By Peter Livingston
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the need for Erie County Social Services Commissioner Carol Dankert-Maurer to resign. This wasn’t a novel thought on my part. People who care about the welfare of children or Erie County avoiding liability due to her lack of leadership have been openly discussing the idea for months. Frankly, my common sense commentary on the situation was late in the game after yet another child died on her watch.
County Executive Mark Poloncarz has heard these pleas and taken decisive action. Although he doesn’t address the pervasive management problem in the Department of Social Services, he has boldly blamed others and threw money at a problem that needs some money, but much more competence. Rather than protecting children, his message to Erie County’s most vulnerable seems to be “Sleep with one eye open, gripping your pillow tight!”
I don’t see how he can sleep at night, lest he be haunted by the faces of the children that have died under his leadership.
Of course, we have seen this scenario before. Last September, a child in the Child Protective Services system was killed apparently despite numerous reports of abuse. A few days later, recognizing a pattern of mismanagement, Erie County Legislator Edward Rath called for Commissioner Carol Dankert-Maurer’s resignation. The County Executive responded a few days later talking about how great his Commissioner was and requested a few new CPS workers and three patronage positions. They called a hasty meeting to superficially discuss the plan. They then demanded that the plan be approved two days later.
Legislators in the then minority, now majority, wanted to replace the patronage hires with Civil Service professionals. Dankert-Maurer and Deputy County Executive Richard Tobe assured the legislators that the new hires would be plenty to handle the slightly higher than recommended caseload. What they really needed was more patronage. The plan was approved as demanded by the County Executive.
As recent events have shown, that had further tragic results. Out of fairness, who could expect that hiring a career political appointee and the Erie County Water Authority Public Relations staffer as the second in command would not fix the mismanagement of the Department of Social Services?
Eight months later, another child trusting Erie County to protect him died. In this case, the caseworker who was assigned to the case was suspended and no one was assigned to protect the child. This is purely a management problem. Two more legislators called for Dankert’s resignation. Four days later, Poloncarz responded. Like a child who puts his hands over his ears and cries “La, la, la, la, la,” he again ignored the obvious management failure.
Instead, he again sent Dankert-Maurer and Tobe to introduce a plan at a Health and Human Services committee of the legislature to demand over twenty new workers. The plan was presented without any prior notice or documentation to legislators. The plan has an effective date of July 1st. Tobe acknowledged that they weren’t planning on introducing the plan for a couple of weeks, but decided to bring it early since there was a meeting.
The plan blamed the New York State Office of Child and Family services for having the audacity to investigate why children keep dying under the watchful eye of Dankert-Maurer. Apparently, children aren’t dying because she is incompetent, it is because Governor Andrew Cuomo won’t let workers do their job. In order to close cases which Dankert-Maurer would not let workers close, over twenty new workers would be needed on a permanent basis, not temporary. Oh, and previous hires turned out to not score very well on the civil service exam and had to be let go. Given the obvious questions this plan begged, legislators wanted time to review the plan and ask why the plan was big on numbers but short on details as to how it would prevent still more children from dying.
An email campaign ensued, led by the Child and Family Services of Buffalo - hardly an independent voice. The group receives over a million dollars from Erie County. Further, the President and CEO of Child and Family Services is a frequent and significant contributor to Democrat election campaigns. As a reminder, Poloncarz is a Democrat - and I apologize to the many Democrats out there that are offended by me connecting him to Democratic values.
The partisan emails poured in to legislators from other organizations that receive county dollars. I can’t help but wonder where these form letter writers were when more caseworker positions were being demanded last September.
Two days later, Poloncarz offered to meet with legislators to answer their questions about his plan. At the meeting, Dankert-Maurer was a no-show. She was out of town promoting her expertise, as she is frequently. Maybe she isn’t incompetent, just not focused. I am not sure that the children who have died during her tenure would feel better under either scenario. I also wonder if she is out of town on the taxpayer dollar.
Of course, I don’t truly think Poloncarz doesn’t care children are dying. He does not have Tin Man problems. His problems are more in the realm of the Scarecrow and the Lion. He lacks the skill and knowledge to address the problem. He is easily swayed by Dankert-Maurer’s assertion that the front lines are failing Erie County’s children and her flashy PowerPoint presentations that are short on substance.
He also is too scared that recognizing failure and acting on it is an admission of fallibility. You can’t be the smartest man in the room if you are fallible.
Until the County Executive is willing to admit that there is a problem, more children will be needlessly harmed. Until he is willing to take meaningful action, more vulnerable adults will be unnecessarily subject to harm and neglect. Until he joins the chorus calling for Dankert-Maurer’s resignation, Erie County taxpayers will be subject to lawsuits for breach of their duty to care.
It is time for Mark Poloncarz to put the welfare and safety of our County’s most vulnerable ahead of his political vanity.