Suspended official defends self at Delhi hearing

Sarah Eames | The Daily Star Alfred Riccio, appointed by Delaware County to serve as hearing officer for disciplinary proceedings against Social Services Commissioner Dana Scuderi-Hunter, gathers his papers during a break from testimony Tuesday at the Delaware County Public Safety Building in Delhi.

DELHI — Delaware County Social Services Commissioner Dana Scuderi-Hunter took the stand Tuesday to give her own version of the events at the center of the disciplinary charges against her, many of which had been the subject of testimony by other county employees throughout the proceedings.

Scuderi-Hunter opened her testimony with a description of her rise to head of the department from her employment as a caseworker in 2007.

“I was very concerned about children in foster care going from foster care to jail, and I wanted to apply to become the commissioner so that we can make a difference,” she said. “I was applying for that position not because I wanted authority, but because I really felt that there was so much we could do.”

Scuderi-Hunter said she was troubled when two youths in the custody of the department, referred to throughout the proceedings as Child No. 1 and Child No. 2, were each remanded to secure detention within weeks of each other. To her knowledge, Scuderi-Hunter said, no other Delaware County youth had been issued such an order since 2002.

Child No. 1, who was not initially in the custody of the department, was remanded to secure detention in May after assaulting Scott Glueckert, the county director of probation, according to testimony.

Before the child was scheduled to appear before a judge in the matter, Scuderi-Hunter testified that she never asked, demanded, requested or tried to persuade Glueckert to remove the handcuffs or to release the child to her custody, contradicting the director’s previous testimony.

While attending a court proceeding for Child No. 2, Scuderi-Hunter said she was approached briefly outside the courthouse by Victor Carrascoso, the child’s attorney, who asked her recommendations for  his client and if there was a foster home available. She said Merklen later approached her and asked if she was aware she would be called by Carrascoso to testify, which she said she was not.

When Merklen told her the case belonged to the department of probation as the presentment agency, Scuderi-Hunter said she told the county attorney that it didn’t change her feelings or her beliefs on the matter, to which Merklen expressed exasperation at having to “clean up this mess.”

When Merklen cross-examined Scuderi-Hunter after declining an offer from Carrascoso not to, the commissioner said she was asked on the stand about the child’s history of running away, calling into question the security of a foster placement to keep the child from fleeing again.

“The only one who can keep Child No. 2 from running away is Child No. 2,” Scuderi-Hunter said she testified. She said she continued to advocate against incarceration because “we have to keep trying with every child.”

Scuderi-Hunter said it was the judge’s proposal, not hers, to remand the child to foster care with an ankle monitor and “24-hour eyes-on supervision.”

Three days after the placement, Child No. 2 was reported to have cut off the ankle monitor and run away from the foster home.

At a June 6 court appearance, Scuderi-Hunter said the judge remanded Child No. 2 back to secure detention even though the child had been accepted into the Rose Hill Adolescent Chemical Dependency Program in Massena.

Scuderi-Hunter testified that Glueckert, whose department administers the ankle monitor program and had advised against the judge’s order, told her in a June 13 email that “I hope Child No. 2 has been worth all of this.”

DISPUTE OVER EX-CASEWORKER

Scuderi-Hunter recalled a meeting she attended with Angela Barnes, the former caseworker assigned to both Child No. 1 and Child No. 2, and other social services staff to discuss how to ameliorate the sentencing of youths to detention.

While other caseworkers suggested trying to engage youths in activities such as horseback riding or jiu jitsu, she said, Barnes sat at the table with earbuds in.

When Barnes removed one earbud and commented that “Child No. 1 wanted to see his cousin, Child No. 2,” Scuderi-Hunter said she replied, “and you helped make that happen.”

“I didn’t think it was funny,” she said. “It’s not a laughing matter.”

Scuderi-Hunter said she never yelled at Barnes, countering previous testimony given by the former caseworker.

When Barnes submitted her resignation paperwork a few weeks after the matter, Scuderi-Hunter said a support staff member offered the caseworker an opportunity to speak with her, but was told that Barnes replied: “excuse me, f*** no.”

NATURE OF MEETINGS QUESTIONED

Scuderi-Hunter offered testimony on a series of meetings with other county officials, including Tina Molé, Bovina town supervisor and chair of the county board of supervisors; James Eisel, Harpersfield town supervisor and former board chair; Porter Kirkwood, former county attorney; Linda Pinner, county personnel officer; and Merklen.

Molé, Eisel, Merklen and Pinner testified that the meetings were counseling sessions; Scuderi-Hunter contended they were not.

“With respect, I think it was a setup,” Scuderi-Hunter said of one meeting, prompting Molé to smile.

Recalling a June 19 with Pinner, Molé and Eugene Pigford, Sidney town supervisor, Scuderi-Hunter said she was asked if she knew why she was there.

“Likely due to that slanderous letter I received from the county attorney,” she said she replied, at which point she said Pinner changed the subject.

When Pinner said she wanted to address “numerous staff complaints” about Scuderi-Hunter, the commissioner said she was only aware of one disgruntled former employee — Barnes — and encouraged Pinner to speak with the majority of other department employees to get a better understanding of the situation.

Scuderi-Hunter said Pinner then asked her why the number of foster children in Delaware County had gone down.

“I thought that was an odd question,” Scuderi-Hunter said. “I told her our goal is to achieve permanency through reunification with the family or adoption.”

‘FRICTION’ WITH 

COUNTY ATTORNEY

When asked about any “friction” with other department heads, Scuderi-Hunter cited her interactions with Merklen.

Scuderi-Hunter said the county attorney was “trying to direct the work of my staff and impose her own personal view on the work my team was doing.”

“I received complaints from my casework staff regarding (Merklen’s) work,” Scuderi-Hunter testified. “The county attorney, at the courthouse, was making statements such as ‘over my dead body will this child go back to his mother’ and ‘we’ve done this three times — the child should not go back to his parents,’ and ‘I’ll pull the race card if this child is returned to the parents.’”

“Oh, come on,” Molé interjected from the sideline.

At a September 2018 meeting with Merklen, Scuderi-Hunter said she asked the county attorney to refrain from using such language in the courtroom and instructed her not to influence the decisions of her department.

Prosecutor Frank Miller asked Scuderi-Hunter under cross-examination about a series of letters exchanged between her and the county attorney, in which each criticizes the actions of the other regarding the handling of court proceedings for Child No. 2.

“There are no facts,” Miller said of a June 20 letter in which Scuderi-Hunter responded to Merklen’s claim that she “advanced a position contrary to that of the County.”

Miller also questioned Scuderi-Hunter’s claims that Merklen’s correspondence was insulting.

“She keeps mistaking the facts,” Scuderi-Hunter said of the dispute. “This whole letter is insulting. I am her client. She should have come and talked to me.”

Miller presented Scuderi-Hunter with a single page of a transcript from the court proceeding for Child No. 2 in which both Scuderi-Hunter and Glueckert both agreed to be represented by Merklen, despite their contrasting opinions for the placement of the child.

Dunn was denied a request to admit transcript pages surrounding the one selected by Miller, noting that the previous page “probably has some very relevant testimony.”

The page would have supported Carrascoso’s previous testimony that he offered Merklen the opportunity not to cross-examine Scuderi-Hunter, her own client, but declined.

‘BLINDSIDED’ BY SUSPENSION

When she was called by Pinner to a July *9 meeting with Miller, Scuderi-Hunter said she requested to have an attorney present, but was denied.

Scuderi-Hunter testified that she was made an offer of resignation at the meeting, to which Miller objected on a matter of relevance. Hearing officer Alfred Riccio ordered the testimony stricken from the record.

“I was blindsided by this,” Scuderi-Hunter said tearfully. “I was upset. I didn’t understand, and I wasn’t told why.”

She said she was asked to keep the matter confidential and to turn in all county property in her possession, including two cell phones, a laptop, a computer tablet, all keys, passwords and her county identification badge, which she eventually did.

The hearing is scheduled to resume at 9 a.m. Friday, Oct. 25, at the Delaware County Public Safety Building in Delhi.

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

*Updated at 4:30 p.m. Oct. 23, 2019 to correct date.

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