County shuts public out of official's hearing

Sarah Eames | The Daily Star Dana Scuderi-Hunter, commissioner of the Delaware County Department of Social Services, confers with her attorney, Ronald Dunn, outside the Delaware County Public Safety Building in Delhi during a recess of her disciplinary hearing Monday.

DELHI — Four more witnesses testified Monday on the third day of disciplinary proceedings against Dana Scuderi-Hunter, commissioner of the Delaware County Department of Social Services, who was formally suspended by the county last month.

The hearing, which has been public since proceedings commenced Wednesday, was closed to the public halfway through the day Monday by county-appointed hearing officer Alfred Riccio, who cited “the sensitive nature of witness testimony.”

Tina Presley, a former caseworker and foster parent with the department of social services, was observed entering and exiting the hearing room.

Though she did not testify, County Attorney Amy Merklen made her first appearance Monday afternoon, accompanied by Joseph Cahill, a lawyer from Summit.

Prosecutor Frank Miller asked Amanda Walsh, county director of public health, to recall a November 2017 meeting at which she was informed that a portion of her office space was being considered as a potential location for the county’s child advocacy center, a designated space to receive and process children who report instances of sexual or severe physical abuse.

Defense attorney Ronald Dunn objected, noting that the meeting falls outside the 18-month timeframe of the statute of limitations, but Miller defended his question, again claiming the testimony was necessary to establish background on the charges.

“There is very clear indication that what happened then continues to have a rollover effect on county operations today,” he argued.

Riccio overruled the objection, allowing Miller to proceed but urging him to connect the events of November 2017 to those within the 18-month limit.

Dunn insisted again that the testimony was irrelevant to the charges, which he described as “very specific,” to which Riccio replied he would not consider any events beyond the statute of limitations in issuing his recommendation.

Reading directly from the list of charges, which have yet to be disclosed in full, Miller said: “The respondent’s reaction to being told she could not utilize the space within the public health department for the purposes of social services department, when no authorization or permission from the board of supervisors or the chairman of the board was obtained, created an unnecessary hardship and rift between the departments that remains, at the present time, a strained relationship that impacts county operations.”

As a result of the 2017 meeting, Walsh testified “there was a strained relationship between our departments” and a “lack of attendance” by social services staff at events and meetings she and other department heads coordinated, beginning in 2018.

Dunn elicited earlier testimony that the public health department saw a 50% reduction in staff prior to the meeting, noting that the use of county office space was ultimately at the discretion of the board of supervisors and Scuderi-Hunter pursued use of the office space with the approval of the social services committee.

'A CAMPAIGN OF HARASSMENT'

Cynthia Heaney, director of community and mental health services, testified to her experiences with Scuderi-Hunter and other social services staff concerning the use of property at 167 Main Street in Delhi, a two-story building owned by the department of social services.

The second floor functions as a women’s homeless shelter, according to Heaney, and until November of last year, the first floor of the building was leased free of charge to the Turning Point Recovery and Community Outreach Center, a program of Friends of Recovery — Delaware and Otsego.

Heaney testified that Scuderi-Hunter only agreed to renew the lease in 2017 “under pressure,” and refused to renew altogether in 2018, leaving FOR-DO “floundering” for six months until new space was secured at 84 Main Street in Delhi.

During cross-examination, Dunn asked Heaney if she was aware that Scuderi-Hunter told the organization to take as much time as necessary to relocate and even wrote letters in support of its grant application to request funds for rent from the state, to which Heaney said she was not aware.

Heaney accused social services employees of purposely disrupting the activities of FOR-DO, activating smoke alarms, running faucets and flushing toilets in a “campaign of harassment” intended to force the organization to relocate elsewhere.

Stacey Green, a senior caseworker with the department of social services and frequently involved in the activities at 167 Main Street, testified that her responsibilities included conducting regular tests of the smoke alarms and running water throughout the building, including on the first floor.

When asked by Dunn if she was specifically instructed to disrupt FOR-DO’s activities, Green said she was not, adding that she personally tried to be as minimally invasive as possible and conduct the tests when few or no clients were in the building.

DISPUTE OVER 2018 PATIENT'S TREATMENT

Green recounted Scuderi-Hunter’s involvement with an unnamed department client who frequented the women’s shelter. The client had a history of mental illness and self-harming behaviors, including cutting herself, but refused the inpatient treatment Green said she and her supervisors recommended.

Green testified that the client cut herself “more severely than ever before” during a stint at the shelter on Feb. 27, 2018. She said she arrived at the shelter to find the client standing on the front porch, arm bleeding profusely and accompanied by an officer from the Delhi Police Department.

While the client was transported to O’Connor Hospital, Green said she entered the building to observe the blood spatter the client left in her wake as she came downstairs. 

“The blood loss covered a large span of the apartment,” Green testified; on the walls, the stairs, the floor and throughout the client’s bedroom.

The blood-soaked mattress had to be discarded, Green said, and when Scuderi-Hunter was informed of the incident, she suggested Green join her in cleaning up the blood.

Green said she declined, citing a mantra from an annual training on bloodborne pathogens: “if it’s warm, wet and somebody else’s, don’t touch it.”

Green said she was told she wouldn’t be forced to do anything she didn’t want to do by Scuderi-Hunter, whom she said proceeded to clean up the blood herself with gloves, disinfecting wipes, bleach and a mop.

The client, meanwhile, was transported that night to UHS Binghamton General Hospital and discharged back to the shelter the following morning, Green said, against her recommendation.

When she voiced her concern to her supervisors, Green said she was told she “had nothing to worry about.”

Dunn asked Green if such decisions were typically made through a group consensus, including opinions from more qualified and experienced staff, to which she agreed. He asked if she felt she her recommendation had been heard by others, even if it wasn’t accepted, to which she again agreed.

When prompted by Dunn, Green also testified that she regularly felt supported in her position by her superiors and was encouraged to seek promotion.

Riccio overruled Miller’s objection to the relevance of the question after Dunn explained that “the commissioner is being charged with demeaning employees. She’s being charged with yelling at employees. She’s being charged with being disrespectful to employees. She’s being charged with having a bad management style that doesn’t encourage employees to be successful.”

“Aside from this case, I have never had an issue with the commissioner,” Green said.

The hearing is scheduled to resume at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in the Board of Supervisors Room at 111 Main Street in Delhi. Testimony is expected to continue beyond Tuesday, but further dates have yet to be announced.

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.

Recommended for you