February 21, 2007

At Child Protective Services —

Abuse and neglect cases are a challenge for caseworkers


Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Danielle Kwak, Cortland County Department of Social Services senior caseworker in Child Protective Services, reviews a case with caseworker Peter Veintimilla in a DSS office Feb. 7.

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — Danielle Kwak, a senior caseworker for the county’s Child Protective Services unit, acknowledges a level of apprehension and nervousness prior to any visit to a home where an allegation of neglect or abuse has been made.
The anxiousness before a visit doesn’t compare, however, to the uncertain feeling any caseworker feels as he or she walks away, Kwak said.
“You leave a house and there’s always a fear that just won’t go away, because you can never guarantee that you did enough,” said Kwak, who has been with CPS for most of her 4 1/2 years with the Department of Social Services. “You’re constantly questioning yourself, and even if you did do everything you possibly could, you know that it still might not be enough.”
2006 was a trying year for CPS, said DSS Commissioner Kristen Monroe, who oversees Protective Services.
The agency saw a record 973 reports of mistreatment in 2006, up 103 over the previous year and _72 more than the previous record of 901 reports received, in 2004.
Meanwhile, CPS had just three experienced caseworkers on staff at the start of 2006 and was training new staff for much of the year, Monroe said, and the agency had to work under the shadow of the disturbing case last March in which city police found a 5-year-old child severely malnourished in a home on Union Street.
As a result of that case — the child’s mother, Judy Gratton, was sentenced to 15 years in state prison Tuesday — CPS has come under heavy criticism because it had been aware of a potential problem at the home but was unable to gain entrance or to gauge the severity of the neglect.
“That was an extremely difficult situation for everyone, and it still is painful to think about things we might have done better,” Monroe said.
Still, Monroe said, CPS has been trying to move forward.
“I think ultimately, we used that difficult situation as an opportunity to really reassess our system, inside and out,” she said.
A job that often requires difficult split-second decisions, one that comes under frequent public criticism, CPS caseworker is “one of the most difficult jobs out there,” said county Legislator Sandy Price (D-Harford and Virgil) who, as chairman of the Human Services Committee, oversees DSS.
“It’s a very difficult job because they face new and different challenges every day, sometimes every hour, sometimes minute by minute,” Price said. “Sometimes they face very serious situations, and I think it takes a special person to be able to look at that situation, stay detached from it, and make the decision that’s best for the family and the child.”
Seeing another side _of the community
One of the chief difficulties experienced by caseworkers are the startling living conditions they see on a daily basis, Kwak said.
“You see a lot of things going on in households that you wouldn’t have thought existed,” Kwak said. “There are definitely vastly different standards of living from what we might think of as normal.”
“I don’t think you can really understand the needs out there unless you see it,” Monroe said. “It’s astounding to see how poor conditions are.”
Caseworkers are strictly prohibited from discussing specifics of what they see on home visits, but the reports that come into CPS, through the state’s 24-hour state child abuse hotline, involve people from all walks of life, Kwak said.
“I think that’s a misconception, that there’s a certain social class, but its not limited to any one class,” she said. “We can get reports on anyone.”
Also, the nature of reports is changing, Kwak said, with an increasing number of reports of domestic violence, sexual abuse and drug and alcohol abuse.
“I’m not sure people realize what an issue crack and cocaine are in this area because we don’t hear about it very often, but we’re seeing it more and more,” Kwak said.
These more serious issues add a level of complexity to every case, Monroe said.
“It’s definitely not as simple as giving a parent information on how to deal with head lice,” Monroe said. “These more serious issues just compound one another, and caseworkers have to always be attentive because a simple educational neglect report could easily be an indicator of much larger issues.”
Working with families to ensure child safety
Whenever a report from the state arrives at CPS, the caseworker has 24 hours to make an initial safety assessment, and initial contact with the family to obtain that first assessment is one of the toughest parts of the job, said CPS caseworker Peter Veintimilla.
“Once I say I’m from CPS, usually people either get mad or they break down and cry, and that’s always tough, but you try to explain why it is you’re there and what you’re trying to do,” Veintimilla said. “I always start by telling people there are two sides to every report, the one I have in my hand, and the one I’m going to get from them, and that no report’s complete until I hear their side of the story.”
Caseworkers go through a great deal of training on how to best approach homes, and how to establish a solid rapport with the family, Monroe said.
“Most families do work with us because they realize there is a value in it and they want to help their children,” Monroe said. “They want to make good decisions.”
Generally the work of a casework involves setting goals with the families — a successful completion of mental health counseling or parenting services, for example — and identifying available services to help meet those goals, Monroe said.
The plans are tailored to the needs of each family, she said, and are updated frequently with the family’s participation.
“Unless there’s an immediate safety issue, parents, whether they realize it or not, do have choices,” Kwak said. “We never want to do a removal (of a child from a home), we always want to work with them to come up with a plan that’s going to ensure the child’s safety … and keep the child in the home.”
Often unpopular decisions
Whatever the decision, caseworkers always expect criticism, Veintimilla said.
“There’s always some who say we should have removed a child immediately, and someone else is saying we’ve already overextended our authority,” Veintimilla said. “It’s never an easy decision, but what we see is different from what anyone else is seeing, and we just try to always do what’s best for the children involved.”
As the director of the YWCA’s Aid to Victims of Violence, Rita Wright has come into contact with many clients who have dealt with CPS, and she said they are often intimidated by a visit from a caseworker.
“I think our clients experience some frustration, and they become very anxious in regards to the threat that their kids are going to be taken away,” Wright said.
Wright and her colleagues at Aid to Victims of Violence also expressed that many of their clients feel that CPS has treated them unfairly, that the prospect of losing their children can be used as a threat.
“In reality, many victims go through the challenge of being viewed as guilty until proven innocent,” said Shawn Smith, prevention education coordinator at Aid to Victims of Violence.
Monroe said that sensitivity training is at “the root of all training” caseworkers receive, and that removing children is always a last resort.
“We want to help families make the right choices, we don’t want to tell them what they need to do. From Day One, we try to find solutions, focus on strengths rather than weaknesses,” Monroe said.
There is also constant review of the cases by supervisors and higher-level officials, to help ensure that each case is handled properly, Monroe said, and a case-by-case collaboration between caseworkers and service providers such as Aid to Victims of Violence or other community groups.
Still, more formal coordination with such groups could only help the process, she said.
“As case managers, we are not therapists or counselors,” Monroe said. “We help to arrange services and provide common goals and plans. We facilitate it, and try to break down the barriers.”
A trying job, but with just rewards
At the end of the day, both Veintimilla and Kwak said that it can be hard not to take their work home with them.
“With all the bad things we do see, it can be tough at times, but we find ways to support each other, share some ‘DSS humor’ to keep ourselves sane,” Veintimilla said.
The difficulties of the job can simply be too much for some people, Monroe said.
“It’s a tough job and I don’t blame the people who don’t stick, but those who do get better and better at it with time,” she said.
Although not every family is willing to work with CPS, Kwak said those that do and work to improve their lives justify the difficult aspects of the job.
Veintimilla agreed.
“When you get people coming up to you in the grocery store, saying hello and talking about the services they’re involved in, that’s pretty rewarding,” Veintimilla said. “Seeing a real change in the child or in the families you’ve helped, that does sort of make it all worth it.”
Staff reporter Evan Geibel contributed to this article.



Lessons learned in Gratton case spur changes

Just 11 days before police would raid the home of Judy Gratton on Union Street, discovering a severely malnourished 5-year old and two neglected older children, a CPS caseworker was denied access to the house, but saw all three children on Gratton’s porch.
The caseworker, Ben Wheaton, one of a handful to work on the case over a number of months prior to the raid on Gratton’s home, testified at Gratton’s trial that the children were bundled in snowsuits and the porch was poorly lit, and that nothing appeared to be wrong with them.
Although Wheaton declined comment for this story, DSS Commissioner Kristen Monroe said he was badly shaken by the oversight, and suggested that a renewed openness about the many challenges of the job, and a constant review by many different eyes of each case, were key lessons learned from the Gratton case.
“We’ve spent a lot of time acknowledging the stress and the risks of the job, and the fact that any decision we make can change a child’s life,” Monroe said.
Because each decision is so potentially life-altering, Monroe said that one significant change she’d like to enact in 2007 is a team approach to handling cases, essentially assigning two caseworkers to each case.
“The structure has always been one case, one worker, but we think any case can benefit from having multiple perspectives, and our caseworkers can also collect better information more swiftly,” Monroe said.
Caseworker Peter Veintimilla agreed that such a change would help.
“An extra set of eyes can make a huge difference,” he said.
Other changes and initiatives enacted in response to the Gratton case include:
* A new CPS warrant bill, passed by the state Legislature this past summer, partially in response to the Gratton case, which went into effect Jan. 18.
The bill does not affect the standard of proof needed for caseworkers to enter a home, Monroe said, but it does allow workers to request better access to the child. In the Gratton case, for instance, the law would have allowed caseworkers to request a visual confirmation of the children’s health, without snowsuits, she said.
“It also allows us to assess a child in a setting other than their homes so we can obtain as much neutral information as possible,” Monroe said.
* Continual discussion and training regarding potential situations caseworkers might face and ways to earn parents’ trust and gain entrance into a home.
* A heightened focus on communication with CPS’ community partners — primarily law enforcement agencies and school districts — including more case-specific conferences with these partners.
* A focus on ensuring that the difficult nature of the Gratton case does not taint the handling of other cases.
“We have had to really question ourselves regarding not becoming hyper-vigilant,” Monroe said. “No two cases are ever alike.”


City seeks $150,000 state grant for firehouse study

Staff Reporter

In order to hire an architect to draw up plans for a new fire station, or to renovate the existing fire station, the Common Council has asked for a member item in this year’s state budget.
City Director of Finance and Administration Andy Damiano said that on Friday, he sent a letter requesting a $150,000 member item in the city’s name that would be used to pay a professional architect with experience designing fire stations.
The options include building a new station on a site that the city will not identify publicly because the current owner has not given permission, or expanding and renovating the current main fire station on Court Street.
The decision between these two options has been identified as the first step in a facility upgrade and expansion that would alleviate space concerns in not only the fire station, but also the police station, city offices, and city court system — all located in City Hall on Court Street.
“I’m not sure it would be funded or not, but it certainly is a valid need,” Damiano. “If we don’t get the state funds, we might have to borrow to do it.”
Because the state budget is due on April 1 and Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s administration seems intent on passing an on-time budget, Damiano said he hopes the city will find out the outcome shortly.
The architect would work closely with the fire department in designing both of the options, Damiano said.
Alderwoman and Acting Mayor Sue Feiszli (D-6th Ward) said she had received many questions regarding why the city-owned former armory on Wheeler Avenue has not been considered as a location for the fire station.
Although hazardous materials-handling equipment is stored in the armory and volunteer firefighters use it as a meeting and training location, the fire department has said that location would not work, Damiano said.
“I think we will continue to use it in that capacity, even if we do identify another location.”
The industry standard for responding to a fire is under five minutes, Damiano said.
“We couldn’t guarantee that, working out of the armory,” he said, adding that the response to some parts of the city from the armory, which was used as the primary station during repairs to the floor of the Court Street station before last year, has been timed at between eight and 10 minutes.
Alderman Jim Partigianoni (D-7th Ward) also pointed out that the vehicle bays barely fit the current fire trucks (a problem similar to that of the Court Street station), and that the adjacent Smith Elementary School wants to use the site as an emergency gathering location.
The council informally decided to approach the county about building a consolidated facility that might serve the needs of both municipalities.
Although the county does not have any fire service of its own and therefore does not need a fire station, the county Legislature has been discussing the need for an expanded jail and new offices for the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Health and Mental Health departments.


City man pleads guilty to menacing

Staff Reporter

A city man pleaded guilty Tuesday to attempted menacing a police officer and endangering his 5-week-old child during an October standoff.
Philip Curtis, 32, pleaded guilty in Cortland County Court to two counts of attempting to menace a police officer, a felony; fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon and endangering the welfare of a child, misdemeanors.
Curtis was arrested on Oct. 14 after city police responded to his home at 78 Elm St. for a domestic violence call. Police said when they arrived at the house they were able to usher Curtis’ 31-year-old wife out of the home as he pointed an AR-15 at them.
“My wife and I were in an argument at my house and the police officers arrived,” Curtis told the court. “They came in my house and I grabbed an AR-15.”
Under the plea deal, Curtis did not receive any sentencing promises from District Attorney David Hartnett, who told the court he reserves the option to recommend any lawful sentence.
During the October incident, Curtis stayed in his house with the loaded weapon and his son for two hours, refusing to come out for police. According to court documents, he finally agreed to come out of the house when his childhood friend, Patrolman Michael Nichols, spoke with him on the phone.
Curtis told police after his arrest that the fight with his wife occurred after she told him she had been cheating. He said she was threatening to leave him.
“Last year my wife and I began having troubles. We would argue, but nothing was ever violent,” he said. “I would say today is a culmination of all my problems throughout life coming in on me at once … I really love my wife and thought for once in my life things were going right.”
In her statement to police, Curtis’ wife said the couple had been having martial problems and that she had been seeing another man. She said that when the incident happened, she was afraid Curtis would kill her, himself and police officers if given the opportunity.
Curtis is scheduled for sentencing on April 25. County Court Judge William Ames said Tuesday he has a wide range of sentencing options. He told the court he could chose to sentence Curtis to as little as no jail time or as many as eight years in state prison.



Woman gets 10 years for Cuyler arson

Staff Reporter

A Cuyler woman was sentenced to 3 1/3 to 10 years in state prison Tuesday after being convicted of two separate counts of arson and burglary for two fires at her ex-boyfriend’s house.
Cortland County Court Judge William Ames sentenced Holly Revette, 39, to a term of 1 to 3 years for a fire she started on Dec. 4 and then 2 1/3 to 7 years for a second fire she set at the same building on Dec. 30. Those sentences are set to run consecutively.
Revette was also sentenced to two terms of 1 to 3 years for the burglary convictions. She will serve those sentences consecutively with the arson sentence.
“Any one of a number of people could have been killed that night,” Ames told Revette, noting she put many rescue personnel at risk the night she set the second blaze in  particularly bad weather conditions.
Revette was convicted on Jan. 16 of burning down the house at 7822 Cowles Settlement Road. Special prosecutor Timothy Hennigan told the jury that on Dec. 4, Revette tried to burn down the house, which was under construction, and then burned the house to the ground on Dec. 30.
Hennigan said Revette, who lived across the street from the house she set on fire, started the blaze because she was upset over a custody dispute. At the time of the fire, Revette’s ex-boyfriend had custody of the couple’s 17-year-old son and Revette’s 7-year-old son of whom he is not the father.
As a result of the two fires, Revette was convicted of two counts of second-degree arson and two counts of second-degree burglary, felonies.
At the sentencing Hennigan asked that Revette be sentenced to the maximum of 30 years, in part because her ex-boyfriend’s father died of a heart attack after hearing of the fire, he said. “The victim’s father was stricken with an attack and died shortly thereafter,” he said.
Hennigan said Revette has shown no remorse for her crimes. He said that by setting two separate fires, she has shown a “disregard for others.”
“But what is even worse is that the father passed away as a result,” Ames said to Revette, explaining that the death was taken into consideration. “When he found out about it, he didn’t take it very well.”
Revette’s attorney, Randolph Kruman, asked for the minimum sentence of 1 to 3 years on each count,  to run concurrently with each other. Revette declined to speak at the sentencing.