ALBANY — New York's safety net for abused and neglected children is under stress — with caseworkers charged with keeping those youngsters safe often overwhelmed with more cases than they can handle, according to some of their advocates.
Meanwhile, many county governments have had to cope with high turnover in Child Protective Services jobs. These workers, according to union representatives, at times have to interact with aggressive clients while coping with stress linked to their responsibilities to protect kids caught up in tense custodial battles.
Fueling rising caseloads in some counties, according to lawmakers and union officials, has been the epidemic of opiate addiction across upstate New York.
"The opiate problem snowballed so quickly that nobody saw it coming," said Joe Musso, president of CSEA Local 884 for Clinton County's workers, including the county's CPS investigators. "When a mother or father becomes addicted, the entire family is impacted, and it's not a healthy environment for children to be in."
The situation has caught the attention of state lawmakers, who are hoping Gov. Andrew Cuomo will sign a measure that would clamp a limit of 15 active cases per month on the caseloads of child-protective workers.
"We're trying to improve outcomes for vulnerable children while also reducing staff turnover," said Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, D-Binghamton. "They have a very difficult job." She is the prime sponsor of the measure, along with Sen. Martin Golden, R-Brooklyn.
A similar measure also passed the Assembly and Senate last year, only to be vetoed on New Year's Eve by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who contended there was inadequate data to suggest that the caseload ceiling be set at 15 per month.
However, advocates for the caseworkers point out that the Child Welfare League of America recommends that investigators carry no more than 12 cases at a time. They also point to guidance from the state Office of Children and Family Services that suggests the case managers have no more than a dozen cases on their plates at a time.
According to Office of Children and Family Services statistics, most upstate county governments in the final six months of 2015 — the most recent period for which data is available — had at least some caseworkers dealing with more than 15 child protective cases at a time.
In Niagara County, slightly more than half of the CPS caseworkers had more than 15 cases in that time frame. In Otsego County, 15 percent of the caseworkers had more than 15 cases then, according to the data. The statistics did not include the total number of caseworkers for each county.
Providing child-protective services is a state-mandated service for county governments. The state reimburses the counties for 62 percent of the expenses, with local taxpayers paying for the remainder of the budgets for those county departments.
Cuomo is under pressure from the New York State Association of Counties to reject the bill again. The nonprofit group says while it shares the concerns of those seeking to cushion caseworkers from being swamped with stressful assignments, it objects to a "one size fits all" cap on cases.
"This legislation provides arbitrary caseload caps on local social service districts that will dramatically increase costs in most counties," NYSAC said in a bill memo. It also noted the legislation carries no funding to finance the cost of new caseload standards.
Lupardo said the requirements in the legislation would be phased in over two years to give counties a chance to adjust.
The former head of the Otsego County government's social services committee, Rep. Kay Stuligross, D-Oneonta, said the legislation is bound to trigger budget concerns for counties.
"It would be a lot better if this came with money with it," Stuligross said. "One reason why our child-protective workers don't stick around is this is a very demanding job and our salary schedule is very low. If we were to hire more people, there would have to be more money."
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. You can reach him at email@example.com