DSS adding data to reports

The St. Lawrence County Social Services building at 6 Judson St., Canton. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

CANTON — St. Lawrence County lawmakers again heard from constituents last week about injustices allegedly perpetrated by the Department of Social Services.

For nearly an hour Monday night, statements to the Board of Legislators built on previously submitted letters that allege misconduct, mismanagement and ethical impropriety particularly within Child Protective Services, county foster care and Fostering Futures, a program of the Children’s Home of Jefferson County that supplements care in counties across Northern New York.

“I realize that we are bringing up problems and not proposing solutions,” Casey M. Whitcomb told the board. “But we need to first realize that there is a problem.”

Legislators did not address the statements during the meeting.

Ms. Whitcomb, of Potsdam, stood before the board three years ago, pleading for legislative support during two meetings. The concerns she outlined about CPS on Nov. 5 and Dec. 3, 2018, are similar to the concerns that surfaced in June and again this week.

A February 2015 letter to the editor published by the Times further stretches the publicly documented timeline of concern among county residents. The letter, “Who pays when CPS makes arbitrary and capricious decisions?” ultimately answers its own question.

“Who pays?” it asks. “The very children they are hired to protect, and in a way that CPS will never admit to and most of us will never truly understand.”

The mammoth child welfare system, with local arms funded by taxpayers across the country, is regulated by state and federal law. Child and family welfare advocacy groups, separate from government agencies, have written about the multi-layer system for years, and the narrative is generally the same.

“Probably no other public agency leaves victims and advocates more perplexed than Child Protective Services,” the Women’s Justice Center of Santa Rosa, Calif., wrote in a report about “the system” more than a decade ago.

“On the one hand, people think of CPS with appreciation as they envision a selfless agency rescuing innocent children from horrific conditions,” the report reads. “Indeed, CPS workers across the country do this routinely. The gratitude is deserved.”

Then, the usual caveat takes shape: “At the same time, the agency seems to be perpetually marred by a steady drumbeat of nightmare stories about CPS emanating from the very families CPS is supposed to serve.”

In some cases, like in North Carolina last year and South Carolina earlier this month, allegations have been criminally pursued.

Three former employees of Cherokee County DSS were indicted in North Carolina in May 2020, on dozens of felony and misdemeanor charges related to a longstanding department practice “that separated children from parents without the oversight of a judge,” according to the Carolina Public Press.

A former Horry County CPS investigator was arrested by South Carolina law enforcement on July 6, for allegedly falsifying a report in a child abuse case she was assigned in April. The child died in May, according to the Post and Courier in Myrtle Beach.

New community efforts to organize in St. Lawrence County stem from “a horrific and traumatic ordeal” Courtney A. Fantone experienced as a foster parent. Last summer, Plattsburgh attorney Michael J. Phillips and Ms. Fantone, of Potsdam, established the limited liability company CHILD — Community Helping Individuals Living in Distress — to review DSS foster care cases and data using the department’s own documentation and court records.

A dozen letters from biological family members and foster parents were submitted to the Board of Legislators ahead of its June 7 full board meeting. Nine of those letters were signed and three were anonymous. This week’s meeting drew 11 people who addressed legislators in varying formats, including via pre-recorded audio clips, in writing and in-person.

Two people who spoke Monday night called for the resignation of Legislator John H. Burke, R-Norfolk, for comments he made during the board’s June 28 Finance Committee meeting. Mr. Burke asked whether the county would be responding to the public about the letters submitted in June. He said the letters seemed to place DSS staff “under attack,” and he asked fellow legislators: “If we don’t stand up for them, who will?”

County Administrator Ruth A. Doyle was not present for Monday’s meeting, but on June 28 she said an in-progress county investigation into the allegations will need to conclude before a response is issued.

Ms. Whitcomb, who said she fought for more than a year to be reunited with her two kids, described those in foster care as being additionally traumatized by the actions of the department, now with an expanded staff of caseworkers and supervisors hired this year.

“Changing administrators and hiring more workers will not begin to fix the problems pervasive in this and many other organizations that ostensibly protect children,” Ms. Whitcomb said. “These children are not to be used as weapons or leverage against people. But unfortunately, I have heard the term ‘or else’ from caseworkers one too many times.”

Allegations against the department 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.

“We stand firm on our position that our concern with CPS, Child Protective Services, in St. Lawrence County is real,” Gouverneur mom of two Rachel I. Raven told the board. She used her hands to gesture air quotation marks around “protective.”

Ms. Raven, a practicing nurse practitioner and former pastor, is a CHILD board member, working with Ms. Fantone and Mr. Phillips to litigate her own case and review the cases of others. Ms. Raven left an abusive marriage with her children in 2018 and now sees them only during supervised visits. In tears after sharing some of her story, she asked the board to take the concerns seriously.

“Because we are not going to be stopping,” she said. “We have more momentum, and we will be back and back until there is resolve.”

The board meets on Monday night for two committee meetings. The Services Committee meeting, during which DSS typically presents a department report, immediately follows the Operations Committee meeting that starts at 5:30 p.m.

The Services Committee agenda includes an anticipated statistics report from DSS Commissioner Cynthia M. Ackerman. The agenda also lists a DSS vacancy report involving the filling of six positions and the creation of a supervisor position. Two of the positions are for CPS, according to the agenda.

County meetings are live streamed on YouTube and open for in-person participation in the legislative board room, 48 Court St., Canton.

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