CANTON — The phrase is the same when something unspeakable happens to children: “If we can prevent it from happening to even one other child, it’ll be worth it.”
In St. Lawrence County, the “it” for Courtney A. Fantone centers on alleged misconduct, mismanagement and ethical impropriety at the Department of Social Services, particularly within Child Protective Services and the foster care program.
Organized community efforts to address the allegations — some submitted to the county Board of Legislators this month — stem from “a horrific and traumatic ordeal” Ms. Fantone, of Potsdam, experienced as a foster parent.
Allegations include forged signatures by caseworkers; prioritization of DSS employees as foster parents; removals by caseworkers without legal consultation or court orders; strategically timed orders that hinder families from retaining legal representation on weekends; retaliation by employees against foster families; and employees providing medical and mental health input outside the scope of their qualifications and responsibilities.
Last summer, Ms. Fantone and Plattsburgh attorney Michael J. Phillips established the limited liability company CHILD — Community Helping Individuals Living in Distress — to review DSS cases and data through the department’s own documentation and court records. Ms. Fantone said she’s received more than 100 phone calls from foster parents, adoptive parents and kinship caregivers in the last year as director of CHILD.
Ms. Fantone is now tracking about 30 cases, and almost a year ago to the day, she stood among a crowd on the lawn of the DSS building, 6 Judson St. in Canton. Demonstrators gathered in protest of DSS and CPS after the death of 18-year-old Treyanna N. Summerville, who was found dead at her Gouverneur home last June.
Cases being reviewed by CHILD involve foster arrangements being rearranged, but not in ways that reunify children with their biological families — which, by law, is the first goal of the state Office of Children and Family Services. CHILD’s reviews have identified patterns of seemingly arbitrary removals of kids already in foster care to new foster homes, Ms. Fantone said. Complaints date back a few years to as recently as a few months ago.
Of the 12 letters submitted to the Board of Legislators ahead of its June 7 full board meeting, nine are signed and three are anonymous. In Ms. Fantone’s own letter, she wrote that “an overwhelming number” of foster families she’s heard from have had children “removed as a result of zealous advocation, disagreements with DSS, or some combination of the two.”
Several concerned families, she added, had foster arrangements with biological grandparents “willing and able to take placement of their grandchildren.”
Based on data collected by CHILD so far, she wrote: “Not only are children being moved from safe, loving homes like ours, but children are also being left in unsafe homes, despite numerous calls to DSS from concerned citizens.”
Ms. Fantone was a first-time foster parent when she partnered with her mother, Claudia, to foster four children starting in August 2016, and a fifth sibling born in 2017. The first four siblings were all younger than 5 at the time.
Between 2012 and last year, Claudia cared for nearly 50 kids as a foster parent in the county, but she described her most recent experiences with DSS as heartbreaking, painful and a “nightmare.”
“These children kept us busy, every minute of our time together, and honestly, in the beginning I wasn’t sure whether we would be able to handle what we had taken on,” she wrote in her testimonial letter. “The children were all very delayed and had many diagnoses and needs, but with time, it all came together and we became a family. These children lived with us for almost 4 years, and I had planned to adopt them all, if and when that time came.”
As one child’s need for medical and mental health treatment became more apparent, Claudia wrote, the Fantones became increasingly vocal about seeking treatment and support.
“The more we advocated for the children, the more our partnership with our caseworker deteriorated,” she wrote. “And the more honest I was in Family Court, the harder it became to work with DSS.”
It’s been some 400 days since the Fantones have seen the children, who until last winter had spent the majority of their lives in their placement. In an interview this week, Ms. Fantone said she and her mother were served on Feb. 27, 2020, with a 10-day notice of intent to remove the siblings, and an ongoing appeal process began.
Following an initial conference with DSS, the children were removed on March 9 last year, and have since been separated into different foster placements and moved several times. To continue the appeal process, the Fantones requested an Administrative Fair Hearing to present their case. The hearing was scheduled for March 20, 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed it for nearly a full year, until March 9, 2021, and their appeal is still being litigated.
Ms. Fantone said her family’s proceedings have so far involved contradicting stories from DSS employees; a caseworker admission to destroying evidence that had previously been stipulated by DSS legal staff; and a caseworker attempting to walk out of the room during cross-examination, saying “I’m done.”
In the fall, the Times was contacted by a town of Fowler mother whose concerns are not part of the CHILD caseload. Three of her children and three of her stepchildren are in four separate foster placements spanning the area between Gouverneur and Malone.
Based on an in-person review of the mother’s binders of documentation, several similarities to the administrative shortfalls alleged by CHILD are apparent, including supervisor signature requirements being completed by caseworkers, unanswered messages and delayed responses to inquiries.
The 29 pages of CHILD letters submitted to legislators detail general and specific allegations. Specific claims from different letters involve retaliation against biological grandparents fostering their grandchildren; DSS retaliation against agency employees who “refused to perjure” themselves in court; qualified aunts, uncles and other relatives being denied as family resources; and in one case, a sexual assault forensic exam, or rape kit, being required for a child believed to have been assaulted while in foster care.
One letter alleges an understood DSS “tactic” of issuing orders of removal or actually removing children from placements at 5 p.m. on Fridays, delaying chances of securing legal advice until the following Monday.
Ms. Fantone was referred to Mr. Phillips after contacting at least eight attorneys in the county for assistance with her own case. She said they all cited a conflict of interest.
A practicing attorney in the north country for more than 30 years, and a state police officer in Chazy before that, Mr. Phillips said he first became involved in a foster care case in his home in Clinton County. That case was successfully resolved — eventually — and word of the success reached Ms. Fantone and St. Lawrence County families.
Initially, about 18 months ago, Mr. Phillips’ firm and its total staff of three “became inundated” by callers sharing “all kinds of horror stories and fact patterns.”
“It’s heart rending and it’s painful for these folks,” Mr. Phillips said.
Several families have retained him, and six Administrative Fair Hearings are pending as of Thursday.
The cases vary, he said, with most foster parents seeking to appeal decisions based on “hotline” calls routed through the Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment, or SCR.
The Office of Children and Family Services maintains the SCR, which reviews calls about alleged child abuse, neglect and maltreatment under state Social Services Law. SCR reports often get kicked back to the county level for investigation.
Ethical questions, Mr. Phillips said, are at the core of the claims against St. Lawrence County DSS.
For example, in at least one case, he said department documentation indicates a $52 difference between daily stipends for a foster parent and a foster family with one parent who is also a DSS employee. For two children the same age, with the same diagnoses, he said, the stipend for the child in a DSS employee’s foster care was $71. For the non-employee foster parent, the stipend was $19.
“That’s concerning,” Mr. Phillips said. “I’m knocking at the door, asking a lot of questions, demanding papers, demanding documents, demanding everything I can get my hands on. We continue to be stymied by a failure of the department to provide documents that we’re entitled to on behalf of our clients.”
Starting out, addressing the personal pain and the alleged department failures, Ms. Fantone said justice seemed unreachable.
“It was like David and Goliath,” she said, though a few “small wins” have bolstered her resolve.
Ms. Fantone called the reassignment of the department’s legal counsel just that, a “small win.”
In April, the 15-member Board of Legislators turned control of the DSS legal office over to the county attorney, by a vote of 8-6 with one abstention. Legislator Margaret G. Haggard did not vote, as her husband, David A. Haggard, was the DSS general counsel at the time.
The board’s approval also carried the abolishment of management positions in the DSS legal office, and switched, in name, the social services attorney positions to assistant county attorneys. The move maintained support personnel to handle a backlog of cases. Legislators authorized hiring additional DSS caseworkers and supervisors in April and again this month.
Staffing issues and vacancies were already stressing DSS as a whole before the COVID-19 pandemic and before the legal shift.
The linchpin for the agency’s operations, especially CPS removal cases that must be brought before a judge, the DSS legal office had seen a 100% staff turnover between 2019 and the summer of 2020. Mr. Haggard, a former legislator and criminal defense attorney, assumed his role in April 2020 and didn’t have a full staff until October. His position is now filled by the county attorney’s office.
Both Ms. Fantone and Mr. Phillips said legal cooperation has seemed to improve with Stephen D. Button now heading DSS legal as county attorney.
Mr. Button was not available for comment at the time of this report.
In March 2020, then-Commissioner Christopher R. Rediehs retired and was replaced on an interim basis by Deputy Commissioner Heather L. Wenzel. Ms. Wenzel left for another job in early July, leaving the position vacant until Cynthia M. Ackerman was hired and started on Aug. 17.
On Friday, Ms. Ackerman said she wouldn’t comment on specific cases or foster arrangements, but said DSS decisions are made “by a team of caseworkers and supervisory staff” to make sure “all possible options” are considered in foster placements.
As of this week, she said, certified foster parents also working as DSS employees account for 3% of foster placements in the county.
“It’s very minimal,” she said.
In her May 17 report to legislators, Ms. Ackerman said 335 total county children were in foster care.
“In my short time here, I can certainly say that I’ve never worked with such dedicated, hard working people that really want what’s best for our county and the children of the county,” she said, adding that DSS is “always seeking new foster parents.”
With her case still pending, and with the hope that the five siblings will return to the Fantone house for eventual adoption, Ms. Fantone said she can’t “in good faith” recommend becoming a foster parent in St. Lawrence County.
“Not until these issues are fixed,” she said.