted in favor, cutting off further discussion.
“You gonna shut this debate down?” Legislator Doug Malone asked after the vote was already taken.
At Gearsbeck’s request, a role call vote was taken on the resolution.
Gearsbeck, Malone and Legislator cast no votes.
“I wish you’d not silence the debate,” Kunzwiler told his colleagues after the resolution had been approved. “Whether you like to hear something or not hear something, I think it’s healthy to have debate on the floor. I would implore my colleagues, please, let this debate go on and let the voices be heard.”
Debate was supposed to be on the resolution and not the commissioner’s job performance, Ospelt noted.
“I didn’t see where (Gearsbeck’s comments) were on the resolution at all. That’s why I called the question,” he explained.