Palermo Resident: County Department of Social Services Failed Erin Maxwell

FULTON, NY – As Salvatore Lanza, the attorney for the Maxwell family, addressed the community during a press conference Friday, he defended the Oswego County Department of Social Services on the family‘s behalf and stressed that the Maxwells do not hold the county responsible for the death of 11-year-old Erin Maxwell.

The child died during the early morning hours of Aug. 30 from injuries she sustained  in her home Aug. 29. Police say her death is being investigated as a homicide. The family says they believe it was a tragic accident.

“The Maxwells would like everyone to know that it is their belief that the Oswego County Department of Social Services bears no responsibility or blame in the death of their daughter,” Lanza said. He added that the family believes the criticism that has been extended to the DSS since Erin’s death is “unwarranted.”

Behind Lanza during the majority of his comments, however, a Palermo resident held a sign to say that he does hold the department responsible.

<p>While the Maxwell's attorney defended the Department of Social Services, Steve Burdick brought a sign to the press conference attacking the agency.</p>

Palermo businessman Steve Burdick, who ran for a seat on the Oswego County Legislature this past year, brought the sign to the Fulton Municipal Building to stand behind the Maxwells. It read, “Oswego County failed 11-year-old Erin Maxwell. Who’s next?”

Asked why he attended the press conference, Burdick said, “We are sticking up for Erin and letting light shine on what happened to her. These people are trying to bury it under the kitty litter.”

In a prepared statement that was delivered to the Oswego County Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee last week, DSS Commissioner Fran Lanigan explained that the department began an investigation into the Maxwell home after receiving an anonymous report from the State’s central registry in March 2006.

Following DSS and state protocol, Lanigan said Erin’s safety and risk were assessed. An investigation was conducted, including initial and follow-up conversations with Erin.

“Erin was deemed to be safe… at the time the case was closed in May 2006,” Lanigan said. “More than two years have passed, with no further child abuse or neglect reports that would lead DSS back to Erin’s house.”

“My feeling is that (Erin Maxwell’s case) is going to make U.S. history,” said Burdick, who owns property down the road from the Maxwell residence.

Burdick said he believes Oswego County DSS is responsible for not helping Erin when she needed it the most.


“They think they’ve got the best workers in the world and that they did a great job,” Burdick said. “Well, it is a sad deal when an 11-year-old girl goes to school with stench on her clothes.”

Burdick pointed out that workers who have gone to the Maxwell home since Erin’s death have worn masks to retrieve more than cats that were found at the residence.

“They have been going in with masks,” he said. “She had to live like that.”

County Administrator Phil Church said last week that DSS is preparing a written report of the agency’s actions for Oswego County Legislature Chairman Legislature Barry Leemann. The report is expected to be complete this week and “will contain further information of the Maxwell family’s involvement with DSS prior to the current investigation,” he said.

“Specifically, the report will address the anonymous complaint that was made in March 2006 to the statewide central registry,” Church said. “DSS’s report will be made public after Legislature Chairman Leemann has received it.”

Church noted that Lanigan has also asked the NYS Office of Children and Family Services to review all records relating to previous investigations involving Erin Maxwell. He noted that the state has already begun its review. A written report and recommendations will be given to Leemann and will be a public document.

Lanigan has also requested Cornell University staff to review and evaluate all DSS Child Protective Services processes, to make sure that cases are handled consistently according to New York State regulations and guidelines, and to identify strengths as well as opportunities for improvement.

Lanigan noted in her comments that a DSS child fatality investigation is underway. Lanza pointed out that he was informed by the department’s attorney that DSS is considering bringing charges against the family for neglect and the uncleanliness of their home.


“Let me make our position very clear,” Lanza stressed. “We appreciate what the Department of Social Services has done but if the Department of Social Services thinks they are going to start some type of investigation now and they’re going to put my clients through the wringer, we will bring all lawsuits, in state and federal court, against all parties if that attempt is made.”

Burdick said he believes DSS is trying now to cover mistakes it has made and that it should have helped Erin when it had the chance.

“I think (the department) is a joke; a big joke,” he said.

“Erin is in a lot better place now,” Burdick added. “But what she went through is a sad deal. Hopefully, no one else has to live like this.”